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The Lost Art of Debate April 20, 2014

Posted by geoff in News.

I used to be on our debate team in high school – spent 3 years doing the research, preparing the arguments, and going into battle against other teams. It was a great way to discipline your mind: you had to build a logical framework supported by evidence and reason within a short period of time. Then you had to convey that framework coherently, nay eloquently, to the judge within your strictly monitored span of time. And did I mention that you had to coordinate all that with your partner?

The game was to try to bulletproof your case against logical attack, while trying to find logical flaws or countervailing evidence to crush your opponents’ case. As I said, it was a great learning experience, and I would have highly recommended it to anybody in high school or college.

Until I read this:

These days, an increasingly diverse group of participants has transformed debate competitions, mounting challenges to traditional form and content by incorporating personal experience, performance, and radical politics. These “alternative-style” debaters have achieved success, too, taking top honors at national collegiate tournaments over the past few years.

two Towson University students, Ameena Ruffin and Korey Johnson, became the first African-American women to win a national college debate tournament, for which the resolution asked whether the U.S. president’s war powers should be restricted. Rather than address the resolution straight on, Ruffin and Johnson, along with other teams of African-Americans, attacked its premise. The more pressing issue, they argued, is how the U.S. government is at war with poor black communities.

In the final round, Ruffin and Johnson squared off against Rashid Campbell and George Lee from the University of Oklahoma, two highly accomplished African-American debaters with distinctive dreadlocks and dashikis. Over four hours, the two teams engaged in a heated discussion of concepts like “nigga authenticity” and performed hip-hop and spoken-word poetry in the traditional timed format. At one point during Lee’s rebuttal, the clock ran out but he refused to yield the floor. “Fuck the time!” he yelled.

That “debate” appears to be more of a rant with a captive audience than the formal affairs I remember. For example, back in the antediluvian days in which I debated, I would have lost critical points for overrunning my time. I imagine I would have automatically lost the debate had I “refused to yield the floor.” If I had sworn, I probably would have been disqualified from the competition.

I have to say “I imagine” and “I probably” because these things were inconceivable in my time. Nobody would have ever tried these silly tactics, because they completely undermined the spirit of the debate as well as all rules of decorum. Not to mention earning you an ass-kicking from the judges.

I may be recalling all this with rose-colored glasses, but here are some the essential features of competitive debate that I recall from my youth:

  • Debate was supposed to adhere to the topic. If you were declared “non-topical” you automatically lost.
  • Debate was supposed to be logical, supported by facts and statistics. Anecdotal evidence was worthless, and personal anecdotes were never used.
  • Debate was supposed to be dispassionate, letting arguments stand without emotional or personal appeals.
  • Debate was supposed to emphasize clear communication, with arguments organized to form a coherent story, and delivered as if they were a well-practiced speech.
  • Debate was supposed be formal, conducted with high standards of dress, behavior, speech, and respect.
  • Debate was supposed to follow a strict format, both in the conduct and the judging of the debate.

From what I can see, debate is now a forum where you don’t have to talk about the topic, you don’t have to justify your statements with evidence, you don’t have to be coherent, you don’t have to yield the floor, and emotional appeals rule the day. A complete travesty.

Reading through comments at PowerLine, it appears that debate changed long before the instances mentioned above. It sounds like the degradation of the format is a result of an overly permissive ruling body and entropy. Now, of course, it’s too late to recapture the lost art of debate. If you try, you’re labeled a racist (as was a debate coach from Northwestern).

I had no idea this institution was in any sort of peril, and now it’s too late to save it. It makes me very, very sad.


1. Anonymous - April 20, 2014

I would imagine that debate teams were almost entirely populated by the more literate white people in each given school, simply because the blacks were poorly educated and raised. Add a complaint about “racism” and “exclusion” being the motive behind it and you have all you need for progressives to adjust the rules to allow sub-educated, illiterate thugs to take the stage and tell you what kind of “niggas” they are.

The welfare state, while awful in almost every way seems also to be a necessity now, otherwise what would you do with a generation of such idiots, schooled to think yelling louder and greater victimhood made them right. It’s either welfare or crime for them.

2. geoff - April 20, 2014

I would imagine that debate teams were almost entirely populated by the more literate white people in each given school,

More like it was the geekiest, nerdiest kids in school who went out for debate. Stuffed-in-lockers-by-jocks types of kids. Being on the fringe socially,the thought that we were enjoying some sort of white privilege makes me laugh.

3. geoff - April 20, 2014

I mean, even the Speech competitors were considered cool compared to debaters.

…adjust the rules to allow sub-educated, illiterate thugs to take the stage and tell you what kind of “niggas” they are.

I wouldn’t characterize these modern debaters as sub-educated or illiterate. Nor as thugs. They’re just kids who apparently can’t get off that one subject, and who bent the rules of the wimpy debate associations so that they can do whatever they want.

4. Sobek - April 20, 2014


5. Cathy - April 21, 2014

This is so sad to hear. Sad. Just very very sad…

6. Lipstick - April 21, 2014

They should just close down the debate program in schools where it has sunk to that level. It no longer deserves the name and the students do not deserve the prestige of claiming to be on a “debate” team.

7. lauraw - April 22, 2014

Cultural Revolution II: Electric Boogaloo

Placing a high value on logic and rational thought are cultural pillars of Western civilization, and therefore tools of oppression.

8. daveintexas - April 22, 2014

There’s video of an amazing debate over the Panama canal treaty in the late 70s, I’ll look for it. The pro-treaty team was led by William F. Buckley and the anti-team was led by Ronald Reagan. It was amazing.

9. osoloco11 - April 22, 2014

Chewbacca Defense wins collegiate debate competition?

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