BAR NONE - Atty. Ian Vincent Manticajon (The Freeman) - April 16, 2019 - 12:00am

Candidates in the coming election may shrug off a debate’s importance. Participating in one could either help or hurt their chances of being elected into office.

If they are well ahead in credible surveys, certainly there is no point risking their lead in a debate where they might fare poorly against sharper and more articulate opponents.

But debates matter a great deal in our democratic process. How? It reinforces the goal of achieving a more mature political process, by making people think about what they want and should expect from their elected officials.

President Rodrigo Duterte himself benefitted from the presidential debates in 2016. He managed to display his authenticity and folksy charm --traits that appealed to many voters once shown in contrast with other candidates.

While arguing with others often have unfavorable connotations, the rules of a formal debate actually ensure that nowhere should it lead to rancor and noise, or the destruction of another person's self-worth.

We were taught in school that argumentation is the study of effective reasoning. When a candidate speaks to his opponent and to the audience, he makes claims and he gives reasons to justify those claims. But his arguments become successful only when they are accepted by his audience.

In the words of communication professor David Zarefsky: “Indeed the success of the argument ultimately depends upon the assent of the audience; not a knee-jerk assent or blind obedience, or based on personal biases or relationships.”

But while there are elements in argumentation that are adversarial in nature, argumentation is actually a cooperative exercise whose goal is reflective judgment, Zarefsky said.

He added that one who chooses to engage in a debate is taking some risks; the risk of being shown to be wrong and the risk of having to alter one's own beliefs. “When people argue, they mutually assume those risks. That is why it is a cooperative behavior.”

So why assume those risks? Because the parties in a debate should desire a reflective judgment about the matter that they are arguing about, said Zarefsky. Or at least make their audience reflect about the issues tackled.

In governance, just like any other facet in life, we need to make decisions based on reflective judgment, this despite the uncertainty of things. “You can't just sit back and wait for things to become certain, because the things that we argue about they never will,” said Zarefsky, “absolute proof is not possible and yet decisions must be made.”

That is why we engage in debate or argumentation: to arrive at judgements that are backed up by reasons which our audience could feel justified as reasons for our claims. That adherence of the audience takes the place of the certainty that we cannot possibly achieve. And in a debate, the parties contribute mutually to the strengthening of the argument through careful testing of each other’s claims and reasoning.

Opposing views expose ideas and thoughts that even if not immediately acceptable may ultimately prevail. “They remind us that the world is complex; that when we reach a conclusion we must be careful not to have reached them prematurely or not to hold them so rigidly that we are no longer open to new ideas,” said Zarefsky.

This April 22, Cebu City Mayor Tomas Osmeña and his challenger Vice Mayor Edgardo Labella will face each other in a debate. May they live up to the essence of a debate. And kudos to the Integrated Bar of the Philippines Cebu City Chapter for organizing this important event!

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