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.

16 Tips for a Better Pro-Life Group Facebook Page

All pro-life organizations ought to have some presence on social media, but there are some common mistakes that can drastically reduce the effectiveness of a Facebook page. Speaking as someone with experience as a Students for Life leader, running an effective Facebook page is not as difficult as it looks. This post will help you see actual results rather than just having your Facebook page sit there as another task on your long to-do list. It just takes some intentionality.

If you do not already have a public Facebook page for your group, then you need to create one right away. A Facebook group for your club members to privately chat in is not the same as a page because it does not allow you to develop either a public following or interest in your group. The Facebook page is a public platform that allows people to find you, follow what is happening with your group, and share your posts with their friends.

These 16 tips will help you to get measurable results from your Facebook page:

Five Lessons for Pro-Lifers from the Women’s March

Whether you are participating in legislative efforts, sidewalk advocacy, volunteering at a Pregnancy Resource Center, or leading a Students for Life group, you should be talking about your pro-life work. Pro-lifers need to talk more about what we are doing for the movement because building awareness is half the battle of grassroots mobilization efforts. Successful social change comes from recruiting those who agree and reaching out to those who disagree.

Let’s take a look at how pro-choice people discuss their activism. I am going to use the Women’s March of January 2017 as a case study for how we as pro-life advocates can improve our own messaging by examining the March’s approach and identifying what we can learn from it. The second Women’s March took place this year on January 20th, but, for the sake of simplicity, I am only going to reference the first march in this post. The march this year was less clear and consistent in its messaging, so it isn’t as useful a case study.

Women’s March in Washington in January, 2017.
Photo credit: Roya Ann Miller

When the Women’s March took place last year, it was discussed all over social media, news sites, and in our communities: the kind of buzz that every social protest hopes to create. People talked about why they were going, how they planned on getting there, and what their experience was like after they came back from either the national or local march. If activism sparks discussion, it is a sign that the activism achieved some level of success. These marches were not just public demonstrations which took place on one day and were over the next. The people participating talked about it openly before, during, and after with anyone that they could reach.

Here are my takeaways after closely studying the success and shortcomings of the pro-choice movement’s participation in the Women’s March:

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: