If you are standing in the school cafeteria with someone on the debate team and you make some ridiculously subjective statement like, “I really feel like eating roast beef today,” the debater will clutch you by your windpipe and cite evidence – using rhetorical markers like Point 1 and sub-point A – saying that according to the FDA’s dietary guidelines from 2005, roast chicken is healthier than roast beef besides being more tender and a better complement to the soggy green beans on the menu. The debater will demand that you rebut him on the spot. If you say simply, “Um I like roast beef and you can like chicken,” it will utterly befuddle him.
That’s because debate is arguing for the pure joy, passion and zeal of argumentation. Clearly, this draws a certain kind of personality. To a true, cross-ex-in-the-bones debater, disputation is simply conversation. The activity of competitive debate is good for him and all of us. When he unleashes his innate disputatiousness in the school cafeteria, he’s annoying. But in the tightly structured forum of debate where his speeches have time limits and there are moments he has to shut up, that orneriness is tamed and polished. He becomes the kind of arguer the world could use more of.
To promote his memoir Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate, Mark Oppenheimer held a debate at his high school alma mater Regis High School in New York City. Oppenheimer and a high school senior debater, Joseph Eddy, faced off against journalist Hanna Rosin and Stuvyesant High School debater Claire Littlefield, debating the resolution, “Is American political dialogue in trouble?”
I walked in the room completely prejudiced. How could anyone not believe that American political dialogue was in trouble? Clicking Twitter headlines from my couch, I cringe at the outrageous statements of entire swaths of the American population. How, I scoffed, could anyone NOT believe that American political dialogue is clearly doomed?
But as the debaters stood and gave their opening arguments, I found myself falling back into an old pattern from back in my debate days: the tabula rasa. This means your mind becomes a blank slate – all of your preconceptions and prejudices erased, your mind wiped clean, and ready to judge each argument on its merit and evidence.
The men, affirming that the American dialogue was in trouble, gave their case, and the women argued for the negative side against it. They sparred in cross-examinations and gave rebuttals. As Rosin and Littlefield spoke, I found myself switching allegiances. The aff was so obvious, the neg more nimble. The neg had a harder premise to prove and they were creative and spirited in the way they constructed their case. They were more clever about their arguments. Proving their side took more finesse.
Besides that, I almost always feel inclined to pull for female debaters over male. Being a female debater takes poise and a willingness to go toe-to-toe with men who are bigger than you. When I was a 98-pound little-voiced slip of a thing, I debated oafs who were six feet tall. Their voices commanded the room and their figures dwarfed mine when we got up for cross-ex. Female debaters face what female candidates and female CEOs do: the perennial prejudice that audiences will view spirit as shrillness and confidence as masculinity. Female debaters must root for one another to succeed.
And yet as the debate progressed and I followed each argument, charting its flow (yes, we call it a “flow chart” in debate terminology), the debate came down to a single question for me. Please remember that I am paraphrasing and both might quibble that I’m omitting certain nuances, but the gist of the argument was this:
The women were arguing that the fringe elements of the American dialogue – the Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs and Keith Olbermanns – were actually good for American dialogue. They admitted the fringe was fringe but said that despite all that, the fringe was a vital part of American dialogue and denying them their distasteful opinions would be un-American.
The aff argued that this made no sense. If American dialogue is dominated by extremists who care about partisan politics over truth, then how could this possibly be a good thing? If the neg conceded the premise that wingnuts dominated the debate, could they still argue that American political dialogue was just fine? If they admitted extremists were loudest, did they have an argument for why it was good that extremists were loud? I went from one side to the other and back again as I watched the debate. And finally, the question came down not to my personal prejudices but to the question, “Who made the argument the other side didn’t answer fully?” I didn’t hear a satisfying argument for the virtues of wingnuts. If I had been casting a ballot I would have said yes, the American political dialogue is in trouble.
It would be in less trouble if leaders had to debate like those students did. In high school debate, you take turns debating each side of an issue. Imagine if Congress had to abide by the rules of high school debate. Imagine if we presented them with the health care bill and told them they had to switch sides. The Democrats had to come up with the best, most sophisticated arguments against health care and the Republicans had to passionately defend the health care bill against all arguments against it. Whoever won the debate got to choose the outcome of the bill. If Republicans won, they could kill the bill; if Democrats won, it lived.
We would have a different kind of debate I imagine. For one thing, it would be more objective. Each side would be arguing for the side they abhorred, but for the sake of winning for the side they loved. It would cool the heat that comes not from facts but from resentment and fear and pandering. The debate is now about evidence and arguments, not about how you feel.
Doing this helps you see the other side. It helps you see where your own arguments are weakest when you find yourself skewering the argument you believe and questioning the evidence you personally find credible. You discard arguments that are bad and find evidence that has weight.
Afterwards it was said that if students like Eddy and Littlefield were American’s political future, then American dialogue would one day prosper. It was true.