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[Herald Interview] Seo Bo-hyeon, "Debater": On the art of disagreeing

May 28, 2023 - 16:01 By Park Ga-young
Seo Bo-hyeon, author of "Debater," speaks during an interview on May 12. (Yonhap)

A boy moved to Australia at the age of 8 with his parents. For the first two years, he was a very agreeable boy, not knowing how to disagree with people.

Then an “accident” happened -- a teacher asked him to join the debate team.

And the boy then known as Bo, not knowing how to say no, had no choice but to join the team. Several years later, he not only can disagree with others, but the man whose full name is Seo Bo-hyeon has also become a master of disagreement by winning not one but two debate competitions, the World Universities Debating Championship in 2016 and the World Schools Debating Championships in 2013.

In his first book, “Debater: The Art of Disagreeing,” Seo, a Korean Australian who is now pursuing a Juris Doctor degree at Harvard Law School, shares how we can have good arguments.

While “Debater: The Art of Disagreeing” is the title of the Korean version, the first English translations of the book have two names: “Good Arguments: What the Art of Debating Can Teach Us About Listening Better and Disagreeing Well” in Australia and “The Art of Disagreeing Well: How Debate Teaches Us to Listen and Be Heard” in the UK.

The difference emerged as the Korean version highlights his personal journey to finding his own voice. He pointed out that people's general perception of debating is that it is for outgoing or outstanding people.

“Those kids, I don’t think, need debate, but the kids who really need debate are people like me -- people who are uncertain in their voice, who need the space who need the structure, who need the help to be able to speak up, and so that’s what debates are for,” Seo told The Korea Herald in an interview on May 18 in a cafe in Seoul.

So in his book, Seo wanted to help people find their own voice and share what he has learned so far by participating in debates and coaching students.

The book shares how to make a point, how to push back in rebuttal, how to move people with rhetoric, how to know when to disagree, how to defeat a bully, how to raise citizens, how to fight and stay together and how to debate in the future while facing the challenges of artificial intelligence.

He said the basic skills of the debates he lays out in his book are variants of listening; “Listening out for what it is we’re disagreeing about, listening out for the other person's perspective, listening to what it is that we ourselves believe.”

For the era of artificial intelligence, he said debating skills will become even more important.

“When you ask ChatGPT to disagree with you, it doesn’t ask any questions. That’s one area where I thought we can maintain some advantage over machines. So long as we maintain the humanistic elements of debate,” he said.

Why do people need to be interested in debate in the first place?

Seo believes that people are losing a lot of valuable things by opting out from engaging in debating. For instance, a study published in May 2018 in Science Magazine showed that family members with different political views spent less time together -- 30 to 50 minutes fewer -- at Thanksgiving celebrations in 2016, following the contentious presidential election that had been decided just weeks earlier. That's some 30,000 hours lost for those American families.

In addition, he pointed out, that as our age is characterized by unprecedented diversity, the world is a much more networked globalized place, and as more people have been given the right to speak than ever before, it is important to listen and disagree better.