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Debate and Discussion: An Invitation to Walk in Humility

~ by Amy Morgan ~

Early in the first chapter of Dr. Shelley Johnson’s book, Everyday Debate & Discussion, she defines “debate” in a number of ways including etymologically. She points out that “debate” comes from the Latin battuere, to beat, and the preposition de-, down or completely. While some dictionary definitions suggest that a debate beats down the ideas of one’s opponent, others leave open the likelihood that one’s own ideas can be beaten down or beaten into a proper form, as a “metal worker beating a piece of metal into the correct shape”.  

Reflecting on the etymology of “debate” made me wonder what nuances the etymology of “discuss” might reveal.  After all, the book title includes both “debate” and “discussion”.  I found that “discuss” comes from the Latin discutere, to shake apart.  So, to discuss is to shake apart an idea or an argument.  Of course!  This feels like a natural connection to me.

Haven’t you had this experience?  While talking with a friend about an idea that is important to you both, suddenly your friend hits you with a truth that shakes the foundation of your own direction of thinking.  This shaking can cause at least one of two responses:  You may be tempted to defensively dust off your old argument, possessively piecing it back together regardless of its cracks. Or, you may look at your argument with a new honesty and clarity realizing that you have some new thinking to do.  The shaking apart of the old understanding invites the creation of something new.   

Who is perhaps best known for dismantling his friends’ comfortable, self-satisfied ways of thinking?  Socrates.  After repeated attempts to define “virtue” in a way that Socrates could not poke a hole through, his friend, Meno, exclaims:

“You are exactly like a sting-ray that one meets in the sea!  Whenever anyone comes
into contact with it, it numbs him, and that is the sort of thing that you seem to be
doing to me now. My mind and my lips are literally numb, and I have nothing to reply
to you.  Yet I have spoken about virtue hundreds of times, held forth often on the
subject in front of large audiences, and very well too, or so I thought. Now I can’t even
say what it is.”

Time and again Socrates questions his friends until their initial definitions and understanding of virtue or love or the soul or piety or any other ideal are shaken apart. His friends and audience are left scratching their heads, sometimes frustrated, sometimes enamored at how skillfully Socrates has unraveled their opinions.  But Socrates doesn’t leave them there.  He invites them to join his own search for better understanding.

In our own discussions, when faced with the truth of a friend that feels like the keen questioning of Socrates, what enables us to offer a curious, welcoming response rather than a defensive, frustrated one? In debates even, what checks our aim to “beat down” an opponent and redirects our aim “to beat” our own views into a better mold?  

The answer that comes to me is Humility.  The virtue of humility opens a path toward a right response for the learner, the friend, the citizen, anyone in a context whose way of thinking has been shaken apart or beaten down.  Humility invites us to rejoice in the truth that is greater than our initial notions.  Humility invites us to rejoice in another’s gift of wisdom that points to a better path.  Humility invites us to give thanks for our own gift, given to us in its own measure.   Humility invites us not to close ourselves off in fear, frustration and pride because our way did not come out on top.  Instead, Humility- to some extent, like Socrates- invites us to seek truth in a way that may be new and uncertain to us, but nevertheless to seek, rejoice and be thankful.

Amy Morgan earned her BA in liberal arts at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, and continued her education with an MA in TESOL/applied linguistics at Indiana University in Bloomington. For over 18 years, Amy has taught English to speakers of other languages in the university, community, and private tutoring contexts. Additionally, Amy educated her own two children at home in grades PreK–8. When Amy’s not teaching, you might find her serving families who care for children in vulnerable circumstances, hosting international guests, reading aloud with her family or smiling at the antics of her backyard chickens. [email protected]

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