What Does Debate Teach?

The grave marker for Miyamoto Musashi, taken a...Image via Wikipedia

In the Hua-yen universe, where everything interpenetrates in identity and interdependence, where everything needs everything else, what is there which is not valuable? To throw away even a single chopstick as worthless is to set up a hierarchy of values which in the end will kill us in a way which no bullet can. In the Hua-yen universe, everything counts.

Debate teaches, whether you want it to or not. It is a discourse; it is discourse. It crafts and creates, it disentangles and disintegrates. It merges into thought and practice and the old, solid hierarchies melt away. 


Debate is serious business, but not in the way most people think it is. It's a lot more than just "encouraging critical thought" or "developing public speaking skills." It's an orientation to language, within language - which would be a definition of a discourse. Scientific papers versus Newspapers - yes, they are different styles, but this goes deeper. There are relations of the material to the linguistic within them that cannot, and will not, be accepted by the other. And probably should not, if you allow me to toss my normative hat in the ring.


The question is not what debate provides - it's more than skills. The question should be something like: What does debate do to the student? What sort of discourse is it? And what subjects does it teach/create?


I know that's more than one question. But such a serious issue explodes into these sorts of questions. 


It's as serious as that vital, incredibly vital moment of Gorgias where Socrates asks Gorgias about the culpability of the boxing teacher if the boxing student uses his skills to kill someone. 


Gorgias responds that there's no culpability, if the teacher was just teaching skills. The student must go elsewhere for that ethical instruction. 


Socrates believes that the teaching of rhetoric is a bit different - that there's an ethic smuggled in with the skills. Or perhaps the better interpretation is, there is a no-ethic smuggled in. This absence means that it's quite possible for the student to use the skills "because he can."


Socrates's "physician" argument - that the well trained rhetor could come in and convince a city to hire him as the town doctor over a well trained doctor, but poor speaker - is pretty loaded, and pretty laughable. But I don't think contemporary debaters or deabte coaches can answer this hypothetical very well. "Skills" and "civic participation" don't cut it. Those are the language of the academy cum technical school, which is good at budget time, bad at any other time.


The answer I am working with is one of interconnectivity. Debate emphasizes how incredibly dependent on language we are for most everything. Debate emphasizes how incredibly limited language is for expressing our thoughts and feelings to one another. Debate emphasizes how bad we are at using language to get what we want - or even to express what we want.  We are dependent on it like fish are dependent on water. Whatever we put in the water, we have to breathe, we have to touch, we have to take in. This is one way to understand karma, through the lens of language. Debate can be a tide pool where we can watch such small scale introductions of words into the ecosystem. I am not a fan of this metaphor though, unless we understand that the ocean is already on its way back to the tide pool to re-absorb it. The return is happening already. There is no professional debate sports-league (thank god); there is no Debate Aquarium where you can live. Try as you might to avoid it, you will return to the sea. Or: The sea will return to you (more foreboding).


The ethic that I try to push is one of caution. One that is attentive to others instead of just attentive to the skills you develop yourself. One that is honest about what we are up to - the violence aspects - but the same one that caused Miyamoto Musashi to weep after defeating rival swordmasters. Every loss and every victory is a moment where the hierarchy can be reordered, where it will be reordered, and inattentiveness to those moments, careless articulation to others about those moments can lead to the blooming of an ethic that you don't want, didn't create, and now runs your life. Debate is just as good at crafting powerful attorneys as it is at creating hollow, crushed individuals. This is the difference between taking moments at a tournament carefully or taking them as you would the sports report.


I have used Musashi's teachings for many years to teach debate. The reasons are his clarity of purpose - victory - and his underlying means of achieving it - pliancy. His theory of victory is one where water is supreme because it adjusts to what it faces. It's flexible. In order to be this way, one must attend to the world instead of being against it. One must listen more than speak. One must figure out, ascribe, and re-ascribe the motives in other people. This is what the quote reminds us of - that every decision we make or choice we make is ours to suffer for. Hierarchy is inevitable, hierarchy is rhetorical. This is what debate teaches, at it's deepest, unexplored levels. I am just starting my spelunking adventures. 


"Sportification" is, of course, the major undercurrent of this post. More on that later. The discourse of debate is like other discourses, as it crafts moments and opportunities for you to fill with language. What you fill it with is shaped by and is shaping your subjectivity. Reflection on how language touches your ear and mine is a necessary step in answering Socrates. For all we can share in this world, really share, is our words. And even that should be approached skeptically.