The Lost Art of Debate April 20, 2014Posted 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.