Baffled by Debates

Spent most of today wondering about how Democrat friends are going to handle two pieces of contradictory information coming next week: 1) Voter turnout, particularly among young people, will be at exceptional levels and 2) the Republicans will control both houses of Congress. Naturally, they will find some group of young people who are just so sickeningly lazy and ignorant - how could they not decide to vote! I mean, after all, it’s your entire reason for being!

Since they are going to be hit pretty hard next week I should stop making such fun of them. It is very difficult and very complex to tackle the issue of how to teach and generate support for the following things that would improve American politics: 1) curiosity 2) critical appraisal 3) confident and frequent opinion-sharing with explanations. Luckily being a rhetorician and sophist I think I should teach these things and try to do so with varying degrees of success at the university level and sometimes in the public.

A couple of people today forwarded me this essay in The Baffler which conveyed a very baffled viewpoint on the role and function of debates in society. Debates are scary. This author agrees. They are super scary because they don’t determine who is right or wrong! Oh yes, that’s true I’m afraid. Well then, what’s the point of having debates if they don’t serve absolute knowledge about things?? Well perhaps they just generate more talk about those things and that might be a way of dealing with them? I don’t know, I only teach the stuff.

A lot of frustration with debate is how it never provides a solution or a comfortable and clear right answer at the end of it. Audiences who expect that sort of clarity are often like the kids Marty McFly encounters at the cafe when he arrives in the future and shows them the old video game. “Oh, you have to use your hands?” Sometimes the audience is just way ahead of us in debate world where we are pining on about a fun old technology in a nostalgic way. But seriously though, it doesn’t work if you consider it an ending place instead of a starting place for discourse.

And discourse, from the people all over about issues, is what’s needed to make democratic flavors of government work. You need a number of opinions drifting around and you need creative people creating those opinions. It doesn’t work if people are just obedient to the opinions provided.

Anyway, this is all connected to some of my recent work where I have been puzzling over two phrases: debate-as-argumentation and argumentation-as-debate. Both have a different sensibility and neither are very satisfying. In short, my research indicates that debate is its own rhetorical form, not quite epideictic and not quite argumentation. It’s its own form of rhetoric with a number of different possible functions.

I wrote a letter to the editors of The Baffler. Here it is as I’m not certain if they are going to publish it. See what you think. Debate isn’t what we make it out to be so let’s make it out to be something that it can really do. And what it can do is make more of itself, first and foremost. This is why debate is so profoundly unsatisfying; it offers nothing but more things to talk about. That’s not what debate, conceived as the friendly helper of scientism and the Enlightenment, is supposed to do.