Sometimes, always

Nothing is heard more frequently among young debaters than phrases like, "That argument will always beat that one," or "That argument will never win against a team that says such-and-such." Such phrases not only indicate the prevalence of debate students talking about strategy and peer-educating one another (something desperately missing from the modern university) but also reveal the intensity of the addiction to certainty that we have in modern culture.

We desperately want certainty; we are certainty-fiends. We want the exact, right answer to the larger problems facing us. But most problems in the world do not suffer from simplicity. They suffer because we approach them with a desire to simplify, and a desire to make clear what was fuzzy. A great example of this is the love for TED Talks among faculty and students alike. TED talks are extremely comfortable - they purport to offer, in the space of 14 minutes, an incredibly interesting, robust research problem, and the solution to that problem, delivered by a well-dressed speaker with no notes, and a variety of beautiful digital visual aids. This is the opposite sense one would get examining the research and readings surrounding the issue. One might wind up un-polarized, without attraction to one side or another. Such an attitude explains the difficulties within the climate change debate - the models are imperfect; the effects are measurable. Warrants that highlight the validity or ethos of scientists can be turned against the models, and arguments for effects don't persuade those who have deep commitments to such types of knowledge creation.

The TED Talk, most importantly, is a publicity device for more complex, deeper research occurring elsewhere. Unfortunately, most audiences on YouTube do not receive reinforcement of that idea, and the entire theatrical experience pushes the view that such knowledge comes from the internal revelation of a brilliant mind, not an uncertain worker who poured through texts and conducted endless experiments in order to get to where they are today. TED talks are therefore not intellectual work, but publicity for the results that come from intellectual work. The harder bridge to cross is the one toward public intellectualism, where one makes the normative demand toward the public not to enjoy the fruits, but to plant and tend first.

We suffer from a lack of comfort with the uncertain. We see it is a problem, not an opportunity, and certainly not something we want present in our lives. We suffer from being familiar with the uncertain, but not comfortable with it. We have tagged the uncertain with the Freudian sense of the abject, something not only to push away from us, but a rubric with which to define ourselves via its negation. 

Debate is one area in the educational arena that can move uncertainty from the familiar to the comfortable. Debate creates comfort and acceptance of the "sometimes." It does this through the continual practice and continual failure of the best ideas and evidence to sway the best judges. In repeated contest with opponents, the debater realizes that the best is sometimes best, sometimes not. The result is an acceptance of uncertainty made possible by repeated practice.


Does it work? Sometimes. The concept is self-effacing. The concept is also not universal - there are many parts of life where we need certainty. Bridge building comes to mind, as does landing a commercial aircraft. But the path toward that certainty should not be globalized to all aspects of human affairs. Hans Georg-Gadamer wondered about this in the opening pages of Truth and Method when he asks why the humanities always rush to grab the standards of science or social science to justify the work they are doing. Instead of rushing toward the craving for certainty, why not build up a defense of the sometimes? Such a defense would not only be useful, it would be true, and it would create an attitude toward education and politics that is as fascinated with problem-posing as it is with solution-offering. There are no shortage of examples where a rush to be "all-in" on a solution created more problems in the end.

Debate education creates comfort and even desire to be mired in the material, to be submerged in the various views, and to hover there until a good position on the issue comes into being. For beginning debaters, they fit this process into the familiar discourse of "always" and "never" - the grammar of the certain. For those who have been debating a while, that grammar has changed - a shrug, a "yea, maybe," or our  favorite - "Yea sometimes that might work." Such a level of comfort comes out, I think, in the ridiculous levels of confidence that debaters sometimes present in the seminar room, for they know that they are not offering something certain, but a reading or a view that is as certain as its coming response. For those without that comfort level, the articulation of a position can be considered the articulation of the self. 

Perhaps we can think of debate pedagogy as pedagogy in line with the creation of the liberal ironist, that political fantasy subject of Richard Rorty. There's no clear pathway to this subjectivity, nor is there a clear consensus on whether or not we would want the political world to consist of nothing but liberal ironists. They do have a good function though in getting more and better ideas out there about the ideas already present. That is, if one can get past the intimidation factor. 

In our culture, a politician saying, "I don't know" on a key issue would be the end of his career. Likewise, when academics are interviewed and offer a string of "I don't knows" and "That depends on many factors," such performances reify the cultural trope that professors can't do anything, are uncertain, and are not fit to provide leadership on addressing difficult issues. We need educational techne such as debate at all levels of education in order to provide more comfort with the slow, critical appraisal of issues instead of the TED Talk encapsulation of how to grapple with our most vital issues. Opening the hood and poking around at the engine is as important as having a smooth ride.