We both serve as lead coordinators of the Chautauqua Dialogues program. Both of us, as high school debaters, learned how to present both sides of an argument and, because we never knew which side of a question we would be assigned in a competition, pro or con, we had to be equally adept at presenting both sides of an argument in order to win.
We learned a lot about “truth” and “facts” because we needed to have winning arguments regardless of which side of the debate we were assigned. As to “truth,” we learned that there were multiple truths to be garnered from our research. The same with facts. Although one side of the argument or the other might be short on both truth and facts, we learned that we could always find something to support our argument — even though the source presented might be less than credible. But, a debater’s job is to amass the most convincing arguments for their side. And, if that means the truth or the facts might not be as strong as one would like, in order to win it is up to each debater to find a way to present an argument more skillfully than his or her opponent.
There are numerous, everyday examples of debate, particularly in politics, but not so many examples for dialogue. Those debaters who have strong arguments for a particular position work hard at finding “truths” and “facts” to support their point. The objective is to convince others that they have both truth and facts on their side, then use their presentation skills to overwhelm the listener. The key identifier of a debater is that they are not interested in listening to the other side. Debaters don’t make an effort to listen, because they want their viewpoint to prevail, period. They want a win. Political debates are good examples of this type of engagement; each candidate has a set of “points” they want to put forward in a limited amount of time. And, each candidate has prepared certain “counterpoints” with which to defeat the other candidate’s points. But in the end, each candidate tries their best to convince the audience they are right.
Unfortunately, since most examples of public engagements are debate, few of us really have much experience with examples of effective dialogue. That is what makes the Chautauqua Dialogues program so exciting. It gives Chautauquans an opportunity to learn about “civil conversations” — conversations where each party is willing to listen to the other and sees how others “connect” the same given “dots” in entirely different ways.
As Michael Hill pointed out in his closing Three Taps remarks at the end of the 2022 season, Chautauqua plants its roots in dialogue, not debate. Another way to say this, is that conversation is favored over argument. Debate and argument are all about winning. Dialogue and conversation are about exchanging and exploring each other’s views. Many of us have lost the ability or the opportunity to be engaged in thoughtful dialogue with those who might disagree with us. Chautauqua Dialogues (chq.org/dialogues) and the Red Bench Project (chq.org/redbench) offer us opportunities to rediscover and practice those dialogue skills, and we invite everyone to participate.
Roger Doebke & Lynn Stahl
Lead Coordinators, Chautauqua Dialogues