Typical Western debates and discussions implement all the facets of argumentative activity: constructing points of view, producing good reasons; interacting with different people and points of view, building more or less ephemeral alliances, integrating / refuting / destroying the positions of others, backing arguments by drawing on personal involvement in the debated issues. Sometimes the two terms arguing and debating are assimilated, with TV debates implicitly considered as the prototypical argumentative genre.
This vision of argumentation has major limitations. This vision of argumentation has major limitations. It leaves aside argumentation at work, or argumentation in science education. Il associates argumentation with polemical debate, which is a non-cooperative form of argumentation. TV debates may try to influence the decision, but they have no decision-making power. Work meetings, family discussions are certainly more representative of the complexity of argumentation. In a work meeting where issues are debated with both short term and long term implications, different kinds of sequences must be managed in different episodes: new participants are introduced; the agenda is read; relevant information is given (to all, to less informed participants), conclusions are written down — not to mention the episodes devoted to interaction management, including digression and jokes. The level and kind of argumentativity of these episodes can be extremely varied.
The form and efficiency of the arguments put forward in a debate depend on the relative power of the participants in the relevant sphere. If taken on a majority basis, the decision compels the minority, whether or not persuaded, and regardless of whether or not the winning argument is the strongest from the point of view of an external evaluator.
1. The informed and properly argued debate as a source of legitimacy
From a foundational perspective, a political decision may be considered legitimate if conforms with, or is derived from an original pact, a social contract that the ancestors, or ideal representatives of the community, freely convened in a mythical original time, or in an ideal rational space.
Democracy values debate. A decision is considered legitimate only if the issue has been publicly argued pro and contra, in a safe, open, free and contradictory space. In principle, the decision should take the results of debate into account; whether or not this decision is really supported by the best argument, is another issue; authority and power play a role. Debate as a form of argument is at the heart of democratic life. At school, it is considered to be the key instrument of “democratic learning”, be it in Citizenship education, in History, or in Science education.
2. Criticism of debate
Debate, however, is not an innocent and miraculous practice which can solve all issues in education, society and uneven development. Debate, particularly debate in the media, or in any public space, is the target of a critical argument that includes the following points.
— Resorting to debate may be merely an artifice of presentation. The topic is framed as an issue, as being the focal point of two antagonistic discourses, as if things were “interesting” only insofar as they radiate some polemical heat.
— Paradoxically, “the debate is open” can be a convenient conclusive formula, when listeners in both camps have got their share of good reasons, as if the main virtue of a debate is furthering the debate, and justifying further debates.
— A dubious and interrogative posture can be very comfortable. Debate merges the variety of positions in one unique global voice saying everything and the opposite; but articulates such unresolved contradictions very well. Correlatively, debate is a fertile field for argumentative personalities to flourish.
— Becoming an end in itself, debate becomes a performance, and loses all connection with the search for truth, clarification of the issues and positions, agreement or exploring and deepening the differences. This is the sophistical ad ludicrum tendency rightly and abundantly condemned as playing to the gallery; a delighted audience consents to its own manipulation, S. Laughter and Seriousness.
— From an educational point of view, debate can promote confrontational forms of argumentation. In fact, debate does not systematically break with symbolic violence, but can simply displace it. Some cultures find open interpersonal confrontation repugnant, or at least rude and counterproductive. Pressing students into a debate can be an educational blunder. Moreover, debates on serious issues divide groups, and can put at risk the reputation and even the security of the individual summoned to expose his or her creeds, networks and communities. Such self-exposure cannot be an option in some communities and cultures.
— Even coming from the best-organized public socio-political forum, the argument deemed the best might differ according to the parties. What is more, once taken, the decision can necessitate a new discussion about how it should be implemented, this being a regulatory or legal issue, in the hands of the current regime. There is a broad open and opaque space between argumentation and decision, and another one between decision and implementation.
— The ideal space in which the debate is held is framed as egalitarian and free. It denies any imbalance of power, at least it puts power relations between parenthesis. But every place has its own rules that impose formal and substantive standards. Such rules of the place apply to all participants. Debate presupposes democracy, as well as it promotes democracy.
Debate is a powerful resource,but debate alone will not resolve all social and individual ills, nor global hardships.