Clinton and Trump are making their final preparations. The stage is set. And as the nation anxiously waits for what promises to be the most watched presidential debate in history, here are a few things to consider in order to prepare yourself as a viewer.
First, remember that this is a debate. It is meant to be educational and informative. It is meant to be judged and criticized. It is meant to be won and lost. However, it is not a lecture; it is not a Miss America pageant; and it’s certainly not a football game. The goal of a debate is not entertainment or who gave the most ‘Tweetable’ response; but to determine who offered and defended the most reasonable claims and who exposed and refuted the most unreasonable claims.
Yet reason alone will not carry the day – after all, this is not an academic or scientific debate. As this is a presidential debate between two persons (who happen to be both very liked, but even more disliked by the American public) running for the highest singular office in the land, the ‘kind’ of person they show themselves to be will prove just as important to viewers. The candidates will need to display themselves as presidential, as becoming of the office, as suitable to the tasks and pressures of being the most powerful man, or woman, in the world. Not only the answers and arguments they offer, but their perceived competency, character, and charity will have a significant impact on viewers’ assessment of them for the better or for the worse. While this isn’t bad in itself, we are prone to make how we ‘feel’ about a candidate our primary standard of judgment – and that is a bad thing.
Second, a debate is about substance, or ‘the issues’ as people like to say; but that’s not all it’s about. This is similar to the prior point, but I want to highlight a particular aspect. A debate is a battles of ideas; and as such, it can often seem abstract – and we are prone to bring down what seems abstract to a more base level. You might remember some of the Republican primary debates, which at times felt more like a late-night edition of Jerry Springer than a presidential primary debate – that’s what I mean by bringing things down to a base level. This is self-evidently not a good thing. But, while a debate is a clash of ideas, ideas don’t present themselves; they’re presented by persons. And therefore, there is a kind of performance or strategy to it. Nevertheless, while there ought not be bickering by the candidates or hooting and hollering in the crowd, there shouldn’t be a high-browed arrogance to the whole thing either. While the former is petty and childish, the latter wreaks of elitist emptiness. We should respect the dignity of the debate, but we should also enjoy the spectacle of the event.
Third, listen carefully. Listen to the questions asked by the moderator. Listen to the answers provided by the candidates. Determine if they actually answered the question, or merely used the opportunity to talk about a subject (though it may be related to the topic of the question) of their own choosing. Listen not only for what their positions are, but why they hold their respective positions. What evidence, statistics, or rational arguments do they offer as support? Also listen for logical fallacies in the defense of their views. If you’re not familiar with these, here is a creative presentation of several of them with explanations (https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com).
Fourth, give the benefit of the doubt to each candidate that they are real people with real convictions about what they perceive to be real issues. As viewers we should neither romanticize the candidates, which would be naive, nor unnecessarily scrutinize them, which would be cruel. One the one hand, if you believe everything a candidate says, agree with every position he or she takes, and only applaud him or her, then you probably aren’t really listening. It’s unlikely that you and the candidate you support are that similar. On the other hand, if you second-guess everything he or she says, criticize every argument he or she makes, and fact-check every statistic he or she raises – though you might think you’re listening carefully and thinking critically – odds are you too are not really listening. In both cases, you’re just nit-picking, listening on the surface level; hearing only what you anticipate to hear, or perhaps want to hear, from them. Give the candidates the kind of hearing you would want them to give you – one that’s deep, fair, and generous.
Finally, as you watch tonight remember these three things: 1) a good viewer will evaluate himself as much as he does the candidates themselves, so as to make sure he’s really listening, understanding, and judging them fairly; 2) a good viewer will think critically about the proposals and arguments of the candidates, but will also be charitable towards them and their views; 3) a good viewer recognizes that humans are both reasonable and emotional beings. Thus, a good viewer oscillates on these three axes: between examining the candidates positions and evaluating his own thoughts, between being critical and being charitable, between thinking logically and enjoying the event and those involved.
To that end, happy viewing.