Embracing Esperanto as Debating Metaphor

For many years I have been trying to hammer out this book on metaphors for debate as an educational practice. Competitive debate is, of course, tied up in there even though I know you refuse to believe you are participating in something educational (my own students call non-tournament debate events ‘learning trips’ - nicely diminutive with just the right dash of halcyon school-system rhetoric). The metaphors are not in short supply, but what is are the connections making the metaphors really sing.

Recently finishing up reading Esther Schor’s book Bridge of Words about the history and development of Esperanto. I was using Esperanto as a possible metaphor, making the argument that there are a group of folks out there looking at debate as a pure form of argument, something that is absent the missteps or errors of daily lived argumentation. A quick glance at the Malaysia Debate Guide confirms both that the desire for purity is alive and well in the debate world, and secondly that a quick glance is all that is needed to get the total value from that document.

Turns out I haven’t been thinking of Esperanto in the proper historical context to make it an adequate metaphor for debating practices. Instead of Esperanto being a corrective to the imperfect and irregular natural languages of the earth, Esperanto was meant to be an equalizer between speakers of different languages. Instead of one person having all the advantages by being a native speaker, or by having studied and mastered the language with other native speakers, both speakers must work to interpret what is being said and what they want to say. It disadvantages both speakers so nobody has the upper hand in the communicative moment.

Since there are no native Esperanto speakers, this works pretty well. Nobody in the exchange has an unfair advantage. There’s no secret place to go to master the accent, the grammar, the idiomatic parts of the language. There’s only both people practicing within a language that is not theirs, but the world’s. A language that belongs to nobody.

Debate should be more like esperanto, but many practitioners think that debate is a quest for getting an advantage around idioms, irregular constructions and the like. Most debaters and most debate coaches think that debate is about mastering the grammar and realizing it to a level of perfection. They think the way to do well in debate is to find mastery of the language of debate to leave their opponents at a disadvantage in the language of the form.

What is the grammar of debate? Fairly useless idiomatic things that only make sense to the users of that language. Things like roadmaps, distinguishing rebuttal from constructive, and announcing the number of arguments you will say. There are also argument specific ones such as examples that are frequently given, and grand statements on the nature of rights and freedoms in democratic systems.

This is much closer to Latin, in particular those Latinists who are obsessed with Ciceronian Latin, a form of the language that is perfectly useless. What I mean is that it’s use is an attempt to achieve a perfect form of the grammar and agreement of the terms of Latin in a very ornate, formal, and pure way - meaning that nobody would use such Latin in their daily lives. The daily Latin is full of slang, errors, and constructions that do not serve perfect structural meaning, but serve getting meaning across situationally.

What we need isn’t a perfected argumentative structure or form of public deliberation. What we need is an equal playing field between speakers in order to test the value and strength of our arguments. Treating debate like a language to perfect only serves a monastic vision of debate, something that is useless but admirable as the perfect elimination of all the slip-ups of everyday argument. Instead of this Ciceronian ideal, let’s make our formats Esperanto - a place where one’s advantages and disadvantages in speaking and arguing are rendered moot in the face of a structure that is easy to learn but difficult to master. This is how you get fairness in debate is a system where all participants have no access to an automatic frame in which to deposit what they are going to say. What should improve are the depth and subtlety of student arguments, not their perfection in time management or getting that rebuttal speech down just right. A perfect debate form serves nobody, excluding those who come well prepared to discuss important ideas but are left behind by a community obsessed more with the argumentative equivalent of an ablative of means (like counterprops) rather than examining a variety of information about a controversial issue brought foward intentionally by the format in a way that a wide number of people could access and understand.