On October 19, through the Karsh Institute of Democracy’s Democracy360 event, UVA hosted Bo Seo: two-time world debate champion, former coach of the Australian national debating team and the Harvard College Debating Union, and current student at Harvard Law. Seo visited UVA to share his insights on a topic more relevant than ever: the art of disagreeing.
“Debating gave me a voice.” Seo immediately captivated the audience with a touching story about his personal connection to debate and disagreements. At the age of 8, Seo immigrated from South Korea to Australia and grappled with the challenges of adapting to a new culture and language. He observed that adjusting to disagreements in a new language posed the most formidable challenge, eloquently characterizing it as “the rhythms of ordinary speech [breaking] down.” Seo’s quest for acceptance led him to navigate the conditional nature of welcomeness, where fitting in often meant “not rocking the boat” or “not speaking too loud.” To avoid drawing undue attention to himself, Seo became adept at concealing his thoughts, an experience far too common among immigrants. However, when Seo discovered the realm of competitive debate, his life changed. In this realm, when one speaks, no one interrupts. Having grown accustomed to frequent interruptions, debate was simply irresistible to Seo. As he ventured into the world of debate, he discovered that he did not have to change who he was to be heard and understood. Through the power of speech, language, gestures, and movement, Seo found a means to converse with the world around him.
Seo proceeded to delve into the two fundamental tenets of disagreeing. The first, being topic analysis, concerns identifying the topic of disagreement. While this may seem like a straightforward and self-evident course of action for those engaged in disputes, Seo unveiled the subtle complexities involved. He introduced a relatable scenario: two parents disagreeing about where they should send their children to school. He invited his listeners to pinpoint the pivotal words that define the foundation of the disagreement in the statement “We should send our kids to local public schools.” While some identified the word “public” as a focal point, others drew attention to the phrase “should send.” Then, Seo delineated the three categories of disagreements. The first category revolves around conflicts concerning facts, rooted in objective reality and exemplified by debates over the performance of public schools. The second category focuses on normative disagreements, centering questions about how the world should be ideally structured, in which the core dilemma is whether we bear an obligation to the public. The final category pertains to disagreements of action, emphasizing the need to send the children somewhere. The variety of responses from the audience, coupled with Seo’s analysis of the scenario, underscores his primary premise. Even in such seemingly uncomplicated disputes, it is important to consider the underlying intricacies that lurk.
The second tenet of disagreement explores the art of crafting a compelling argument. To demonstrate this, Seo prompted the audience to consider the task of persuading someone to become a vegetarian. Seo highlighted that to successfully persuade someone, it is not enough to make a claim and expect others to accept it. Instead, one must shoulder two critical burdens. The first is to demonstrate that the central claim is, in fact, true. For instance, when advocating for vegetarianism, it becomes crucial to establish that it is indeed beneficial for the environment, supported by evidence and examples. Seo goes a step further by introducing the second burden: revealing why the truth of the main claim should matter to the person you are attempting to persuade. Why should you privilege environmentalism over the personal satisfaction you gain while consuming meat? It’s about understanding and connecting with your opponent on a personal level, transcending a mere appeal to logic. To do this, one could possibly have a conversation with the opponent before the debate even occurs. Seo concludes his discussion with an explanation of the “Four W’s” – the What, Why, When, and Who Cares – and how they serve as indispensable principles of argumentation that exceed basic assertion, offering a rich array of reasons for the audience to embrace the speaker’s viewpoint.
The latter portion of Seo’s talk centered on a moderated conversation featuring UVA Professor Mary Kate Cary, who currently serves as the director of Think Again, an initiative aimed at promoting viewpoint diversity and freedom of expression. Cary’s first question alluded to a topic discussed in Seo’s recent book, on the inevitability of losing debates Good Arguments: How Debate Teaches Us to Listen and Be Heard, inquiring about the impact that losing has on Seo himself. Seo emphasized that the true essence of learning stems from these losses, delving further into the intricacies of the human psyche by illustrating how it has the proclivity to rationalize and redefine the ideas of winning and losing. He posed a compelling notion: that even in cases where you may lose a debate on a competitive level, it could still be a personal victory if you gained insights about the world or if your voice was genuinely heard.
Cary proceeded to pose another question to Seo, one that may resonate with many individuals who are often engaged in debate. She asked about the strategies one ought to employ when confronted with a “bully,” or someone who resists any form of rebuttal and resorts to name-calling. Seo candidly acknowledged the existence of those who derive satisfaction from asserting dominance and humiliation. He emphasized how important it is to learn the tactics of bullies. For instance, he pointed to the “wrangling tactic,” wherein nothing presented ever seems to suffice or be good enough to the bully. In response to such strategies, he advocated for a shift in approach: redirect the focus by posing the question, “What are you arguing for?” This transformative inquiry has the power to level the conversational playing field, turning the interaction into a more balanced exchange where both parties stand on equal ground.
Cary concluded the discussion with a final question, turning the spotlight on the prevailing issue of self-censorship, noting that about 85% of UVA students tend to withhold their opinions and ideas for fear of judgment or rejection. Seo argued that contemporary society is grappling with the challenge of distinguishing between private and public conversations. The ethical standards that govern public interactions have increasingly encroached upon private exchanges, giving rise to dilemmas such as “cancel culture,” which he found to be an ineffective response. Seo emphasized the importance of reclaiming a private space where individuals feel free to express uncertainty, acknowledge their mistakes, and engage in open debates. However, he recognized that this has become a particularly challenging feat for the younger generation.
Seo’s presentation concluded with an audience Q&A. One question was exceptionally pertinent, especially given the current political climate at UVA amid controversies like Abigail Shrier’s anti-transgenderism talk and the Israel-Hamas War. This particular question revolved around the inherent difficulty of disagreements that often involve individuals feeling that their opposition challenges a core aspect of their identity. Drawing from the insights he had shared from the beginning of his presentation, Seo stressed the significance of naming disagreements. Naming the topic of disagreement, he argued, is essential to depersonalization, allowing the opponent to recognize that the issue is not a direct affront to the individual’s identity.