Debate's Purpose

Discussing the so-called “intellectual dark web” with a friend of mine and the phrase really struck me as odd. This title, this identity communicates a lot about the desire of the identity of these thinkers and speakers and not much of the political position or the policies they would support.

Anyway, I love this video a friend sent me as in this clip Jordan Peterson suggests the best way to engage with leftist ideas is unavailable to them. They don’t know anyone who authentically holds a left leaning view across the board, and is able to engage them on the level and the way they like to develop their rhetoric.

Is this a gesture toward switch side debate? I think it might be much more than a gesture. I think Peterson is saying that they need to find someone who would agree to represent the views they are against in a panel format. This is similar to the suggestion made by David Bohm in his book On Dialogue where if nobody believes the opposing viewpoint, people should be assigned to represent it fairly, or as best as they can.

Switch-side debating was not created because of its educational value, but because it solved a big problem in number of people who could debate at a tournament. As the tournament model of debate eradicated all other avenues for debating, allowing colleges to enter one, or possibly two affirmative and negative teams became too few. If teams were disconnected from permanent advocacy it made it much easier to expand the tournament to accommodate the demand for participation.

The educational value of switch-side debate arose as a discourse of justification for this competitive choice. It was a very well thought out, strategic response to the tradition of debate education which had been based on an ethic of accepting student position on a debate topic as legitimate. That is, no debate instructor would encourage or force a student to take a position against what he or she walked into the club believing. This history can be examined by reading Darren Hicks and Ronald Greene’s excellent essay about it.

The arguments in favor of switch-side might have risen out of a bureaucratic need and desire to have more weekend competition speakers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the claims in favor of switch-side should be dismissed out of hand. On the contrary, there are a lot of really great reasons to make someone study argumentation this way, most notably for me the idea that it puts debate and argument in the subjective driver’s seat, making the student the object of study. In this way, debate study using switch-side makes debate similar to the study of spiritual identity and the relationship of being to the wider world, like the study of the koan in Zen Buddhism. Of course, this defense is my own and not represented in the more traditional defenses, but many of those are good because they too push an ethic that it is important to de-center students’ ideas and beliefs in order to stimulate more reading, thinking, and discussion about ideas.

Peterson’s idea of switch side isn’t meant for this purpose. He very clearly wants to have something for the sharpening of his own arguments, and the arguments of those he’s in conversation with in the video. It cannot be denied that switch-side can be used to close off, intensify, and make a set of commitments appear even better. It can be practice for a political project of some kind as opposed to using its power to remind us that our perspective is always limited.

It is this use of switch-side that requires that switch-side debate practices don’t forget that they are meant to represent alternative viewpoints on topics, not just an opposition to whatever is brought up by the affirmative side. There should be something beyond mere fidelity to argument. In Peterson’s model, at least the way he discusses it here in this short clip, his fidelity is to the argument as a thing, as something that has a “final form” or “best form” that can be recognized. This can be done rhetorically with the use of the universal audience, which I don’t think is ever far from their minds. Concern with how the audience reacts to and engages with these arguments is much more important to quality than any fidelity to argument as a closed system. The difference is whether or not your purpose in arguing is to be right or to be convincing. Obviously, everyone would like to be both. But to be both requires recognition by those to whom you are presenting your ideas. You must convey rightness in recognizable standards. Which is why using switch-side practices to refine an argument on its own terms, or in some absolute terms, will never be able to do that.

Instead, switch-side is at its best when it is allowed to threaten you with decentering your beliefs and making you think again about the support for them. Without the element of real threat, or real fear that one’s ideas could appear unsupported, the pedagogy doesn’t work. This is also why an audience is necessary, and one that is approached in the terms of the universal audience - without resorting to inside appeals that only a vanguard would understand.

Also, wouldn’t it be nice if there was a wealth of literature easily accessible to people who want to engage ideas discussing switch-side debate and other rhetorical practices, such as declamation, that can not only help one articulate one’s beliefs, but form the beliefs themselves. This aspect of rhetorical education is always present and often ignored, mostly to our peril. We are being shaped, and shaping others, through something we treat as throw-away style or transmission. It’s not just a “fun” thing to do, it’s a dangerously transformative practice. I guess it’s fun in the way that playing with chemicals in a chemistry lab is fun. But respect for what one is handling is paramount.

What can we do as rhetoric scholars to create a wealth of information about the practice of the oral expression of arguments for the purpose of intellectual investigation or critical inquiry? Where are the public intellectuals of the art of practicing how one says something as a method to determine what one is going to say? And more so, speaking out your ideas as a way of crafting and creating them? When are we really going to take this mantle on? When are we going to take responsibility for our scholarship and its incredible importance for the creation of thought, belief, and attitude among millions around the world?