Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Debate, Dialogue and Sales Scripts

Eric Reitan has written an interesting article for religion dispatches that touches on a documentary called Collision which presents the debates between atheist Christopher Hitchens and evangelical pastor Douglas Wilson. The article has implications not only for evangelicals as they engage atheists, but also in their engagement with those with religious commitments.

Reitan laments that as a result of the debates between Hitchens and Wilson nothing really happens to change the participants. He then goes on to describe why:

Put another way, Wilson advocates going into debates armed with a range of rehearsed responses and rejoinders—a flexible script, if you will. I am reminded of the scripts that novice salespeople are given, scripts which including the array of “rebuttals” they’re supposed to use in response to the various reasons customers might offer for not buying a product. For the salesperson armed with this flexible script, the human vulnerability of the single mother (one who expresses concern both for her children’s safety and for her precarious financial situation, for example) becomes a trigger for a set of prepared arguments that will ultimately result in a payment plan for a state-of-the-art, overpriced set of fire detectors.

One of the consequences of such scripts is that you don’t need to engage in an authentically personal way with the other individual and what she is saying. You just have to learn which objections or attacks to pluck from your toolkit in response to various challenges.

When it comes to selling a product, the purpose of such a script is clear: to keep the salesperson focused on making the sale, regardless of what the potential customer might say. But what is the purpose of using such a script in a debate? It certainly isn’t for the debaters to learn from one another, to be challenged by new ideas so that they might rethink and refine their own convictions. In a very real sense, it’s about preventing such transformations. When debaters rely on a flexible script, a challenge never triggers the question, “Could my opponent be right about this?” Instead, it sends them digging in their toolkit for the right retort. And when debaters lose, they are inspired to refine or expand their scripts, rather than the difficult work of revising the beliefs the scripts are intended to defend.

I think this insight is significant, and evangelicals need to reflect on it in various contexts. In my own experience I have participated in public debates with an atheist on three separate ocassions, and I will never do this again. Why? Because I felt like there was no interaction between my "opponent" and I, and no soul searching on the part of those in the audience. After the debate both "sides" went away feeling confirmed in their respective views.

I also think the debate format is what evangelicals assume or smuggle into their expectations when watching public dialogues between evangelicals and Latter-day Saints. As a result such events become the kind of interaction where we each bring our personal scripts (and we hope our dialogue/debate representative has too) and do very little listening, and surely very little modification of our understanding of the beliefs and practices of others, or our own views as well.

The kind of dialogue that is needed is that advocated by Eric Sharpe: "The best dialogue is one in which those old-fashioned virtues of courtesy and mutual respect are allowed to have the upper hand of what our culture seems to be best at: points-scoring and vilifying the oppostion."

How might we engage in forms of interreligious dialogue that move beyond the sales scripts and preaching to our choir?

1 comment:

Peregrin said...

Thank you for this post.

This problem and question has been around a long time, as has one response. Socrates talks on this and authentic Socratic dialogue is the antithesis of modern 'rational' debating. Karen Armstrong in her new book beautifully expresses this well:

"In Socratic dialogue therefore, the 'winner' did not try to force an unwilling opponent to accept his point of view. It was a joint effort. You expressed yourself clearly as a gift to your partner, whose beautifully expressed argument would in turn, touch YOU at a profound level."

My teacher referred said debate should be about 'polishing the question' so it stands clear and full of light between us, not about answering the question by one side 'winning'.

So, we can address this by our religions and seminaries and churches returning to the root of western philosophy and religion. It's all there already :) Ta.