Mashed Potato Bulletin

A journal grappling with the mish-mash of American politics

Brian Carter

Brian Carter
Northern, California, USA
October 23
My professional and academic background is fairly broad including a Bachelor's in Cultural Anthropology, a Master's in Environmental Science along with a hefty injection of world history in the mix. Professionally, my experience is in public health and environmental health where I have been lucky enough to work with people from varied backgrounds and cultures. I started the Mashed Potato Bulletin to explore answers to questions not being asked and to insert, hopefully, a broader perspective into the current conversation. -----------------------------------


FEBRUARY 2, 2012 4:46PM

Argument vs. Debate: Can we tell the difference anymore?

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    “I just see no profit in continuing a discussion with someone who simply wants to argue.” This was the final comment made during a discussion I had online recently. It all began with a blog post I happened upon criticizing the President's decision to deny the Keystone Pipeline permit claiming it was another example of policies meant to ruin the economy and deny Americans access to energy. Despite a couple of initial comments referring to my “kool-aid drinking” the back and forth progressed in a fairly civil manner.

    In retrospect, I should have not wasted so much time on the discussion but there was little else to distract my attention that particular day. Overall, the discussion was unremarkable, just people of differing opinions countering one anothers' supported and unsupported claims but what stood out was that final comment from the blog owner. Was all this an argument? I saw it as a debate, not as an argument, not the negative connotation commonly attached to the word. It prompted me to sit back and wonder...have we lost the ability to distinguish between meaningless arguing and substantive debate? Has it become popularly credible to characterize the expression of opposing viewpoints as arguing?

     This harkens back to a previous posting of mine, “Does Perry’s Debate Regret Speak to a Broader Political Trend?” where I speculated on a recent trend in which politicians were avoiding situations where their claims may be questioned, where their policy ideas would be subjected to tests of validity. Is this what I encountered in this instance? Is venturing onto another's blog to debate the validity of their claims a taboo? Thinking back on the exchanges with the blog's owner it felt as if there was an air of indignance. Was this an intrusion upon a hermitage meant only for select members of a particular group which curiously enough was open to all wanderers traversing the internet?

      In a formal sense, argument is generally described as a presentation of a well-developed line of evidence in support of a particular position or claim as part of a debate. Informally, an argument tends to simply assert a position or point of view with a varied level of support included, if any. Over the last dozen years the latter has evolved, through popular media outlets, into a method to instigate confrontation between those of hardened opinions from the extreme edges of the ideological spectrum.

     Now coming from a scientific background with an ingrained compulsion to support whatever I claim, I use the terms debate and argument fairly interchangeably with a definition that leans closer to the formal rather than the informal description, in spirit at least. This illustrates a personal view of debate on the internet in which one supports their claims or opinions through credible sources refraining from personal attacks. This is not to say I have never been caught up in heated exchanges that punctured the personal attack barrier from time to time. These instances, however, are rarely productive and I have learned to temper my impulsiveness for the most part.

     Given the latter description of argument, how it has come to be a staple of cable news outlets, has this confounded the average individual's understanding of what constitutes a debate or an argument? Is debate now perceived by the general public as something they witness on The O'Reilly Factor or the recent Republican presidential primary debates where emotional rhetoric geared toward a like-minded audience is the norm rather than substantive policy discussion? Has this spread into the ever-growing world of internet, political blogging where tolerance is sparse and challenges from those outside one's group consciousness is now viewed as a trespassing offense?

    I realize I have asked more questions than offered solutions but I found as I wrote this piece I wanted to engage the minds of the readers. Am I alone in this? What have you perceived? Have others had similar experiences? Is this indeed a trend anyone else has observed? What are the culprits? How did it evolve? There's a plenitude here to debate, abundant arguments to make. We have but one overriding rule civil.

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I actually prefer “discussion” to either “argument” or “debate.”

Seems to me that most of the on-line discussions are not as fact oriented, as you seem to prefer, Brian. Mostly, the discussions are exchanges of opinions…some well-founded (like mine) and some not so well-founded (like everyone else’s)…but still just opinions. (The parentheticals were just joking!)

To think of them as debates is like thinking those exercises in which the Republican candidates have been engaged, are debates.

Most discussions contain plenty of arguments (in the non-pejorative sense), but once again, the “arguments” are more opinion-oriented than fact-documented information.

Sure, facts enter the picture—but mostly in a way “real locations” enter a book of fiction.

That opening remark, “ “I just see no profit in continuing a discussion with someone who simply wants to argue” seems to me to be less a condemnation of the discussion ensuing as it does a “we are going nowhere with this so I want out” kind of thing.

In many cases, I wish more of this would happen more often. Discussions on the Internet tend to go on way past a reasonable point when occurring between people (or just one person) too deeply entrenched to ever move. Better to just call and end.
Frank, very true many of the line discussions are well below the level of formal debate. When I do take part in them I push for the other person(s) to provide some references for their side of things. But even with that, like you said, do go well beyond a reasonable point. Sometimes it does end up reaching dissertation length postings that neither party reads thoroughly. Self-defeating actually.

I see what you're saying about the opening remark. I may well have misunderstood the meaning there. But I still think it spurred an interesting topic of discussion even if it turns out only to be with myself. :-)

Thank you for the comments.
I post at another forum...more a "give and take" rather than a personal blog site.

Several of the discussions there have descended into a "did so" "did not" schoolyard twangy thing that annoys the hell out me.

It would be nice if discussions could just flow...with some facts; some opinions; some disagreements...but mostly with healthy respect for the value of discussing differences in a complex society such as ours. I'd like to see that same thing in our political process also.

But I am not holding my breath!
"I like to argue."


I think that a loss of the middle is a real threat to our democracy. I have become an Independent, as so many are. I am tired of simple-minded, self -righteous answers to difficult, complex problems.
Kathy, very good point. We have lost that middle ground. It seems everything branches out from the extremes.