Word(l)y Wednesday: We Can Work It Out

(Language and Thought)

Lately, with this being election season in the U.S. and all, I’ve had quite a few …we’ll call them “discussions”… which have each been handled in one of a few different ways. Today I’m exploring what those different approaches to discussion are, and what each means for the ideas being discussed.

 de-bate con-ver-sa-tion

Before I talk about each approach to discussion, I’m going to be looking at the word itself and its etymology (its word history). For example, discussion is a form of the word discuss, which originally was a combination of the Latin prefix dis– “apart” and quatere “to shake”—in the past participle form, the word meant “broken up” and eventually became the Middle English word discussen “to examine.” So, at the root of the word, “to discuss” means to break something up and examine it—to analyze.

(Now, I’m never going to be the person that tells you that a word’s history has to define its present and future, but when a word has a history, I think we should at least pay attention to it, even if we choose to discard it.)

So, two people can discuss something that they are in complete agreement about or they can discuss something that they are in opposition about. As long as there’s some examination and analysis of the topic going on, the historical meaning of “discuss” still applies.

My problems recently have mostly been concerned with the idea of “debate”. Debate the word comes from Old French, a combination of the prefix de– and the word battre, meaning—well…—“to batter” or “to beat.” Most of the time the prefix de– means a moving away from (or a reduction in) something, so the original meaning was likely “to solve (reduce) a conflict (beating).”And I really don’t have a problem with debate’s attempt to solve conflict.

My problem is with debate’s method of solving conflict. Debate is founded on the same sort of “adversarial” principles that the U.S. court system uses to try cases. One side takes one position, the other side takes the opposing position, and when the debate is over, one side wins and the other loses.  The conflict isn’t solved, so much as it is decided in favor of one side or the other.  (Worse yet, much of the time, it’s the style or delivery of one side that allows it to be chosen the winner, rather than the facts of the debate.) Debate, at least in the here and now in the U.S., is almost solely about who is the most convincing debater.

But what if there is a third, better option? Or a compromise of the two positions that is more effective? Debate doesn’t really address those questions. It’s concern is ending a conflict by declaring a winner and a loser.

Enter “conversation.” Looking at the word, you might think that it has similar conceptual roots as debate. Maybe that “converse” describes the opposing viewpoint. But if you think about how we use the word conversation in daily conversation, that doesn’t really fit. We don’t always have opposing viewpoints when we converse.

Converse in the sense of “to speak (with someone)” comes from another Latin prefix and base word, this time com– “with” and versari “to occupy oneself”; by the time the combo got to Middle English, it was the word conversen “to associate with.” In a conversation, you associate with someone. You exchange thoughts and feelings. You’re more likely to come to a shared understanding, as opposed to the debate where one side’s thoughts are declared “winner” and the the other side’s are discounted.

There’s a process in philosophy (and academic investigations in general) called “dialectic.” A form of it was used by Socrates, and it still exists as a formalized method of truth-seeking. But the thing about dialectic is that it hinges on conversation, even if that conversation is with  yourself. Through questioning and response, or through pitting opposing ideas against each other and seeing which truths hold up under scrutiny, the most truthful answer can be agreed upon—even if that answer is one side’s original position, the other side and all forms of compromise can be investigated to determine how successful or truthful they are. Then that answer can stand as the best answer… until someone comes along with an opposing position and the entire conflict can be reevaluated in light of the new position (and potential compromises).

You may have noticed I didn’t explore the roots of the word dialectic. It’s because I don’t know what to make of them. Tracing the word back to Ancient Greek, you start with dialektos “speech, conversation,” but that became dialektike (tekhne) “(art of) debate.” I’d like to interpret this that, to the ancient Greeks, conversation and dialectic were the art of debate, rather than the way we tend to debate today. Even if that wasn’t the case, the example of Socrates serves as a pretty clear marker that even then it was a viable method of finding a solution.

Time to reveal my bias: I’ve already written a diatribe about my own preference for dialogue over monologue. To me, debate feels like a series of monologues that are crafted against the opponent, rather than the truer type of dialogue that happens in general conversation or even dialectic. But I can’t help but think that, delivery-method aside, debate’s way of solving the conflict isn’t nearly as satisfying as conversation’s.

What do you think? Join the conversation!

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