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Long Live the Debate Club Nerds

In the spring of 1829, Cincinnati hosted a public debate between the utopian socialist Robert Owen and the popular evangelist Robert Campbell. Owen, a Welsh textile entrepreneur who had already established one failed commune in Indiana and would go on to establish several others, defended the proposition that all religions were founded on ignorance. Campbell, a prominent preacher, vigorously but courteously disagreed. At the end of the eight day spectacle, Campbell asked every member of the audience who still believed in Christianity to stand. All but three did.

It was a characteristically American scene, one that combined public education, popular religion, and highbrow argument with a fair amount of showmanship and self-promotion. Campbell would go on to publish the full text of the debate, urging readers to rationally appraise his defense of Christianity. Owen, an intellectual antecedent to today’s New Atheists (and much else—he was also a proponent of the eight-hour workday, communal child-rearing, and universal public education), would have undoubtedly fared better with a modern audience.

Events like the Owen-Campbell debates, which combined spectacle with an Enlightenment-era faith in rational persuasion, were once a popular form of entertainment. Decades later, Abraham Lincoln’s public exchanges with Stephen Douglas would help vault him to the presidency and inspire a style of argument that persists in American high schools to this day. Various other formats, from parliamentary to policy debate to Model United Nations, have been enthusiastically exported to hundreds of other countries by generations of American teachers and expatriates. Public argument is certainly not unique to the United States, but it is deeply ingrained in our educational and political culture.

In the age of Ben Shapiro, YouTube know-it-alls, and cable TV cheap-shot artists, however, debate is in bad odor. Owen’s controversy-courting successors are more likely to be deplatformed than debated. Public argument is derided as shallow entertainment, time that would be better spent reading books or journal articles. The proliferation of bad faith arguments on the internet has produced a veritable dictionary of terms for underhanded debate tactics, from “gish gallop” to “reductio ad hitlerum” to “straw manning.” Faith in the power of ideas has given way to pervasive cynicism about our ability to find common ground with ideological opponents. Debate, according to the critics, doesn’t debunk objectionable arguments—it legitimizes and amplifies them.

For those inclined to agree with these points, a typical high school debate tournament will confirm many of your worst impressions. The participants are, by and large, nerds in ill-fitting suits, something critics of the activity never fail to mention. Speeches are often dominated by impenetrable jargon or empty bluster. For many students, a debate tournament or Model UN conference is a perfunctory résumé booster or an excuse to travel with friends.

Look beyond the bluster, however, and you’ll find some genuinely useful correctives to our internet-addled culture of public disputation. Even if you don’t believe in the power of persuasion, the simple act of preparing to engage with an ideological opponent forces you to rigorously examine your own ideas. The specialized jargon that draws a certain kind of high schooler to the activity, eager for a secretive mode of communication largely impenetrable to outsiders, serves a purpose. Specialized language can quickly convey complex information to a judge, a partner, or an interlocutor. More importantly, the rules of the game—and the simple fact that face-to-face communication imposes its own behavioral constraints—force participants to maintain a certain level of decorum throughout the competition.

What about the Nazis, you ask? Surely we shouldn’t extend such courtesy to extremists: they deserve to be mocked, condemned, and maybe even shouted down. But we have all lived through a natural experiment in how public discourse looks without decorum, and the results are not pretty. The internet has no rules of engagement. The amicable exchanges of the early blogosphere have rapidly given way to the mutually assured embarrassment of Twitter and unmoderated comment sections. Breaching decorum to call someone out actually matters when labeling people Nazis or communists isn’t an hourly occurrence, which is why a well-timed debate smackdown will always matter more than a sick Twitter burn.

Another point in favor of debate can be found in Noah Millman’s beautiful tribute to his deceased high school debate coach in this very magazine. Millman’s coach would constantly remind students that “the judge is never wrong,” meaning that debaters should tailor their arguments to their intended audience. In policy debate, a unique argumentative subculture that is best known for students’ rapid-fire speaking style, judges are actually required to submit “judging philosophies” that explain their argumentative preferences before tournaments, which students then use to fine-tune their rhetorical approach.

In debate-speak, “judge adaptation” is a competitive tactic, but the basic idea is surely familiar to every politician in the country. A speech to the Council on Foreign Relations will be quite different from a talk at a small-town Rotary Club. Audience adaptation sometimes results in shameless pandering or the dumbing down of ideas, but the truth is that most voters don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to read policy papers or dive into the latest book on Universal Basic Income. Debate is a fundamentally democratic means of communicating complex ideas to the voting public, who will never adopt the reading habits of policy wonks, intellectuals, and the Extremely Online.

None of this is to say that cable TV shouting matches are good, or that every university in the country is obliged to invite Milo Yiannopoulos to spar with the campus Anarcho-Syndicalists. But election year debates, candidate forums with tough interlocutors, and public events that feature vigorous ideological disagreement are a healthy and necessary part of any democratic society. There will always be a place for white papers, wonks, and weighty tomes about health care policy. Surely there is also room for public argumentation.

I teach at a small Hungarian high school, and two of my students recently attended their first Model United Nations conference in Budapest. The experience was predictably awkward. Our school generously subsidized the trip, but American ideas about extracurricular activities are not exactly in vogue in rural Hungary, and I rather doubt my headmaster knew what the school was paying for. The opening ceremony took place in the magnificent Hungarian Parliament, but most of the adult speakers were underwhelming. A deputy minister mouthed a few cliches about sustainable development. Someone from an international bank droned on about the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis before unironically exhorting us to “build bridges, not walls.” A few debate coach lectures about audience adaptation would have done wonders for both speakers.

Then things started to perk up. The students roleplaying ambassadors from China and Russia were quite good at weaving their respective countries’ foreign policy priorities into their opening statements. The young Hungarian representing the United States delivered a positively Trumpian blast highlighting our disproportionate contributions to the UN’s coffers. The next day’s sessions were equal parts lively, engaging, and silly. Both of my students seemed to enjoy the conference, just as I enjoyed my time on the policy debate circuit all those years ago. They may have even learned something. Long live the nerds in ill-fitting suits. Long live debate.

Will Collins is an English teacher who lives and works in Eger, Hungary.

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