Public Debate or Debate

A couple of days ago, we were asked to debate the British National Team for an event held at the English Speaking Union in Manhattan. This sort of event is often called a "public debate" by those who work in or teach debate, to mark it as different than "debate" which apparently only takes place early in the morning, or late at night, or in a long death-march style schedule, on a weekend, featuring speeches in near-empty classrooms for most of it.

For the larger part of the history of American debate, and for most of British debate's history, the question of audience was never raised. It was assumed there would be a large audience to watch the debate and often pass judgement on it. Now the idea of audience is caught up in judgement. Last year at NCA I saw a paper by a young scholar who talked about Woodward's "judge-less debate" idea as if the debate would only feature debaters. Woodward writes that without judges debate can do quite a bit more. But judges and audience are a different thing for Woodward - he would never think of debate as a private event as we do today. This scholar thought that only judges compose the audience - the idea that an audience would assemble to watch a contest debate wasn't on the radar. Woodward was writing in the 1920s, when debate included a notion of the public in its performance.

In this debate, I tried to eliminate the line between these two things. Holding a line between public debate and debate communicates that there is real debate and its derivative. Made for the masses, public debate can never hold up to the quality of "real debate." Students often talk to audience members this way about debates for the public. They will say, "Well in a real debate, we would have said this or that," or "In a real debate, we would be able to say more, as we could talk faster than we do for you." Or as I recently saw after the public final round at Bard, debaters will explain to audiences the reasons they don't need to be informed on an issue in order to debate it. 

This video is my attempt at blending the line. In preparation for this British Debate, we worked on questions of audience and style, questions of evidence, and how to engage the audience that is not there to judge as a part of a narrow-bandwidth competition. The results are pretty good, but need some refinement. But in contrast to my students, the British debaters appear to have already transcended this issue. Their speeches appear to me to be well situated for a public debate or a debate - they could give these speeches at a tournament and do fine. Perhaps it's just American BP debaters who are broadening the gap, forgetting that the practice of BP debate is the practice of speaking to reasonable people.

In the world where tournaments have been eliminated, the problem one faces is lack of quantity of participants in debate. In the tournament world, the problem is quality of debate. Lots of people participate, but to what end? I'm starting to lean to a lower number, higher quality model. Debate fatigue is a real thing - you can't get weekly audiences to show up to watch debates I bet. But it might be worth arranging a program around a 2/3 public 1/3 tournament model. The tournaments become the training ground for students to engage a lot of material quickly, confront a challenging environment, and then are less nervous or more focused when putting together a public debate. Of course, one needs large venues to hold public debates with frequency, and that's just not possible where I work now. 

The dichotomy between public debate and debate as it is now creates a world of frustrating to hear, boilerplate speeches designed to fit into a narrow-bandwidth model of persuasion. They then leave the tournament well-equipped to dismiss natural and normal forms of debating as inferior. The political becomes the source of entertainment for them or a source of cynical pride, as they sneer at what counts as debate in the civic sphere. Bridging the gap here is critical to developing debate programs that create advocates and engaged people as well as finding good reasons for administrators to support debating on their campuses.