The Threat of Debating

English: "Debate and Oratory". Image...
Image via Wikipedia
This picture is a rare treat from Zemanta, the software I use that helps me make these posts look (supposedly) more professional. But in the end usually the images and links suggested are not appropriate, or I just don't like them.

But this one is quite good. Here we see the perfect image of the debating subject.

He's confidence, convicted, almost enraged. Overcertain of himself and his position. He's literally standing on literature. And in his hand is the one page of preparation he's done for this debate. We encounter him at a point where the preparation is no longer needed, it's crumpled in his hand - passion, reason, the truth, certainty - have taken over. His opponent is doomed to defeat.

Debate is a threatening apparition.

But this model is not real, nor is it ever really what transpires in the best debating. It's a model that is attractive to a lot of people because it displays the things that are most attractive to us: Holding power, domination, forcing our will upon others, in short - getting what we want.

But what is it that we want? Debate is threatening, but if directed in another way, the threat is turned toward who wants.

Here is a koan from the zen tradition. Well not really a koan but I think it could work well as one. I think it provides a better model of the debating subject than our friend up there.

The monkey is reaching
For the moon in the water.
Until death overtakes him
He'll never give up.
If he'd let go the branch and
Disappear in the deep pool,
The whole world would shine
With dazzling pureness.
 I like this poem a lot. Just like the man in the image, the monkey is reaching for the reflection of the moon on the surface of the water. Like the debater, he reaches for something that is just an effect of forces beyond his comprehension.

Dissapearing in the pool - the substance that makes the reflection of the moon possible - is a better alternative. Why? This is no more a literal disappearance than the moon is a literal moon. To replace one with the other would accomplish nothing.  Hakuin is trying to get us to think about the relationship we have to desire and to the material world around us. Most of the things we want are either not really there, or we can't attain them the way that we think we can.

Grasping at the image without awareness of how that image is coming to you is what we do all the time. I am guilty of it, and so are you. The trick is to be aware of it - and Hakuin's solution is for us to realize that we are all immersed in it already - just let go, stop trying to grasp things, and attend to immersion.

This poem has a lot of application to teaching debate. The point of debating for the student should (and does whether you want it to or not) clash with the point of debating for the teacher. The student wants to win and grabs for the image of victory. The teacher knows (or should know) that any attempt to grab it will fail. The debate teacher knows that the whole universe glitters like the moon in the water once the student grasps the water and not the image the water supports.

The stakes are of course, much higher than that. The poem suggests that the image of the moon haunts the monkey until death. This is the same with victory - it will haunt the student until they die if they can't connect with the substance. Debate's only contribution to our lives it it's ability to let us see, just for a bit, the constructed and arbitrary nature of human identity. In terms of the poem, the self is also a reflection in the water that we grasp at, hoping to achieve.

The biggest challenge facing the debate director is that of the power of narrative. The subject is under direct assault by the decisions rendered in a debate. Debate threatens the coherence of the narrative of the self. And just like beings immersed in fluid who move quickly away from alien substances dropped on a slide, we move quickly away from words that could unravel our concept of self.

The student wants to add the narrative of "debater" to their story, but only considers that part a tale of victory. But nike is not arete. Debate only offers arete. It only offers the continual making and remaking of the self as an excellent being. Of course, this doesn't happen in tournaments, but tournaments are a place where we can call attention to the limited potential we have of grasping the moon in the water. Instead of trying to grab excellence as a thing, we should realize that becoming consubstantial with that thing is the only way such excellence could be apprehended.

Look at the image again. The debater; the moon on the water. Do you reach for this image? Or do you reach for what allows this image such sway over our lives? Is the image of the powerful debater attractive like the moon at night? Or does everything glow with that rhetorical potential? Do you seek wins or victory? Your reflection is right there.
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