Ben Boychuk and Pia Lopez

Head to Head: What did we learn from our weekly debates?

Published: Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 13A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 8:05 pm

Issue: Ben and Pia launched Head to Head in May 2010 by debating Arizona's controversial immigration law. Scores of debates later, they wind up this weekly feature by reflecting on what they've learned from their ongoing dialogues. Head to Head will return on an occasional basis in California Forum, and Ben and Pia will continue to comment on these pages in different formats.

Ben Boychuk:

The charity principle …

Left-wing blogger Duncan Black, who writes under the name "Atrios," declared a few years ago: "Our discourse is so stupid." How right he was!

The remark still makes me smile, not least because Black was commenting on a short-lived project I happened to be involved with at the time that he knew next to nothing about.

But, yes, our discourse nowadays tends to be amazingly stupid. It's also puerile, vulgar, illogical, and clichéd. Subtracting a bit of stupidity from the discourse might not be the highest ambition in the world, but it isn't so bad for a newspaper column.

Pia and I tried to do more than that in this space, of course. We wanted to show, in perhaps a small but meaningful way, that it was possible to disagree – and disagree strongly when it comes to immigration, gay marriage, and climate change – without dehumanizing each other.

Classical rhetoricians and philosophers have something called the "principle of charity." The idea, put simply, is to try to understand an opponent's point of view in the best possible light before ripping it to shreds.

Head to Head was never intended to be a rigorous exercise in effective, rational discussion. (You want nuance in roughly 400 words? Seriously?) To the extent this column "worked" – that it was worth the few minutes you took to read it between sips of coffee (or whatever you happen to be drinking; I won't judge) – it was because Pia and I at least attempted to be charitable to each other's beliefs.

All I ever wanted to accomplish in any given week was to make a sound, principled case for my point of view and let readers decide which one of us had the better argument. It's fair to say I had better weeks than others.

But from time to time, we wrote on topics where very little daylight existed between us. Some weeks, it was a struggle to settle on anything at all, because our respective "takes" wouldn't have offered you much of a contrasting viewpoint.

For example, Pia and I tend to agree more than we disagree on education reform, though she draws the line at vouchers. One of my favorite columns was the one we wrote jointly in defense of California's parent trigger law, which lets parents at a failing public school petition for specified reforms.

The experience reminded me that our sharp political differences on other subjects shouldn't prevent us from finding common ground where we can. For embattled conservatives in California, the lesson isn't to abandon principle, but rather to take your victories where you find them.

Pia Lopez:

... And a little humility

At a time when our politics seems so bitter and partisans too often look for cheap "gotcha" moments to ridicule opponents or caricature them without engaging with their arguments, Ben and I tried with Head to Head to offer real disagreement without being disagreeable.

With side-by-side takes on issues, we sought to break out of the usual echo chambers – where people hear and engage in dialogue only with like-minded fellow travelers, and not people with vastly different views.

We aimed at a sort of "coffee klatch," a friendly, not deadly serious gathering for dialogue on an issue of the day. We each assumed the other genuinely believed what he or she was saying and had something interesting to say – and had fun engaging respectfully with readers, our best critics, in the comments section and occasional live chat.

The brevity of 400 words had some disadvantages, as Ben notes, but it forced us to offer something not overly wonky – a focused step above bald assertions that have no factual basis.

We traded the first spot each week, allowing each of us to be unsparing in pointing out weaknesses and contradictions in the other's argument, requiring a dose of humility. Neither of us got a one-sided "slam dunk" on any issue.

Even where we vehemently disagreed – say, on immigration – I got the sense that if you sent us on a one-week backpack trip together (OK, maybe a few hours at a nice bar), we could work most things out.

Clearly, Ben and I have very different views on the proper role of government. I certainly learned over the last two years that neither I nor anyone else should be complacent or self-righteous or so sure of our thinking. We might all be a little better if we questioned our views on the power of government and the liberty of citizens.

One of my favorite columns was where Ben and I both took a contrarian stance on the top-two primary idea – which "reformers" across party lines seem universally to love and which we think is a very bad idea that further entrenches the role of money, leads to single-party general election contests and eliminates third parties from November contests. On preserving elections as a competition of ideas, we could find common ground.

On education as the foundation for upward mobility in a "opportunity society," we also found much agreement.

I learned from exchanges with Ben that I am a little more libertarian than I would have thought and he a little less so – for example, on whether marijuana should be treated like alcohol and tobacco.

I came to appreciate Ben's techie, geek side. In a debate on electronic social media, he got me to admit in print that I'm a tech troglodyte and really would rather not be connected. But his enthusiasm has made me a little more willing to explore.

Ben really got me going – all the way back to 1689 – when he called for a new American Revolution.

I've had fun each week writing Head to Head – and look forward to working with Ben as H2H evolves into an occasional feature on Sundays.

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