The importance of open debate

July 18, 2017

Imagine that the world is about to be destroyed by an explosion at a nuclear power plant. Two scientists — one who has children, and one who does not— are each capable of fixing the problem and saving the world. But it’s a suicide mission. Who should go?

This is a prompt from “U Can U BiBi,” a Chinese game show in which debate teams face-off in an attempt to sway the most audience votes. Audience members vote before the debate starts and are free to change their votes at any time. Both the debaters and the audience can see when votes change. (My favorite episode is below.) 

The debater who won the most votes argued that the scientist without a family should go. He argued that if the scientist with children were selected, this noble accomplishment would actually be a curse for his whole family.

“Think of the scientist’s son. Having a dad who saved the world would be his biggest accomplishment in life,” the debater said. “The bulk of his life would be about commemorating his dad. He would always be known as the son of the scientist.”

The sudden shift in audience votes showed how effective the argument was at tapping into the more selfish side of people. But the risk of accepting arguments like this would be that no one would dare to do good at a large personal cost. I considered that problem again recently when professor Ronald K.L. Collins from University of Washington School of Law gave a talk to the FIRE interns this summer. During his talk on free speech, Collins mentioned that in the marketplace of ideas, not every good idea triumphs.

When I look back at the arguments that resulted in major voter shifts, it is not hard to notice that people tend to buy into arguments that appeal to them emotionally, rather than rationally. When people do not fully engage the arguments and think rationally, and when we do not allow debate to happen, these ideas which might have only won temporarily may instead stay and prevail.  

Brown University professor Kenneth Miller described his own experience with this phenomenon in a 2013 op-ed in The Brown Daily Herald. Miller described how he attended a lecture in 1966 as a Brown undergrad. The speaker was George Lincoln Rockwell — the founder of the American Nazi Party.

“For the first time in my life,” he wrote, “I understood the allure of fascism, the reason that ‘good people’ could have supported the likes of Franco, Mussolini and Hitler.”

Miller explained that the speech was appealing because Rockwell was charismatic and had a sense of humor. But Miller also said he was glad that Rockwell was allowed to speak because it gave the students a chance to understand Rockwell’s position and think for themselves about why fascism could be appealing to many people.

I … understood why the notion that “it couldn’t happen here” is hopelessly naive. It could happen here, and it most certainly would happen if we forgot the lessons of history, lessons that Rockwell brought to life with a sinister smile that evening in Alumnae Hall. I’m glad I was there. I’m glad the talk was allowed to go on. And I’m glad Brown was an open campus where those lessons could be learned in the most personal way possible.

That is precisely why college campuses should not prohibit controversial speakers. Giving controversial speakers a chance to talk provides students with an opportunity to understand the speaker’s position and challenge them critically.

Listening to other opinions does not mean agreeing with them. In back and forth arguments with an opposing side, one has the opportunity to see the holes in both sides’ arguments and have a deeper understanding through more thinking and research.

In November 2016, right after the U.S. presidential election, Charles Murray came to my school, Swarthmore College, to speak. Considering the controversy caused by some of Murray’s previous research and the timing of this event, Murray unsurprisingly drew a crowd of protesters. Rather than disinviting or disrupting Murray’s talk, over 100 protesters showed up at the talk and carried out a peaceful protest. Other students stayed and told Swarthmore’s student newspaper, The Phoenix, that it was “a chance to understand why Murray thinks the way he does.” The students also rigorously questioned Murray during the subsequent Q&A session.

But this kind of back and forth is not happening on many American campuses.

Last month, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a public hearing Free Speech 101: The Assault on the First Amendment on College Campuses, at which college professors, students, and attorneys, testified about the challenges facing truly free speech on college campuses.

That included testimony from student witness Zachary Wood, president of Williams College’s Uncomfortable Learning club. He told the committee why he joined the group, which encourages students to engage in controversial and unpopular views, but which has been met with controversy in its own right, over the invitation of Charles Murray and others.

“I wanted to clarify the issues that challenge people the most and why. I wanted to discuss the content of competing arguments and how best to respond to unwelcome ideas and offensive speech.”

As Wood’s testimony implies, our views can only be shaped by the narratives we have been exposed to. But as FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff observes in his book “Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate,” people are increasingly interacting only with those who share and reconfirm their views — the echo chamber. This tendency to gather around like-minded people can blind us and limit our perspectives.

Instead, by acknowledging rational arguments that we dislike and considering all perspectives, we can build confidence in our own beliefs. Instead of summarily rejecting every opposing argument, one can admit that opposing arguments are at least worth considering. You might be surprised to see your beliefs change, or gain a deeper understanding of why you were right all along. By doing this, you acknowledge that truth is multifaceted, and become a more complex thinker. In an equally complex world, these are skills college students need.

In a debate competition, the teams don’t always get to pick the side they favor. Arguing for a side one doesn’t believe in requires more work and critical thinking. One has to truly contemplate the issue and wrestle with one’s deeply held beliefs. But that can make the debate even more meaningful and fruitful for the participants. And as the host of “U Can U BiBi” always reminds the audience: These debaters don’t necessarily believe in the side they argue for. A good debater is capable of arguing for both sides.

Jessica Xu is a rising junior at Swarthmore College and a FIRE summer intern.