Reflections on Cork 2 – “Persuasiveness”

One of the more baffling moments for me at my first Worlds was the reasons many chairs gave for their decisions. It's not to say that I disagreed with every decision or anything like that – I was actually in agreement with most every panel, and right now can't really think of any exceptions to that. I thought they were all very good judges, and the panelists could have easily been chairs as well. What I am more interested in is the rhetoric used to explain or justify a decision and the word at the center of that whirling discourse – persuasiveness.

Many times a team was praised for really having "the most persuasive argument" or "that argument had persuasiveness." Many times a team was docked because they "were not persuasive" or their arguments "lacked persuasiveness."

As a teacher and student of rhetoric I would think I would have no problem with this, but the more I heard it discussed, and the more I asked "what do you mean by that?" The more confused and uncertain I became as to what "persuasiveness" meant in these adjudications. I figured that it must refer to some aesthetic feeling that a team was better than another one, and the term persuasiveness was used to convey that feeling of argumentative superiority that was un-conveyable in a close read of the argumentation.

So I think there are two possible definitions of "persuasiveness" as it was used by judges during decisions:

  1. Persuasiveness is a metaphysical thing a capital-P persuasive, where the arguments, speech, demeanor, and attitude of the speaker meet the criterion of someone who is "persuasive" on a universal level, and this speech on this topic would be considered to be good by anyone, or effective to anyone because it contains these universal, timeless elements of persuasiveness.


  2. Persuasiveness is a litmus test: I can imagine an audience interested in this issue, and if this general, intelligent, public audience with no special training heard this speech they would be moved by it, they would find it effective, so therefore it's a "persuasive" speech. The imagined audience would assent to the arguments from this speaker on this topic so therefore this speaker is being persuasive.


  3. Persuasiveness is a code word for something pleasurable, i.e. an aesthetic reaction to seeing an embodied being deliver a speech that resonates with the listener. This is the most visceral sort of reaction, overwhelming and engaging, practically transforming the physiology of the listener – the sort of crowd reactions to Gorgias that Plato and Socrates called "psychagogic" or nearly hypnotic agreement due to cadence, tone and style. Of course, that's a bit over the top, but there were moments where the "feeling" that the team or speaker engendered was noted as achieving "persuasiveness."

Of course there might be other nuanced definitions, and there might be some spillover between these definitions and how they were used, but I'm just reporting inductively from my experience. What is most interesting to me to note is how far removed all three definitions are from the general definition of "persuasiveness" that would be forwarded by an American policy debater or judge. That sort of "persuasiveness" is a very technical accomplishment, a closing of the holes or a tightening of the hatches. This sort of "persuasiveness" is much more holistic and much more general audience focused.

In the end, I think that a combination of definitions 1 and 3 was being forwarded more often than not, and definition 2 I really like because it is the Perelman/Olbrechts-Tyteca definition of audience centered argumentation. It is less active than it appears as they would say any writer or arguer can't help but imagine a Universal Audience to which all their argumentation is addressed. I'm doing it now in a sense writing this post for imagined you. The effectiveness is probably measured by the gap between my words and their effectiveness on changing your thought or gaining your assent to my claims here.

In the end, there also might be more technical judging going on than I realize. I'm from a format where the technical is hyperbolized into the entire argumentative event. So immersion in any format, style or method where that isn't the case would appear at first to be atechnical. Perhaps after another few years I'll reassess the role of technical argumentation in WUDC style. For now, I think it to be focused on the holistic experience, and the technicalities, save when they contribute to that holism, are disposable.

Now I'm left with the question of how to teach the Perelman/Olbrechts-Tyteca mode of argumentation and how to push that mode of thinking toward those who judge. I feel that this is a very beneficial model for the pedagogical side of debating. I wonder if there are other judges out there who use this model as a way of approaching adjudication?