Truth springs from argument amongst friends.
—David Hume, 18th C. Scottish empiricist and philosopher
We live in a deeply divided moment where people disagree on very important topics.
We also live at a time when the consequences for expressing a “wrong” opinion, or at least an unpopular one, can be high—social shaming, online bullying, job loss, academic punishment, and more.
These two problems leave us in a uniquely frustrating position: we have many differences that should not and cannot be ignored, and yet we are limited in where, how, and whether we can discuss them. Furthermore, many people, especially those in high school and college, are still forming their beliefs on certain issues, and it is difficult to be secure in your viewpoint on a particular topic if you haven’t heard all the counter arguments to your position!
Such suppression of the learning process is at odds with the goal of an informed, truly educated democratic population.
One group, called Better Angels, is especially attuned to this problem and is doing something about it. They created Better Angels Debates to give people, especially those in high school and college, an opportunity defend publically what they believe—but doing so with the understanding that they are still forming their opinions and don’t quite have everything figured out yet.
At a recent Better Angels Debate at American University, twenty-five students RSVP’d—and over eighty showed up. The topic of the debate: Is health care a human right? (A video showing highlights of the event can be found here). The over-subscription to the event is not uncommon and is indicative of the deep need and desire for such venues of free thought and discussion among both Millennials and Gen Z-ers.
Prior to the debate at American University, the organizers of Better Angels Debates had been warned of a particularly active student group who was known for interrupting organized events—especially ones discussing controversial topics. As expected, the group showed up to the debate. The organizers decided that the best approach was to invite them to participate—and to everyone’s surprise, they did.
As there is growing concern about the constrictive nature of speech and diversity of opinion on college campuses, this example is encouraging because it shows that debate about important topics is something that people actually want.
When most people hear a debate advertised, they think they’re going to watch two people of opposing views debate. But that is not the style of Better Angels Debates. Instead, everyone can be a participant—if they want to be. “I was not expecting to speak myself,” and “I was not expecting to learn so much” are common refrains from participants after Better Angels Debates.
Better Angels Debates are especially ideal for those just starting to take an interest in politics, or those that have an interest but would like an opportunity to try out different ideas or policy positions for size. It’s for people who may not have their views fully formed, and who desire an opportunity to discover different ideas through conversation—in a non-judgemental, non-competitive environment. The aim is to offer students a formative experience by inviting them to be uncertain, to learn by bouncing ideas off one another, and to grow through dialogue.
Though Better Angels Debates is still in its pilot phase, they have already hosted over twenty-five debates at high schools and on college campuses across the country. (You can find out about hosting one for your own institution here.) The good news is that Better Angels Debates are on the rise, and even The College Board—which administers the SAT exam and has relationships with virtually every high school and college in America—are working on a pilot program for the fall. This could make it easier for campuses across the country to host similar debates of their own.
Better Angels Debates are modeled on the Yale Political Union—which is in turn modeled on similar Unions at Oxford and Cambridge—and they show that it is possible to pursue truth on a difficult question and build relationships while doing it.
There is an intense desire for this kind of rigorous conversation, and a need for environments for students to think and speak freely in community. Better Angels Debates foster a collective search for truth, as opposed to the grinding of ideological axes that we so often see.
In our deeply divided moment, it is these types of initiatives that our country needs most.