Opinion: The power of debate

AI debate at UBCO

Debate is an antidote to polarization. Before you rebut, let me explain.

I’m not talking about “debates” on social media—what some might consider public debate. I’m talking about a structured, methodical opportunity to listen to multiple perspectives in an environment that breaks down complex issues.

The genius of debate is in this structure that helps us make sense of chaos. We have the luxury of living in an information age, but the downside is that we’re drowning in that information. The past decade has shown us how hard it is to make sense of what truth is.

It can be overwhelming, so we retreat and surround ourselves with people and ideas that mirror who we are. That may not be a bad thing. Sociologists call this homophily—the love of the same—and it’s how we’re wired to like people like us. But the danger of this is that we start to live in an echo chamber where we are rarely exposed to ideas that counter the narratives to which we’ve become accustomed.

Think about this: we know news sources—even the most reputable and trusted—can show bias, yet we keep going to the same sources while avoiding those with differing viewpoints. And because we are not exposed to counter ideas often enough, we don’t know how to deal with people or views that differ from ours.

We don’t know how to call out false arguments, alarmist rhetoric or fallacies—intelligently—primarily if they exist within our beliefs.

We retreat further into our echo chambers, and we perpetuate the cycle. We’re in danger of falling into a more divisive and polarized society, a route to fanaticism and extremism.

Think about how we dealt with the COVID-19 vaccine. All sides of the issue lambasted each other online, but when we faced each other in the hallways, we talked about the weather, hockey or our kids—anything but vaccines.

That’s a dangerous cycle.

In the name of tolerance, we often stay on our ends of the spectrum. Don’t get me wrong, tolerance is a hallmark of every prosperous society, but the basement of tolerance is indifference at best and polarization at worst. And that’s where we are today on so many issues simply because we lack platforms dedicated to debating and challenging societal ideas. Sadly, this division is good for business, social media, algorithms, politics and even organized religion.

Now, with the breakneck speed of advancements in artificial intelligence, we face further disruption to our understanding of fact.

At UBC Okanagan, we believe academic institutions like ours have a calling to convene the contrasts. We think it’s possible to debate the most contentious issues of our time without losing civility. But we must do so in a structured space, in time-tested formats.

The gold standard of wisdom isn’t how we hoard facts and well-crafted arguments or stake our positions in the sand. We can hold our convictions loosely and be open to changing our minds if the truth leads us.

Our responsibility in a polarized world isn’t to abandon our convictions but not let them define us. Our campus is committed to the value of bringing worlds and ideas together.

That’s why we are thrilled to mark a milestone for our community as we launch a signature event, UBC Okanagan Debates.

On May 3, we will convene four leading thinkers to debate AI, unquestionably a defining issue of our time.

We can only accomplish this when we open ourselves to multiple perspectives. Therein lies the antidote to polarization.

Marten Youssef is associate vice-president, university relations, at UBC Okanagan.

Learn more about UBCO Debates: Artificial Intelligence and look for announcements about future events online at UBCO Debates.

More Opinion articles