Level Playing Field

Lois Shawver (rathbone@crl.com)
Sat, 23 Mar 1996 11:03:52 -0800 (PST)

I, too, am enthusiastic about using the Internet medium to facilitate
knowledgeable discussions of a sort that have never been possible before,
but I think the format of a debate will not be effective. In a debate, it
is too easy to dance through complex formulations that lead to
unsubstantiated conclusions without the logic, or illogic, being apparent.
People reading along may well be entertained by this, but I think they
are not likely to follow the nuances of the theoretical disagreement. The
"winner" might well be the person with either the most charm, or the
biggest arsenal of clever comebacks and jokes. If we want to understand
the underlying issues, I think something besides debate is needed, at
least in the medium of an electronic list such as this one.

Although the alternatives to a debate are not entirely clear to me, I
think they would include cultivation of a more reflective environment for
theoretical discussion than debate format allows.

In my queries of Bill, I was trying my hand at doing this, but I noted
certain insufficiencies in my "technique" that I am not sure how to solve.

My hope was that Bill could present his theory if someone would ask him a
well designed set of qusetions that would prompt explanation without
requiring him to create a complex and formal presentation of his ideas. I
thought this was likely to work best if I omitted my own personal
reactions to the ideas he presented. Bringing in my own personal
opinions, I reasoned, would sidetrack things and prevent him from making
the most coherent presentation possible. If I brought in my own ideas, I
thought, the discussion could become a competition of theories. I did
intend to have "mini-challeges" of Bill's in which I presented reasons for
doubting his points, but I wanted to always accept his replies. Or, if I
challenged again, I wanted my challenges to stop soon enough and never
turn into an argument that countered his reasoning in a continuing debate.

I'm not sure how satisfying Bill or others found this. I certainly did not
really know, very well, what I was doing. I was just trying to figure out
what he was saying by, as much as possible, putting my own ego and
theoretical inclinations aside and helping him get his theory out. Part of
the limitations in my approach consisted in my own difficulty in finding
the right questions, of course. It may have been too biased towards my
own interests and left most people bored. I'm not sure how an interviewer
of the theoretician could avoid that. But the dialogue did evoke my own
curiosity, and I would like to continue our dialogue. I'm not sure why
he stopped responding to my notes. (Bill?)

Another problem was that Bill seemed to want something more from me. I
was suspending my disbelief and trying to put myself in good faith into
his ideas, but he wanted something from me, in addition, that I did not
give him. I'm not sure what. (Bill? Maybe you could address this.)
Perhaps he wanted a debate. Still, I think a debate with me would not
have served his purposes of getting out his theories. I just really did
not understand his points enough to debate them. Maybe he wanted my
assent. But I felt that it was premature for me to address his points
with assent or disagreement, too. His response to me suggests he thought
so, too, at least after he heard my effort to respond to his request for
more clarification on my agreement or disagreement with him.

And, so, I think Bill needed something from me that I did not give him and
that I did not know how to give without antagonizing him with premature
conclusions or diverting his project. Does anyone have suggestions here?

But to return to the original point of this post. I want to take the
position that a debate, while it may be somewhat entertaining, will not be
useful in this context for most of us in helping us to understand the
nuances of the issues. Remember, these are two intelligent thinkers who
disagree themselves about these topics. The chances are that one of them,
or both of them, really does not understand the other.

And so I argue that the issues will require more subtlety in our
reflection than is likely to occur in a debate format and I hope to
engage some of you in a discussion of how to create a better medium for
dialogue here.

..Lois Shawver