Make Americans Debate Again

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He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that,” John Stuart Mill wrote in “On Liberty” (1859), laying out the essential case for open, robust, and systematic debate. If you don’t test your beliefs by engaging with people who disagree with you, you’re more likely to make weak, incomplete, self-serving, or irrelevant arguments, leading to ruinous outcomes in policy matters or acrimonious misunderstandings in social life.

That’s where the group Open to Debate comes in. Founded in 2006 as Intelligence Squared U.S., Open to Debate has hosted hundreds of debates with the goal of “restor[ing] critical thinking, facts, reason, and civility to American public discourse.” Through a mix of online and in-person events, Open to Debate brings together artists, officials, public intellectuals, scientists, and entrepreneurs from across the ideological spectrum to work through contentious, heated, and seemingly irresolvable issues of the day.

Reason‘s Katherine Mangu-Ward, for instance, was part of a debate that asked, “Is Capitalism a Blessing?” and Reason‘s Nick Gillespie has argued for legalizing all drugs and against Medicare for All, net neutrality, and forgiving student loan debt. Open to Debate invites audience participation, and it airs all its programming on NPR, YouTube, and the group’s own website, where it provides voluminous notes and materials, all designed to help audience members reach an independent and informed conclusion.

In February, Gillespie talked with Open to Debate CEO Clea Conner about her group’s mission, its name change, and its push to host actual presidential debates rather than “joint press conferences with really rehearsed talking points.”

Reason: What is Open to Debate? What are the goals of the organization?

Conner: Open to Debate is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. We consider ourselves a debate-driven media company. So we are curating conversations and experiences where people can engage with opposing views on complex issues in a respectful and thought-provoking way.

We’re also trying to create a contempt-free zone where you can have an open mind, where you can question your own values, your beliefs, your biases, and learn something in the process. Debate encourages us to actually have to listen to somebody we may disagree with or a point of view that we find no merit in, and understand where they’re coming from and perhaps shift our thinking or reinforce our own beliefs. So it’s a process; it’s a way of learning; it’s a way of solving problems; it’s a way of making better decisions.

What’s the meaning behind changing the name of your organization to Open to Debate?

I think the shift that we are making from being Intelligence Squared U.S. and having an affiliate with our British counterpart is recognizing America has reached an inflection point, things are different now, discourse is different now, the impact of technology, of media, of misinformation, and of the fragmentation of our access to information.

Coming out of the pandemic, we reinvented our business. We went from being a live-events organization to now being more of a digital-first company. We democratized our content. We want to reach as many people as possible, but as a nonprofit organization, we’re also here to address a problem and a need. And we wanted to address this moment in time in this country when you have cancel culture, you have the academy up in arms about intellectual diversity, you have huge shifts and changes in trust in our institutions broadly, to come up with a name that reflects the work we do, that’s accessible, that’s also a call to action. “Open to Debate” is a reminder of what we need to be in society. It’s also what we actually do.

What do you mean when you talk about debate, as opposed to conversation, discussion, or disagreement?

Debate is distinct because it should be structured. The presidential debates, for instance, are not structured as an actual debate. The structure of debate brings two sides together. You have opening remarks that are uninterrupted. So you are sitting and actively listening to their arguments because you’re going to address them later. And if you’re not listening, you can’t do that. Each side is given uninterrupted time to make their case, present their opening arguments.

Then you have a moderator come in, which is very different from the kind of moderators we see in the American political debates, as it pertains to an Oxford-style format or a parliamentary-style format. The moderator is really honing in on an argument on one side, bringing it to the other side in what you’d call a point-counterpoint, and actually trying to understand where you might be able to agree or why you disagree and find some resolution.

How important are facts in debating?

Debate is all about the fact that there are facts. Both sides come to the table with data, with reasoned analysis around those data points and with facts, but debate creates the opportunity to scrutinize those facts. What we’ve seen happen today is you can have something that’s actually not a fact or not qualified—what we’re calling broadly “misinformation”—spread through the internet and become a serious problem, because people are believing something that could be really harmful to them or to their environment or their families. So debate is almost a preventative measure to that wildfire spread of misinformation.

Is critical thinking important to debating?

Debate teaches critical thinking: listening to two sides of an issue, comparing and contrasting two arguments, a lot of different evidence, data, stories, and all of that. Critical thinking is the ability to question what you read, see, and hear. It equips society with the tools to listen first, to ask questions, and then make more informed decisions based on that balanced information.

So when everybody’s talking about the echo chamber and filter bubbles, that makes me think about Plato’s allegory of the cave, where people are only exposed to a certain reality. We need to leave the cave.

What are some of the most successful debates you’ve had?

We call each one of these debates that we produce a miracle, because it’s a five-way negotiation. With building a team in an Oxford-style debate, it’s two teams of two with a moderator. But even if you’re curating a conversation that’s one-on-one, there is still so much that goes into your decision to debate—just the wording of the question, because a few different words gives you an advantage or gives your opponent an advantage, and you’re not going to agree to debate on those grounds.

We begin by going out with the right kind of motion language. We gather a ton of expertise and research and insight from the leading voices and thinkers and writers and researchers on these topics. And then we approach guests with a very carefully crafted question on the topic that we think is really balanced.

A debate that I was shocked at how big it became was on genetically modified food. Both sides have a lot of competing research. The proposition was just “Genetically modified food, yes or no?” It was very simple. That’s a metric to success—distilling really complex ideas into three- to five-word propositions.

The pro take was that genetically modifying food isn’t anything new, that we’ve been at this now for thousands of years. The kernel of corn that you eat today and the banana that you’re used to seeing are the results of so many different experiments, so many different modifications to be able to weather storms, soil hardiness, and scale food production. The other side was that we don’t know what the effects are of genetically modifying food. There’s a lot of other chemicals and there’s pesticides. It gets a little complicated on their side: You have to modify a seed in order for it to grow properly, and then the soil has to be modified as well.

Why do you think this topic resonates with an audience?

I think it resonates because this affects your daily life. You go to Whole Foods, and how many products are non-GMO?

So that’s the starting point where most people are coming at this. That debate, you had a lot of celebrities, you had Alicia Silverstone, as a vegan, tweeting to her whole audience to say, “We shouldn’t be genetically modifying food. Come to this debate. Vote this way.” There’s something at stake when it’s something you really believe in, and that affects your daily life, or that you’re trying to understand more of. The pro-GMO side won that debate.

Are there particular topics that people really seem to want to have an open and honest discussion of?

Religion. The video on our YouTube channel that continues to amass views every month—and we’re not promoting it—was presented in 2010. The motion was “Islam is a religion of peace.” And that continues to spark a huge debate online.

The thing that’s great about that particular debate, which had Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Douglas Murray, Zeba Khan, and Maajid Nawaz, is they made such sound arguments but accessible ones too. They were coming at it from personal experience—it’s not just data sets. And that kind of testimony in addition to evidence I think gets people really engaged.

“Islam is not a religion of peace” won that debate. And in fact, 13 years later, I believe that one of those debaters has since changed their mind on that topic.

What are topics that are not worthy of debate?

Not worthy of debate is something like the flat Earth. That is just not an intellectually respectable point of view. We have data and science and we know the Earth is not flat. So that’s a level that we’re just not going to indulge. Or conspiracy theories.

Have you had any debates that have gone catastrophically wrong?

Well, not to undermine the excellence of our quality work, but like I said, every debate’s a miracle. Not every debate is perfect. Some of them you’re in the process of trying to uncover changes in society, and it’s a moving target.

We’ve had a couple of debates where a debater got on stage and then refused to argue the resolution. That is very difficult to navigate. They’re with a team member, then the onus falls on their team member to make the argument almost solo. And so those debaters have been extraordinary to stand up to having a team member that throws them under the bus. And that does happen in our debates sometimes, very rarely, but it has happened. Other times, a debater might actually change their mind or try to rephrase the language—they realize, say, 15 minutes in that they’re arguing a proposition that isn’t resonating with this audience or they see an uphill battle. So they try to reframe it.

Do you agree that good, honest debate in a public forum seems to have gone missing?

It definitely was missing before we were established in the early 2000s. There wasn’t a live forum for debate in the United States. There were a couple of debate shows. Think about Firing Line with William F. Buckley—that was definitely debate. I think debate has gone missing because we ended up with really partisan mainstream media perspectives.

There was a really interesting study that did brain scans of people listening to information that they disagreed with, that really challenged their religion, their political leanings, their value system, and found that the areas of the brain that were activated were the same as fight and flight. There’s a physical, biological response to being challenged, that we actually have to learn how to deal with. And that learning is the process of critical thinking. And that’s not taught. We don’t teach debate. We don’t teach that process of questioning what you hear. It’s not part of education any longer.

What other elements have destroyed a robust, positive debate culture?

I think social media is probably culprit No. 1. We’ve debated social media many times and whether or not it’s a force for good for democracies.

One side is very clearly saying social media had a net negative on democracy. You can create these cultures of extremes that don’t have to engage with the other side, that can fester, that can cause bigger problems or create misinformation, disinformation, malinformation, call it what you will.

Are you optimistic that people will be more interested in arguing about stuff in good faith for the purpose of discovering truth?

I am optimistic, because that’s what we’re here for. We’re trying to create that contemporary zone where you feel—I mean, I hate to use the words “safe space,” but it’s actually a great application of that phrase that’s been so co-opted by academia. A safe space to actually have a debate and disagree. I’m confident that we’re going to get there, because I think there’s going to be a correction in the tolerance people have for the shutdown of free speech and ideas on social media, or by activists, or by the extremes on both sides. And I think that people are becoming so much more aware of bias in their daily diet of media consumption.

I am really optimistic. I think we’ve reached that inflection point. Certainly the insurrection at the Capitol was a moment where I think we as a culture and a country had to say, “Wait a minute. How did this happen?” One side, or both sides, feel they’re not heard by the other, and that’s why they’re acting out. And you’re seeing now all of this concern about future political violence and what that means to national security, elections, fair or rigged elections. We now actually need debate, because if you’re not going to engage with these two sides, you end up with that level of problem.

Are you pursuing a presidential debate-hosting capability?

We are actively pursuing being the next format to host the presidential debates in 2024. I’m very optimistic and hopeful that they will take place, but there’s a lot that needs to happen before we get there.

How do you get the candidates to submit to a fair discussion and analysis of their ideas?

First you make it an actual debate format. What we see now are joint press conferences with really rehearsed talking points. There’s almost nothing that distinguishes the current presidential debates from what you hear on the campaign trail. So for us, the priority is certainly putting forward debate formats and moderators that are actually helping us understand where these two candidates are coming from and what they believe, to actually engage with each other on stage directly. So it’s not just a question from a journalist to candidate A, a question from a journalist to candidate B, and rinse and repeat for an hour and a half.

They’re always laced with these personal attacks. There are ad hominem attacks. They’re really repetitive. There’s question dodging. In that format, if it’s just a question-and-answer format, it is easy to evade a question.

I think there’s a track record now. The American public expects debates from our highest office of elected officials. And I’m pretty confident we would be able to make those happen. I think we can do presidential debates, an unresolved format, a series of five questions that are yes or no, with opening remarks, with a structured engagement period. I’d love to see an Oxford-style debate with the presidential candidate and their vice presidential candidate debating together. I understand if that seems delusional, but I would love to see that.

This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity.

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