Debates vs. Reality

Debates are usually a waste of time.

That might seem a strange comment, coming from someone with so much to say about fact-checking, skepticism, testing ideas, and how to respond to bad ideas. But it's true. That's not to say there is never a good time or place to debate. Nor that all formal debates are pointless. In fact, good communication and testing of ideas are very important (Proverbs 18:1317). Rather, we need to remember that most of what we call "debate" is performance art. The more public the debate, the more the performative factor is magnified. And performance attracts much more attention than substance.

The statement "square pegs don't fit in round holes" is not disproven when a strong man sledgehammers a cube through a round opening. A brand-new college student will "lose" a debate against an experienced history professor who claims George Washington didn't really exist. Politics isn't ultimately about truth versus falsehood, but how many people politicians can convince to vote a certain way. None of those results are a litmus test for truth. Public debates are "won" or "lost" based on emotion, mood, and preferences more so than the substance of the conversation. The goal of those is usually not to establish what is true, but to generate agreement—and those are extremely different things.

Just because boxer A defeats boxer B in a sparring match does not mean A would win in a no-holds-barred, life-or-death street fight. The boxing ring is not the "real world," in that sense. Neither are public debates or arguments "real", whether in person or online. The more public or artificial an argument becomes, the more it resembles a sporting event. They are not "natural;" they're not directly involved in the issue at hand. Being witty or funny or aggressive will sway how the audience reacts. Yet those performative aspects have nothing to do with the real issue.

This is painfully obvious in the dramatic titles applied to online clips of interviews, debates, or conversations. These claim a person "destroys" or "crushes" or "ruins" or "embarrasses" some opposing view or idea. The snippet may seem devastatingly effective; yet it's almost never given full context. Nor are rebuttals or counters included. The "mic drop" moment might not have been as impressive in person. Perhaps some are—but most probably weren't. The motivation behind such clips is not a love of what's right, but a desire for "winning." That's why the titles focus on extreme defeat of the "other;" that's the real payoff. While that sentiment is front-and-center in YouTube shorts and TikTok videos, the same broad concept is why "debates" are so often misunderstood, misused, and misinterpreted.

Believers sometimes worry when they don't "win" a debate or argument. They stress out when people prefer non-biblical ideas and gravitate towards comfortable falsehoods. It's discouraging when celebrities are applauded for regurgitating nonsense and propaganda, while those with actual knowledge are shunned. But those are expected features of a fallen world. In fact, it's the kind of thing this month's spotlight verse (Colossians 2:8) warns about: "empty deceit" rooted in something other than truth. We shouldn't fall for rhetorical tricks or emotional appeals. Neither should we consider it "defeat" when those tactics work on others. Thousands of factors influence how a person responds to information; truth and reason are not at the top of that list (John 5:39–40). The believers' goal is not to "win"—to convince or to gain approval—but to be truthful and let the Holy Spirit do the convicting (1 Corinthians 3:7).

Further proof that reason isn't what wins debates can be seen in identifying the voices driving public opinion: entertainers, celebrities, and politicians. They're articulate and charismatic: they "win" by convincing people to agree with them. Yet that doesn't mean they are actually correct. They look wise and brilliant to people who know nothing about the subject. Sometimes, the person is genuinely qualified in an area, but their pontifications are about something else. They're usually poorly informed about philosophy, ethics, morality, or religion—but those are precisely the topics on which they comment. It's common to hear movie stars giving speeches about legislation, or athletes arguing about foreign policy, or rock stars commenting on vaccines, or science popularizers talking about abortion and social justice. Skill in one area does not automatically make a person qualified on every topic.

In short, debates are not reality; "winning" or "losing" a debate is not an indicator of overall truth. As believers, we should be careful not to invest excessive time or concern over them. That isn't a matter of avoiding them at all costs. It's about understanding what they mean, and what they don't.

The Bible's advice on this subject boils down to a few basic ideas. One is not to waste time arguing with those who have zero interest in truth (Matthew 7:6). Another is to avoid topics irrelevant to important ideas (2 Timothy 2:23). Humility should keep us from being dogmatic about things that are vague (Proverbs 18:1317). Cautious skepticism helps us avoid mistakes (Acts 17:111 John 4:1). When people are more interested in arguing than thinking, we should ignore them (Titus 3:9–11). Knowing one is right is one thing, but knowing how to choose your battles is also important; only a fool rushes into an ambush (Proverbs 22:3).

If or when we feel the need to "debate," we can focus on being simple, honest, humble, and truthful (2 Corinthians 4:2). There may be many things we don't know. There can be many things we don't understand. But what we can know, and can understand, gives us the right foundation to know the truth of the gospel (Romans 1:18–21Psalm 19:1Matthew 7:7–8).