Debate and Switch
About 85 million Americans watched the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on TV on September 26. That’s 38.5 percent of the U.S. population, probably pretty close to half of all the adults in the country, and that doesn’t include all the people who streamed it online. I’m betting even more people will tune in for the next one this Sunday night. Some of you may think that’s a great statement about how engaged we Americans are with our political process, but I think mostly what it says is that people like a good fight or what’s become the latest version of reality TV. Call me cynical.
Before I go on, let me assure my partners that I’m not going to discuss politics in today’s column (I can hear the sigh of relief). But I am going to talk about debating, which used to be an honorable exercise in civil discourse – civil being the operative word here. From Plato to Christopher Hitchens, healthy debate has been a time-honored form of persuasion, enlightenment and engagement (the old-fashioned, non-internet kind). To say that our political leaders have debased the art of debate would be letting them off too easy.
Desmond Tutu once said, “Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument.” Are you listening out there?
“In all debates, let truth be thy aim, not victory, or an unjust interest.” That one comes from William Penn. He must have foreseen, back in the 18th century, what we would be dealing with in the 2016 presidential campaign.
The world has a rich history of debate, but these days the only places we seem to see it is in the highest chambers of government and high school auditoriums. Don’t you think we could fill in that gap? Why can’t we have a real public debate between, say, Chevy and Ford? (No mail, please. I’m just using them as examples). Wouldn’t it make us better consumers to hear them go point for point on what makes their own brand better than the other guy’s?
Or what about a public debate between coal and the green energy industry? It wouldn’t need to be truth v. untruth; I’m not talking about theater (see: 2016 presidential debate). I’m talking about having top scientists from both sides of the issue persuade us, the American public, about the plusses and minuses, so we can hear it straight from the source and be able to make informed decisions.
Of course, there would have to be a “Geneva Convention” to keep the debate clean and even-keeled. OK, maybe not in our lifetime. But there is definitely something to be said for passionate, fact-based argument and the opportunity to hear from both sides at the same time.
Good debate is about more than just a good topic. It’s also about being able to communicate effectively, to make your case, rebut the opposition and think on your feet. It’s about the powers of persuasion and respect for your opponent. These are all real-world skills that are sorely needed in the business environment. Healthy, informed debate in the workplace makes for better products and services. That’s why Debate Club and Model Congress are some of the best programs high school and college students can take. It’s great preparation for success in the business world.
Maybe we should send our presidential candidates (not to mention our Congressional leaders) back to school for a refresher course. It might be too late for this weekend, but there are still another couple of weeks to go before the final one.
I have two postscripts this week. First, Hurricane Matthew is bearing down on the South Florida coast as I write this column. Our Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Orlando offices are in Matthew’s path, where there are mandatory evacuation orders in place as this category 4 storm bears down on them, as well as the entire East Coast of the United States, from South Florida through the Carolina’s. In addition, many of us from the Northeast, including yours truly, have friends and relatives (my mother) who live in the hurricane’s path. To all of you who will be affected over the next several days (and weeks) by this destructive force of nature, our thoughts and prayers are with you for your safety and well-being.
Secondly, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, was last Sunday night through Tuesday, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, perhaps the holiest day of the year on the Jewish calendar, starts this Tuesday night. To those of you who observe, from my family to yours, may we wish you a healthy and happy New Year and may you have an easy fast.