The Motion: Live Debate Education debate on Islamic Culture in the United States

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The Motion: Live Debate Education is a monthly club that meets in Manhattan to debate pressing and important issues in order to improve the debate abilities of the members. It is a safe, non-partisan space for the consideration of argument quality. I advise them on various issues from time to time, and one of my great pleasures is attending the debates and writing up my thoughts about them. 

On August 24th, there was a debate on the motion: It is not possible for the United States to successfully integrate or assimilate Islamic culture.

Here's an audio recording of that debate, followed by my commentary.

This debate was a great example of what happens when we don’t put audience first in the development of debate strategy. The best points in the debate came from the audience who demonstrated that they were keenly aware they were not being given the appropriate tools to make a sound judgement from the speakers. The speakers did an excellent job with speaking, but failed to provide more than a few facts and judgements here and there in their arguments – not once did a speaker reach out to the audience to say, “here, let me help you reach a conclusion.” Often times in our society we hear about the lack of facts in judgement. This was the important opposite end – what happens when there are only facts, or only conclusions offered to the audience. The questions posed during the audience portion were incredibly great suggestions of ways to set this debate up for judgement, but were not heeded by the speakers as we ended the debate. Here’s the play by play:

First Speaker (Proposition)

This was a list of different facts and information about Islam in the United States, but not very much was offered as to how this information informs our decision on the motion. For example, what does it mean that most violent or terroristic Islamic people converted to Islam while in the United States? This information is given to us as if it is obvious what we should do with it. However, it’s not clear – this information really helps if it is placed within a context of reasoning: “Because of this information, we can conclude that Islam is perceived as a reaction to US culture” or perhaps “Because of this we see that most people come to radical Islam while living in the US, it is in opposition to US values.” Of course, these claims need a bit more support than just this, but it’s a start that helps give a hand-hold to the audience for a decision. The story about Chechnya was also compelling, but was added as almost an afterthought to the end of the speech. This sort of parallel, historical example is one that really should have been a metaphor or story thread through the whole debate, not just something to end with.

Second Speaker (Opposition)

The second speaker in the debate offered a legal argument that it is perfectly acceptable under American law for Islamic immigrants to come into the country. The research here was good, but again, what value are these facts or this information without a larger frame or a larger machine to show us what to do with them as an audience. What do these legal decisions prove beyond the idea that it is legally acceptable for Muslims to live in the US? This was never explained. More valuable I think was the speaker’s use of the arguments from the “American Creed.” This is a rubric for judgement. The speaker could explain how violating this creed upends our other ethical commitments and our ideology in ways that are unacceptable. Violating our moral and ethical code would be incommensurable with our larger values. This is a weighing mechanism for the audience to use when they compare arguments from each speaker. But it was not brought into focus the way it should have been.

Third Speaker (Proposition)

This speaker was without a doubt incredibly dynamic and captivating. The speech was powerful – and I think the audience vote swinging greatly toward his side was due to a desire to reward his passionate speaking, not his argumentation. The arguments presented were not arguments, but claims of fact about the history of Islam. There are some fledgling enthymemes here – arguments that require the audience to complete the claim based on assumptions they bring to the speech – but they are not developed enough or placed within a context clear enough to let the audience use them properly. The thing to ask yourself about this speech is this: “What, if anything, does this information show me about the ability of Islamic culture to coexist with American culture?” Most of what he said does not meet this test, so again, we have a speech of information without much argument.

Fourth Speaker (Opposition)

Again we have a speech that deals in information but never connects it to a weighing or judgement mechanism (rubric) for the audience. The story of the young man on September 11th, 2001 was nearly the entire speech, and could have been shortened to two sentences to make the point that was trying to be made. What is important here is to clarify for the audience how to determine incompatible cultures. September 11th was a unique, traumatic event, hardly the sort of thing you want to bring up as your central narrative for determining if one set of cultural practices can co-exist with another set of practices. The everyday interactions between cultures seems to me to be what the speech needed to examine.

So after four speakers we have a lot of information – about other places in the world, about Islam, about particular people’s experiences in the US – but no articulation about what to do with all of these pieces. This is how I felt about the debate by the time we reached the audience questioning period:

The audience felt the same way I think as the questions were dead-on for what the debate needed for evaluation.

One audience member asked, "What parts of Islam are most incompatible with assimilation or integration?" The speaker replied, "All of it." Again, this is putting factual accuracy or ideological truth ahead of helpful heuristics for judgement. 

Another asked, "Can Islamic Culture be tolerant of other religions?" This is an audience member very smartly trying to operationalize the terms of the motion in order to make them work like a machine that can render a decision. Again, this was not treated as an invitation to explain how to decide, but an invitation to toss more facts at the audience.

A final question was, "What does it mean for integration or assimilation to be successful?" This really gives another way for the debate to be decided, suggesting that perhaps they are incompatible but could be brought together "successfully" if we had a better sense of what counted for this? Again, the speakers did not take the invitation and continued to speak about "reality." 

This debate was a stark reminder that facts and information do not speak for themselves, and that being right has very little to do with being convincing or persuasive in debating. What is always needed are ways for the audience to see how you think, not what you think; to see a path where all they could see before your arrival was impassable forest. Facts don't help us, framework does.