At the next debate, turn off the microphones

At the next debate, turn off the microphones
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When an Oscar recipient talks longer than the allotted time at the televised Academy Awards, music starts playing, quickly drowning out the speaker. Anyone still trying to talk once the music starts looks foolish, unconcerned about the program as a whole. 

At the next presidential debate, scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 22, each candidate’s microphone similarly needs to be silenced when he is not speaking,  

In Cleveland's presidential debate, Donald TrumpDonald TrumpClyburn says he's worried about losing House, 'losing this democracy' Sinema reignites 2024 primary chatter amid filibuster fight  Why not a Manchin-DeSantis ticket for 2024? MORE cut off and talked over both his opponent and moderator Chris WallaceChristopher (Chris) WallaceAudie Cornish hired by CNN, will host show and podcast on streaming service The five biggest media stories of 2021 News networks see major viewership drop in 2021 MORE far more frequently, earlier and more aggressively than did challenger Joe BidenJoe BidenSunday shows preview: Democrats' struggle for voting rights bill comes to a head David Weil: Wrong man, wrong place, wrong time  Biden's voting rights gamble prompts second-guessing MORE, denigrating both the debate process and the former vice president. Wallace asked and pleaded with Trump to refrain, raising his voice and insisting without success. Vice President Pence similarly interrupted Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) twice as much as she interrupted him. The moderator Susan Page repeatedly failed to prevent Pence, letting him speak almost 10 percent more than did Harris. The fact that Trump and Pence may dismay or dissuade voters by behaving this way does not appear likely to soften their approach, since they are appealing to their base, many of whom like this “tough guy” image. 


Our nation deserves better. In the next debate, the only way to prevent Trump from again continually interrupting Biden is to turn off each candidate’s microphone when the other is speaking. Even with his microphone off, Trump could continue to interject when his opponent or the moderator is speaking — but viewers would be unable to hear and, instead, would be able to listen to Biden answer questions for the appointed lengths of time. 

Some commentators have feared that even with Trump’s microphone turned off; viewers might still hear him in the background on Biden’s mic. But the candidates could use lapel mics, closer to their mouths, and sound engineers have ways of electronically eliminating or at least greatly reducing background noise, allowing listeners to hear the appropriate candidate adequately during his designated time. Plexiglass barriers could also be erected, as they were at the vice-presidential debates, preventing the spread of the virus as well as noise. Each candidate could receive a 10- to a 15-second grace period to allow him to finish a sentence, but then perhaps a buzzer could sound, as in the game show "Beat the Clock." Alternatively, the two men could participate from two different locations, but that would constitute an even sadder commentary about our nation’s politics — the candidates unable even to be together in the same room and instead of needing to be separated, like unruly children – and Trump has said he’d oppose such a virtual discussion.  

Curtailing microphone use might not affect what each candidate says — a very different problem, as we have seen in the two debates thus far – but these changes could go a long way to ensure that the debate adheres to the agreed-upon rules. 

The American Psychiatric Association bans my fellow psychiatrists and me from providing “professional opinions” about people we have not interviewed, but research has generally revealed key interrupters' key characteristics. These individuals consider the social context, barging in more on people they respect less, and their hostile interjections have “ripple effects,” disrupting social situations. 

Interruptions — whether conversing face-to-face or when cell phones ring or new text messages and emails ping on our devices — discombobulate us, hampering our cognitive processes; we lose our train of thought. At one point during the Cleveland debate, no wonder, Biden asked, “What was the question again?" Aggressive interrupters seek not only to make their point but, in addition, to impede an opponent’s ability to make his or hers.  

Studies show, too, that such bullying also makes interactions tense — as anyone who watched the debate realizes. Most research on bullying, not surprisingly, focuses on elementary, junior high school students. But, alas, it occurs among adults as well. 

Bullies are usually disruptive and lack empathy and skills at resolving disagreement and are willing to use violence to address conflicts. Multi-level prevention programs to curtail school bullying — such as having teachers speak with potential bullies about the harms of their actions — have worked in schools. But the benefits have not spilled over into the wider neighborhood. The reduction of extreme bullying may “require more sustained intervention efforts.” Limit-setting and establishing boundaries are critical but need to be firmly enforced. 

If we want any future debate to proceed with the decorum that befits a serious discussion about the future of our fragile nation and planet, we need to act firmly and intervene. The most effective strategy seemingly would be to alter the logistical aspects of the debate itself. 

Every day, many of us get calls we don’t want from marketers and strangers, disrupting whatever we are trying to do; telling them not to interrupt us won’t stop them all. But technological solutions — such as notifications telling us who is calling before we answer the phone — have helped, and could do so in this case, too. 

Turning off the microphone works for movie stars and celebrities at the Oscars. In this instance, it could benefit the world. 

Dr. Robert Klitzman is a psychiatry professor, director of the Masters of Bioethics Program and a co-founder and former co-director of the Center for Bioethics in the Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons and the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. He is the author of nine books, including “When Doctors Become Patients” (2007), “Am I My Genes? Confronting Fate and Family Secrets in the Age of Genetic Testing” (2012) and “Designing Babies: How Technology is Changing the Ways We Create Children” (2020).