World debating champion Bo Seo believes in the power of disagreement — and good arguments
In the months after Bo Seo moved from South Korea to Australia at the age of eight, learning to agree with those around him wasn’t just an inclination — it became a survival mechanism.
He spoke no English, and an agreeable disposition felt like the easy option, even if it didn’t sit easily with the budding debater within.
“The hardest conversations to adjust to were disagreements — when people tend to talk over one another, and passions start to run and the rhythms of speech tend to break down,” he said.
“That made me resolve to be really very agreeable, to smile and keep most of my thoughts to myself.
“The thing that broke me out of that was my Year 5 teacher telling me that, in debating, when one person speaks, no-one else does — and to someone who had been spoken over and spun out of conversation and interrupted, that sounded like an irresistible promise.”
Through debating, Mr Seo discovered “a community that allowed me to be heard”.
He didn’t merely find his voice but used it to scale the highest rhetorical peaks and was part of the Harvard team that won the World Universities Debating Championship in 2016.
His prowess as a school debater took him across Australia, and he recently returned to Adelaide for a discussion of his book Good Arguments at UniSA’s Hawke Centre.
Disagreement doesn’t have to be disagreeable
The word ‘”debater” can conjure incongruous associations — on the one hand, there is the confident student politician, with rounded vowels and supercilious manner, dreaming of the parliamentary frontbench.
But that portrait is offset by another.
“If you kind of think about the kids who were debaters in school, you might remember there were some oddballs in there,” Mr Seo recently told ABC Radio Adelaide’s Deb Tribe.
“They learn to read a room, often as a matter of self-preservation.
Good Arguments explores the consequences of that epiphany.
One of its insights is that the art of disagreement shouldn’t itself be disagreeable – debate and petty dispute aren’t different expressions of the same impulse, but deeply at odds.
The point is illustrated by the Monty Python sketch in which one character pays for an argument.
After opening exchanges of “yes I did” and “no you didn’t”, he becomes exasperated.
“An argument’s a collective series of statements to establish a definite proposition,” he tells his interlocutor.
“Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says.”
The distinction is endorsed by Seo.
“Coming to some agreement about the kind of conversation we want to have, and being very deliberate about that, can be helpful,” he said.
“Are we going to interrupt each other or not, are we going to give each other equal time in which to speak?
This lesson isn’t just applicable on the public stage, Mr Seo hastened to add – it can also help relationships.
“Our personal disagreements, certainly from experience, tend to be the most painful,” he said.
“We’ve decided to share our lives together and as a result there are so many things we know about each other, so many points of contact that we accumulate every day, each of which could be pulled into the discussion – so a disagreement about the dirty dishes also becomes [about] your mother-in-law.
“Here again, being deliberate, setting some boundaries about what the conversation is about and what it isn’t about, can help.”
Blending judgement and wisdom
Such an approach may have its limits, Mr Seo acknowledged, because being rational involves recognising that humans can sometimes stubbornly resist seeing reason.
Words won’t solve all our problems — there isn’t a perfect sentence for every scenario.
As satirist Jonathan Swift wrote three centuries ago, reasoning won’t make someone “correct an ill opinion” if that opinion wasn’t acquired by reason.
“One kind of bully I write about is the ‘wrangler’ — the person who has a bit of criticism for every idea you put forward,” Mr Seo said.
“If you’re unable to come to some agreement about what kind of conversation you’re going to have, it may not be worth it.”
Despite this drawback, Mr Seo retains his “faith in what disagreement can do”.
He is currently a student at Harvard Law School and has an interest in human rights – an often hotly contested domain.
“Argument is what we have to do every day — we have to do it in the workplace, we have to do it at school, we have to do it in our lives as citizens,” he said.
“The art of argument begins with recognising disagreement as work — it’s kind of a craft that you can get better at.