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Honest debate dies on the extremes

  • Author: Mike Dingman
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published July 22, 2014

I sat and listened intently to the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce Make it Monday Forum debate on the legalization of marijuana at the Egan Center on Monday and I realized one thing – I don't like debates.

That's a pretty strong statement. See, I do like the idea of the discussion of ideas, presenting the pros on cons on a subject and then hashing all of those things out. Often this process leads to us learning more about a topic. We may think of some things that we had not already known, learn some unintended consequences and change our way of thinking or even solidify what we already believed.

The problem is, that's not generally what happens.

Longer ago than I'm willing to admit in print, I was the student body president at the University of Alaska Anchorage. After being elected I spent quite a bit of time reading the Constitution and bylaws for the Union of Students.

Luckily I was joined in student government that year by a group of student senators who were members of our national championship debate team. Not only were they great debaters, they were also some of the smartest and process-minded people I have ever met.

There came a time when I was engaged in a debate with the student senate over buying some computers. The process of buying the computers itself was pretty innocuous – we needed to replace the computers we had, we weren't spending a tremendous amount of money, but the process I went through to purchase them violated our own rules.

Half way through the debate, one of the guys on my side in this argument started showing me some loopholes and explaining how "we can win this thing." At that point I said, "lets take a short break." We took a break, I put some thought into it, read the passage in the bylaws that they had been pointing out to me and realized that I was wrong.

I realized in that moment that rather than trying to discuss the issue and figure out a resolution, I had been fighting my side in order to win. I got caught up in wanting to be right, rather than wanting to do what was right.

I notice this everywhere. I listen to talk radio and other political pundits and hear them all fighting their party's line without equivocation. One of the biggest problems with politics is that when you listen to the pundits, politicians and staffers, you would think that we live in a black- and- white world, where we can only made decisions at one extreme or the other.

The problem with that is that our world is made up of a million shades of gray.

Now, I'm not saying that the two debaters, Taylor Bickford for the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol, or Kristina Woolston, representing the opposition to the proposition, don't believe in their causes – they do.

They are both good Alaskans who believe that if their side wins Alaska will be a better place.

Nor am I saying that we should abandon the tradition of debate. We have a long and storied history with debates. One of the greatest times in American history was the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Two brilliant men espousing brilliant ideas about what the future of the United States should be. If there were one time in history I could visit, those debates would be on my short list.

But we get so caught up in the debate, it becomes a sport – rather than what it should be, a community discussion.

Alaskans should be gathering, not to hear two spokespeople give their best bullet-pointed presentations – but they should be part of the discussion.

Alaska has quite a few things to decide in this election cycle. In August we will have a vote on oil taxes that could prove to be the most important vote we have ever cast as Alaskans.

In November we will vote on this marijuana initiative, raising the minimum wage and a few other issues that will shape what Alaska will be in the future. Oh, by the way, there are also a few candidates running – for governor, U.S. Senate, U.S. House and most of the state Legislature.

As we make our way through the nonsense that is inherent in any election cycle, lets strive to look past the extremes, past the black-and- white arguments, and acknowledge the shades of gray where we, individually, and Alaskans want to live.

Mike Dingman is a fifth-generation Alaskan born and raised in Anchorage. He is a former UAA student body president and has worked, studied and volunteered in Alaska politics since the late 1990s. Contact him at

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)

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