It’s not debatable: we do change our minds
William James, American psychologist and philosopher, once observed that much of what we mistake for ‘thinking’ is simply a matter of “rearranging our prejudices”.
It’s not a very flattering picture - fortunately however, the experience of hosting the IQ2 Australia debates suggests that William James was unduly pessimistic. In the most recent IQ2 debate focusing on the ever decisive issue of religion and the arguments of atheism, it was heartening to see the level of debate amongst both participants and audience members reach unbelievably high levels – both intellectually and numerically.
Interestingly, despite being an issue fundamental to the existence of many of us, a large number of the audience who entered the debate undecided on the issue found themselves identifying with one of the sides by the time the final poll was taken. The event gives credence to the theory that if you persuade rather than harangue, then people will freely change their minds.
The IQ2 debates began life in London when their founder, John Gordon, had the inspired vision to translate the Cambridge and Oxford Unions’ style of debating matters of public interest into a civic setting. The idea caught on, was replicated in New York and then came to Sydney and Melbourne as a project of St James Ethics Centre.
In implementing the concept in Australia, the man who seeded the idea here, John Rothnie-Jones and I hoped to draw on our personal experiences of debating in the Cambridge Union.
Each speaker speaks in relative independence from each other, and these debates emphasise rhetoric, not personal attack. Most importantly they also allocate adequate time for a ‘floor debate’; with audience members delivering their own mini-speeches for or against the proposition. But would there be an audience?
It was with considerable trepidation that we launched our first season with the (admittedly controversial) topic: “Islam is incompatible with democracy?” We had managed to secure the services of a Gold Walkley Award winner as producer, Deb Richards. In turn, she had secured some exciting speakers ... so, we were hopeful of making a respectable start with (perhaps) four or five hundred people in the audience. As it happened, the first debate was sold out – with around 1200 people packing into the Sydney’s City Recital Hall at Angel Place.
Waleed Aly, one of the inaugural speakers, was stunned by the size of the audience (as were we all). He asked me why it might be that such a large crowd had turned up for the debate. It was while framing my response to Waleed that the proverbial penny dropped. It occurred to me that for at least two decades members of the community had been rushed to judgement about a number of important issues.
Often these issues were framed in fairly absolute terms - either you were ‘for’ or ‘against’ - with people being expected to fall into line without being exposed to either argument or justification. The IQ2 Australia debates offered a chance (sometimes the first chance) to hear the actual arguments being advanced by those on different sides of each issue.
So, people might come to a debate with a more or less settled position in relation to a particular topic. Some would leave with their judgement confirmed. Others might alter their views. However, all would leave better informed – with a store of arguments from which to draw.
Nothing that I have said so far counts against William James’ view. Perhaps people attending the debates were just “rearranging their prejudices”. This may be so for at least some of the people some of the time. But we know that it is certainly not true for all of the people all of the time.
The evidence for ‘real thinking’ comes from the way in which the IQ2 Australia debates poll the audience. On each occasion, audience members are asked to participate in an initial, pre-debate vote on the proposition before the house.
People may choose one of three options: For, Against or Undecided. A second ballot is conducted towards the end of the formal proceedings – i.e. after the arguments have been heard from both the stage and floor. The second, post-debate ballot offers the same three options: For, Against or Undecided.
This has always been our experience in our debates around the world focusing on subjects as diverse and controversial as: the legalisation of drugs, euthanasia and the moral authority of the United States.
While it is admittedly not perfect polling, it is when comparing the results of the pre-debate and post-debate polls that we find evidence of genuine thinking. For example, in the recent debate on the topic “There is no justification for risking Australian lives in Afghanistan” the pre-debate poll results were: For – 43 per cent, Undecided – 31 per cent and Against – 26 per cent.
However, the post-debate poll resulted in the following outcome: For – 41 per cent, Undecided – 7 per cent and Against – 52 per cent. Not only was a large swathe of undecided voters persuaded by the arguments of the team on the Negative side, one also sees early supporters of the affirmative position switching to the Negative after hearing and considering the arguments.
This is not an atypical result. Similar swings have been achieved in debates about euthanasia, Wikileaks, the media and so on – all of which suggests that people are looking to the IQ2 Australia debates to provide something more than a confirmation of their prejudices. Instead, real thinking is taking place.
Looking beyond what takes place during the formalities, I have been struck by the way in which the discussions carry on as people leave the venue, share a meal and so on. Even the conversation, which has ‘trended’ on Twitter in many of the 2011 series debates, has continued for 24 hours or even several days after some debates.
The debate clearly continues - with people analysing and critiquing the speakers’ arguments, reflecting on their own responses (intellectual and emotional), revealing how their own thinking has been altered. I do not claim that public debates are the only - or even the best - way to canvass important issues of public policy or gauge the capacity of people to shift their thinking.
The key to the success of IQ2 Australia debates is not that they provide a platform for great speakers. That is certainly true. But more importantly, the debates provide a safe and genuinely open forum within which to tangle with ideas.
Nobody is under personal attack for what they believe and thus, secure, they have the liberty to change their minds.
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