The lost art of debating

Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese held the first leaders' debate this week. It was a polite and civil affair. Morrison talked about all the things his government has done and will continue to do. Albanese talked about how his government would take Australia forward, to meet challenges that are not quite facing up to.


Debates like this are increasingly rare. Debating is becoming a lost art.


For the last 2500 years, the basic school curriculum has involved four R’s, not three. Reading, (w)Riting, (a)Rithmetic – and Rhetoric. By rhetoric, we mean the ability to speak persuasively.


In the ancient Greek and Roman democracies and senates, the future actions of the city or the empire were debated by a council. Ideas were promoted and critiqued with words, not swords.


Jesus and Paul (in part) functioned as travelling public speakers who arrived at a new town or city, went to the marketplace or synagogue, and began discussing ideas.


Our modern democracies are built on the notion that ideas are to be debated, and in the end, the best idea prevails. Others can be persuaded to see the insight and wisdom of the best way forward. Debates are not attacks on others, they are a contest of ideas. And the very process of contesting ideas refines good ideas and makes them even better.


Sadly, this practice has disappeared. Social media means we find ourselves in conversation with others who think like us. Cancel culture means that we block out the voice of the politically incorrect. Some ideas and voices are shut down. Consider Katherine Deves comments about transgender and sport as a case in point. Without debate, what prevails is consensus, but one that risks being shallow and untested.


As Christians, we are called to speak the truth in love. Our conversations ought to be honest, brave, thoughtful, biblical, and compassionate. Such conversations bring mutual maturity.


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