There are two fundamental and closely related differences between Mutual Engaged Argument Construction (MEAC) and all conventional forms of debate. The first is that MEAC is not a dialogue-based methodology. The second is that MEAC supports the natural, non-linear structure of arguments.
Construction, Not Dialogue
All conventional forms of debate are forms of dialogue. Whether formal or informal, spoken or written, moderated or not, and whatever the forum, all debate as we know it comes down to this: the participants taking turns talking (or writing).
Various rules and forums try to impose structure on that dialogue, such as formal “argument” vs. “rebuttal” rounds and so forth. But outside of formal competitive debate settings, such structures are rarely honored. Generally, one person or team waits while the other makes some statements, and when it is their turn, they do the same. In many forums, interruption is allowed or even required in order to get your turn, and in the worst forums the opponents may talk over each other. But it’s all just dialogue.
However, dialogue is incredibly limited as a way to explore complex issues, simply due to that complexity. Each time a participant has the floor, he must make trade-offs in how the available time is used. Does he present a new argument, reinforce an argument already made, or respond to an argument or attack made by his opponent? Does he sacrifice the full breadth of his argument in order to dive deeply down one path of supporting evidence? Or vice-versa?
Dialogue vs. Mutual Revision
Many years ago, I first came across a debate format that I’ve since seen many times in many publications. The format consists of a split page, with a topic across the top and two opposing arguments side by side beneath. Beneath those arguments was often another set of texts, labelled “Replies”, in which each participant wrote a response to what the other side had written above. In one publication, they would continue this format over several issues, so that there were multiple opportunities to continue responding to responses, etc.
This is a twist on conventional debate dialogue, but it is still dialogue. Rather than taking turns, each participant made their initial arguments independently. Then each read what the other had written, and independently wrote their response. And so on.
More often than not, I found myself as frustrated with the result of these formats as I was with other forms of debate. Many points raised by one side were never addressed by the other, and the longer they went on it became harder and harder to follow the many logical threads that inevitably developed as replies built upon replies. And often, a logical misstep or mistake in one of the original arguments would lead to a completely pointless rabbit trail in the replies, leading far away from the main ideas. From that frustration came the germ of MEAC.
I thought, why not do the following? Begin the same way – with each participant writing a complete argument on the subject independently. But don’t publish those. Instead, have the participants “switch papers”, read each other’s work, and then revise their own work in any way they see fit so that it addresses points made by the other. Now publish? No, not yet. Switch papers again, and each read what the opponent’s argument says now. Does it introduce new things that you wish to respond to? Does it misinterpret an aspect of your argument that you’d like to clarify? Does it leap on some simple mistake you made that you’d like to correct? No problem, just revise your work again to fix, respond, or clarify as needed. Your opponent will do the same. Now switch papers again…
It seemed to me that this process would logically find a natural end. At some point, each participant would read the argument of the other and be able to say “I am perfectly happy with my argument in full light of what my opponent’s argument currently says”. That’s when you publish. Spare the audience all the back and forth, I thought. We don’t need to follow your dialogue down dozens of rabbit trails as each participant adjusts their arguments in response to their opponent. Work it all out, and then let us read the result: two complete arguments, each written in light of the other. Side by side.
Could this system be gamed? Of course it could, I thought. But as long as the various rounds were tracked and archived for public view, any gamesmanship would be plain to everyone.
That concept – mutual argument revision until both parties are satisfied – is the first key difference between MEAC and all conventional, dialogue-based debate. The second difference, dealing with structure, makes it workable for complex arguments.
The Structure of Arguments
A key limitation of dialogue is that it is inherently linear. A dialogue runs from beginning to end, from opening statements to closing statements. It’s a straight line. But disagreements on complex topics are non-linear. They are usually based on multiple underlying disagreements. And those underlying disagreements are often based on further underlying disagreements, and so on. Imagine a complex disagreement as a large museum, with many areas of disagreement to be explored. Imagine the major underlying disagreements as large areas within that museum, and the further supporting disagreements as rooms within those areas.
A full exploration of the overall disagreement – the entire museum – would require a methodical tour through every room. In order to make an informed decision on the whole, you would first want to come to an informed decision on the major underlying controversies – each major area. But in order to do that for any given area, you would need to methodically visit each room in that area and fully evaluate the opposing arguments in each one.
With that image in mind, now consider any conventional debate format. The linearity of dialogue means that you have to follow the debaters wherever they wish to take you. Debater one goes first. He takes you to Room 1 and Room 2, both in Area A. There are more rooms in Area A, he tells you, but in the interest of time, he runs you over to Area C, Rooms 12, 13, and 14 and concludes with a quick tour through Rooms 45-49 in Area F. “Shoot, there’s so much more to this museum,” he says, “but my time is up.” Note that in each room you visited, he only gave his own argument. If he mentioned his opponent’s argument at all, it was described in his own terms. So in each room, you probably asked yourself, “What would his opponent say about that?”
Well now it’s the opponent’s turn. You can’t wait to hear what she has to say. She starts, as her opponent did, by taking you back to Room 1 of Area A and provides her perspective. That’s helpful. But then she pulls you to Room 8 in Area A, and continues through 9 and 10. Hmm, her opponent hadn’t taken you here at all. Maybe on his next turn. Now she races you over to Area C, but she only takes you to Room 14 for a brief moment – contradicting her opponent – before jumping over to Area D, which you didn’t even know existed, and spends the rest of her time showing you around there. Again, everywhere she took you, you were only shown her side of the rooms. Frustrating.
Oh well. Times up for her. Now her opponent takes over the tour again. Where are you going now? Will he keep you here in Area D to rebut his opponent’s arguments, or are you off again to Area A, to get his response to her earlier rebuttals? You know that there are other rooms and maybe whole areas that you haven’t even heard about yet. That controversy in room 46 seemed awfully important. What are the odds that you ever get to go back there?
As the debate goes on, the tour becomes more an more disjointed. You are jerked from a room in one area across to another area all together, and then back again. Rarely do you get to see more than one side of any room, and you quickly lose track of where you are and where you’ve been. In fact, without a map (and in conventional debate, there is no map), you would be hard-pressed to name the major areas you visited, much less do you have a good understanding of both arguments from every room.
A worthwhile debate, by conventional standards, is one where the participants gave an entertaining tour, or showed you some arguments and ideas that you hadn’t thought about before. And that can be fantastic. But the limitations of linear dialogue will prevent you from achieving a good understanding of both arguments, including a full response from each to the arguments made by the other. And the more complex the disagreement, the worse it gets.
So the structure of a disagreement is like that museum – only often the structure is more complicated, involving many more levels. Disagreements are roughly hierarchical in structure, and taking turns talking is a lousy way to explore that territory.
And that’s the other key difference between MEAC and conventional debate forums. MEAC is designed to support the natural structure of complex disagreements. Dialogue results in just that – a dialogue. But MEAC results in a full mapping of the territory underlying a disagreement.
The audience is able to follow that map through the logical structure of a disagreement and, because of the mutual revision technique described above, they are able to – at each stop – read the arguments from each side, each developed in full light of the opponent’s argument.
MEAC results in a complete picture of the arguments behind any disagreement of any complexity. Let’s see how it works.