Customs Declaration, or What I Brought Home from a Debating Workshop

“There is an idiom in Chinese,” my recently made friend tells me in a dark bar in Ljubljana. “It goes something like, ‘You gain a lot of pleasure from teaching.’” I lean in closer in order to hear him over the averagely remixed pop music that is passing for dance playing just a bit too loud to make conversation easy, but low enough to keep the temptation alive.


“The idiom,” he continues, “can have two meanings. First, it can mean that it is very enjoyable to teach and convey information to others. But it can also be dark – it can also mean that it is pleasurable to hold power over others, to tell them what is right and wrong, and to force your ideas on them.”


I nod and sip my drink. The bar is styled Mexican, or perhaps Spanish – describing it as poorly lit would be generous. The darkness is a good environment for pondering the teacher’s pleasure. It’s hard to make out even good friends in such lighting. But it’s harder to make out exactly who is speaking before the students. Sometimes benevolent but always pleasure seeking. The charge after a good class might not be such a noble feeling – it could be the pleasure of domination. Jacques Lacan’s famous statement about gaining pleasure from lecturing as if it were fucking comes to mind – but his statement is absent the nuance of whether the pleasure is derived from dominance or cooperation.


That night in Ljubljana was break night for the International Debate Academy Slovenia – a workshop and tournament that I first became acquainted with in 2004. I’ve been only a few times, not because of the quality, but because of the effect. I always come out of it dazed, like I’ve been struck. Dominance or cooperation? What teacher are you? These questions struck me as the break list was read. This is of course using the nicest understanding of “struck” you can muster. It’s like my ideas and assumptions about what I do are unmoored, and drift at the leisure of the sea.


The sea calls to mind another day. This time sunny, but cold. Snow slowly melts on a field we pass. A dear friend and I are discussing our favorite topic – the ethics of teaching debating.


 “Don’t you ever get tired of yelling at the waves?” she asks.


Again, struck. I can’t for the life of me recall anything else about that conversation except this question. It will haunt my thoughts for the next 48 hours. Images of those tireless waves, one after another.


On the flight over I had the luck of being aboard a new Airbus 380. Pretty swanky. The entertainment console had hundreds of films to choose from. Mistakenly, I chose Inception – mostly on the recommendations of those who like films, which I hardly ever watch. But it was serendipitous.


Last night in Prague, watching some bad television show, and worrying about those images of the waves, I suddenly pictured in my mind the deepest dream levels of the film – “washed up on the shores of the unconscious.” The characters woke up on a beach disoriented, confused, and very, very wet. When I watched it I had to smile, recalling Sigmund Freud and Romain Rolland’s correspondence on religion and the unconscious. The unconscious moving one toward religion, even if atheist, described as a “great, oceanic feeling.” This is of course from Civilization and its Discontents where Freud suggests that civilizations could maybe one day benefit from analysis.


The unconscious shores are a place of forgetting, loss and lost-ness in the film. Dream too deep and you wind up there permanently. My post IDAS feeling has me in a similar state. I went there to teach, came home not just questioning, but realizing the inadequacy of my questions. Like any good debate workshop that I have taught at, hubris is my constant companion. He/she should be paid for TAing.


To prepare to teach debate as a thing, as an object is a false premise. Immediately, exchange of ideas comes to mind – a capitalist metaphor. Debaters are the enactors of the thing – automatons who need tune ups, fine tuning, major engine work, flush and fills – the mechanical metaphors are too exhausting (and just a bit too awesome) to list in entirety. As I think on the pleasure of the teacher, it’s dark and light, it’s yin and yang – as well as that salty, wet, disorientation from yelling at the sea (unconscious), the only thing on my mind as I listen to the same three or four songs over again (like you do on long flights) is twofold:  1) How can I escape the teacher’s pleasure?  And  2) Assuming my idealist approach to debating is an unconscious drive toward connection, how do I wake up?

The Hagakure – as it is known in the US, “The Book of the Samurai” – has this aphorism in it which I memorized because it impressed me so. It used to be the first thing I would put on the board for fresher debaters when I was a High School coach. It reads, “When caught suddenly in a rainstorm, you run quickly down the road in order to avoid getting wet. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still receive your soaking.” We try to avoid getting hosed, we do, no more so than in debate. But our behavior is a story we tell ourselves to obscure the awesome truth – that we will lose. No matter what we do, loss is inevitable. The Hagakure advises its readers to imagine death every day – what it will be like, and how it will inevitably come from a violent end – in order to prepare the readers to be able to take the first few steps as a warrior. The subject position of “debater” is impossible without the understanding of “loss” in a very serious way. This is why I cannot be and do not want to be a Debate Coach (although the title is bestowed on me at every turn), but a participant or facilitator of debating. I much prefer the formal American title of Director – partially because of the roots there, “direct” or “direction” calling to mind a rudder (the sea again!) and partially because of the reminder within the title that there is more than just a dash of theater involved in the teaching and learning of debating.


The pleasure of the teacher is the most dangerous foe. There is such raw joy in the admiration of students who you know would be better off without you there. This is summed up nicely in the “pointing at the moon” koan, which reminds us that apprehending the beauty of the moon is more important than the finger that led your eyes there. But the student might mistake indication for genesis, and transfer the moon’s radiance to the teacher. The teacher is ethically bound to correct this, but has no motive to do so, as it’s pretty damn nice to be thought of as the moon.


The solution, perhaps, is to avoid being a teacher at all. Being a participant, a contributor, in the style of Paulo Friere is obviously the goal. But debate is structured on wins and losses, records, championships, and the like. Its currency is the currency of dominance. Verbal dominance disguised as intellectual contribution. Those who have achieved great victory on the battlefield might take on the teaching strategy of shoving the moon in your face, standing in front of the moon and dancing, or perhaps obscuring the moon in order to experience the joy of knowing where it is while the students scramble.


All of these practices stem from the sportified form of debate – debate as sheer contest, sheer battle, sheer confrontation. It would be what Nietzsche has described as raw eris – or envy in English – that human tendency to desire to destroy the Other because the Other is always a repository of what we cannot be, have, do, think, or feel. Nietszche argues that the Ancient Greeks structured civilization around eris, placing competition in sport, games, intellectual pursuit and the like as the escape valve for the darker side of human tendency.  Instead of physical violent bloodshed all the time we get competitive individuals working on themselves in order to symbolically best them. And society gets built as well.


But that’s a bit simple. I already know the response of my dear friend who put the whole ocean in my head. It’s a false distinction, she would say. Its violence no matter how you slice it. It does harm, it damages, and it strips away. It makes heroes of those who rend other souls with the sounds they make when they speak.


Of course, there’s an answer to this – there’s always an answer. But sometimes I wonder if the constant answer of the answer might be responsible for the waves. Maybe the shouting at the waves is the genesis of the waves.  The wages of confrontation – more of the same. Maybe there’s a way to move with the waves without becoming them. Or, perhaps the answer is in the rhetorical attribution of the waves as a never ending force. Perhaps if we gave the waves motive instead of physics – or perhaps action instead of motion – we would have a few more political options.


Another moment comes to mind – teaching beginning students how to be opposition. I used the Buddhist concept of “mirror-mind,” which is (un)helpfully explained in the literature as “mind as mirror, mirror as mind.” Another explanation from the Zen Master Seung Sahn – “It’s like driving, when the light is red, mind is red, stop. When the light is green, mind is green – go. There is no thinking about it.” Of course it seems odd to compare debate, supposedly about thinking to these dicta, but I simply answered the students question  - “when you are opposition, be like a mirror. Show them totally and honestly what they look like. Messy hair, wrinkled shirt, big nose – all of it. But add the twist that when they raise their right hand it looks as if they have raised their left.”


This is my best attempt at ascribing motives. One can clash directly with the force of the Government team or one can hold a mirror up to them. The mirror requires listening, care, and attention to detail. In short, it requires reaching out to the ideas of the other team, not just sheer response. It’s a small intervention in the sea, but in a dynamic system the source of action is so small it ought to be considered untraceable.


 We can ascribe motives to actions, but not to motion.  It is in the benefit of those who teach domination to limit the number of moves we can call action and populate the field of motion. If it is the “way it is,” nothing can be done. But if the way it is has motives behind it that can be named, it can be moved. We can “move around” instead of being on a confrontational front all the time.

The pleasure of the teacher is action – the teacher’s motives are ascribable, and can be accounted for, named, and developed. The teacher doesn’t necessarily derive sick pleasure from the encounter with the student. The teacher cannot necessarily dominate the student. If you are teaching an art that has as its effects the ability to dominate and control others, the pleasure of the teacher is something powerful. It can craft people into monstrous beings or kind beings. Not carefully attending to the derivation of pleasure in teaching means monsters are a certainty.


Another answer might come from the film Inception, read as a metaphor. Debate crafts itself as a dream.  A dream of increased political participation, a vibrant public sphere, a more critical and informed citizenry, and all that. But those who are more clever understand that this is a dream within a dream. Debate is dreaming it is something more than just a tool to help teach critical thinking and information literacy. Two levels down we find the dreamer dreaming.


 This is my intervention. Take it one more dream down. Insert the idea that debate is about making people better. Healing people who are adrift on the waves. Allowing them to swim, or find mooring points from time to time. To be able to understand the movement of the waters.  We are all castaways on the shores of the unconscious. We are always in a state of locating our being in response to and among others.  We are all washing up on the beach.


Have I dreamed too deep? At this level I can, according to the film, craft anything, including the laws of physics. Can debate really have soul transforming influence? The absence is the only way I can think of to ethically teach this. Doubt and lack of knowledge are my TAs here. Suggestion replaces demand, lists of things to know are replaced with questions. In the dream-logic, you don’t have to choose. You can have it all. You don’t have to have the distinctions. You can all be participants instead of teachers and students.

This is a much more radical application of Paulo Friere’s ideas of removing hierarchy from the classroom and replacing it with de-centered questioning and answering. This is the idea of Jacques Ranciere, that all you need is the symbol of equality and teaching can occur. Joseph Jacotot taught anything and everything, as Ranciere explains in The Ignorant Schoolmaster, but only had one condition – he could only teach what he did not know. All you need is another open, critical mind carefully scrutinizing the answers of the other in order to determine if the answer is sufficient. We are all the finest teachers possible by simply learning along. Jacotot is three levels into the dream and doing fine.


This is not the most comfortable model of teaching – what about lectures? Drills? Excercises? Well, these things can still exist, sure. And they are necessary. But I think being derived from the Master they lose their potential.  When the Master speaks, the Master ruins it.


But right now is simply the beginning of putting the pieces together. I am just trying to stand on the shore with these ideas. I am hosed. I am getting my footing. I’m blinking the salt out of my bleary vision. It’s unclear, but at least I have a sense of my goal – inserting the idea deep within debate that it can be so incredibly, so deeply powerful. And it can avoid, and should want to avoid, dominating rhetoric. Those who orient their debate practice around winning are haunted by the voices of domination as well – the ones that question the permanence, the finality of that win. The only evidence of it’s permanence is another win. And then another.  Trapped by the very thing that promised liberation, they are unable to find footing on the shore. The waves keep knocking them down.


 My dream is coming to an end. I am having coffee at the airport with a friend who I only know through debate, and only see every couple of years. The conversation is about how much rigor exists in politics, and how people are losing hope – typical debater-type conversation. We also chat about our personal lives, people we mutually know, how they are getting on. Connections and lives that are intertwined only because of debate.  And memories. Not of particular arguments, rounds, or decisions. But experiences. Moments in time that connect here to there, now to then. A lot of joyful encounters. And the inevitable goodbyes which make them more so.  Then we act one out. And I’m onto a plane with a swirling mind, to travel home, to type this. The seatbelt sign dings (the coming kick?). The smell of coffee is here too. It’s in front of me – no, perhaps behind me.  It’s hard to tell where it’s brewing when moving so fast, along these trajectories, up and up, through the clouds, and home.