A Debate Broke Out in the Middle of a Street Fight

The first presidential debate provided an excellent example of an annoying behavioral defect in Americans. We do not know how to listen!

Freedom of Speech
Norman Rockwell

During World War II, Norman Rockwell attended a town meeting in New England where the residents discussed whether to build a new school to replace one that just burned down. Everyone supported constructing a new school except one man. He rose to speak in opposition to the plan. Rockwell with impressed with the fact that all those “who disagreed with the speaker listened carefully and respectfully to what he had to say.” Rockwell painted a picture of the scene which he titled Freedom of Speech which portrayed the lone dissident addressing the group [1]

During the debate President Trump constantly interrupted Vice President Biden and the moderator, Chris Wallace. What should have been a discussion of the important issues facing the country turned into ninety minutes of noise.

The Presidential Debate Commission said it was developing solutions to the rather pitiful display which they mislabeled as a “debate.” This problem did not magically appear at the September 28, 2020 proceedings. The behavior has emerged in candidate debates for many years.

Why has not the Commission corrected this defect before. I believe that the Commission wants heated, interrupted debates because this adds some spark into what could be a boring ninety minutes. So, they do not enforce their own rules which the debaters have agreed to follow and instead assigned the operator with the tasks of asking questions and refereeing the prize fight. Following the Tuesday night debacle, the social networks were flooded with fact checks, suggestions for improving the process, and criticisms of the candidates and moderator.

One day after the debate, the Commission said the proceedings “made clear that additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues.” The Presidential Debate Commission proposes to “add new tools to maintain order.” The Commission has suggested the idea of allowing the moderator to cut off the microphone of one of the candidates while his opponent is speaking. However, any ideas will have to be approved by the candidates which puts into doubt the possibility of future debates. I would suggest the Commission also adds the American voters to the agreement process. These debates are supposed to educate viewers on how each candidate stands on the issues.[2]

The international community saw the debate as further evidence that “the Trump presidency has undermined U.S. democracy.” A Swiss paper wrote, “ The spiteful debate mirrors a country that is no longer even capable of having a dignified discussion.” A French newspaper stated: The U.S. debate reinforced “the perception that the United States is going through dark times.”[3]

Is interrupting during a debate okay? The following comments attempt to answer the question:

  1. A debate is basically an argument with strict rules of conduct. It is not a shouting match between two sides with different points of view.[4]
  2. Listening skills encompass hearing and understanding debate rules and listening to your opponent, each round. “The best debaters are the best listeners.”[5]
  3. Interrupting is not an enjoyable way to converse with someone. When a person consistently interrupts a speaker, the presenter may feel like they are at war rather than having a conversation. Interrupting is pointless and unproductive.
  4. Do not interrupt others. It is rude, arrogant, and selfish and usually does not win you many “brownie points” with others.
  5. Interrupting people not only expresses a lack of interest or respect for the speaker, but it also stops people from sharing the punchline or nugget of wisdom that might come at the end of their comments. Debaters should always let others finish their thoughts completely.[6]
  6. Interrupting is rude and is harmful. Rudeness happens when someone behaves in a way that does not align with the way someone else might think is appropriate or civil.” Such behavior starts a continuing cycle of negative behavior which hinders productivity, happiness, and health.[7]
  7. Some people interrupt for no particular reason. This person was likely “raised in a barn, or a family of uneducated and impolite hillbillies, because they really believe it is an okay thing to do.” There is nothing behind their interruptions except for the fact that “they have absolutely no manners or common sense.”[8]

Is this a widespread problem? This difficulty is not limited to presidential debates. Television news interviews are filled with interruptions. These often occur when the interviewee refuses to answer the question or tries to deflect the question. Interviewers and debate moderators press for an answer and interrupt the person “responding to the question.” News programs like The Lead with Jake Tapper, Erin Burnett OutFront, The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, and Meet the Press often contain interruptions. Panel discussions seem to breed interruptions. Whether these debates are on an entertainment and discussion show like The View, The Wanda Sykes Show, and Real Time with Bill Maher; a sports debate program like Real Sports with Bryant Gumble, Inside the NBA, and Monday QB; or pregame analysis of what might happen and a post-game explanation of why a team won like on College Game Day, ESPN 30 for 30, and FOX NFL Sunday

However, the biggest problem with interruptions is their impact on the audience. If you are trying to communicate with viewers, attendees, etc., disturbances make it nearly impossible to hear what the speaker(s) are saying. This means that instead of reaching their audience both the speaker and the interrupter’s message sounds like gibberish. This behavior defeats the whole purpose of the discussion.

Allen Mesch – 10/4/2020

[1] “1st Amendment is the soul of our democracy,” Floyd Abrams, The Dallas Morning News, October 4, 2020, 6P.

[2] “Debate panel vows fixes to restore order,” The Dallas Morning News, October 1, 2020, 5A.

[3] “World eyes debate with shock, fear,” The Dallas Morning News, October 1, 2020, 5A.

[4] “Basic Debating Rules,” October 22, 2012, http://englishtutorlessons.com.au/basic-debating-rules/.

[5] “Debate 101: Everything You Need to Know About Policy Debate: You Learned Here,” Bill Smelko & Will Smelko, 2013,  https://www.speechanddebate.org/wp-content/uploads/Textbook-Debate-101.pdf.

[6] “12 Rude Conversation Habits You Need to Stop ASAP,” Emily DiNuzzo, Reader’s Digest, May 4, 2020, https://www.rd.com/list/rude-conversation-habits/

[7] “Why Rudeness is so toxic – and how to stop it,” Better by TodayNBC News, Sarah DiGiulio, May 22, 2018, https://www.nbcnews.com/better/pop-culture/why-rudeness-so-toxic-how-stop-it-ncna876131

[8] “The Five Types of Interrupter,” Heather Christian Schmidt, October 26, 2011, https://heatherchristenaschmidt.com/2011/10/26/the-five-types-of-interruptors/

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