Jan Albert van der Laar’s new app
Learning how to debate propperly
He’s not trying to be pessimistic. He’s also not saying that today’s society is more divided than, say, in the seventies. ‘I don’t know that it is’, he says. ‘These days, we have our own problems around public debate.’
But that doesn’t mean something isn’t going on. Even Jan Albert van Laar is seeing the increased polarisation of society. He can see the effects of a lack of trust in institutions, journalism, and science. ‘It’s an enormous problem for the way we engage in public debate’, he says. ‘People who are no longer capable of listening to each other because they’re convinced they’re talking to the devil.’
As a philosopher who specialised in argumentation and negotiation, he knows exactly how important it is to have a debate the proper way. If you get it wrong, people won’t feel heard, he says. They’ll dig their heels in further and turn away from each other even more.
That’s a social issue, because whether we like it or not, we need to come together to tackle complex issues such as the threat of global warming or how to deal with refugees. ‘That’s why it’s so important to teach this skill’, he says. ‘Children need to learn how to debate in school.’
That’s why Van Laar developed a programme to train students how to engage properly in a debate. They have to figure out what they need to have an open discussion. They’re allowed to be competitive – that have to be able to make their point – but they also have to work together. This means they have to listen and make concessions. These are essential if you want to reach a solution together.
Polarisation means people are no longer capable of listening to each other
He launched the first version of his app a few years ago. It was called ‘Middle Ground’ and mainly focused on how to reach a compromise. The app was developed by the UG’s CIT.
A new version, made using a 100,000 euro Comenius grant he got in 2019 – came out recently. It’s called ‘Deliberative Debate’. ‘This new app has more functionalities’, he says. ‘The teacher or debate leader can say how the debate has to go and what its ultimate goal is. Should the parties reach consensus? Should they try to be as competitive as possible? Or should they try to understand where the other person is coming from?’
Try out the app
Would you like to try out ‘Deliberative Debate’ and find out how to have an open debate on a difficult subject?
UKrant and Jan Albert van der Laar are organising a debate about eating animal products. The UG has recently started a test with vegetarian food at Zernike. Is this taking moralism too far? Or is it not far enough? Should the UG only serve vegetarian or vegan food from now on?
If you participate, you have to make a contribution to the discussion every morning and afternoon/evening between Monday, November 20 and Thursday, November 24. You will debate the issue with one other UG student or staff member, and only you, your debate partner, and the organisation will be able to see what you write. Everything will be online, and you won’t spend more than half an hour on it each day.
You have until Friday, November 17 to sign up, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org Availability is limited.
Not that his students were hitting each other over the head during the debates they had in his classes. ‘They were actually really curious and respectful’, he says. Even when they were debating sensitive issues such as Zwarte Piet.
Nevertheless, he was convinced they could improve. ‘I wanted to make it clearer to them the types of debates you can have’, he explains. ‘But I didn’t want to use a top-down approach, as is often so common. In my app, the students can decide on the debate rules themselves and test whether they’re working.’
Should they be as competitive as they can or try to understand each other?
Providing students with a list of common fallacies and examples is obviously still useful. But that doesn’t teach them how to debate or negotiate. ‘The best way to apply knowledge is in the wild.’
He’s also convinced that negotiation is an under-appreciated form of debate. ‘People might think it’s distasteful, and negotiating with someone like Putin, for example, would be terrible. But negotiating a position is also important, and a good challenge.’
The app doesn’t include the ‘normative and pedantic gaze’ of a lecturer or moderator, he says. That’s a good thing, because this can make people feel like they’re doing something wrong, which negatively impacts a debate or negotiation. ‘So I wanted the participants to have full autonomy, within the confines of the rules of debate.’
I have to invest in your point of view to come up with proper arguments
He tested the app on his own students and those at faculties where he was a guest lecturer. Middle Ground didn’t require students to reach an agreement, but they did have to negotiate and get a results. That led to interesting insights, says Van Laar, as well as lively debates. ‘It means people had to start with examining their own point of view. They had to consider all the pros and cons of compromising and making concessions that were morally or politically difficult to make.’
As time went on, Van Laar and his students noticed how ‘minor’ things started playing a role. ‘Such as pride, for instance. It was a beautiful thing to see.’
During the debrief, he would ask people why they had refused to make certain concessions. ‘Was it really that important? Or were they led by a need for acknowledgement?’
But the most important thing in any kind of debate is for both parties to listen and empathise with their counterparts. ‘In order to come up with good arguments and convince someone else, I have to invest in their point of view. You have to be willing to make a connection between your perspective and someone else’s.’
It’s the kind of insight that people should also use in online discussions, since those tend to go off the rails so easily, says Van Laar. But he has no illusions about being to solve society’s issues.
‘I’m just an argumentative philosopher. What’s happening right now is an incredible power struggle. My app is just a little micro-level tool.’
And yet. It would be great if it could help people have better debates, even just indirectly. Otherwise, everyone is just worse off. ‘It’s essential for everyone to state their point, to feel heard.’