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My fellow Americans, in the GREAT COUNTRY OF AMERICA…

It’s debate season again. No, not your debate season, the presidential primary debate season.

Two Ethos coaches volunteered to take notes and report back with what we hoped would be analysis of the candidates impressive figures of speech—some so earth-shatteringly persuasive that they would make Kanye West name his next kid Reagan. So we watched and analyzed the last debate (read: threw popcorn, slammed our faces in our hands, yelled, and sighed).

So we were pumped for quality! But alas! Instead, what we witnessed was an unintentional crash course in how not to behave in cross-examination, and what appeared as quotes you’d expect from the outlandish examples in a logical fallacies textbook.

Below are, in no particular order, a few choice quotes from the most recent debate. We tried to take these down word for word but we may have missed a helping verb here or there. Rest assured the arguments (and we use that term charitably here) remain intact. Names have been removed to protect the presumably innocent. (And we promise they’re not all from Trump.)


Pop Quiz! Can you match the fallacies with the quotes? (Answers at the end of the post. Go ahead and try. We’ll wait.)

  1. “Just because he says it doesn’t make it true.”
  1. “All of us will be revealed over time. I just have confidence in the American voters.”
  1. “If you vote for Hillary you are voting for an ayatollah to possess a nuclear weapon.”
  1. “We made accommodations for muslims at GITMO, but we can’t accommodate a County Clerk in Kentucky?” [who has moral qualms issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples]
  1. “We need to stop surrendering and start standing for our principles.”
  1. “I wanna build a wall. A wall that works. So important. Second of all, we have a lot of really bad dudes from outside this country. They’ve got gangs all over the place!”
  1. “I never attacked him on his looks, and believe me, there’s plenty of subject matter there.”

Are we being a little hard on the candidates? We understand the candidates are under a lot of pressure and don’t have a lot of time to get their points across. Yet, no, we’re not being too hard on them. As experienced debaters ourselves, we’ve all been on the wrong end of a pointed question many times ourselves. We believe that external factors are not an excuse for lazy reasoning skills.

The Core Flaw: Listening Skills

Presidential debates are like highly televised and long-drawn out cross-examinations. Why? In addressing communication pitfalls, Steven Covey, the author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People writes:

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

When candidates get to the debates, the candidates already know each other’s plans, which have been broadcast around the country on campaign tours. So candidates feel they have to vie for time to speak. They must answer questions from the moderators and each other. And there’s also a “Judge”—the American public—who’s anxious to see who will rise to the occasion and who will crack under pressure. Because plans are so similar, or because of a penchant for drama, so much focus is on interpersonal statements, feelings, perceptions, and applause-zingers, rather than the merit of plans themselves.

So what’s a debater to do?

Contrary to popular belief, cross-ex is not about “getting your point out,” it’s about being likable. It’s about not taking the bait but rising above the verbal fist-fight. Our advice to you (and the candidates, if they’re reading this. …Hey we can dream, right?) is:

  •  Avoid the temptation to make a logical leap and a sweeping generalization, just to get a jab in.
  •  Stay above the fray, calm, cool, collected, and try to come across as a likable and genuinely nice person. (Extra points if your likability leads to you being given time to logically and thoroughly explain your position.)
  • Remember the Golden Rule of Cross-ex: Answer others as you’d want others to answer you.

In cross-examination it’s easy to get sucked into a tit-for-tat rabbit trail argument where you say something rash and regret it later. It’s easy to believe the little appeal to fear narrative in your own head that insists–“You’ve got to defend yourself!” “If you don’t stop this train wreck of an opponent you’ll never recover from it!” “It’d be really easy to embarrass him right now, and since he’s so wrong about everything, maybe that’s the best way to show it!”–but, we implore you, RESIST! The judge is smart enough to see through your opponent’s sophomoric (shoutout to Rand Paul for using our favorite Ad Hominem adjective, btw) tactics and will view your arguments charitably if you maintain composure, honor, and decency in cross-ex. We hope, also, that the American people are smart enough to see through this too, but there’s no knowing for sure since they didn’t attend judges orientation.

Answers to quiz:

  1. — Appeal to lack of evidence
  2. — Appeal to populus
  3. — Appeal to fear
  4. — Equivocation
  5. — False dichotomy (and lame generic rhetoric)
  6. — Equivocation
  7. — Ad hominem


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