A Debate Coaching Prime Directive

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There's another one coming up. Another of these "debates" for Republican candidates seeking the U.S. Presidency. And I know my media department at my University is going to want to put my name out as someone willing to give commentary.

I am uncertain about this, as I always am. My uncertainty is at a high point after reading the commentary given by Todd Graham, debate coach at Southern Illinois University after the last Republican debate. After reading this, I have the following proposal:

I think all professional debate coaches should adhere to a policy of non-interference when it comes to giving commentary on political debates. Very much like the prime directive from Star Trek, we end up causing much greater harm to a system even when we try to introduce elements of good technology (or in this case, techne) to those systems.

It's not Professor Graham's intent to cause harm. But looking at his commentary only made me shudder. He easily elided between the terms "debate" and "argument," set up opposing sides without a clear statement of clash, or even disagreement, and casually labeled candidates as "winning" the debate without referencing one quote from them. There would be no academic or intellectual grounds to distinguish Graham's commentary from the commentary of a CNN journalist. A trained debate expert needs to offer more than the familiar tropes of TV's hollow newsreaders.

Oh, except for the fact that he's a debate coach - a debate expert, and has access to CNN's audience because of it. Implicitly, his commentary authorizes these events as "debates." This not only authorizes the media to create and control debates as they see fit, but ignores a stellar opportunity to use the more than 50 years of debate, argumentation, and rhetorical scholarship to make an intervention into the public's appetite for better discourse.

Before I go any further with this critique, please understand I am not some positivist who is upset because something was called by the "wrong name." My argument is the reverse - I am afraid that every time we do this, when we offer our political opinions under the title of "debate coach" we worsen the state and the case for debate much more than we assist audiences in reading these rhetorical events.

When I appear in the media to comment as a debate coach, I have to continue to remind myself that I serve the idea of debate, not my personal political interests. My job is not to help out a candidate I like, but to help out reasoning, help out words, help out expression. This is what I try to do. Thinking back to my "interventions," I am afraid I must put them in scare quotes. I'm not sure if they are interventions. I am sure that my presence in these events in some way authorizes them. It authorizes them in a way that the media can't quite do.

As an expert on debate, Professor Graham, your first and primary loyalty should not be to the game of politics, but to the principles of debating. You celebrate the bickering and never breathe a word on modes of proof.  I find it interesting that you decided to parse out several mini-arguments among the candidates - this is an interesting move. Unfortunately, you never indicate why or how such a decision could be made. You failed to point out that such distinctions are arbitrary and yet incredibly useful to identifying the points of clash during the debate as a whole. You failed to indicate in your commentary how good debate depends more on agreement than disagreement, and also failed to establish any sound relationship between argumentation and debate. Instead of attending to eristics, you should have attended to debate, and helped the CNN audience develop critical tools for assessing what they had witnessed. A commentary from a debate coach that is indistinguishable from a journalistic accounting is, in my view, shameful. It's also a lost opportunity to bring the field we so dearly love to a public that could benefit from some tools, some "equipment for living" that both of us have easy access to. It would be a simple matter for you to have referenced some scholarship in an accessible way that indicated the difficulty in discerning a "winner."  Your excitement in discussing the domination of one candidate over another lacked even the most basic rhetorical or argumentation angle, relying instead on folksy wisdom and tropes that any high school football coach could use to talk about a Monday night football game.  In short, you missed a great opportunity for the field and our art, and instead, you gave the situation right back to the media, helping them profit off of events that probably harm public discourse more than they help.

As upset as I am with Professor Graham's misstep, I am more upset in general that our work and scholarship are not immediately present before and after events like this. Why can't we share it? What are we lacking? Why can't rhetoricians be rhetorical?

These are big questions. Perhaps the best way out is to stay out. What good can I do? Can I say my commentary would be much different than Graham's? I don't relish in the political gamesmanship like he does, that much is certain. But could I offer something in the same amount of words that would spark audiences to wonder about the quality of the entire event instead of just their candidate?

Any entry into the media will be on their terms. They want to be the purveyors of these events, hence why they bribed the Congress to take control of it from the League of Women Voters in the 1980s. We are always on their shifting terrain when we participate, and they can shift it however they wish.

Until we develop a better strategy for injecting our collective scholarship into Presidential debate commentary, I propose we stay out of it. If I comment on the next debate, it will be carefully articulated to ensure that more of a connection can be built between the public and the debate and argumentation scholarship that I believe could open all of our minds, as it has mine.

Or maybe I'm naiive, and a Prime Directive of non-interference by those skilled in the techne of debate is the way to fix it. After all, these events are so unlike debates, it would be like having a cardiac surgeon give commentary on the latest version of the board game "Operation" to be released.  Staying out might not help our public discourse, but it sure won't add fuel to the flaming barge of political debate. Best to stand on the shore and watch it sail away.
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