Fear the Sophist

We were turned down for a grant. I sat in a room with my colleagues and University representatives as we stared at a phone. On the other end a woman from the U.S. State Department read us the reasons we were declined. A panel of experts from different areas evaluated our proposal - to offer a series of annual debating workshops and tournaments in Morocco - and said it scored poorly in the process.

But all the comments were positive, except for one that, in my mind, is the oldest criticism of all when discussing debating. 

The panelists felt our project would fail because we are not teaching advocacy about anything. We are just teaching debating and advocacy by itself. One panelist said that if we were teaching an issue-based form of advocacy - teaching the students something to stand up for - it would improve the project immensely. But she or he could not see how we could teach debating without a civil society or civil issue connected with it.

My thoughts drifted to the critique of rhetoric offered by Socrates in Plato's Gorgias. Rhetoric has no substance of its own, so it cannot properly be called an "art." Rhetoric - teaching people how to advocate without any proper subject matter - is akin to teaching people cookery without teaching nutrition, or teaching people the art of cosmetics without teaching how to care for the body properly. For Socrates and Plato, the concern with the reality behind the words is paramount, and it is impossible to imagine a good society placing  the focus of education on the quality of the advocacy without concern for what will be advocated about. The U.S. State Department agreed with this assessment, citing concerns that students would lose interest because there is no critical or social issue keeping them involved. There is also a fear - a fear about teaching young people the ability to change their minds and the minds of others without regard to a particular issue - which is also an ancient fear expressed by Plato. Without grounding in the good, how would a society know where to steer? We would just go wherever we pleased, and might not actually and really know whether we were doing real good or not. 

As I listened to the debriefing, I couldn't help but cringe. I thought immediately I should have been clearer in my writing about what debate teaches - it teaches people to advocate for advocacy. It teaches the capacity for building civil society capacity. But then the darker side of this criticism came to light - the side that Plato conveniently forgets to have Gorgias argue in the dialogue. 

This is the side where connecting advocacy training, rhetoric, and argumentation to the investments of order and stability come into play. The U.S. suggests things like women's issues and the issues of children not because of some alturistic sense of duty, but because these are important footholds for consumer capitalism to gain ground. Developing a taste for Western medical practices and Western ideas of dissimination of rights (which of course require particular material possessions to display that you have access to and enjoy certain rights) forego the possibility to imagine alternative ways of ordering society. Training in debate for the sake of debate, or educating people to advocate for advocacy - something I think that debate could be really good at doing - connects the practices of debating to the imagination, not to the superstructure that exists, churning away in a particular direction, deep under all of our feet in the realm of ideology. 

In contemporary scholarship we have the fears, particularly in the United States, that teaching students how to debate and advocate will ruin their ability to believe strongly - become people of conviction - as opposed to people who can manipulate minds as the occasion requires it. Teddy Roosevelt was very proud to write in his autobiography that he did not participate in University debating which could have ruined his conviction. Ron Green and Darrin Hicks wrote a seminal paper that traces the dispute among debate teachers and coaches in the middle of the 20th century on the value of forcing students to take certain positions in debates, or "switch-sides." The concern was that this type of debate ruins the development of political and social beliefs, which are not the business of the debate coach to generate. On the other side, the effect of teaching switch-side debating is that democracy - at least the U.S. flavor of it - now has a subject position that is very attractive and very persuasive: Democratic thinkers can adapt both sides of a controversy and examine them.  Both results and both positions on the issue of advocacy as the "subject" of advocacy have made their point in the fact that either way, we teach in the service of some ideology.

We can't help but serve such tectonic forces in our daily lives. But teaching rhetoric and the possibilities of argument and advocacy for their own sake might help us become a bit more aware of such massive forces, and steer the ship a fraction more one way than another. This is terrifying to those with a vested interest in how the world should look.

What is it that makes us host tournaments and encourage the people we like most to participate in debating? What forces are at work there? These questions are a bit beyond a U.S. Government grant application, but they are perhaps the root of better answers to the concerns of a government that wants to promote civil society - but only in a certain flavor. The U.S. State Department - convictionists? Socratics? Perhaps some sort of 21st century blend of both that believes, as we have for most of modern Western civilization, that debate is something you do after you have discovered the truth. Recovery of the epistemic role of debating is something everyone involved in debate should be spending some of their time considering these days.