Debate vs. Dialogue: How Do They Differ?

John Ferrer debate

John Ferrer debates David Smalley on the problem of evil for The Bible & Beer Consortium.
Photo by Hillary Morgan Ferrer. Used with permission.

Debate is fun for me, but I’m odd like that. I’m an academic and ethics teacher, so I’ve debated abortion formally and informally, in academic settings and elsewhere. The subject arises most every time I’m in a panel discussion, too. In that time, I’ve come to learn that debating is radically different from casual conversation. It’s miles apart from almost every kind of interaction we can have on campus, around the lunch table, walking to class, or hanging out over coffee.

Even with all that debate experience, I’m still a novice when it comes to casual conversations about abortion. I’m a little weird like that. Thanks to Josh, Tim, and the rest of the ERI team, I’m learning how to not be weird. One advantage of my experience, however, is that I can help explain the pitfalls of debating abortion, especially when the other person just wants a dialogue. I know those pitfalls by experience; I’ve tripped across almost all of them. I’m painfully aware that academic debate is entirely different from the street-level, day-to-day conversations regular people have about an issue.

Debate can be incredibly valuable in formal settings, in classes, or on certain websites that facilitate that sort of structured exchange. Most of the time, however, people aren’t looking for a debate, and so we can overpower and ruin a conversation if we try to force it into that mold. I’d like to offer some counsel on how to distinguish debate from dialogue so you can keep your conversations healthy and persuasive.

The Foster Care Fallacy

Foster Care

When I have conversations about abortion with pro-choice college students, they regularly express concerns about what would happen if abortion were to become less accessible or even illegal in the United States. One of the concerns I am hearing more and more frequently is about foster care. I’ve had students tell me that they think the foster care system is set up in such a terrible way that it is doing a disservice to children and if we didn’t have abortion then it would be an even bigger problem. They say they are concerned the children who are born instead of aborted will be put into foster care and would be unlikely to be adopted by a loving family.

This problem is one of the most straightforward concerns a pro-life advocate can respond to because it is simply based on a misunderstanding of how newborn adoption works. Children who are in foster care are usually waiting to be returned to their biological parents, placed with another family member, or, in some cases, to be permanently adopted from their foster home. Children in these situations often have complicated family environments, which results in them being in and out of the foster care system for years.

However, when a woman during her pregnancy chooses to place her newborn child with an adoptive family, it is a completely different process. Women arrange private adoptions through agencies which help them choose from multiple families to pick the best option for them and whether they want an open or closed adoption. Newborn children in these situations do not go into the foster care system, but are placed with the new family right away.

Adoption plays a role in both foster care and newborn adoption, so it is understandable that some people conflate them. This misconception is something pro-lifers should understand how to graciously correct when it comes up in conversations. Unlike a philosophical disagreement, this is not an issue that requires a complicated debate because it is a simple factual mistake.

What’s Wrong with Saying “Fetus”

Discrimination? Microaggression? Propaganda? These are common labels against pro-lifers. Anyone arguing for the rights of the unborn can expect to be characterized as enemies of women, of liberty, and of human rights. Sometimes we can learn from these accusations and pick better terms or listen with more charity. Other times, these labels just don’t fit. Or worse, they are baseless slander.

I would like to suggest that the abortion debate is riddled with a problematic term: “fetus.” At best, this term is a harmless shorthand way to refer to a “human fetus,” “fetal human,” or the “child-in-utero,” and other non-discriminatory terms. At worst, and it’s often used this way, it’s a misleading rhetorical move designed to instill dehumanizing prejudice against the unborn. Either way, we can do better.

Some may call the term “fetus” a “microaggression,” although I’m not a big fan of that concept.[1] My grievance with this term is that it’s typically a subtle but deliberate spin in verbiage intended to relocate the discussion away from any possible implication of human rights. The net effect of that rhetoric, if left unchecked, is a dehumanizing prejudgment about the status of the unborn, as if this “fetus” isn’t really a human being. This use of terms can even be a kind of discrimination. It isn’t discrimination in the sense of breaking a law or violating someone’s civil rights. But it does qualify as verbal discrimination because it is dehumanizing and prejudicial language.

Nevertheless, despite my complaints, I don’t think this term is a huge deal. I’m not trying to make it out to be more than it is. But I do run into this issue often enough that I have to say something about it.

Pay Attention to Who Should NOT Be in a Given Conversation

If you are a part of a dialogue-oriented outreach, you should be paying attention to who should be in a given conversation, and who should not be.

Josh Brahm (middle) has a conversation with students at Davidson College while Rachel Crawford (left) watches. We don't have a picture of the actual conversation in this article, but it took place in the same spot.

Josh Brahm (middle) talks to students at Davidson College while Rachel Crawford (left) watches. We don’t have a picture of the actual conversation in this article, but it took place in the same spot.

It was our second day of outreach at Davidson College and after having had several conversations, a lull swept over our area of campus while all of the students were in class. I went behind our poll table setup to take a short break with ERI staff member Rachel Crawford who was also sitting back there. We were talking about the dialogues we’d had that day. Two other male volunteers stood behind Rachel talking with us.

While we were talking, a young woman whom I will call “Alice” walked straight up to us to ask us what the point of our outreach was. I responded that we’re trying to help pro-life and pro-choice people to have better conversations with each other, to hear each other, to learn from each other, and hopefully help people get closer to finding truth on the subject. I then asked her, “What do you think about abortion?”

She confidently responded with a statement about being pro-choice, but instead of offering the logical reasons why she believes that, she started describing the abortion experience she had had only five months before. She also shared with us some very personal information about how she didn’t feel like her boyfriend was supportive of her through the process and how she didn’t talk to her friends about it either. She also shared that her parents had abandoned her as a child and that she had been raised by her grandma. She felt very alone in this situation and ultimately one of the staff members of the campus health center had to be the one to drive her to and from the abortion facility. The campus even gave her a loan to pay for the abortion, which she worked through the summer to pay off.

Circumventing Philosophy Hell

Keeping Your Conversations about Abortion Productive

Imagine you’re out hiking with a friend in the beautiful (and fictional) country of Florin, as depicted in The Princess Bride. You’re both clueless tourists but you’ve casually looked at some maps and you think you can handle yourselves. As you’re walking by a ravine, your friend points to a group of trees and says, “Hey, I think if we wander down the ravine and into those trees, we’ll save some time!” You agree, but start to get worried as you notice that what started out as a beautiful forest has turned into a terrifying swamp. Ten minutes later, you are both killed by Rodents of Unusual Size.

Now imagine an alternative scenario. Unlike your tourist friend, you’re a native to Florin, so you know about the parts of the country to avoid, such as the Fire Swamp. When your clueless friend suggests wandering into a dangerous area, you casually redirect him, and you both survive.

A conversation about abortion is surprisingly similar. There are plenty of useful topics to discuss, and plenty of tangents that, while they won’t cause you to get eaten, are really not a good use of time.

Some unhelpful tangents come up regularly because they’re fairly natural responses to some of the arguments I regularly use, and I have learned from experience that some of them should just always be avoided. This post is about a simple but effective way to avoid one in particular.

I am very fond of thought-experiments. I find so much success with them that most of my arguments wind up being backed up by some thought-experiment or another. For instance, if I’m arguing for the personhood of the unborn, I regularly offer the Zoo Shooting: