The Lost Art of the Civil Debate

© Larry Stephen Johnson – July 2019

One of the characteristics of the modern world is the ever increasing inability for the populous to conduct a civil debate. One ponders on the narratives of our predecessors, where the evidence indicates that members of society from varied callings were able to participate in an argument without the vitriol that exists today. One notable example in my recent reading would be that of G.K.Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw. In his biography of Chesterton, the author Dudley Barker describes how Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw were able to debate subjects such as Christianity and Atheism[1] and yet remain civil to one another.  Chesterton was a Christian and Shaw an Atheist, both passionate about their views: and using the standards of the current day, it is remarkable that they spoke at all outside of the debate.  The author even states that Shaw was most grieved at Chesterton’s death, offering temporal assistance to the latter’s wife. Unlike current inclinations, the differences in ideology didn’t morph into personal dislike or even hatred as we now witness with unfortunate frequency and intensity. One hears of politicians of days past who engaged in fiery disputes in the House of Parliament, yet were able to socialise with each other after proceedings had concluded.

The participants in practical argumentation these days appear to be of two kinds: hyper-critical and very thin-skinned. In fact it is often the case that either or both characteristics subsist in many individuals. It would seem to me anecdotally and from personal observation, that the populous of former days was not in all cases, but at least generally, more resilient in discussing matters without entering into paroxysms which threatened a medical emergency to either themselves or the other. There are cases where some righteous anger is justified e.g. when protesting an objective evil such as abortion: but even here we need to be vigilant and temper our demeanour should it become too over-bearing.

It is evident to me that society is not as mature as it should be, and as it believes itself to be. One sign of maturity is the ability to demonstrate respect for the other. In current debates over political and moral issues there is a dearth of this quality. A fight or flight tendency is often at the forefront: mostly fight. There seems to be an insecurity that drives one to the view that the other party must come to our conclusion: a desperation that we are on the correct side of the argument and that the other is misguided and must be converted. Indeed it may in fact be true that we have right on our side, perhaps even objectively so; but free will must dictate that even if the other person is in error they should be free to believe as they do and state as much without the return of hatred. If you are a Christian you will be familiar with the verses where Christ sent disciples out to preach among the countryside; and He included in His instructions that if those who were being preached to were not receptive of the message, then the disciples should leave without fuss, wiping the dust from their feet as they left. Perhaps there is advice for us here. There is a point in some arguments when a stalemate is reached; and perhaps this is where the parties need to desist from further discussion on the subject, rather than escalate the matter to a point of frenzy.  If we are comfortable with our stance, the other has also the right to be so and time may be enough to make the necessary correction.

Conversely, if we are in error then we should have the humility to accept the same. Therein lays the remarkably rare trait in these times of being humble. It has to be stated that a lack of this virtue in argumentation is often present when debating many and varied matters.  Honesty is also necessary. To know the facts of an issue is a pre-requisite for civil debate but if we don’t then we should admit it without bluffing our way through to the point of the ridiculous. Far too many instances occur where participants grasp on to partial or scant information and attempt to proceed with the authority of the clever dog. 

Where did this habitual remonstrance and unintelligent behaviour commence? As previously stated, primarily I believe that our society is not as mature as those of the past. We have become comfortable and spoilt with many things. Most of us are able to get what we want when we want. Like the little child who got everything he wanted we became spoilt brats: and when we can’t acquire our wish for the agreement of others with our opinion we throw a tantrum. Furthermore, I would posit that although perhaps not totally to blame, avenues such as talk-back radio and the critics who direct proceedings have made a significant contribution. Here we have commentators that have seized the opportunity to promote their own agenda, compelling the assistance of callers who believe everything they say; or conversely participants who dispute their view in an over excited fashion, leading to raised voices and insults. Such discussions become highly vitriolic and vindictive and serve no purpose except the opportunity of name calling – all of which is more than likely conducted with only partial or scarce comprehension of the actualities. The development of technology such as Facebook, Twitter etc. has also provided a means for amplification of these same tendencies.  Sadly, these vehicles have exacerbated the behaviour. One doesn’t need to detail individual circumstances: if one hasn’t encountered the acidic comments entered via this media type, or heard of them, then that individual has been living some sheltered existence.

Much heated argumentation at the time of writing involves politics and morality. Mature adults should be able to discuss anything in a rational manner, with the ability to restrain ourselves when realising our emotions are controlling us. It is not to say that this is easy, particularly when righteous anger is justified: but we must make the attempt. Paradoxically, the reluctance to speak about these subjects, fearing an inability to communicate rationally about them, equally displays immaturity. It is of course the problem of intolerance with the other’s opinion. It can’t be accepted that someone else has a different view and we must correct their thinking.  As stated previously they may be wrong, there are objective truths in this world, but it’s not worth the rendering of animosity and insults: that certainly won’t convince anyone. Sometimes we just need to stand by what we say and then amicably relinquish the discussion for that moment to allow personal reflection.


[1] G.K.Chesterton, A Biography – Dudley Barker Copyright ©1973. Published by Constable and Company Ltd, 286

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