Thursday, 21 December 2017

Misunderstanding Debate

The English debate, popularised in London in early 18th century, is more than just a polite argument between quaint intellectuals. Its brain warping effects might have gently swayed Western perspectives in politics, diplomacy, marketing, academic research, the judiciary process, even moral values.

In a competitive debate, a participant’s stance on an issue depends entirely on lottery. If he draws pro, then he sets aside personal feelings and beliefs to defend the title, even if he privately finds it abhorrent, and vice versa. From a positive angle, researching into disagreeable perspectives will broaden his mind. The dark side of it is that he might unwittingly acquire a duo personality, becoming blindly loyal to any given assignment without scruples, yet eerily clearheaded. That’s what the Boss wants though, isn’t it? His re-conditioned intellect is ready to promote or rationalise anything. Many unconscionable colonial atrocities and imperial campaigns have been staunchly defended by otherwise intelligent and decent individuals under the spell of this split mentality.

Experienced debaters also understand that logic and reason alone don’t necessarily mean victory in a democratically judged contest. Oratory and presentation skills are just as important, perhaps critically more so. Good looks also help. Let’s face it: substance rarely defeats style in popularity. Debate etiquette teaches participants to appear civilised and courteous while injecting verbal venom savagely. That’s good training in duplicity, a modern skill with profitable applications in marketing, populist politics, litigation, and international diplomacy. Though righteousness is probably the most common fake, still the formal debate is unique in its open embrace of speciousness, making it a paradoxically honest game. But in real life, clever words loaded with flexible intentions and retractable commitment inevitably lead to hypocrisy and perfidiousness. Not good for the spirit and reputation.

Academia is one area where a healthy debate tradition seems overwhelmingly positive. Challenging each other exhaustively and relentlessly is good stimulation for the brain, especially tenured ones. Academic debates cultivate an intellectual atmosphere conducive to scientific exploration and discovery. It may be no coincidence that modern science flourished at about the same time in Europe.

However, some cultures are wary of the potential harm of cunning arguments. The Chinese, for example, regard sophistry a social toxin, just as Plato did. They think crafty rhetoric without substance and sincerity taints the intelligentsia’s moral integrity. A classical Chinese gentleman — Jun Zi — is expected to “speak his heart”. “Heartless” eloquence is detested rather than admired. How to judge one’s heart? Traditionally, revered essayists and orators are passionate champions of viewpoints to which they are held personally to the highest standard. There’s no escape from their public words. On the other hand, objective or impartial agents of ideas, favourably regarded in Western tradition, are just peddlers.

The Chinese disposition of taking things too close to heart has its downside also. Being ultra-personal can lead to subconscious blindness to all opposing ideas. Furthermore, when irrefutably proven more wrong than right, admission of defeat is heartbreaking, making it nigh impossible to contrive a phoney congratulatory twitch of facial muscles.

Chinese preference for the “heart” is not limited to ethics. In a court of law, a sincere and heartfelt appeal is treated more sympathetically than dubious arguments, no matter how technically brilliant. As absolute impartiality is regarded a chimera (or computers can replaced wigged judges), an ideal Chinese court weighs the law against reasonableness and discretion in equal measures, hence the occasional Western perception of arbitrariness. Conversely, the concept of legal technicality baffles the average Chinese. To him, discharging a guilty criminal on technical grounds is an affront to common sense and the fundamental premise of social justice.

Underneath planet Earth’s multifaceted turbulence in the 21st century, civilisations are coming into contact at unprecedented frequency and proximity. Up close, we sometimes appear weird, even questionable, to each other. An English gentleman takes pride in being cool and detached; a classical Jun Zi is respected for his unreserved and personal commitment. A Westerner loyal to his god, king or employer may think it justifiable to compromise, even betray, private principles. In Chinese eyes, this behaviour, albeit understandable, is far from gentlemanly.

Nonetheless, many contemporary Chinese are becoming more Western, while an increasing number of Westerners are doing the opposite. They are teaching, inspiring, puzzling, annoying and provoking each other like never before. Behavioural differences due to cultural values which have survived the test of time all have unique merits if understood and applied with a sense of balance. Otherwise, they backfire. As multipolarity and substantial global interaction are inevitable and irreversible, no longer up for debate, a better understanding of why we are the way we are may reduce mistrust, thereby upgrading our horrendous-looking common destiny.

James Tam 21 Dec 2017

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