A person who is convicted in a court of law for stealing money or telling lies is branded as a thief and a liar for life and may find it difficult to find employment. However, a person who appeals and has the evidence against him dismissed on a technicality has a clean slate, even though the inadmissible evidence proved his guilt beyond doubt.
The point is that, in the legal system, the law and its interpretation is more important than the truth. Our legal system is an adversarial system which means the lawyers involved are competing against each other to convince a judge or jury to accept their version of what is legally right, not what is the truth. In any adversarial situation, winning becomes more important than the truth.
Our parliamentary system is based on what is called the Westminster adversarial system and anyone who has watched politicians in action quickly become aware that winning an argument is far more important than giving a straight answer. There is probably no better example of the adversarial debating process than parliament. Every politician is by definition trying to increase their power and influence in the parliament and most work to become cabinet ministers or maybe even prime minister.
In the general community, most committees adopt a version of the Westminster adversarial system for making decisions, and even sporting tribunals adopt a legalistic system. Religious institutions are often described as both adversarial and legalistic in dealing with complaints and disputes. So it is little wonder that in everyday life we also adopt an adversarial attitude to settling differences with other people, even loved ones.
The effect of this influence on the way we relate to others can damage relationships because the main aim of the adversarial approach is to win and we feel somehow inferior if we lose. That means the whole thing is more self-serving than advancing our knowledge of the truth or finding a solution that everyone can live with.
- The example from parliament and the legal system is that the winning argument somehow becomes the truth, rather like deciding who is right by having a fist fight, or who can drink the most alcohol. That means there is no real requirement for the content of a person’s argument to be actual truth.
- In order to win, it is an acceptable tactic to discredit the opposition’s intelligence to weaken their argument, even though you may secretly agree with it. Winning may therefore promote something neither side actually believes is right.
- This method of debating is being taught to our children in the schools as a legitimate way of advancing our knowledge and skills
I suggest that we would have more credibility with our children if our social systems, including churches and schools, were to adopt and teach the Gandhian truth-seeking method of debating. Gandhi taught about the importance of hanging onto what we believe to be the truth because our beliefs and values help us make sense of the world as we make decisions about what to do.
Some of our beliefs are deeply held, especially religious beliefs, and we feel very threatened and defensive when they are attacked. However, other people hold strong opposing views which they claim as being the truth. Obviously, opposing views cannot both be the absolute truth.
Gandhi maintained that everyone knows part of the truth and part of the untruth. He taught that when we listen until we understand the other’s views, we can take the bits that make sense to us and add these to our truth, so our truth grows. And if we listen to enough people and gain a little from each of them, our truth gets bigger and bigger. This was a deep belief for him because he believed Truth was God, so his search for truth was a search for God.
Our beliefs and values are important to hang onto but, if we believe our truth is the truth and are not prepared to modify it under any circumstances, those beliefs and values become more like prison walls restricting our knowledge.
A genuine search for the truth sets us free from the prison of false beliefs but it’s also important to hold fast to what we believe to be true as we assess what others are saying.
The rules of the truth-seeking debate method are:
- Be open and honest in expressing your views.
- Listen to, and respect, the views of others.
- Be prepared to vary your views if you are convinced by what you hear.
- Then be open and honest in sharing your new level of awareness.
I wonder what kind of social structures and systems we would have now had our ancestors adopted a cooperative, truth-seeking debating method rather than the adversarial method.