On Recording and Posting as Many Debates as we can

In transit to the US National Open at the Claremont colleges, a tournament that expressly forbids the recording of any of the debates in any form, even with consent. There is a waver procedure you must conform with, and insurance that must be purchased before filming anything on the campus. So go the horrors of being a University so close to Hollywood.

Next weekend will be the Hart House IV, and I usually film most of the debates. Only occasionally do I have people object to it - but overall the mood about filming debates is one of fear and skepticism. Thinking about this compels me to outline as clearly as I can why we should try to record as many debates as we can, and post them to as many web sites as we can.

About a month ago I received correspondence from a teacher in India thanking me for posting debate videos. He was downloading them and using them in rural schools to teach debating, showing them off of his laptop. It's quite accidental this is happening, but that's the only way it could happen - nobody could imagine a better production and delivery system for educational videos than the Internet as a whole. The declining cost of internet and laptops, as well as the growing demand for good debating and reasoning in the world should be enough of an argument to encourage all tournaments to push the idea of recording and posting debates. This burden falls even more heavily on exclusive (meaning limited registration slots) and high-quality tournaments. This is perhaps the most materially real evidence for the internet being a democratizing, or at least, educational force in parts of the world that exhibit the most need.

But there's also a more self-serving reason. One is the value of debating, and how it is pegged to the idea that we practice a public reason - our arguments are to  tailored to "reasonable persons" - and those who win do the best job of making persuasive arguments within this field (I am using Stephen Toulmin's definition of field here, as in the common experiences and knowledge of an audience. We fake this in debate, but we fake it well and for a good telos, overall). This is something that we are working toward always in debates and in decisions - trying to extol the arguments that are most reasonable and persuasive, toward the end of creating even more good argumentation. This is why we encourage our first years to watch elimination debates (and if you don't, shame on you). I call this the centrifugal force of debate, a force where we try to push the applicability of our arguments outside of the game, outside of the tournament, and make them adherent (or at least sticky) for audiences that don't narrow the meaning of the term "extension" the way we do.

However there is another force at work, the centripetal force of debate. This force is the one that strengthens the community and the networks within it by paying too much attention to the immediate audience and immediate situation. A "reasonable person" quickly becomes a "reasonable person in debate" - and then we have changes in our style. Nothing too bad at first, perhaps a few inside jokes, a joke at the expense of a debater we all know and love, or something about the well-known food at another IV we all attend - quite innocuous. The problems arise when particular structures of argument that have been named by the community, or the community leaders, as "persuasive" become expected argumentation. When that expected argument is not made, or that cloistered form of reason is not presented (I'm looking your way, arguments about rational actors or Western Liberal Democracy frameworks) then the team receives a loss. This compounds over time to produce a discourse that is moving toward the center of the game qua game, without much attention to those outside the immediate debating audience present. This is damaging to the best effects of participation in debate - it not only avoids the teaching of persuasive argument to all audiences, it gives the debaters a false sense of superiority about their ability to communicate. They conflate good argumentation with debate, and then dismiss audiences who do not buy their arguments outside (or even often times inside) of the debate community. And as we learn from Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca's writing in The New Rhetoric, one can only dismiss part of any audience as incapable of being persuaded or one gives up the ontological hope of persuasion entirely.

Videoing and posting rounds is a curative (perhaps a corrective in my more conservative moments) because it reminds us that other people could be watching. Debaters get nervous about where that film might end up - and not all communities might find our humor or logic amusing or even relevant. Some might find it downright offensive. This is an argument for filming because it keeps us thinking about the limits of the reasonable person standard as a check on insular debating practices. The unblinking eye of the camera is the audience member who might not be amused at your offbeat humor, or your tricky logical refutation. It is a reminder that we are not all-encompassing in our ability to evaluate the "good" argument, and that one day we will have to face audiences that do not think we are clever straight away.  In short, it will temper the centripetal forces in favor of the centrifugal ones.

We don't want a full centrifugal takeover either. We don't need a talking fest, or the cacophony of the masses. We need a game to help us deal with that reality. It helps us hone and concentrate on what effective argumentation might look like. It cuts out the atomizing bits of public discourse that interfere - the coercion, intimidation, the financial inequity and privileged access to the podium, etc. But these still exist in some form in debate, although we do a good job of minimizing them.

Videoing puts things in perspective. Yes, a future employer might see you debate. They won't judge you on the position you hold, per se, but they will judge you on your attitude and the turns of phrase you use. They might judge you on your demeanor, or the temper of your speech. In short, they might judge you on all the things the people in a boardroom might judge you on, or the people in your community. They might be real audiences, and we might just need a bit more of there presence, albeit in technological form, in our debates.

As a post-script to this idea, I am using the terms centripetal and centrifugal in a similar way to Mikhail Bakhtin in his theory of language. Bakhtin argues that language is always struggling against forces that want to control and constrain the meaning of it, and forces that are always expanding it and making it mean a more new, for lack of a better phrase. He argues this is part of the natural way meaning operates, and can be seen best in novels as a form. If we imagine debate as a form of literature, we don't have to work to hard to imagine these forces at work within our art. We have some people wishing to narrow and constrain, motivated by fair competitions, eristics, the need for good rules, etc. and those who want to broaden and new-ify it - sometimes going too far, or going far enough as to suggest debate become "something else." These struggles are fantastically healthy, and I find the controversy over videotaping or filming debates to be a material "bubbling up" of these larger, usually submerged, struggles.