An Open Letter about Communication, from an Ex-Debater to Debaters

Last week, debaters from St. John's University (where I teach and learn) and Adelphi University (in Long Island), had a public debate about Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter. As someone who started both debate programs (with help at both places) it was a surreal and happy moment for me, watching this debate in a well-attended auditorium on the Adelphi University campus, thinking about how far debate in the New York City area has come. 

This debate, like most every good public debate, was an arbitrary side assignment affair, and I worked with our students to come up with compelling arguments for All Lives Matter. Not an easy task. All Lives Matter is difficult to defend, but part of the task of being a debater I think is to believe in the idea that perspectives in a controversy deserve an honest attempt at a good defense, like in criminal law perhaps. 

What we learned that night was the difficulty in making arguments that sound good in a classroom palatable in front of a hostile audience. It was rhetorically challenging to find space to distance our ideas from the racist implications of All Lives Matter. Those implications and expressions are there, and for the audience, constituted the entirety of the position of All Lives Matter. It was a great challenge. We got a lot out of it, including the experience of debating in front of a crowd that actively dislikes your position and communicates it through body language and other non-verbals. This is an element of rhetorical performance that never appears in the tournament environment. Sanitation, or too-clean a space, might be responsible for the development of asthma and allergies in children. What should we call rhetorical asthma?

We live-streamed the debate and I was so happy to see friends and alumni from all over the country tune into the debate. It was great fun to moderate the chat room and join in commentary with the viewers about the debate they were watching. One St. John's Alumna, Erin Fleming, was taken aback by what she called the "debate ticks" present in the performances. I encouraged her to write something about these ticks, and she wrote a great open letter. I offer it here to you for your consideration. Tournament-oriented debating continues to increase in popularity, but not without some obvious problems. 

Thanks to Erin for writing this great piece. How to correct it? For public debates are seen as an exception to tournament debating, "normal" debating. This is out of order. Tournament debating should be seen as debate's abnormal form, and events like this should be considered the normal place where debate is practiced.