A significant amount of my recent work has been written in response to arguments made by other libertarian thinkers. As such, the time is ripe for a guide to how this is best done. This article will take the reader through the process of an exchange of ideas from start to finish, and explain my ten simple rules for debating. Those who follow these rules are guaranteed to become more successful debaters, as well as less stressed and overworked.
1. Pick your battles. While a person of little renown may have enough time to engage with whomever one pleases at whatever length one desires, people who have less time to spend engaging in debates must choose which opponents to engage and which to ignore, as well as how long to engage each opponent. It is best to have a consistent rubric for this, which will be discussed further in rules 2 and 9.
2. Engage only those worthy of being engaged. Some people are capable of maintaining a rational discourse, while other people cannot seem to communicate without resorting to personal attacks, profanity, threats, and other such uncivil behavior. Some people have interesting and novel insights, while other people insist upon bringing up points which have been refuted a thousand times. Some people are experts in the fields of which they speak, while other people do not stick to their lasts. Some people make the effort to properly support an argument, while other people Gish gallop. A person’s behavior in this regard is a strong indicator of whether that person is worthy of one’s attention. Note that other debaters will judge you by a similar standard, so be the kind of person that someone else would be willing to debate.
3. Do your research. If you know a topic in great detail, you will be more able to counter any argument your opponent may make. An uninformed debater is an incompetent debater. An unprepared debater is a sloppy debater. Also, make sure that the sources you study are reliable. If the opponent is competent, a misinformed debater will be an embarrassed debater.
4. Do not argue to convince the opponent; argue to convince a third party. In many cases, a person worthy of being engaged will be firmly entrenched in a position, and it may even be against the nature of the format for your opponent to come over to your side. Focus instead on convincing the audience, whether they be people watching a live debate or reading a correspondence. This methodology is stated explicitly in some debate formats, but it is sound strategy regardless.
5. Base your arguments upon logic (logos), not emotion (pathos) or authority (ethos). A debate is properly won by using reason and evidence to demonstrate that one’s position is superior to that of one’s opponent. Detouring into appeals to emotion can help one connect with the audience or provoke an opponent into a misstep, but this does not advance one’s case in a rigorous manner. Appealing to the authority of oneself or someone else can dissuade a weak opponent or convince a less intelligent audience, but attempting this against a strong opponent in front of a knowledgeable audience is a recipe for disaster.
6. Relentlessly attack logical fallacies and weak arguments. It is important to point out every shortcoming that you can find in your opponent’s case. Doing so will make you more skilled in identifying logical fallacies and weak arguments, which means that opponents will be less able to get away with sloppy reasoning in future debates. Do not worry about being pedantic; your job is to find all weaknesses in your opponent’s case and illuminate them to make your case appear stronger by comparison.
7. Focus on the task at hand. A debate can easily go off track, especially if the subject matter is wide, deep, or both. Avoid making arguments that neither support your case nor attack your opponent’s case. Only go into the weeds if your opponent takes you there; the person who begins the foray into many different minutiae is usually running out of solid logic and evidence.
8. Destroy arguments, not people. Be respectful of your opponent, or at least be as respectful of your opponent as he or she is of you. Resorting to personal attacks (or escalating them if they are already in use) is a refuge of a person with weak arguments, and it will make people less willing to consider your case on its merits. Remember, your job is to defeat your opponent’s arguments, not his or her character.
9. Know when to quit. There comes a point in every debate at which further discussion has diminishing returns or even becomes completely pointless. It is important to learn to identify that point and stop there. Sometimes this will be clear; an opponent may even announce that a particular round will be his or her closing argument. If this happens, respond with a closing argument of your own and be finished; do not repeatedly pummel the opponent after he or she has left the debate. This may also be the case in a timed or response-limited debate, in which case one should abide by the rules of the format. In other cases, it will be a matter of personal judgment to decide to walk away from a debate.
10. Handle both defeat and victory appropriately. No one likes a sore loser or a bad winner. If you lose a debate, reflect on how and why you lost. Then, take the necessary steps to avoid losing in the same manner in a future debate. This may involve more study of the debate topic, reviewing logical fallacies, or even changing one’s position on an issue. If you win, do not gloat or boast. Accept victory graciously, then check your discourse for arguments that could have been stronger or presented more effectively.