Consistency in Debate

Earlier this year I wrote about why I love forensic policy debate, at some length. Since then, I’ve been meaning to write some more essays about this “academic sport” that was my favorite class in high school. Today, I’d like to present my opinion of one of the fundamental problems with the … activity … and how I think it can be saved.

In every interscholastic athletic sport, and especially at intramural or class levels, sportsmanship is highly emphasized. (Not enough to get through to everyone, as a few games in some sports each year prove, but it takes more than a teacher for real education to happen.) Competitions are, to varying degrees, about having fun (safely) and determining (demonstrating) who is the superior team or athlete. Violating the rules, deliberately injuring a competitor, throwing a game, and so on are all supposed to be unthinkable because they destroy these two purposes of the activity.

Now, what are the purposes of debate? This is a question every debater should be able to answer, as it comes up in intermediate-level (and above) debates rather frequently, and the assumption that the rules and practice of debate should flow from those purposes is frequently cited, rarely questioned, and even more rarely dismissed. Some of the purposes I think most would agree on are education (of the participants and of their audience) and the determination of the best policies. In other words, debate is intended to be as much a contest of competing ideas as of competing teams.

But, unlike most athletic sports, where the unwritten code of sportsmanlike conduct is held in even higher regard (by officials, coaches, players, and fans) than, and is even stricter than, the rules of the game, in debate the absolutely fixed rules are few (mostly regulating the format of the activity—plus a few that are so customary that they might as well be fixed) but the fixed tenets of “sportsmanlike” debate are even fewer, boiling down to “academic integrity” (no plagiarizing, and no submitting fraudulent evidence). On the one hand, debaters are told that the purpose of their activity is to educate them and the community about the merits of various policy proposals, while on the other hand they are encouraged to carry around a file of pieces of “evidence” contradicting each other, to be able to win no matter which side of any argument is given by the other team.

In other words, on the one hand, we have the claim that “Debate is a search for truth!”, and on the other an exhortation to make use of the reality of politics—that you can find someone who sounds at least minimally credible saying just about anything—to win whether your source is actually right or not.

In the Classical era, or so the story goes, orators were trained to speak persuasively on behalf of whoever hired them—and were typically deliberately uncritical of their employers. With the spreading of Christian faith throughout the Roman Empire, and the survival of knowledge primarily within the Church, the standards for oratory changed. We now have truth-in-advertising laws (however lax), lawyers are supposed to serve the law above their clients, politicians aren’t supposed to be employed by any partisan group, and so on. But the barbaric original seems to survive in “modern” forensic policy debate, almost as if high school (American) football was still played under the old rules—which were changed so that Congress wouldn’t have to ban the game entirely because of the high death toll. In fact, were a proper remedy for the problem I’ve described not readily available, I would be seriously recommending that forensic policy debate be abolished as a class, as an interscholastic competitive event, and as an institution, even though I love the “academic sport.”

Fortunately, I see a simple but effective solution. One of the few “rules” that could but never does vary from round to round is that a team is never permitted to contradict itself, i.e. to submit arguments within a single debate that A and that not-A. (The penalty that should be imposed for infractions, however, is vigorously debated, with the offending team generally arguing that one of the arguments should be tossed, and their opponents favoring either removal of both arguments or a forfeit of the round.) We should make this a fixed and immutable rule of debate (even more than the time limits and order of speeches), and extend it: A debater should not be permitted to argue A in some debates, but not-A in others.

Now, precisely how this rule should be worded needs to be considered with great care. Because education is a primary purpose of debate, after all, we need to preserve a debater’s freedom to change her mind after seeing more evidence or hearing more arguments about her position. And it should be broad enough to cover more complicated contradictions than just “A and not-A”, while not so broad as to prohibit more subtle and nuanced positions (such as “not-A in almost every case, A in these few instances …”). The limits would, of course, have to be worked out in the debate rounds themselves and in the world of blogs, forums, magazines, classes, and informal debates that surrounds them. But we need some way to encourage (young) debaters to work out a consistent and, more importantly, true political position to promote and defend, and to discourage the use of rhetoric as merely a tool to pursue victory. Rhetoric and argument, like all arts, are less than worthless and worse than useless—in the long and eternal term—when employed in any service but that of Truth.

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