Responding to General Criticisms of Debate

I find it very strange that there are still critiques that are alive and well of the practice of the art of debate. You would think that in an era of tea parties, conservative talk (shout?) radio, and a collection of some of the most incapable public officials in the art of justification, explanation and argument that these criticisms would be diminished to the point where they are, at the least, back-burnered in the face of our crumbling ability to advocate our feelings, thoughts, and beliefs to one another.

So this post is an attempt to craft a bare-bones defense for each of these major criticisms of teaching debate. Before I get into establishing and then responding to each of the criticisms, there are some really excellent background readings that will help bring the debate about debate into a clearer resolution (maybe not 1080p, but at least you will be able to see the trees in the distance as our protagonists engage with one another).

First, it is vital to read the Platonic dialogues Gorgias and Phaedrus to get a sense of the critique of teaching the art of debate at its limit and then in its more moderate form. In Gorgias we find Socrates objecting to Gorgias teaching an ability to persuade, argue and prove because it has no sense of absolute essence. It has no core to it, so it is difficult to determine if it is a good or bad art. Socrates confines "rhetorike" (as Plato calls it in the dialogue we might say "rhetoric" but the word in Attic Greek is a person not a noun; an orator, not oratory, but Plato tries to fix this with this word). In Phaedrus the need for rhetoric is acknowledged, but as in the speeches about love, only a love for true wisdom can craft proper rhetoric. In both dialogues though there is the concern with placing semblance or mere appearance in the place of the real or absolute.

Moving forward a few thousand years we find this same concern replicated in the very nice article by Hicks and Green on the controversy over switch-side debating in 1950s America. To give a brief summary, the choice of the national topic - that the US should recognize the communist government of China - forced a split between coaches who believed that good training in debate was centered around development of extant belief in students and coaches that believed that assigning sides to students regardless of personal belief was the best way to go. Of course, switch-side debating is not only the American standard now, but the international one (some of you are probably scratching your heads quite puzzled that this was even an issue in the U.S. at one time) and additionally, the idea that someone would need to believe one side or the other in order to participate effectively on a debate team is quite simply laughable to the majority of debate instructors, teachers and coaches in America today I would bet. The article shows how the idea of switch-side debate became not only the norm but an essential element in the defense of democracy. The ability to debate both sides of a question entered democratic ideology in the place of strong personal convictions about right and wrong articulated well as the cornerstone of good democratic practice.

All of the criticisms of the teaching and practice of debate can be seen better through the lenses provided by a bit of the history of this long debate. With those somewhat in mind, here are the most common critiques of debate practice - possibly the most common, they are the ones I hear pretty frequently.

1) Debate encourages people to game and toy with the ideas of others, rendering the most vital beliefs of other people as playthings.

2) Debate thwarts the ability of people to accept or entertain the beliefs of others as they are, seeing them as something that must be dissected, cut open, or like Napoleon looking at the Sphinx's nose - target practice.

I hope these are representative and fair depictions of the criticisms. This is how I have summarized them after hearing them so frequently. I hope in the comments you might suggest alternate phrasings and alternate criticisms if you don't think these are accurate or well formed.

1) This criticism assumes a lot.

It assumes that the game of debate, or the things learned there laterally shift over into mainstream discourse. Of course it is somewhat true that ideas are treated as instrumentality in debate. I believe though that this is a good thing. It allows for ideas that one would not normally approach to become closely understood. It also means that people have to respond to ideas they would probably ignore in daily life. Most importantly, it provides the practitioner with a wealth of perspective. Perspectives that he or she would not normally think about. Whether or not they adopt them as their own belief, I take the agnostic Gorgian position - none of my business. Gaming with ideas and views is a great way to lower the stakes and really engage these views. The recalcitrance of debate is that many views, once explored, are hard to forget. And the practitioner, although in the game doesn't have much trouble distancing herself, will be confronted from time to time with the limits of her own beliefs outside of the forum.

Another assumption in this criticism is one that holds some beliefs or values as real things that are somehow discounted or diminished because they are "played with." This might be true, but the subtle nuances of good debate require one to listen, hear, and understand the intricacies of positions. Compare this to the non-practicioner, the one untrained in the arts, who "won't hear" or refuse to engage a position that is "dead wrong." Even if the motives are "impure" or someone is on a crusade to convert the other, the requirement of good debate - to understand the position opposite - has the risk of infecting the interlocutors thought. Engaging with the ideas of the other in an attempt to convert them over to your side paradoxically risks the entire enterprise. For every time something is explained, it is re-created. Every alteration helps to define it. And if the debater investigating the opposite position encounters a good argument, they are likely to change their own mind. There is real risk in engagement, there is no risk, and increased polarization in the refusal to engage with "deeply held" or "important" ideas of other people. Treating ideas like pieces in a game might be abhorrent, but not if the game is recognized as such, and the goal of it is training in subtleties and to value what works - understanding and engagement of the linkages within the others' arguments.

2) This criticism is closely related to Kenneth Burke's idea of "trained incapacity" or "occupational psychosis" - the idea that one is trained to do things and therefore out of the ability to do things, and tends to see the world in terms of their occupation, since they are always wanting to see things through that lens anyway.

I would argue that debate training is the necessary check against such an occupational psychosis. Of course, once you are trained in something it is really exciting to try to use it all over the place - young martial arts students must be carefully taught that not everything in the house deserves a kick - and debate has this training built in, generally called the "audience." Not every trick a student discovers will always work or always apply because the audience, the judges, must be persuaded, and they have biases as to what the good argument consists of.

In the interpersonal realm, the opponent is also the audience. This changes things around so much that the person who approaches each disagreement as if it were a debate quickly runs out of friends. Debate holds above anything else that the audience must be adapted to in order to persuade. "Occupational Psychosis" in this situation becomes self-correcting. If the audience doesn't like aggressive debate attacks, switch the discourse to something more like a discussion, or questioning.

Is it the function of debate to teach each student to treat all people as valuable? Not directly, no. But since audiences can be vastly different, with polarities one has never thought of, debate training encourages increased respect for other people as more than targets. They are sources of inspiration and information. They help one overcome difficulties in phrasing and developing arguments. Also, most debate is a humanistic endeavor, teaching that there are some common assumptions under the surface of everyone that generally mean certain forms of arguments will sway them. But that "generally" is debate's anti-humanistic element, the element that says there is nothing so dangerous as grouping all humans together under an essential label. So in the end, the skills that teach people to possibly see all opinions as target practice also encourage serious investigation of these opinions to see what is holding them up.

What's the alternative here? Non-engagement? Acceptance of all ideas? I think that these would be much worse. Accepting people as flawed beings is a different thing than accepting them with their flaws. The acceptance of people as flawed is not a weakness to those trained in debate. It is a source of salvation in a sense. It means that there is always a chance to convince people who are doing bad under the name of the good, or who believe in ways that harm society to change their mind. The skills that are taught in debate naively appear to be simple zero-sum games where we start with the idea that the other person is wrong. Instead, the practitioners of debate assume that nobody is right, but perhaps through discourse we can become more right. At least in this situation and this issue. And when the situation changes, we can always return, because we are all somewhat wrong, all the time.

Going around correcting others with "truth" is an activity that looks like debate, but it's not debate that causes that. The lack of such training is what allows such behavior to occur. They take the name of debate in order to provide a false sense of fairness. But the practitioner of debate will often call her art "discussion" or "conversation" in order to ensure the debate continues. Within debate is a respect for other ideas that is essential to master in order to win. It is a much more complex symbol system than it often gets credit for. Moving away from debate training ensures more thoughtless treatment of the ideas of others than simply using them to hone complex rhetorical accumen.

Perhaps this is a bit too rough to publish, but I thought I would give it a try. Through this exercise, I noticed I used the word Practitioner to refer to students of debate rather than debater. I think this was purely accidental, but the more I think about it the more I like it. Not as flat as debater is. More on that another time.

For now, what other criticisms of debate need addressing? I am sure there are more, but these are the ones that I think are most common, and in most need of responses.