Montana is a Great Place to Experience British-style Debating


For the sixth time (maybe?) I travelled up to Montana to do a workshop and run a small BP tournament for those amazing people from the snowy west in Montana. I really like going out there, although this time I had some reservations about it.

I always have reservations about it though. The first reservation is that they really don’t need me. How many years does it really take to be able to teach debate? Well, like chess, not a lot. The rules are really simple. And if you’ve seen a few debates, you sort of get what it is to look for (it’s not as complicated as the CA vanguard would have you believe; you are just looking for what’s persuasive to a general audience. Why we don’t have audiences is a mystery though). Anyway, they always argue that it’s diversity of viewpoint and opinion and the attraction of an outside person teaching and all that. I feel bad going because it most likely costs a lot and I don’t want to waste people’s money. What do I know about debate anyway? I just read old books, get excited about them, and talk to people about them.

Here’s what I said in Montana. It might very well be one of my last formal debate appearances, so I thought i’d film it at the weirdest angle I could think of. Actually it’s just an accident as we had to move rooms - I can’t really teach without a screen or some whiteboard action.

I still try to incorporate the ideas of Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca into debating as I feel that these are the most instructional theories. But my summer research was about Roman teaching methods and Roman rhetoric pedagogy, so that seems exciting too. I prepared a couple of hours of material but only had about 45 minutes. So maybe this is something I should record as a YouTube channel video, me just talking to the camera. Very weird, but I could do it I guess. The best would be to set it up in a university classroom, but with the status of our facilities you’d think I was talking from a condemned building. It’s not nearly as nice as the 1,000 student college this lecture was filmed in.

So should I continue to do this work? I like teaching, I like teaching lots of people all over the place. I don’t like debate anymore and I have removed myself as much as I can from the world of debating. But I feel like debate is a good pathway toward the study of rhetoric, which matters quite a bit more. Rhetoric is the antidote to debate, which is colonized by incredibly poor and shallow standards of proof from science and journalism. Rhetoric is the true discourse of science and journalism, because it includes the status of facts in the mix of the persuasive. Journalists and scientists believe facts to be outside of discourse. This is why these discourses never help us understand our world; they are always unsatisfying because we so very rarely have a hand in their creation.

BP debate is doing well in Montana for a few reasons. First, they do not travel the international circuit, which better mimics community norms for persuasion and argumentation. Local and regional debate is always of a better quality than a large international or national competition circuit because the norms are much more murky and flexible. If you are having a huge international competition or tournament, you have to make rigid the rules and the nature of judgement so people do not feel their money is wasted. I feel that it’s wasted money if you are interested in teaching or learning about the complexities of rhetoric, but most of the people who go there are just trophy-hunters, less interested in the art or the experience than they are the prize. It really is a sport, without any of the elements that make sports worth watching.

Local BP and regional BP is great as well because local audiences can be included. Smaller field, more time between debates, more of a chance to schedule debates when audiences can actually attend. This changes things in a huge way. Appeals angle toward the audience not toward the rules of fairness or what the CAs want the tournament to look like. Adaptation toward an audience is more instructional about how argumentation works than any appeal to a rule or a set of practices developed to make tournaments run smoothly.

I don’t know if I’ll go back, this might be the last one, but September is a long way off. A lot can change in 12 months. All options open is the best way to roll. Except I’m not going to run a debate program again. You can count on that one.