Article Writer Abbie James talks Debating: What is it for, and How Can We Debate Effectively?

A couple of months ago an interview was posted on the Channel 4 Youtube channel. This video depicts a debate between Jordan B Peterson, a Clinical Psychologist from Canada, and Cathy Newman, the Channel 4 Presenter. The debate is mainly situated around Peterson’s controversial views on gender, and Cathy’s dispute of these views.

Now, before I continue I want to warn you that I am not going to be discussing the correctness, or incorrectness of either opinion displayed in this interview, I am simply exploring concepts that were brought up that I found I personally connected with, and the nature of debate itself as a concept. What has become so interesting about this particular interview for so many people is that there are techniques used within the thirty minutes, that display a lot about presentation of self, eloquence, and discussion.

While watching the video I found myself questioning what it means to present ourselves. As a woman myself, I can somewhat relate to what Newman is trying to say within the discussion, but I do not relate to her behaviour. You can tell that Newman is becoming more and more agitated the closer to the end of the interview we get, and her debating technique is suffering due to this. She has been called out by many for her use of the ‘Strawman fallacy’, which is identified by the tendency to dispute the imagined opinions of your opponent, as opposed to disputing their actual opinions; hence the idea that you are attacking a straw man and not a real individual.


I was thinking that we can all learn a lot from Newman’s situation, regardless of whether we agree with her or not. How we behave in a debate says a lot about our identities, as does the specific language that we use. A common phrase that comes up in the conversation between these two is Newman saying ‘So you’re saying that…’. This phrase alone is what sums up her agenda in the conversation. When using language like this, we encourage this idea that we are accusing someone or immediately attempting to overrule what they have previously said, regardless of whether we understand it or not. I think that Newman’s approach did not allow her to fully absorb the conversation and be present within it because she did not show that she was listening to Peterson.

Throughout the interview Newman repeats herself numerous times, despite Peterson’s explanations, and she digs herself (honestly) into a bit of a hole, that she later struggles to get out of. When you enter into a conversation with someone who does not agree with you it makes a whole world of difference whether you are able to engage properly with the other individual. If Newman had taken each sentence as it came and listened a little closer perhaps she would not be in a situation where she appeared so aggressive (and in my opinion unprofessional) towards Peterson. Being taken seriously as a professional is an issue that women find themselves faced with very often, and by communicating the way she did, Newman did not help this case particularly. She distracted the viewer with her aggression and argument style, instead of what she actually had to say. She went into that interview with the aim of creating conflict with Peterson, and asking him to defend a viewpoint that he disputes multiple times that he does not have. She has been criticised by fans of Peterson, and also non-fans, for this behaviour.


So…what do we do to present ourselves well in a debate? Losing sight of effective debate techniques is becoming increasingly common in our generation, from what I can see. Individuals are arguing via the Straw man technique left, right and centre, instead of listening to each other and engaging in proper, conclusive discussion.  By doing even little things such as arranging our postures correctly we can change how we are perceived. (I know, you’re getting flashbacks to school practise interviews when body language and eye contact is repeatedly emphasised.) However, by displaying ourselves as relaxed and non-confrontational, our bodies actually respond, and help to make us feel more relaxed and less confrontational. This allows us to more easily listen, reply to, and process what is said.

What we can also do is talk respond to things that we do not have knowledge of in a way that diffuses, instead of suggests defensive behaviour. For example, we can ask for more information to ensure that we have a fuller understanding of the other person’s viewpoint, or we could simply say that we do not know, as opposed to responding in anger or offence about something someone has accused us of.

What holds a lot of worth, and that seems like a simple answer, is taking. Our. Time. It makes so much difference in the way we respond to others when we take time to properly process what they have just said, and what we believe in response. During the recent UK Election I was present during a debate about new policies and new powers, and it became increasingly apparent in this conversation that it was going nowhere. The two people were simply throwing words at each other without taking the time to think about what they really thought. At one point, I’m pretty sure one person was arguing for something they didn’t even believe in, because they simply got caught up in the argument. It is hard to not get hot headed and involved sometimes, but taking a deep breathe and a pause can really make or break your side.


I have noticed that in recent debates surrounding Brexit or Trump, there has been a distinct lack of understanding the other person’s view. In order to reach a point where we can actually sort things out, maybe we need to engage with those we do not quite understand? It seems that many people are more interested in taking a side and fighting for it, than actually learning about the cause and the debate that they are fighting in. And so I say…empathy! Listen to the other person and try to understand their point of view, even if you disagree with it. In fact…especially if you disagree with it! Showing empathy towards other’s opinions can not only allow for a more successful debate, but can also allow for personal growth. This does not mean that you have to accept or agree with what they have said, but it does mean that you can understand it, which ultimately is extremely beneficial for both sides of a debate.

“You’re certainly willing to risk offending me in the pursuit of truth…It’s been rather uncomfortable…You’re doing what you should do, which is digging a bit to see what the hell’s going on, and that is what you should do, but you’re exercising your freedom of speech to certainly risk offending me. And that’s fine. I think – more power to you as far as I’m concerned.”


I am finishing on this quote from the interview because I feel that it is the most interesting part of their conversation. What Peterson says, is that, essentially, Newman already agrees with his point of view. He does this by exampling their exact conversation, and it leaves Newman in a position where she doesn’t have a response, because she does agree with what he has said.

Being able to view the other person this way in a debate is a strength. It means that you are willing to acknowledge and understand what the other person is saying and doing, but also shows them that they agree with your point. Debate isn’t about attacking another person, it is about discussion and learning. Debate allows us to communicate with people we may not normally communicate with, but it does not always work if we act in certain ways.

If you want to watch the full interview yourself, you can view it here on Channel 4’s Youtube Channel:

Words by Abbie James, Illustrations by Jacob Heylen