That limitation is this: It is terribly unlikely that the people who would engage in these sorts of political debates would ever dream of changing their opinions or political leanings. While participants in debates may find the opposing argument more compelling than they originally had, what ultimately happens is that people’s views tend to become stronger or are unchanged by the argument. Even though political discussions cause each participant to think critically about his or her beliefs and convictions, in the end each side will leave the debate and almost invariably return to the camp of political thought from which he or she had entered the debate. The additional political consideration brought out in debates definitely has intrinsic value, but come election time, everyone will vote how they were originally going to vote, and there’s nothing that could have been said in their discussion that could have changed that.
Even in the case of a debate in which one party clearly displays objective superior reasoning, very few debaters’ minds or votes are going to be changed by any sort of discourse alone. This, to me, is rather alarming. The democratic system that we have in place assumes that the best ideas will rise to the top through discourse and debate and will be accepted by a majority. This system assumes that as reasonable beings, we will occasionally change our minds, but this is seldom the case.
The reasons why people seem to be so stubborn are numerous. Many political ideals may be a product of the familial or geographical background that people carry with them. Once we acquire our political opinions, we strengthen them by discussing them with others. When we talk to people who agree with us, our opinions are validated by the fact that others share our beliefs. And when we debate against those who do not share our opinions, we actively reinforce our beliefs by arguing for them. Arguing in favor of something leads us to believe in that something more, and knowing that we were willing to argue for it lets us know that it is something in which we truly believe. After enough exposure to and discussion of an idea, it becomes pretty entrenched into our political belief set and there is almost nothing that can convince us of the opposite.
Just because political discourse probably won’t be changing any debaters’ minds does not mean that it is all in vain. The political value of debates lies largely in their power to influence those who are not participating in them, since those directly involved in the argument have more often than not already made up their mind on whom they are voting for long ago. In other words, debates are probably most practically beneficial to those who witness them. It gives casual viewers an effective way to see both sides of an argument and something more: insight into how each side responds to the arguments of the opposition. It is one thing to go online and look at a checklist of ideas and decide where your beliefs fall. It is another thing entirely to listen to two people respond intelligently to the claims that the opposite side makes. This second method of gaining political knowledge seems to me to be the better one, as you get a sense for not just the beliefs, but the reasoning behind the beliefs as well.
What I’m describing here is basically a miniature version of the presidential debates that we can all watch on television. President Obama is not trying to convince Gov. Mitt Romney to change his views on domestic affairs in the United States; he’s trying to sufficiently argue against him so that the undecided voters out there will see the value in his beliefs and vote for those beliefs by voting for him. The same, more or less, can go for debates that happen in a venue like the Rockefeller dining hall.
So to those politically-minded people out there, please follow Langford’s advice and take advantage of the political environment that Princeton offers by engaging in meaningful political discourse. And to those who are not so politically inclined, do not take the easy way out by shying away from political discussion. Join in, or even just listen. You might find that you have some political views after all. And better yet, you might even learn a thing or two.
Richard Daker is a sophomore from Evergreen Park, Ill. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/10/05/31393/