It is time to end the tyranny of sound bites and talking heads yelling over each other.

Today we have reached a point where oversimplified explanations and staying on message by not engaging with the ideas of others have become the go-to strategies for many of those engaging in political arguments in the public sphere.

Further, members of the public often end up in echo chambers where they are less and less exposed to contrary ideas, due to self selecting media with which they already agree.

Along with a team of former and current debaters and coaches, I have set out to tackle this problem by starting Debate Hawaii, an organization striving to raise the level of public discourse by hosting debates on important issues.

Debates have the ability
When done right, debate is everything that today’s political conservation is lacking: informative, deep and entertaining. Blue Diamond Gallery

We do this because democracies depend on a well-informed public. In a democracy, we have a responsibility to be able to express our opinions on, at a minimum, the most important issues, as well as to take the time to listen to others. When we fail to meet these responsibilities we miss an important opportunity to be of service to our communities.

One possible consequence of the public not being sufficiently engaged with the issues is low voter turnout. When voters lack a clear sense of which issues are at stake and can’t discern how their votes will affect the issues, they aren’t left with much to vote for.

We may be experiencing that in Hawaii today. During the Aug. 13 primary election, voter turnout was 34.7 percent, a record low here in Hawaii. If issues were more often brought forward in engaging and deep ways, then I believe we would see more voter participation.

Substantive public debates are the cure to what is ailing public discourse. From democracy’s inception in the fifth century B.C. to modern governance, debate has been recognized as a pillar of society. President John F. Kennedy put it well when he said, “Without debate, without criticism, no administration and no country can succeed, and no republic can survive.”

When voters lack a clear sense of which issues are at stake and can’t discern how their votes will affect the issues, they aren’t left with much to vote for.

The benefits of substantive debates are numerous and substantial. They provide an avenue for the those unfamiliar with an issue to become more knowledgeable, help people make up their minds, and allow for greater understanding of those who hold opposing opinions. When done right, debate is everything that today’s political conversation is lacking: informative, deep and entertaining.

Even for the well informed, watching debates can offer a lot. When we watch a debate, we can see how well different arguments hold up against an opposing viewpoint. Debates also challenge us to have better reasons to support our beliefs. Further, they also provide us the opportunity to change our minds if we believe the other side makes more sense.

The Capitol Debate series began in Spring 2015. So far, we have debated the Thirty-Meter Telescope, Honolulu’s sit-lie ban and whether Hawaii should welcome Syrian refugees. Our goal is to take controversial issues that often divide us and make them an opportunity to come together as a community for a debate where both sides are examined.

Debaters in college spend thousands of hours over the course of their debate careers fine tuning their speaking, research and critical thinking skills. This is especially true in Hawaii, as we are home to nationally and internationally recognized top debaters who rank highly in tournaments across the United States, as well as in a few other countries. That is why our series feature collegiate debaters.

Debate skills can and should be put to work for the public good by debating the big issues of our day. Our goal is to provide a strong model of how to conduct an informative, engaging, and well-argued conversation on important issues.

At 5:30 p.m. this Friday, Sept. 16, I will MC the next Capitol Debate, which is on pesticide buffer zones. I invite you to join me at the State Capitol Auditorium to support Hawaii’s debaters and help us raise the level of public discourse. More info here.

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