Mutual Engaged Argument Construction (MEAC) is different from any conventional form of debate for the reasons covered here. But how does it work?
The Big Picture
MEAC has a simple, three-component structure. It is made up of Questions, Positions, and Arguments.
Questions clearly define areas of disagreement. Opponents take individual Positions on those Questions, and then provide Arguments to support those Positions. Simple, right? The structure of MEAC comes from the following relationship. Arguments can rely on other (supporting) Positions taken on other (underlying) Questions, which in turn can have their own Arguments.
One focus of MEAC is to keep things clear and in their proper place. Questions should be clear and well-defined, as should Positions. Arguments should be focused on just the Position they support, and nothing else. The methodology, enabled by the software, drives that focus.
MEAC is a top-down approach. Unlike many debate methodologies, opponents must clearly state their Positions before giving Arguments, and that rule applies to all supporting Positions as well. Further, opponents must fully lay out the breadth of their Argument for any Position before diving down into supporting Positions on underlying Questions.
As with any methodology, MEAC has rules to follow. But the rules behind MEAC are not rocket science. A general outline follows, with some details and discussion below. If this seems like a lot to keep track of, keep in mind that the electronic forum for MEAC will facilitate and automate these rules in an intuitive way for the participants. That is, at every step, the software will hold the opponent’s hands, guiding them through the available alternatives in every situation.
- Every engagement must start with mutually-agreed upon, well-defined Question.
- Each participant must take a clear Position on that Question before Arguments are made
- Each participant must provide an Argument for his or her Position with these guidelines
- The Argument should focus solely on the Positions on the current Question AND/OR a response to the opponent’s Argument on this same Question
- The Argument should be complete in breadth
- The Argument should not argue for nor against any other Positions (including supporting Positions on Underlying Questions)
- Underlying Questions should be proposed in any of the following situations
- A participant’s Argument relies on some position or point that requires its own justification or support
- A participant wishes to force their opponent to address a position or point from the participant’s Argument
- A participant feels that dividing the current Question into smaller questions will aid in organizing the debate
- Underlying Questions, when proposed by a participant, should be formed as a well-defined question and include a clear Position statement from that participant
- In any case where a participant proposes a new Underlying Question, the opponent must address it in one of the following ways
- Declare that he or she will not to engage that Question
- Engage by agreeing with the opponent’s Position on that Question
- Engage by stating an opposing Position
- Attempt to negotiate a different framing of the Underlying Question in order to facilitate one of the options above
- Once both participants have published their Arguments and addressed all Underlying Questions, they have the option of finalizing the Question.
- Once the Question has been finalized by a participant, that participant can not make a change to his or her Argument, nor to any Underlying Questions until or unless the opponent makes a change.
- Any change by a participant to his or her Argument or to an Underlying Question removes the opponent’s finalization of the Question.
- Once both participants have finalized the Question, and only then, the opponents can proceed to addressing any Underlying Questions upon which the opponents have taken opposing Positions. This process is the same as it is for the original Question (starting at step 3).
- This process continues until all identified Underlying Questions upon which the opponents have taken opposing Positions have been finalized.
- With the permission of the opponent, a Participant can call in another individual to take his or her place in addressing any given Underlying Question.
Engagement and Focus Built In
Assume for a moment two sincere, honest opponents (we’ll address the others in a minute). Notice that this structure and approach guarantees both engagement and focus at every step of the process. Before any argument is made, the participants must first agree on the question under debate and each declare their positions on that question. That alone would be a great improvement over many so-called debates. Likewise, there’s great value in the requirement to keep every argument focused on the position on the question at hand. This is where some real skill must be developed and practiced. It means that participants must really work to hone their argument down to its essential elements and convey these clearly.
But these benefits aren’t limited to the highest level of the debate, which we often get from conventional debate in the form of carefully prepared opening arguments. It also applies to every underlying question. Before the opponents launch off in different directions, they must first lay out any underlying disagreements in a way that both can live with. And again, they must hone and present a very focused argument on their position on each such underlying question, one by one.
Agreeing to Disagree
Ideally, the participants will discover and engage directly on the key underlying disagreements, so that those can in turn be fully explored. But what if they disagree on whether an underlying question is important? In that case, one participant can lay out that question and the opponent can respectfully pass on engagement. If they wish, they can provide an explanation for this as part of the higher level argument.
But what if the opponents cannot agree at all on the underlying structure of a disagreement? Well, then we would gain a lot – and avoid a lot of wasted time – by identifying that fact as early as possible. And that’s exactly what MEAC does. Imagine a debate on the age of the Earth. One side rests his arguments on scientific knowledge; the other on biblical literalism. That really should be a very short debate as they are unlikely to engage each other’s arguments in any meaningful way. The sooner that’s understood, the better.
You Had Your Chance
One of the most important features of MEAC is that each opponent has a full and equal opportunity to respond to everything the other had to say at every level in the debate. This is a key advantage of the “construction” approach as opposed to dialogue. In a conventional debate, a participant can always say “I wish I had brought up X or Y”. Or “If I only had time, I would have shot down my opponent on Z”.
With MEAC, the audience is not left to wonder whether the best arguments really had a chance. The result of this process at every level of disagreement – two arguments side by side, each certified complete in light of the other – says it all. MEAC takes all the excuses away.
Navigating the Result: The Map
In conventional debate, the product is exactly the same as the process. Both are simply dialogue. The opponents exchange a lot of words, and that exchange – that string of words – is what the audience takes away.
MEAC produces a map of a disagreement that the audience can navigate in whatever way they wish. Is this a debate on a foreign intervention? Maybe I am most interested in the underlying question of ally support. Maybe you are more interested in the underlying question of financial impact, or the intervention’s impact on regional stability. In a complete debate, it’s all there. It’s all laid out in the resulting map. Go down whatever path you want, and at every point you will see two opposing perspectives on each question, each developed in full light of what the other side had to say.
If you read a convincing argument from one side, you don’t have to pore through pages of transcripts and articles, or listen to hours of speeches trying to find the countering argument. It’s right there on the other side of the screen.
If MEAC allows the opponents to keep drilling deeper and deeper down each underlying question in a debate – will they find a natural bottom? Couldn’t this set up an endless chain of related questions and disagreements that couldn’t be realistically explored in full?
As with any forum, it will be up to the participants to decide how far to go down any given path. The difference here is that they make a conscious decision to stop, rather than being forced to stop by the limits of time, space, or sheer complexity. Sure, there may be natural points where the participants agree to disagree. Every underlying battle need not be engaged, and it takes two to tango at each step. But any decision not to explore an area by either or both participants will be clearly spelled out for the audience.
The key is that these decisions, like everything else in this forum, are made deliberately and openly with full accountability. Because MEAC makes these decisions deliberate, the participants are more likely to focus on the most important areas, and less likely to waste time on less important areas. And with MEAC, depth does not become the enemy of breadth. In so many conventional debates, we never even hear the complete arguments on the topmost level, because the dialogue gets stuck down one particular path or another.
Finally, let’s say the participants identify some deep underlying disagreements that one or both decide not to engage. With MEAC, the stage is neatly set for someone else to step up, pick up the banner, and engage on that question.
Not the Weeds. The Foundation.
Because of the sheer complexity of many disagreements, opponents in conventional debate often find themselves far down one branch of an argument or another. You’ll often hear a moderator, or one of the participants pull things back saying, “We’re getting into the weeds here!”
But think about it. If your position rests on three supporting positions, and each of those rests on three supporting positions, then how can you consider those far branches to be weeds? Supporting means supporting. That’s not a weed. That’s a block in the foundation.
And yet, in so many debates we never get to really examine those key foundational blocks of a complex disagreement from either side, let alone both. This is often a boon to those with terrible arguments. Feel vulnerable near the foundation of one branch? Well just shift over to another!
With MEAC, there’s no reason to pull up short of those critical underlying positions – the premises that are often holding up the rest of an argument. No more fear of the weeds as an excuse to ignore the foundation.
No Two Debates are the Same
There are a lot of potential differences between debates. Sometimes the burden of proof is clearly on one side or another. In such a case, one opponent’s argument may consist 100% of rebuttal to the other side. Some arguments are not easily summarized because they involve bringing many ideas together in a complex weave. A debate like that might feature very large written arguments with very few underlying questions.
The reverse might be true. Sometimes you hear arguments like “There are dozens of examples of the failure of policy X!” Okay, the opponent might say – lay out as many as you like in the form of supporting questions, and we’ll address them one by one. “Does example A demonstrate the failure of policy X?” And so on.
Sometimes there are multiple lines of argument for the same position, all of which a debater might find compelling. No problem. As long as the opponent goes along, then you can create an underlying question for each. “Does the X argument prove my position?”. Yes! “Does the Y argument prove my position?” Yes! And so on.
All of these variations map well into the MEAC structure, and MEAC brings all of its benefits in every case.
Cooperation, Gamesmanship, and the Audit Trail
MEAC relies on cooperation. But that’s true of any debate format. All debates begin with the agreement to debate, usually with a clear understanding of the format and rules. But MEAC requires cooperation at multiple levels – particularly on the definition of the overall question under debate, but also on the definition of key underlying questions.
For honest, sincere opponents, this does not pose a problem, but rather creates an opportunity to explore and structure their disagreement in a productive way. But what about dishonest or insincere participants? Couldn’t a participant gum up the works by constantly making meaningless revisions? Couldn’t they refuse to address reasonable underlying questions or continuously request different framing of a question as a way to dodge and evade?
They could. But that is where the audit trail comes into play. Because this methodology is implemented with technology that enables and supports the workflow, there is a complete audit trail of every activity taken by each participant. It is true that the audience generally need not follow every step of that process – they can just view the finished map of the arguments. However, the option is always there to review the history of participant interaction during the construction. So if things get bogged down, this will tell the story of when, where, and why that occurs. There is full accountability.
Maybe the ultimate question to ask about a dishonest or insincere participant is why they would step into this forum in the first place. That question makes us smile. Imagine if we can create a forum that is so effective at exposing bad arguments that those espousing those arguments refuse to participate. Imagine a forum that’s considered the ultimate fair battleground of opposing ideas, with complete accountability, where refusal to step in is the equivalent of surrender. Sounds like success to us.
Extensions of MEAC
We’ve covered the basics of MEAC from the perspective of a one-on-one debate of opposing views. But this structure could be useful in other applications, including testing one’s arguments against the scrutiny of others. One might use a version of this format for breaking down and elucidating an argument from top to bottom, and then inviting critique on the entire structure from third parties.
We’ve broken down a head-to-head debate format, but there are plenty of questions for which there are more than two possible positions. And different people or groups may find themselves sharing a position, but providing very different arguments. One can envision a forum where many-to-many debates can take place using an extension of this format.
Additionally, it is easy to envision extensions that provide for public feedback on opposing arguments at all levels. Support of third party moderation and/or judging could also be included.
These are all exciting ideas that can be explored. But for now, our first priority is to get this classic head-to-head forum developed and proven out. And that brings us to the Next Steps.