Plaything of Domination

There are a lot of smart people whose only conception of debating is that it is a game played by the controlling class - by those that C. Wright Mills might call the "power elite," those who don't have to worry, or struggle, or fend for things in their lives. By those who engage in a number of social, cultural, and educational practices that serve to preserve and extend the domination of a class as equally as they provide individual benefits.

In these terms, debate is the game that is designed to offer the hope and promise of agency only to bend that agency back toward submission. "We've debated it," the teacher will say, "and now we see why things are done this way." The whole process is one that makes a game out of agency and choices precisely to eliminate the open or imaginative use of agency and choices. Students feel they can offer their own researched views, but once defeated they then see that the only choice that makes sense is the status quo. This is best done in exercises where the limits of the topic are constrained by historical accident (counter-factual debates) or debating large decisions made in science or other fields - "We debated it, you now see why things had to end up that way." These exercises and activities are far more prominent than a model of debate that introduces elements of uncertainty into the curriculum - one where the teacher is also caught by surprise by the way the arguments unfold and the way a decision is reached.

Many people view the introduction of debate as the introduction of the possibility of horrible choices that wouldn't be available to think about if they were not offered up for consideration. It's not a straw person: Debate is regularly used around the world by educators as a steam valve for resistance, and a creative way to ensure the best possible compliance to authority - that is, false choice freely chosen, authority filled in with reasons from the bottom-up.

Debate's service to oppression and domination is regular and consistent - like writing, or mathematics, or history, it has the capacity to serve as a tool that helps terrible ends as often as good. There are two levels of this that I've thought of, and there might be more, but the two I want to explore are the use of debate to get people to assist in their own subjugation to dominant ideology, and the co-opting of debating into a useless game of the privileged, stripped of its power to be revolutionary or productive toward alternative ends.

Some of the ways around this are to not plan debates as the result of research. Often teachers will have students engage in vigorous research on an issue, and the debate becomes the cap or end product of that research. This renders debate toothless, as the evaluation process is not on persuasion or conviction or moving minds, but on the presentation of research. Debate is reduced in these cases to a science fair poster board. It's the content delivery mechanism for truths discovered elsewhere.

To engage those who have had a negative debating experience like this is difficult. This is why it is essential to always include discussion of debate as epistemology vibrant in any conversation about debate. Most of the time it's easy to get sidetracked by discussing the competition, or weird arguments, but debate as a way of knowing should be made prominent as well. The result of such inclusion is a debate practice that can be on par with other forms of knowing in the university - such as science, mathematics, history, and the like. 

The only debate epistemological defense that gets offered these days is the skill-based one: Debate provides training in research skills, the skills of democratic decision making, etc. This is not the level of epistemology that we should be talking about. Good teaching in debating allows people to see how participation in debate reveals ideas, methods, and actions that nobody thought were possible before the debate began. Good consideration of debate as epistemic is one where people, performing the role of committed advocates in a controversy, reveal to an audience through discourse that there are many more possibilities than the research indicated. Such possibilities can only come out through the performance of a debate. 

This authentic acceptance and engagement with uncertainty is not popular - no teacher that I have ever worked with in debating is willing to accept uncertainty in the classroom head on. I think it is because uncertainty can also be coded as a lack of discipline, a lack of focus, planning, etc - and a threat to teacher power. It's an unfortunate accidental read of the situation. 

Introducing uncertainty and letting debate be the method for exploring or determining the nature of uncertainty is the primary way that debate can be offered as an epistemological approach. With everyone sharing what they know of a situation, and disagreeing about alternate accounts, the teacher maintains that authority not by rigging the game, but by being a good executive of what the class decides. Holding them to the decision makes the debate not more contentious, but more careful.  One way of practicing this approach might be to use David Bohm's method of Dialogue. Although not referencing or indicating any familiarity with debate as a competitive school activity, Bohm nails a lot of the reasoning behind many of the features that debate has when in an educational environment (or appended to an educational institution). 

Debate is only as good as those who are working with and in it. Continuation of the conversation of the value of debate as epistemology is essential for the defense and health of debate in the face of a vast number of people who have only been spun as a top within debate as a tactic of domination, a way for those who are at the top of society make it appear the result of a natural and reasonable decision. Resistance to this sort of use of debate must be paramount in any preservation of debating as a valuable part of schooling.