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What We Debate About When We Debate About Debate

I see this weekend is high school debate weekend over at TAC. On Thursday I reminisced about my old high school debate coach, on the occasion of his passing, and yesterday Rod Dreher lamented the state of college debate, a discussion he continued this morning. Dreher ends his most recent entry thusly: I think it’s […]

I see this weekend is high school debate weekend over at TAC. On Thursday I reminisced about my old high school debate coach, on the occasion of his passing, and yesterday Rod Dreher lamented the state of college debate, a discussion he continued this morning. Dreher ends his most recent entry thusly:

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?

My point wasn’t that we should teach students to win at all costs – and that wasn’t how we were taught. We knew the difference between someone who played to win in a sportsmanlike manner and someone who was just a jerk. If we faced an opposing team that was obviously less-proficient, we would slow down, go out of our way to explain ourselves, and try to stick to arguments that they might comprehend. We tried not to humiliate people. If we faced a team that was particularly clever, we tried to match them in cleverness; if we faced a team that had a more “meatball” approach – a few big, hulking arguments backed with huge amounts of evidence – we’d show that we could play the game that way, while also demonstrating that we were maybe a bit more clever. We tried, that is to say, both to be courteous and to show a sense of style. But we certainly played to win, always. It’s a competitive activity.

What I was arguing against was whining, either in a debate or outside it. Debaters should be prepared for other people who are willing to use strategies that are, arguably, less than sporting, or less educationally rewarding, or wildly at variance with your expectations, or what have you. You could face a jerk who reads his evidence so fast you can’t understand a word, or a debater who makes a meta-argument about how we shouldn’t discuss the topic, but rather his preferred subject, or whatever. You’ve got to figure out, on the fly, how to handle whatever is thrown at you.

But I was also making a point about the value of understanding that diversity of rhetorical strategies as such. In fact, I was packing a bunch of notions together into a single point – so allow me to tell three anecdotes from the glory days to illustrate different some of the different parts of my argument.

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Anecdote #1: “The Cat’s Meow”

Among the most prestigious tournaments of the year on the high school circuit is the Tournament of Champions at the University of Kentucky. For both the National Forensic League and the Catholic Forensic League, each district held its own qualifying tournament. For TOC, to qualify you had to get to a certain level at a qualifying tournament – could be semifinals, could be quarterfinals or even octafinals if the tournament is big enough. These qualifying tournaments were not purely regional; big national programs competed at most or all of them. So to get to TOC, you had to be competitive on a national level.

As a consequence, TOC was the venue where debaters set out to impress each other, by coming up with brand new, fiendishly clever arguments that nobody else would be prepared for. Our sophomore year, the team we most idolized was a team of juniors from our rival, Stuyvesant High School, and at TOC we saw them set a new standard in cleverness. That year, the resolution was, “RESOLVED: that the Federal government should establish a comprehensive national policy to protect the quality of water in the United States.” This was how Stuyvesant’s A team began their first affirmative that year at TOC:

Krebbs was a bearded man, a platinum blond Jesus with spaniel eyes. He was no close friend of mine. I had met him at a cocktail party where he presented himself as National Chairman of Poets and Painters for Immediate Nuclear War. He begged for shelter, not necessarily bomb proof, and it happened that I had some.

When I returned to my apartment, still twanging with the puzzling spiritual implications of the unclaimed stone angel in Ilium, I found my apartment wrecked by a nihilistic debauch. Krebbs was gone; but, before leaving, he had run up three-hundred-dollars’ worth of long-distance calls, set my couch on fire in five places, and torn the door off my medicine cabinet.

He wrote this poem, in what proved to be excrement, on the yellow linoleum floor of my kitchen:

I have a kitchen
But it is not a complete kitchen.
I will not be truly gay
Until I have a

There was another message, written in lipstick in a feminine hand on the wallpaper over my bed. It said: “No, no, no said Chicken-licken.”

There was a sign hung around my dead cat’s neck. It said, “Meow.”

That’s from chapter 36 of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Cat’s Cradle, and the team from Stuy went on to propose, by way of protecting America’s water, to ban “Ice Nine,” a fictional form of ice that appears in the novel and that has the unfortunate characteristic of transforming liquid water into this peculiar form of ice at any temperature. Needless to say, if such a chemical ever got loose, it would wreak havoc on the environment (not to mention being a formidable weapon of war if it could be controlled).

Of course, Ice Nine is entirely fictional. Which is why their first affirmative ended with a one-minute “underview” arguing that science fiction is good for expanding your mind, and debate is all about hypotheticals anyway, so it’s good to debate as if science-fictional inventions and occurrences were potentially real.

The opposing team in the round I watched was apoplectic. How were they supposed to debate a ban on a fictional substance? It’s absurd!

I thought it was the coolest debate strategy ever. All I wanted out of the activity, from then on, was to figure out how I could possibly top that.

Now, you might disagree and say that changing the topic, meta-argumentation, and the like are just empty sophistry, and a waste of intellectual talent. If you were the judge, you’d have dropped Stuy like a rock for not taking the activity seriously. In other words, you’d have been the man, a suit, Principal Ed Rooney – and bully for you. But we knew what was cool and what wasn’t, and Stuy were the coolest cats in Kentucky that weekend, whether they won or lost.

But here’s the thing: what’s cool to one cat ain’t necessarily cool to another. What I see as cool, the kids who won CEDA might have seen as a bunch of posturing and signifying in a language that meant nothing to them. And vice versa. What’s the principled argument for saying that quoting Kurt Vonnegut shows wit while quoting Chuck D shows contempt for the activity? I can’t see one.

Which is why I have less sympathy for opponents who sputter about traditional standards than I might – because I know how I reacted to similar sputtering against Stuyvesant. Their opponents didn’t have to roll over. They had to fight back. Argue that banning a science fictional substance would lead to concrete harms. Or that Ice Nine would have benefits. Or that debating banning a science fictional substance was not the right way to get the benefit of reading science fiction. Or all of the above.

Convince me, in the moment, that you deserve the win. That’s your job as a debater. And try to be cool about it.

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Anecdote #2: “One Fish, Two Fish”

Junior year, the topic was: “RESOLVED: that the Federal Government should implement a comprehensive agricultural policy for the United States.” A more boring topic could not have been invented, in the opinion of all of us debaters from New York City, Chicago, Boston and other major agricultural centers. But by the middle of the year, we’d come up with a pretty cool way of changing the topic. On the affirmative, we argued for subordinating America’s agricultural policy to the needs of our European allies, effectively requiring “pre-clearance” of all such policies with their trade negotiators before doing anything. The goal was to avoid a trade war, which, if it erupted, would weaken NATO, which in turn would encourage the Soviets to invade Turkey en route to Iran and Iraq’s oil fields, sparking World War III. Now we were talking!

Unfortunately, on the first day of one tournament, news broke of a big new trade accord. The threat of trade war had receded; our case was no longer compelling. What to do? We decided to pull out a warhorse from summer debate institute: soil erosion prevention. We couldn’t prove that soil erosion would cause World War III, but at least we had a card (from Paul Ehrlich, I think) claiming that soil erosion would be worse than World War III. That was some consolation.

We weren’t thrilled, but we didn’t really have a choice. And then, as we debated from round to round, we noticed something. Nobody actually had any good arguments against preventing soil erosion. Indeed, nobody had bothered much to research soil erosion – it was boring. Instead, we faced a series of preposterous arguments claiming that, for example, adopting our policy would strengthen the Federal government, which would scare China into shifting to the Soviets – which would cause World War III. (Or maybe I have that backwards – it’s been a while.) Rather than jump at the chance to debate whether, in fact, detente with China was going to lead to World War III (by encircling the Soviets), we decided to point out just how preposterous this argument was.

Round by round, I honed a little speech, my “one fish dies” speech, which said, in effect, that everything the negative was claiming was transparently ludicrous (don’t worry, we went into chapter and verse on what was ludicrous about it), and that nobody was even trying to argue that soil erosion caused no harm, or that our plan wouldn’t, in some measure, improve the situation. Therefore, if even “one fish dies” as a result of your voting negative, you’ve made the wrong choice.

Opponents hated this speech – but they, generally, didn’t know what to do about it. It moved them out of their comfort zone of technical tit-for-tat, and questioned fundamental assumptions of the activity. It was, in a sense, a meta-argument – just a traditionalist one. But it wasn’t a whine. It was an attack – an attack delivered both with the kind of rhetoric that laypeople assume debate should foster, and the technical point-by-point delivery that people immersed in debate expected.

And we won the tournament with it.

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Anecdote #3: “The Last Days Of Disco”

That spring, we faced our old rivals from Stuy at TOC. We were hoping to be affirmative – we had worked up a new, super-cool case, in imitation of them: time capsules. We began with an overview of ten reasons the earth is utterly doomed, from nuclear war to global cooling to species extinction to AIDS to asteroid strike – we had a list of ten completely different plagues any one of which would wipe out human civilization. But not humanity: we argued that some human beings would likely survive, and rebuild. But rebuild what?

Well, hopefully not agricultural civilization, as we went on to argue that agriculture was the bane of human existence, and that humans had been much happier and healthier when we were hunter-gatherers. Therefore, we would compile a comprehensive study to prove the perniciousness of agriculture, and bury the study in time capsules in a variety of strategic locations chosen to maximize the chance of surviving the various cataclysms to come. Hopefully, when future humans dug the capsules up, they would learn the lesson and avoid developing agriculture.

It was a great case. You could argue anything you wanted about how it would lead to World War III or whatever – we didn’t care, because we said World War III was inevitable. All we cared about is the aftermath. And, needless to say, nobody else was prepared to debate whether agriculture was a good idea in the first place.

We lost the coin flip, and had to take the negative. But that was ok. We were ready for them.

Their case was almost the mirror image of ours. It was something called “Foresight,” which meant doing big studies to try to predict the future, and then basing our national policies on those studies. This, they claimed, would prevent all kinds of disasters that would affect the economy and environment, and, of course, wreck American agriculture.

We had a two-pronged attack in response. First, we argued that the studies would never be completed, would never work, and would just add a thick layer of bureaucracy over every decision. Rather than protecting us from disaster, they would leave us incapable of responding to any contingency. Second, we argued that though they wanted to use the studies to protect the environment, all anybody in government would actually care about was boosting economic growth, so that’s what the studies would be used to accomplish – and the relentless pursuit of economic growth was the biggest threat to the world of all. We had lots of cards that said this.

Our first negative was pretty stoked when he finished his speech. We had obliterated their case.

And then their second affirmative stood up, and conceded both arguments. Yes, we were right, their studies would fail, would create more bureaucracy, would prevent anything from getting done. And yes, we were right, all the government really cared about was promoting economic growth, and would bend any new knowledge to that end. And relentless pursuit of growth would destroy the planet. Therefore, the only hope for the planet was gumming up the works of government with endless studies so nothing could be accomplished. Vote affirmative.

We never recovered. Oh, we did our best – we fell back on secondary arguments of various kinds, fought hard on badly reduced ground. But our heart wasn’t really in it. They had “discoed” us – turned our own arguments against us. We were simply outclassed.

After we lost, we talked about the round with our assistant coach. We told him there was nothing we could do – we were discoed. And he forcefully disagreed. Why, he asked, didn’t you run a counter plan to simply halt economic growth? If they conceded your argument that ending growth was the most important thing, then your plan is better than their plan, by definition, and you win.

My initial response was, “okay, I hear you, but that’s a weird argument, and a really weird thing to do, to run a new counter plan that late in the game. How could we have thought of that?” But I was blinded by jargon and convention. It took me months to understand what he was really getting at. You can’t legitimately win by conceding that your own plan will fail. If that’s a plan’s only virtue, then there is surely a more direct and efficient route to get the positive results associated with that failure. So why adopt the plan? Say that, and it will become clear to the judges that voting for this plan is absurd.

Now, that’s a very subtle argument on one level. But on another level it’s bone obvious. The former is the level of formal argumentation that dominates policy debate. The latter is normal human thinking.

Both modes of thinking are valuable for debaters – and, for that matter, lawyers, politicians, anybody who needs to make arguments on a regular basis. We get into trouble when we lose sight of one or the other – when we think that the formalisms of argument are meaningful in and of themselves, or when we dismiss those formalisms cavalierly and suggest that anything “real people” can’t understand is nonsense. Without those formalisms, we wouldn’t have been able to argue at the level that we did. But if we forgot what those formalisms stood for, we’d lose sight of obvious truths that could win us a debate, and even teach us something.

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Arguments about the worth of argument are as old as argument itself. Socrates wandered about Athens proving, to his own satisfaction, that nobody knew anything, except him, who at least knew that he didn’t know anything. Was that productive? Was it more or less productive than what the Sophists were up to? We tend to lionize the former and anathematize the latter, but it’s worth recalling that the Athenians weren’t always clear that there was much of a difference (other than that Socrates didn’t charge a fee).

Did the style of debate I practiced warp our intellectual development? You can judge my case from this blog. Our Stuyvesant rivals? One, Hanna Rosin, is a far more prominent opinionatrix than myself. The other, David Coleman, is, from his perch at the head of the College Board and through his leadership in designing the Common Core, in the process of reshaping the contours of American education. So I guess we have to hope not!

But we don’t have to rely on hope as a strategy. There’s plenty not to like about how high school and college debate is practiced – perhaps it’s worse now than there used to be, or perhaps not; I’m not close enough to the activity to be able to say. But I can say that the only way to shape the future is to engage with it, directly.



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