What lessons can today’s world learn from an ancient Mongol debate?
I was watching a Fox News video the other day, about the Green New Deal.
Ostensibly, it was supposed to cover facts about the Green New Deal; however, before showing any video clips about climate-change mitigation, commentator Tucker Carlson butts in with a dig at his opponent: “Chris Hayes is what every man would be if feminists ever achieved absolute power in this country.”
He goes on to say the video he’s about to show was aired on the “very same news outlet that spent two years lying to you about Russia”, and mockingly calls Senator Occasio-Cortez ‘doctor Cortez,’ implying that someone with a background in bartending cannot understand the science of climate change.
It only got worse from there. But then again, that seems to be the state of debate these days: keep yelling and throwing insults at each other, and the one with the worst insults wins. Poison your opponent and their argument withers and dies.
Were debates always like this, or were things done differently in the past? Let’s look at an instructive example from eight-hundred years ago.
It sounds like the start of a bad joke: “A Christian, a Muslim, and a Buddhist walk into a Mongol debate…”
But this is exactly what happened during the rule of Ghengis Khan’s grandson, Mongke Khan, and it can teach us three very important lessons when it comes to debating emotionally charged topics.
The Franciscan monk William de Rubruck came to the Mongol court, as an envoy from the French King to spread the word of God. By all accounts it should’ve been straightforward — Mongol society, despite its reputation for savagery outside their empire, was actually more tolerant of religions than anywhere else in the world at the time, boasting a colourful quilt of faiths from Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, to Taoism, Hinduism, and various forms of shamanism. However, Rubruck ran into a few problems: namely, how to share his religious beliefs.
“He was unaccustomed to debating with people who did not share his basic assumptions of Catholic Christianity,” writes Jack Weatherford in his book, Ghengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.
Which is why Rubruck, in front of a full panel of assembled religious representatives, tripped over his words like an oversized monk robe. Oof. Fortunately, Mongke Khan recognized the problem and ordered all the scholars in the room to write out their thoughts more clearly and return for a fuller discussion of religion.
He then appointed a panel of three judges to oversee the debate: a Christian, a Muslim, and a Buddhist. And this is when things got interesting.
As William of Rubruck’s initial fumbling can show us, convincing people of your viewpoint is easy if they already believe its basic tenets, but if you approach someone who has a different — sometimes fundamentally different — perspective on life, you’ll find that you have to explain things you’ve never had to explain before, things that your fellow believers accept without further examination or scrutiny. Therefore, it’s best to be prepared.
The best way to do this is to learn as much about your opponent’s beliefs as possible. Know as much about it as your own if you can. By understanding their level of knowledge about your viewpoint, you can prepare explanations of even the most basic elements of your beliefs and tailor them to your opponent’s understanding.
And the audience’s. You cannot win people to your side if they do not understand your side. You cannot counter another person’s argument unless you understand their argument. The best way to do both these things is to understand your opponent’s side so well that you can counter their arguments before they ever bring them up. Albeit respectfully and without petty name-calling.
One minute and twelve seconds. That’s the time Fox took up for the clip of Chris Hayes and the senator putting forth their arguments for the audience’s consideration.
That was almost one fifth of the video’s total runtime. A minute-and-a-fifth of a logical fallacy known as ‘poisoning the well’ — when you “prime the audience with adverse information about the opponent from the start, to make your claim more acceptable or discount the credibility of your opponent’s claim.”
Attack your opponent, get your audience biased against them, so they’re distrusted before they even begin to speak. Don’t give them the chance to present their views on a clean slate.
Who needs to understand the economic theory, political policy, science, or anything about the other side when you can label your opponent a catchy nickname — Crooked Hillary, Lyin’ Ted, Dr. Cortez — and stay within the comfort of your own worldview?
The debate began with “much seriousness and formality”, probably owing to the fact that Mongke Khan warned the participants not to speak “words of contention” on pain of death, and also what I imagine was in part because each one of them thought they possessed unassailable arguments supporting their religious views.
However, it didn’t take long for things to break down.
“As they debated, the clerics formed shifting coalitions among the various religions according to topic,” writes Jack Weatherford. And between each round of debate, the participants would drink airag, or fermented mare’s milk, in keeping with the tradition of Mongol athletes drinking between rounds of wrestling.
Emotionally charged debate + alcohol? What could possibly go wrong?
It’s no wonder why religion is a highly emotionally charged subject. Dealing with topics such as how we came to be, what it means to be a good person, how to lead a fulfilling life, why suffering exists and how to cope with it, and what comes after the existential oblivion we call Death, religion strives to answer everything that’s uncertain and terrifying in life. And this understandably puts us on edge.
When I mentioned drinking alcohol was mixed with the debate, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking this story was going to end in violence. I did too. But because the penalty for “contention” was so harsh, the debaters managed to avoid it.
In order to have a reasonable, well-mannered discussion, we should enforce harsh consequences for anyone who instigates undue conflict. Maybe not the death penalty — that’s a tad much, I think we can agree on that — but maybe something almost as harsh in its final impact, such as forced removal from the debate or mandatory silence for the next round — something that has a similar silencing effect as death but without the permanent existential consequences.
“No side seemed to convince the other of anything,” Weatherford continues in his narrative.
“Finally, as the effects of the alcohol became stronger, the Christians gave up trying to persuade anyone with logical arguments, and resorted to singing. The Muslims, who did not sing, responded by loudly reciting the Koran in an effort to drown out the Christians, and the Buddhists retreated into silent meditation. At the end of the debate, unable to convert or kill one another, they concluded the way most Mongol celebrations concluded, with everyone simply too drunk to continue.”
To be fair, this is much better than the bloodbath I originally anticipated from this debate, but I still can’t help but laugh. Eight hundred years later and we see the exact same pinnacle of human maturity in online comment sections the world over.
Yet, despite its apparent immaturity, we can learn very important contemporary lessons from this ancient religious debate.
Even if you enforce severe penalties for contention and ad hominem attacks, not all debates are winnable.
They should be, and if we were perfectly rational creatures, they would be. But the same intellect that’s cured countless diseases, flown us to the moon, and is now editing our genetic code like I’m editing this article right now — the same intellect also excels at creating loopholes, subtly changing the rules to preserve our self-esteem.
Can’t speak words of contention? Fine, says the human mind, but I’ll drown out the other side with a song, shout over them, or retreat into meditation with a graceful, ‘fuck this I’m out’ attitude.
While we should do all we can to promote a reasonable, peaceful atmosphere for debate, sometimes we just can’t reach an agreement. When this happens, we shouldn’t let violence get the best of us.
Instead, let’s take a lesson from Mongol history. Put the debate to bed with some good drinks, and celebrate so merrily you forgot why you were fighting in the first place.
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