Bo Seo, a two-time world debate champion, watched the 2016 presidential debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and was disappointed by the unedifying spectacle that the debates had become.
Seo saw the potential for the debate format to be exploited and degraded, and he believes that the capacity to disagree well — or poorly — is within all of us.
Seo identified four common types of bad arguers: the dodger, who changes the topic; the twister, who misrepresents the point being made; the wrangler, who is never satisfied and never offers an alternative; and the liar, who makes false or misleading statements. To Seo, these negative impulses must be managed in order to guide arguments toward being more productive and positive.
DONALD TRUMP: See, you're telling the enemy everything you wanna do. No wonder you've been fighting.
BO SEO: I watched the 2016 presidential election debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Several months after, what was then my greatest triumph in the world of debate, which was winning the World University's Debate Championships. The thing that struck me most about those debates is how quickly a stage set up with rule, with moderators, with the values of a community that had decided to make debates a part of the democratic process, how quickly that could be turned into a kind of a brawl, where the only thing that mattered was the display and the spectacle of dominance over the other side, where embarrassment was the currency. Those darker impulses that feed into bad disagreements are not only within the activity of debate, but they're within all of us, that just the way that we have the capacity to disagree well, we also have the capacity to disagree badly. Having seen how the debate format can be broken down, can be hijacked by bad faith debaters, a resolve to list the common tactics that are used by bad faith arguers, and the four common personas I came up with were first the dodger, the twister, the wrangler, and fourth, the liar.
So the dodger wins by essentially changing the topic. So you might say something like we need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels because climate change is getting out of hand. Then they might say on the topic of climate change, why do you drive a four wheel drive? It is a kind of a response on the same topic, but not to the point that you had raised. And so the response to the dodger is to stay the course and to keep bringing the discussion back to the original point and highlighting that they are trying to change what the disagreement is about.
The second kind of persona is the twister, and the twister's signature move is to misrepresent the point that you'll making. If you say I'm opposed to increasing taxes, the twister might say does that mean you have no concern for social security? It's not the argument you are raising, it's the one they're thrusting on you. To respond to the twister, it's imperative to correct the record and say no, that's not what I'm saying. You can often get into a position of arguing for something you don't believe, or at least the conversation's splitting and you not being able to connect and talk about the same issue.
The third kind of bad arguer is called the Wrangler. And this is the person for whom nothing is ever good enough. They're very good at coming up with critiques against just about everything that you're saying, but they never offer an alternative of their own. And so the appropriate response to the wrangler is to say well, what do you believe? In other words, to pin them to a position so that they too have to argue in favor of something rather than always saying no.
The fourth personality and someone we see just about everywhere is the liar. They usually don't tell one lie, they tell many. The strategy against a liar is to choose one or two representative lies that you think best exemplifies the approach that the liar is taking in a disagreement. Then debaters do something called plug and replace. You replace the lie with a truth, and so by plugging in the lie and then replacing it with the truth, you can demonstrate the ways in which the lie falls short and try and explain how that symptomatic of a broader approach that the liar is taking to the debate.
One thing that knowledge and mastery of this kind of defense against the dark hearts allows us to do is to challenge the bullies in our lives. Some of that is a necessity because they're there, and they often bring the fight to us, but it's also an important thing to engage bad faith actors as early as we can, and in many instances as often as we can because the power of bullies increases without challenge. Even at a time when we might feel hopeless faced with a bully or a bad faith debater, we need to have tools so that we're able to respond, but we also have strategies available to us to reset the kind of conversation we want to have.