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2 Second “Paradox” of Debate: “It Is Better to Accept, Or to Give In, In Order to Win”
The rule of transforming the other’s arguments in your own argument, of using
the antagonist’s premises to build your own conclusion is the discursive equivalent
of the technique taught in martial arts, especially aikido, of unbalancing the opponent so that he rolls on the ground by his own energy and not by an active intervention of the attacked. Debate skills follow the same pattern of judo and aikido, whose
first principle is not to resist your opponent; instead, move with him and redirect his
A simple and clear example is as follows: if my opponent says “If these are roses,
they will bloom” and I do not agree because I believe that they are vegetables, not
flowers, what can I do? I can challenge the statement by saying: “Be careful, they
are cabbages, not roses!” Or better, I can accept the premise that “they are roses”
and draw a very different conclusion, replying: “If they are roses, they will wither
in a day”.
The situation is well illustrated by the following case. Reagan’s project for a missile defense system, the so-called “Strategic Defense Initiative” or “Star Wars”,
immediately met with considerable opposition. The movie “The Day After”,
directed by Oliver Stone, which staged the disastrous effects of a nuclear attack, was
presented and interpreted as an attack on the initiative. During a public discussion,
Secretary of State George Schulz, rather than censor and attack the film, as expected
by all the proponents of Reagan’s strategic plan, shared the concern over the alarming scenario outlined in the film, saying: “Just so! This is exactly what we want to
avoid!” This instance is a great example of the technique “embrace in order to
This type of move is beneficial in many ways.
1. It signals a lack of animosity and, on the contrary, a readiness to agree. The
speaker presents himself as an open-minded interlocutor, not a biased opponent.
This stance is an attitude that is appreciated by the person who has to judge much
more than a dogmatic position or an aggressive rudeness.
2. It creates embarrassment because it puts the antagonist in the uncomfortable
position of not being able to deny what he previously claimed or of doing so at
the cost of an expensive reversal.
3. It causes a state of imbalance in the counterpart, who is attacked at the hips;
simultaneously, it shows the audience the ability to bypass obstacles.
The technique of embracing (the principles of the opponent) in order to reject
(the conclusions) can be usefully employed when one is able to prove that the counterpart’s thesis does not conform to those principles or when he is able to demonstrate that, by starting from those principles, we can derive a different and better
Therefore, as long as you can, it is recommended to concede something to the
opponent and take advantage of a momentary or apparent acquiescence.
Paradoxes of Debate
Third “Paradox” of the Debate: “Everything Can
Be Discussed” vs. “Not Everything Is Debatable”
Is debate possible on any topic, or is there a limit to the possibility of debate? Not
everyone is willing to admit, as Protagoras does, that “on every issue, there are two
arguments opposed to each other”, namely that everything can be put under discussion, that to every pro there can be opposed a contra and that, for both, one can find
a justification and a reason (Schiappa 1991: 90). Apparently, there are some facts,
some rules and some values that are “beyond question.”
It seems there are at least three categories of things that cannot be discussed:
facts, taste and orders. “A fact is a fact,” “de gustibus non est disputandum” (in matters of taste, there can be no dispute) and “an order is an order” proverbially express
There is no need to discuss when you reach what Perelman calls basic agreements, namely the original premises shared by the interlocutors. Furthermore, neither the theses nor the statements that you can defend against all possible opponents
are questionable. This notion of “the totality of opponents” is a formula that incorporates the seventeenth-century idea that “contra principia negantes disputandum
non est” (“you should not discuss with people who deny the principles”), which
means that theses that are unanimously believed to be true and that therefore can be
defended in front of all those who wish to challenge them are not an eligible matter
The universal audience is imagined by someone starting from what he knows of his fellows,
in such a way that it transcends the opposition of which he is aware. So every culture, every
individual has his own concept of a universal audience and the study of these variants would
be very instructive because it would make us know what men have regarded throughout
history as a real, true and objectively valid (Perelman 1969: 35).
A lack of reasons for doubting makes it impossible to discuss the issue: “Those
who are in doubt whether the gods should be honored and parents should be loved,
or not, they need to be blamed, but those who are uncertain if the snow is white, or
not, they need a sensation” (Aristotle, Topics, I, 105 a 4–7). One wonders whether
an excess of reasons for doubting may even make it untenable. The answer is yes.
Whoever believes that the question of squaring the circle is an unsolvable problem
definitely considers it out of question. The same holds for the so-called “ignorabimus” (“we always ignore”) of nineteenth-century memory. According to Stephen
Toulmin, the limit of the possibility of discussing is the possibility of producing
reasons. The threshold beyond which it is no longer possible to produce reasons is
also the threshold of the debate. Fortunately, this limit is very broad. There are questions of boundaries (“limiting questions”) that go beyond any possibility of giving a
rational response: no response will satisfy those who pose a question that surpasses
human understanding. A discussion would not lead to anything because no answer
would ever be satisfactory.
Fourth “Paradox” of the Debate: “Rhetoric Is Good,
Rhetoric Is Bad”
Cicero himself often wondered whether rhetoric is more beneficial or harmful to
men and cities. If something inherently good can be made to be seen as bad by a
gifted speaker, then the good man gifted in speaking (vir bonus dicendi peritus, as
Cato and Quintilian put it) become a bad man.
Also under discussion is whether debate forms good disputants or simply attract
disputants who by nature are proficient. Certainly, debate is a workshop in which
you acquire a number of skills. Proponents of debate training carefully list all of its
advantages: mental, social and practical. For example, they list the mental habit of
weighing the pros and cons of each issue, thinking quickly and critically and organizing subjects, ideas, and insights; the social habit of to strive to understand the
nature and the function of a democratic society and realizing how, in democracy,
ideas are enforced; get used to respect the ideas of others; the practice of appealing
to reasons and arguments to resolve conflicts; the habit of coping with the judgment
of the community and accepting it a healthy competition. From a practical perspective, debate promotes the art of asking questions, the technique of putting into
words, of dividing and framing concepts, the readiness to replicate; the habit of
public speaking; the self-control.
However, in debate, it would be sufficient to save the feature and the value of the
confrontation, even when the disagreement becomes a battle: confrontation/comparison with someone who thinks differently. Therefore, among all the possible
portents of debate, we welcome the promotion of tolerance, if only in the literal
sense of the term, that is, “mere endurance”, when there is no hope that the different
perspectives will be integrated or annulled.
Certainly, to be right is different from to convince someone that we are right. We
are told that truth always triumphs. Perhaps that is the case. However, we can help
the truth to be established if we accept a debate in which the confrontation is not
between two individuals but between two positions, if we accept that the winner is
not the clever supporter but the thesis supported. Perhaps this too is a utopian ideal.
However, this goal can be pursued even in the presence of the so-called and notorious “debate of the deaf”. Indeed, typically when we discuss, each party states and
restates his position, without any intent to actually compare his reasons with the
reasons of the interlocutor, who is often viewed as an adversary to be defeated.
However, even if the two disputants do not recede an inch from their initial positions, the audience – which is the third party, an important party of the public debate
that is often forgotten – can change its mind.
The function, minimal but realistic, of a good debate is clarity, a double type of
clarity: the clarity of our thesis and the clarity of the reasons in support of our thesis.
The audience should leave a debate saying: “Now I see a little more light on’” rather
than: “He spoke and defended himself very well!” or worse: “I do not know what he
said, but he seems to have said it very well.” Debate training aims to instruct us to
express our reasons clearly but mostly to attempt to have them recognized, perhaps
Paradoxes of Debate
not by the counterpart, which is a very rare and difficult result, but at least by the
public, by the audience, by the judges. This type of debate is respectful of some
rules, which are applied by the two parties and are the evaluation criterion for the
jury and the public. Essentially, the rules are the four listed as follows:
Quality of arguments
Quantity of arguments
Relevance of arguments
This training initiative retrieves and highlights the centuries-old tradition of
Latin disputatio and the so-called Trivium, composed of the three components of
logic, dialectic and rhetoric. Historically, dispute was a teaching method, a tutorial
exercise and a procedure apt to discover the truth. It was a strictly regulated discursive exchange that required following a strict and, therefore, controllable procedure,
and it was also a public event of great appeal.
Today, as in the past, this activity aims to combine the duty and the right to
debate with the pleasure of debating and the pleasure of participating in discussion
with the firm belief that this commitment is a valuable exercise that allows us to
acquire the skills that are useful to tackling the most important personal and social
Why does debate have a double face, a reassuring face and a disturbing face, a tolerant face and an intransigent face? First, those who participate in a debate may do so
with the disposition of one who is in search of the best solution for a controversial
issue or in the spirit of those who want to prevail, who have dogmatic, unshakable
certainties. Second, discussion can be viewed not only as a means to raise truth but
also as a means to raise doubt.
However, controversy, in all its forms, from the virulent controversy to the quiet
discussion, may be the engine of progress in every field, from the social to the
At the end of a dialogue or a debate, you may not even reach a conclusion, but
this result is not necessarily a failure. One of the reflections of Joseph Joubert 1838,
who in his Pensées (n. 115) notes that “It is better to debate a question without defining it than define it without debating it”, seems very wise.
Four reasons in favor of free discussion are offered by John Stuart Mill in his
essay On Liberty, a libertarian manifesto centered on the belief that “If there are any
persons who contest a received opinion...let us thank them for it, open our minds to
listen to them, and rejoice that there is someone to do for us what we otherwise
ought, if we have any regard for either the certainty or the vitality of our convictions,
to do with greater labour for ourselves” (Stuart Mill 1989: 46).