BP and the Public

St. John's University Debaters and the 2017 British Tour Debaters pose after the first debate of the 2017 tour.

St. John's University Debaters and the 2017 British Tour Debaters pose after the first debate of the 2017 tour.

For all of my criticism of BP the event we had on Monday night in Manhattan had me double checking the old inventory of what BP has that gives it advantage in reaching public audiences. 

First, BP encourages speakers to return to their own arguments above responding to the arguments of their opponents. This seems like a more "natural" way to argue, or at least more mimetic to Natural Language Argumentation than other formats of debate.

The involvement of so many speakers is also an advantage as you get a more nuanced and more spectrum-like approach to a topic as speakers want to differentiate themselves from every other speaker in some way. You can't do that by simple response and you can't do that by backing someone's arguments up with more support. You have to offer a perspective that is different - which seems to be more mimetic of the way debates proceed in everyday life.

A silly, sportified element of debating is of course overcommitted certainty, but in BP this performance of certainty allows for a comfortable dance with uncertainty (our ally in debate education) for the audience. It might be that most audiences find it a bit easier to patch a position together between the speeches that suits their point of view. Or it makes them see how easy it is to move around between positions as they hear pretty compelling speeches from a number of presenters. 

This is of course, all very positive and is pretty dismissive of the real threat of sportification on the abilities of debate to improve people - in the post-debate discussion the tactic of "making up African ruler names" was mentioned - something only a very cynical and unreflexive debater would do (list the thousand or so you know here). I'm pretty sure I know what slimeball fake debate teacher was being discussed and was just very happy that my chances of interacting with that person are now next to nothing. But on a larger note, the threat cannot be underplayed. Competitive, tournament-victory oriented debate programs are a very real threat to the power of well-thought out debate programs in the service of students. Our colleges and universities are so job-centric these days that debate might be the only intellectual practice that students get. We can't let it be absorbed by the neoliberal consequentialism of "job skills" nor by the frivolous fun trickery of an athletic team model.

We cannot forget that debate is a university activity supported by universities involving university students. Anything that hits below this mark needs to be opposed. 

Here's a video of the event, see if you think I'm right about the nature of the speeches. I hate giving a format credit for something, but it does seem to beg the question - if we did a NPDA or policy format, would the debate sound the same? Would it appeal to the audience in the same manner? 

I didn't mean it to happen, but the debate features a wide range of experience levels, and I think it worked out well to show the different levels of debate approach. You can see beginner, intermediate, and advanced modes of debate engagement all here in the same video. It is accidentally a pretty good teach-the-teacher piece.