Why are University Debate Watch Parties Good?

Rhetoric of Reason
Rhetoric of Reason (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Why were so many people tweeting last night about how awesome it was to have so many students in a room together tweeting about the Presidential debate while watching it?

I asked on twitter a few times for a warrant as to why this was a good thing. I received, as of this morning, zero responses from anyone. No warrants to be found.

The reason why there's no warrant presented to me is that there is no clear reason why this was good.

The reason it felt good to those interested in rhetoric and deliberative democracy is that it appeared to be a democratic moment. It looked like some sort of democratic activity. It was sooo good to have sooo many young people "engaged."

Engaged with what? Engaged with who? The trappings of the cute story many rhetoricans like to tell and re-tell about critically engaged democratic citizenry was alive and well last night. This is an idea that, along with the Presidential debates, should disappear.

These debate watching twitter parties are exactly what we don't need. They indicate the crisis in the American political system. They indicate why democracy is not what is present in the US. It was people having conversations in their own mind with themselves and tweeting their thoughts. There was very little room for doubt or for questions.

Twitter was a constant stream of thoughts, and a trickle of interaction, doubt, and uncertainty.

Many scholars of rhetoric on twitter were happily tweeting away about their political opinions. This is fine. I think we should have political opinions. I think we don't have a choice really - it will happen. But during these "Presidential debates" there should be more discussion of the meta. More discussion publicly about how these events are constructed, and how they construct us.

Legitimizing these events makes life easy for the Commission on Presidential Debates. They set up a win-win scenario for the two major parties. When experts on debate and rhetoric set up "viewing parties" and discuss with students "who won or lost" they rhetorically legitimize these events as debates, or even as important political events.

Most of the research on Presidential debate effects indicate that they do not do anything but galvanize views already held. Is this what we want?

Adding some static, uncertainty, and murkiness to the events would help fight this trend, I think. And it's up to those who are authorized to teach and speak about what a debate should be and how to evaluate rhetoric not on the truth of the facts, but on the play to the audience and the cultural moment, would help.

How would that help?

Democracy can only benefit from more questions and more uncertainty rather than less.

We are on the path to isolated certainty with these undergraduate debate watching events. They legitimize the CPD's mission to serve the two major parties. They create a bad litmus test for what a debate can and should be. They encourage students to discourse with themselves and imagine they are reaching a larger audience. They reinforce the opinions, no matter how they were created, of the students and do not provide the critical tools necessary to question.

We need to encourage young people to question these events instead of how to fact check them. We need to encourage young people to find ways to not accept these debates, as well as point out to others how they are crafted to give you plenty of warrants why the person you already like "won" the "debate."

In short, we need to be critics each and every time these debates appear on TV. We should not use them as a time to talk about who we support politically. We have a more important duty here, and that duty is to the entire realm of how politics are framed.
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