By Sandro Chumashvili, DCI Fellow
Since the age of thirteen, I have actively participated in competitive debates. I started with “world school style” and then found the most significant success in the “British Parliament Style.” By success, I mean becoming the champion of my country (Georgia) and achieving high results on an international level. After the world championship in 2019, at the age of just 17, I retired from debates. I moved to adjudicating and teaching new generations.
After joining the Davidson College community, I searched for ways to further develop the skills that I gained while debating, but in a less confrontational and understanding manner, and I found the Deliberative Citizenship Initiative (DCI). It focuses on deliberation and has the primary goal of depolarizing society, which sounded very appealing. With the other DCI Fellows, I went through the weeks of training and now facilitate political discussions and deliberations. Today I would like to point out some of the main differences between deliberations and debates on the different scales and levels. I will leave it up to you to decide which is better for the growth of an individual and society.
On the personal development level, both deliberations and debates help one to train specific skills. Debates are more focused upon critical thinking in limited time. It encourages you to protect your side at any cost, but the beauty of debates shows through when you do not know which position you will have to support before the preparation starts. For example, you may have to defend a position in the simulation that is totally opposite to the one that you have in real life. I remember that I had to defend communistic measures in the Estonian championship, despite considering myself libertarian; other times, I had to stand on the side of atheism while I identify myself as Christian. These clashes help you dig deep into the other side of an idea, which naturally forces you to think differently from how we would in real life; it internally forces us to question our beliefs and opinions.
Deliberations influence an individual differently. Here, you do not put up a wall between you and your companions, but to the contrary, you are open to changing your mind and accepting others’ opinions. Deliberations substitute the word “protect” in debates with “express,” meaning that you shall express and explain your idea, but at the same time, closely engage with other’s points. This way, the conversation tends to be less self-centered and touches upon the deeper parts of one’s ideas. People seldom totally agree or disagree with each other; therefore, deliberation is a more natural way to interact. It takes away the artificial “reject everything they say” point and nudges the participants toward a more interactive discussion.
Are both of those useful on all levels of society? To answer this question, let’s consider two crucial aspects: the stakes and the goal. If participants’ purpose is to show their dominance over another person, they become resistant to accepting the other person’s opinions, and deliberation is no more productive. The same can be said for when the stakes are high. For example, substituting presidential debates with deliberation would not be useful, since it is not in the candidates’ interests to find their spots of intersection. They always try to show their dominance in the areas they disagree with.
On the other hand, and on a smaller scale, wherever the main goal is to find a solution to a problem, and especially if compromise may be necessary, deliberation is a better solution since it does not disregard anyone’s opinion. The output reflects everyone’s input.
Personally, as time has passed and I have matured, I have moved away from debates. The main reason for this shift is how emotionally demanding they are and how high the stakes are. Debates are a perfect way to shape your opinion through clashes. Still, deliberations are more useful once you are more confident in your values and beliefs and are open to being challenged. What is more helpful depends on your values, what kind of society you want to see in the future, and how you perceive others’ ideas. Still, we shall remember that like everywhere, the answer is never black or white; both deliberation and debate are helpful on different scales and in different situations.