Debates Do Not Solve Things

Detail from  The Statue of Four Lies,  The Art Guys, 1983. University of Houston campus. I took this photo.

Detail from The Statue of Four Lies, The Art Guys, 1983. University of Houston campus. I took this photo.

This post is inspired by the continual efforts of one scholar in NCA to get people to debate him on the value of diversity versus merit in deciding who the best communication scholars are.

I am always not sure why people think of debate this way until I am: NCA ostracized debate (and most other performance pedagogy) from the convention and their publications almost a generation ago. This move is unfortunate, as now the largest communication scholarship/teaching(?) organization in the world is now composed of people who have a very unhealthy theory of debate as their only understanding of it.

Debate’s function as I see it is a commonplace generation machine. That is, you have some students participate in a debate on an issue not to find the answer, but to find as many commonplaces that one could use for the generation of compelling arguments for particular audiences. I usually tell classroom students that the audience would be one at their university, as I think that it can be a pretty good test lab for figuring out how commonplaces work and how useful they are as inventional devices for other audiences. It would be nice if all people who’ve had a public speaking class could come out of there with a way of collecting and keeping commonplaces - at least I think that would be better than learning how to find a scholarly article or use a microfilm reader.

The entirety of education in the Roman world was commonplace practice, epitomized in the endless composition and delivery of declamation. Just now reading this fantastic book about law education where I’m learning that “plea books” were a large part of legal education for a long time in this country (adaptable statements for getting a judge to agree rather than this appeal to the Founding Fathers as omnipotent timeless ghosts or whatever happens nowadays). The pattern is established again and again. This is why particular cases and grounded questions make better in-class debate topics than something like “gun control” which, as you probably already noticed, functions better as a commonplace than a debate topic. That is, you can generate more arguments from “gun control” for other issues for Americans than you can teaching people how to make arguments on either side of it. Then again, I’m interested in teaching rhetoric, you might not be, you might be after “the right policy” or something.

Anyway, setting debates at the NCA convention will not advance the discovery of the correct ways of dealing with the embarrassing Distinguished Scholars discourse(s) and the Medhurst Memo (it’s not an editorial anymore is it?). Debate will not help us understand our goals and objectives, or figure out what the right thing is to do about graduate education, the Academy, and the host of other hot topics that face NCA as they face every academy-oriented institution out there. There’s nothing debatable here. We can certainly argue about what needs to be done and we can do research and present evidence. But that’s not debating.

What debate will do is give us some practice and recognition that there are an incredibly large number of ways we can construct our values and beliefs, and an even larger number of ways that we can express those commitments. Debate encourages us to reimagine our articulations of our values and commitments in ways that have us rewording our thoughts in the terms of the debaters. At its best, these rewordings can lead us to new conceptualizations of what we believe and think. Debate can lead us to new ways to constitute ourselves as subjects of our own discourse, inquiring after itself.

But suggesting a debate will “clear the air” on a lot of confusing talk is not the function of debate, let alone the fact that it will come crawling back from life in the wilderness to do so at NCA. No thanks. Debate is unapologetically presented as cutthroat sport these days, and NCA has nothing to say about it. In the 1990s, some were worried that debate might become too sportified. Now there’s simply no question that it is. And those involved in debating today will not be able to model a debate that would expand ways of thinking. What debate practice does these days is narrow and codify - it’s a hard science of eristics - and the gravitational pull of that is so intense that new approaches and ways of thinking cannot expand. Consider how much people flip out when a rule change in professional sport appears. So much for an expansive program that adds to what could be said or what could be thought. Recent experiences teaching at summer high school debate institutes were surprising in how they were disturbed that I wanted the students to read and write critically, while the instructors wanted me to be teaching the students quick reactions they could say regardless of the arguments. Such tricks are the normal pedagogy of sport debate, and they are rightly what we’d expect to see at NCA should Grabowsky get this diversity versus merit debate he wants.

Douglas Ehninger recognized this issue in debate when he wrote about the “coercive” rather than “corrective” model of argumentation. A lot of people think that the “coercive” model is the right way to go about debate, teaching people how to “think correctly” about issues and how to “speak correctly” about issues. Ehninger favored the “corrector” model (terrible name for sure, a bit 1960s) where during the attempt to stop someone from believing or doing something thought to be incorrect, one engages in treating them like a human being, someone who can be mistaken. The impact of that is that all participants can be mistaken, even the one who was initially trying to correct. This is an ultimate form of conveying humanity upon another; a level of respect where you say I will give up my commitments in part or in whole if you can articulate to me why I shouldn’t think them. Or something like that (people are going to come for me with how poorly worded that line is). The point is that debate should be neutralizing our convictions in favor of complexity, not being taught as a complexity reduction exercise in the service of getting the right answer. I feel that Eric Grabowsky’s model of debate he’s presenting on CRTNET and Facebook is most likely this model of “getting it right.” Arguments might work that way, but debates squarely do not.

Debate doesn’t exist at the NCA convention because people feel they know things, and want to demonstrate that the inquiry has already happened. It’s not a coincidence that we have hardly any undergraduates at NCA and never have debates. The two are linked. The membership of NCA clearly wants the convention to serve as a place where a record of thought that happened elsewhere can be presented and shared. Some love this model so much they do it from the audience at virtually every panel they attend. If NCA members don’t like that model, they can change it of course. But for now the exclusion of sport debate is well warranted, and the exclusion of pedagogical debate is an effect of an organization that believes instability of knowledge is a problem; let’s figure out the right answers. Debate can be valuable, but where NCA is right now, it’s not a good move. The only models available are terrible, and the newer models don’t fit the purpose of the convention. Debate however remains the most underused and under-appreciated rhetorical pedagogy out there because of what we’ve allowed it to become. Maybe debate will find a good place again at the NCA convention of the future, reimagined as a diverse place where questions are asked and no scholars are distinguished above any others.