Ready for Battle? Combative Dialogue and Political Truth

Each Wednesday, IN A DIFFERENT LIGHT features analysis of a news story from the week.

Getting ready for a debate tournament in high school felt a little like getting dressed for battle. My outfits were designed to intimidate, I carried a legal pad and pages upon pages of highlighted evidence (both PRO and CON), and when I walked down the hallways of unfamiliar tile and blue or green lockers, I readied myself for attack.

That is a part of the purpose of a debate, after all: we take opposing sides, attempt to demonstrate how the points in favor of or against a particular measure are superior, in logic and evidence. We stand on opposing sides of a desk or a room, asking critical questions. I remember vividly the first time I lost my temper at an argument over the 2008 economic recovery act. I hadn’t really cared before the debate whether we believed that tax incentives for small business had proven rates of effectiveness, but when the boy in the skinny red tie stood up and said just that, I was livid. Attack would have been a better word for my speech than “rebuttal.”

So when I noticed in The New York Times a day or so ago that language around the newly released immigration bill sounded just like debate – attack, offense, defense – it got me thinking about the promise and peril of combative dialogue for real political progress.

The Times writes that, “Republican opponents of legislation to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws are readying an offensive intended to hijack the newly released bill as the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday begins a review that will offer the clearest sign yet of how difficult a path the legislation faces.” A few sentences later, it says, “Anticipating an onslaught, Democrats are preparing a robust defense in an effort to keep the legislation largely intact.”

And it isn’t just the New York Times. The Wall Street Journal’s article on the immigration bill was titled, “Migrant Overhaul Faces Its First Test,” The Washington Post had an article called, “On immigration legislation, fissures emerge within conservative ranks,” and perhaps the most blunt, Reuters simply said, “Battle over immigration bill starts in Congress.”

These titles are eye-catching, not only because they offer a passerby a taste of potential conflict and tension – hallmarks of good stories – but also because they characterize much of the way we conceive of political conversation in the United States. We arrive, pens and legal pads poised to strike, our opinions on immigration (perhaps even this 2013 bill) intact. We take a combative stance – blue against red, the coasts against the middle of the country, border states against non-border states.

In Congress, battles are waged in committee rooms, across the desk of the party leaders, and only towards the very end, on the House or Senate floor. And they feel like battles – someone will emerge, bloody but triumphant, having either won the vote or killed it. Republicans might hijack the newly released bill; Democrats might have a defense robust enough to hold.

In a first-past-the-post system of election, where winners take all, it is hard to conceive of a different kind of conversation. The sides are drawn in how we choose leaders – someone wins, and someone loses, and the winner wins completely. This encourages us to think along more hard-and-fast lines, with positions that leave little room for compromise or nuance. In our very vocabulary we have taught ourselves that each attempt by party A to advance a particular agenda must be met, not with mere critique, but with a full swath of offensive and defensive tactics by party B. And with only two parties, winners and losers are easier to see.

I believe in the power of debate to advance the truth. I think dialogue in which vehemently opposing points of view are aired can be some of our most productive. But when does our vocabulary shift us from thinking about advancing the truth to thinking only about who wins, and who loses? Have we lost our idea about amendments as genuine compromises when we think about them merely as tactics designed to lessen a bill’s effectiveness – a strategy to win, not an expression of the truth?

There is an entire post that can be written about proportional representation as an alternative electoral system, one that I believe might change our way of thinking about legislating and governing. If our vocabulary is always combative, if we think in terms of the red versus blue, winners trampling on losers, I wonder what kind of progress we can make. Certainly some of that debate can reveal flaws and virtues in a variety of positions; but it cannot move us that last step to integrating our positions in the direction of the truth. It cannot bring us past a victory lap for Republicans or Democrats towards the deepest kind of justice we desire.

 -Hilary Sherratt is a recent graduate from Gordon College, where she majored in Religion, Ethics and Politics. She is currently working as a grant writer at Gordon, and loves all kinds of writing. She hopes to eventually get her PhD in theology or history. She blogs about everyday life at and tweets at @hilarysherratt