Yesterday, I was shocked to see the performance that won a national college debate championship. The team — which happened to be all-black — won a debate that was supposed to be about the war powers act by turning it into a rant about white privilege and racism. I described one of the debaters as looking and sounding like she was having a psychotic break. I thought I had a pretty good understanding of what debate is — and this looked and sounded like bedlam. The only way this team could have won, I figured, is if the judges were politically correct noodlebrains.
Well, readers taught me otherwise, explaining that as crazy as that all appeared to me, that’s what competitive debate is. That Towson team was playing by the rules — even though they chose to ignore the topic and to engage in what looked to me like a form of race-baiting, or at the very least racialized one-upsmanship. Towson team: I’m sorry, and congratulations to you, though I still fail to see the value of any pursuit that would reward that kind of performance.
Could this really be what it means to engage in competitive debate? Apparently so. Reading more about it, I came across this essay by Michael McGough, which originally appeared in The New Republic. Former debater Mark Oppenheimer cites it in a New Yorker interview. Excerpts from the McGough piece:
Mention high school debate to most Americans and the image evoked is a pleasing one: fresh-faced youths out of a Norman Rockwell scene expostulating in breaking voices about the meaning of democracy and pleading with the audience to reject the contentions of “our worthy opponents.” Inform them further that thousands of high school students take part in interscholastic debating, and that top debaters are courted by elite colleges and law schools, and you’ve spawned the hopeful impression that here is an oasis of liberal learning in the intellectual desert charted by Allan Bloom and William Bennett.
That’s me. You too, I bet. McGough has something to tell us:
It is, alas, a debatable proposition. If the meaningless sound bites traded at today’s presidential debates represent one regrettable oratorical extreme, then the current condition of high school debates represents the other. Let me take you to a typical high school debate tournament, at which two-member teams from around the country square off on the “public policy” proposition that they will wrestle with all year. High school debate topics are worthy and boring enough to come from the MacNeil-Lehrer playbook; this year’s question is whether the federal government should maintain a program of retirement security for the elderly.
The debate is already in progress, so you let yourself in quietly, fearful of interrupting one of the speeches. But no one is speaking. Instead, the two pairs of debaters, hedged in by prodigious file drawers and briefcases, sit at desks scratching an legal pads as the “audience”– single judge–inclines scribe like over her own notepad.
Time passes until one of the debaters at last rises from his desk, legal pad and sheaf of index cards balanced on his arm. You brace yourself for a burst of eloquence–certainly the boy has had plenty of time to prepare–but when he speaks it is sotto voce with eyes cast downward. “I’ll start with the D.A.s,” he says, “then go back to the–P.M.N. and. finish with solvency.” A pause follows, during which the other debaters and the judge nod~ knowingly; and consult their legal pads. Then, suddenly, our speaker shifts into drill-instructor mode and shouts: “Realize that the Affirmative has dropped all of our DA.s, therefore they lose. Now go to the B(1) subpoint.” That’s the last:’sentence you can make out; as he presses on, the boy increases his speed until he sounds like the motormouth in the Federal Express commercials. Adding to the robotic effect is his habit of constantly raising and lowering his right arm’ in order to scoop up his index cards.
I exaggerate but only a little. Some debaters manage to make themselves understood despite the machine-gun delivery. And such is the effervescence of youth that even the most jargon-clogged debate can suddenly turn frisky and familiar, as when one of the debaters I recently heard warned that if a certain policy were implemented, “the Soviet Union will freak out of their minds!”
Overall, however, the effect of a high school debate on the unwary spectator is usually one of bewilderment. Today’s budding Buckleys traffic more in bizarre jargon than the telling bon mot. A “D.A.,” for example refers to disadvantage,” a term of art for a negative consequence of the adoption of the Affirmative resolution. “P.M.N.” stands for Plan Meets Need. “Solvency” is a reference not to financial security but to the ability of the affirmative plan to “solve” a problem. But don’t expect, contestant to translate these terms for you. In today’s high school debates, the object of the exercise is to beat “your opponent.
What has happened in the ensuing 30 years? Like a good debater, I offer the testimony of an expert. John E. Kennedy began his debate career humbly, as my partner at Pittsburgh’s Central Catholic High School, before soaring to heights I never achieved as a high school and college debater and as the debate coach for our old high school. Kennedy, who now teaches public speaking at the university of Pittsburgh, sees the transformation of debate as a case study of what happens when form comes to dominate content. “After observing what happened in debate,” Kennedy says, “you can. understand how things like the baroque and rococo movements in art occurred, or the growth of bureaucracy in organizations.”
Yes, that’s it: only in a decadent phase of an institution (movement, etc.) could a confounding display like this year’s national debate competition be taken as the pinnacle of success. The McGough essay helped me understand why Towson won, especially this part, explaining the “spread” technique that came to dominate debate:
Quantity of arguments, however, comes at the expense of quality. A practiced “spreader” will cram a multitude of arguments into a four or eight-minute speech,– some of them based on mutually exclusive accounts of reality. (Like lawyers, debaters often “argue in the alternative” or, as the debate theoreticians put it, they “hypothesis-test.” And debaters have no compunction about throwing in the rhetorical equivalent of the kitchen sink say, a claim that establishing a new retirement program in America would trigger a nuclear war by bankrupting the economy and forcing a president to seek support in provocative foreign adventures.
Why make such a potentially embarrassing argument? For one thing, the other team might be “spread”‘ So thin by your other arguments that it will forget to respond to this one, awarding your team the issue when the final reading of the flow sheet is made. Equally important, the absurdity of the, argument won’t be held against you. In the surreal world of abstraction that is debate, one argument is as good as another-provided that it is supported by a “quote card” from an expert. Conversely, any assertion, however self-evident, that cannot be so corroborated is suspect. As the debaters say, “It ain’t hard if it ain’t on the card.”
How in the world did something as far removed from anything resembling debate in the real world come to define competitive debate? McGough again:
There also, seems to be a growing emphasis on quality rather than quantity of evidence, which often comes not from debaters’ original research but from handbooks that provide prefab evidence. David Cheshier, director of Georgetown’s summer high school debate workshop, admits that many debaters used to quote World Marxist Review as freely as Foreign Affairs. That, he says, is changing.
But to revive debate’s role as an exercise in communication, Kennedy proposes a more radical reform: using outsiders as debate judges. The “debate community” is so inbred that many judges are themselves college debaters or ex-debaters, and thus votaries of the flow sheet. Kennedy believes that debate speeches would become a lot more accessible if winning a trophy depended on explaining the “D.A.s” to the sort of people who ultimately will decide whether Dukakis or Bush was more persuasive ir their debates.
Try selling that proposition to the debate establishment Says Cheshier: “The issue is this: Should students who devote all that time immersing’ themselves in these arguments be judged by people who don’t have a very sophisticated understanding of these arguments? The prevailing feeling is that they should not.”
If you haven’t seen it, take a look at Noah Millman’s fond remembrance of his recently departed high school debate coach. Noah concedes that critics of the current hyperformalist debate style have a point, but he says they’re wrong to say that it has no connection to the real world. Noah:
Because here’s the thing: out there in the real world, people will employ all sorts of rhetorical strategies to win, and you need to be prepared for all of them, not just the ones you enjoy the most or think are the most intellectually rewarding.
What do you think, readers? I think it’s indisputable that people will employ all sorts of rhetorical strategies to win, but I cannot bring myself to believe that we should be training people to “win” by overwhelming their opponents with information or bizarre rhetorical gamesmanship, e.g., ignoring the stated topic of the debate and using it to yammer on about racism, nuclear war, or whatever you’d rather talk about. What is the underlying moral lesson in teaching kids that debate has nothing to do with logic, eloquence, or, above all, an exploration of the truth, and everything to do with winning? It is always a pleasure to watch British politicians debate, because they can usually make cogent arguments with admirable style. You may not agree with their propositions, but you can admire them as rhetoricians. Their words and their thoughts seem like what a normal person would recognize as oratory. What those American college students do is kabbalah by way of Dada.
UPDATE: I like this comment by Darth Thulhu, who was a high school debater:
When “winning is the only thing” and “remotely trying to argue the actual point is a recipe to automatically lose”, it was obvious that the entire institution was corrupt and needed to go. Having opponents endlessly spam distractions rather than thinking at all critically about what they were saying, it was vivid that everyone involved was being trained in the mindless and empty Crossfire format of “discussion” in our current politics that spreads infinite heat and zero light.
Policy “debate” encourages and embodies the copy-paste trollery of the worst internet commentariats. It encourages and embodies the habits of our political parties to spam talking points while talking completely past one another and refusing to engage the actual evidence at hand. It encourages and embodies our culture’s fixation with winning at any cost regardless of coherence or clarity or sense.