Argument vs. Debate: Can we tell the difference anymore?


I just see no profit in continuing a discussion with someone who simply wants to argue.” This was the final comment made during a discussion I had online recently. It all began with a blog post I happened upon criticizing the President’s decision to deny the Keystone Pipeline permit claiming it was another example of policies meant to ruin the economy and deny Americans access to energy. Despite a couple of initial comments referring to my “kool-aid drinking” the back and forth progressed in a fairly civil manner.

     In retrospect, I should have not wasted so much time on the discussion but there was little else to distract my attention that particular day. Overall, the discussion was unremarkable, just people of differing opinions countering one anothers’ supported and unsupported claims but what stood out was that final comment from the blog owner. Was all this an argument? I saw it as a debate, not as an argument, not the negative connotation commonly attached to the word. It prompted me to sit back and wonder…have we lost the ability to distinguish between meaningless arguing and substantive debate? Has it become popularly credible to characterize the expression of opposing viewpoints as arguing?

     This harkens back to a previous posting of mine, “Does Perry’s Debate Regret Speak to a Broader Political Trend?” where I speculated on a recent trend in which politicians were avoiding situations where their claims may be questioned, where their policy ideas would be subjected to tests of validity. Is this what I encountered in this instance? Is venturing onto another’s blog to debate the validity of their claims a taboo? Thinking back on the exchanges with the blog’s owner it felt as if there was an air of indignance. Was this an intrusion upon a hermitage meant only for select members of a particular group which curiously enough was open to all wanderers traversing the internet?

       In a formal sense, argument is generally described as a presentation of a well-developed line of evidence in support of a particular position or claim as part of a debate. Informally, an argument tends to simply assert a position or point of view with a varied level of support included, if any. Over the last dozen years the latter has evolved, through popular media outlets, into a method to instigate confrontation between those of hardened opinions from the extreme edges of the ideological spectrum.

      Now coming from a scientific background with an ingrained compulsion to support whatever I claim, I use the terms debate and argument fairly interchangeably with a definition that leans closer to the formal rather than the informal description. This illustrates a personal view of debate on the internet in which one supports their claims through credible sources refraining from personal attacks. This is not to say I have never been caught up in heated exchanges that punctured the personal attack barrier from time to time. These instances, however, are rarely productive and I have learned to temper my impulsiveness for the most part.

      Given the latter description of argument, how it has come to be a staple of cable news outlets, has this confounded the average individual’s understanding of what constitutes a debate or an argument? Is debate now perceived by the general public as something they witness on The O’Reilly Factor  or the recent Republican presidential primary debates where emotional rhetoric geared toward a like-minded audience is the norm rather than substantive policy discussion? Has this spread into the ever-growing world of internet, political blogging where tolerance is sparse and challenges from those outside one’s group consciousness is now viewed as a trespassing offense?

     I realize I have asked more questions than offered solutions but I found as I wrote this piece I wanted to engage the minds of the readers. Am I alone in this? What have you perceived? Have others had similar experiences? Is this indeed a trend anyone else has observed? What are the culprits? How did it evolve? There’s a plenitude here to debate, abundant arguments to make. We have but one overriding rule though…be civil.

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24 Comments to “Argument vs. Debate: Can we tell the difference anymore?”

  1. My stance is that disagreements are natural because we all have a different points of reference when deciding what we believe to be true/false. We won’t always see eye to eye, and there is nothing wrong with that.

    What worries me though, is when someone gets mad or irritated that you don’t agree with them, and they think there “must be something wrong with him/her”, because you disagree.

    • I think that stems from the isolation we’ve developed between one another’s groups of like minds. We surround ourselves with those of similar views which eventually leads to the perception that these are the views of the majority. Then when a dissenting view crops up it triggers a knee-jerk, defensive response in the manner that you described.

  2. My interpretation of the two words is that an argument is defending a view with defiance. Not willing nor wanting to change one’s steadfast opinion. And may reach a point of hostility in some cases. However, a debate is a more interactive open-minded discussion of varying view points. One participating in a debate does not necessarily have to change their opinion or view point, but is willing to open one’s mind to see the opposing opinion from a different angle.

  3. Whether you were being argumentative or obstreperous is certainly debatable.

  4. No problem Martin.

    Yeah, I saw that discussion you were having on your site. I looked through it and it appears I’d have a LOT of catching up to do there to get into the conversation. You two have also delved into a pretty specific area that I don’t think I could offer much. It’s a little deeper than I well of knowledge is for that aspect of the debate.

    I will definitely keep up with your writings and try to jump in next time. Good luck with gaining some ground on there.

    • Thanks for taking a look. You are right, of course, John came to me with some very specific questions. What annoyed me was I was certain that I had answered them, but John just came back with different questions. To me this is classic “troll” behaviour and the complete negation of either argument or debate. Having said all that, by the end of today’s discussion (on today’s post) it seems I have been unfair on him as he says he is now reading James Hansen’s Storms of my Grandchildren (as I suggested).

    • Martin, well you can take that as a positive, he’s reading one of your suggestions. Few people we debate with on the internet are open to such things. I suppose the same could be said for those on the side we’re on too at time. I guess I need to expand my readings on that topic too :-)

  5. I’ve encountered this attitude as well. Recently a rather intelligent young man told me flat out that my rebuttal of ‘facts’ that he had stated was not welcome. The numbers in question were incorrect, wildly exaggerated, and easy to check. He didn’t object to the numbers and sources that I gave him; he objected to being corrected at all. He pointed out that he doesn’t insert himself into discussions among those with an opposing viewpoint, and therefore opponents should not insert themselves into his discussions.

    On another note, thank you for stopping by my blog and liking my post from today. I appreciate it!

    • Wow, that is really astonishing to me. Sounds like you had a more applicable experience as a basis for this post here than I did. Is that where the conversation ended with this person or did you question his reasoning further?

    • I don’t have any context here, but I remember an anecdote told by Dale Carnegie. He was at a dinner party. Seated on one side of him was a world-renowned expert on Shakespeare; on the other side was someone who was, for whatever reason, bloviating on one or another of Shakespeare’s plays. It was pretty clear that he didn’t know what he was talking about.

      While Carnegie got more and more annoyed, the expert calmly ate his dinner. Afterwards, he asked the expert why he didn’t put the ignorant windbag in his place. The expert replied that the gentleman hadn’t asked to be corrected, certainly not in public.

      The moral is that there are times when people do not, in fact, want to be rebutted. More to the point, unless you are in a public debate it is unlikely to accomplish anything unless the other person is interested in being corrected.

  6. This isn’t a direct answer to the questions you asked at the end of the entry, but I have a comment about the words “debate” and “argue”. I’m personally not fond of either, except the latter in the form “to argue that…” or “to argue for…”. Both to me connote a search for justifications to support an opinion already held, as opposed to examining evidence, inferences and perspectives to figure out where you’re wrong. I think the latter is the right way to do it. The former invites confirmation bias. It’s also the wrong way to do science. It’s easy to find evidence that’s consistent with your views, and the mind quickly and silently jumps from “is consistent with” to “proves”. Better to look for evidence that’s inconsistent with your views. The instant you find it, you’re about to learn.

    This is also why I’m not a big fan of debate as an activity for students. I like that it trains them to analyze arguments impartially and respond substantively to points made. But it cultivates a couple of habits that I think are harmful: the habit of first arriving at a conclusion and then looking for justifications, and the habit of seeing exchanges of views as opportunities to win or lose in the eyes of third-party witnesses instead of as opportunities to learn and correct some of one’s own mistakes and blind spots.

  7. Regarding paginavous’s comment, arguing is something one can do with no “opponent,” that is you can try to convince an audience of a certain point. Debate requires two people on opposite sides of an issue. Clarence Darrow honed his oratorical skills in a particular American way: he participate in recreational debates. People would gather in a barn in the evening and a topic would be announced and persons selected to take the sides. Darrow often volunteers and when sometimes when no one could be found to take the unpopular side of a debate, he would switch sides so someone could take the more popular side. The crowd determined who “won” the debate.

    So, if you are defending yourself in traffic court, you are arguing your case, not debating it. A debate is in essense a contest between two “arguers,” as it were. And a debate requires an audience, otherwise all you have is an argument with another.

    • Nice one.

      However, the simplest way of stating what you just said would appear to be this: An argument can be made by one person alone, or had by two or more people; whereas a debate can only happen between two “arguers” and requires an audience to determine who has “won”?

      Let me be clear, if I am right, I could never have got “here” without your help! :-)

  8. Imho, an argument is a debate that turned emotional.

  9. I am a liberal and I believe most people attempt to avoid conflict, so the most aggressive person wins. In the past year I have decided to take on conservatives who lash out at me. This sometimes leads to prolonged online discussions where my intelligence, education, and pedigree are put into question. I usually don’t relent in pressing my point because I have found that if I persist the attacker learns that I don’t put up with online bullying.

    • Ah… a like-minded debater :-) I can’t tell you how much time I’ve wasted in those very same dissertation length online arguments, when I should have been doing something….anything else. But sometimes you just can’t let those ridiculous claims go unchallenged can you?.

  10. I, also, have a scientific background. My natural inclinations have been reinforced by formal education in the areas of logic and critical thinking. I enjoy a good debate with someone who is similarly schooled.

    I don’t believe that a “debate” requires a third-party arbiter; the mental calisthenics alone can benefit both parties. In fact, sometimes questioning someone else’s position without even expressing your own (or holding a different position, for that matter) can be enlightening.

    There are two kinds of people that I absolutely cannot discuss things with: true believers, those for home faith justifies their conclusions irrespective of any objective reality; and foghorns, those for whom repeating their opinions over and over again at the top of their lungs constitutes debate.

  11. Your post becomes more relevant through September, October and November than it was in February. However, its relevance then cannot be denied either.

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