Defending debate

So I normally try to keep my "curse like a sailor" tendencies to a minimum up here. I'm not sure anyone actually reads this thing anyway, but it is nominally a blog about a activity undertaken by high schoolers, so I try to show some restraint.

However, to introduce today's topic I have no other choice but to employ a relative vulgarity:

Mark Oppenheimer is a Douchebag.

In case you are in too much a hurry to read Mr. Oppenheimer's op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, this seems to be the endpoint of the notoriety gained by the Shannahan/Towson mooning incident. This, combined with the fact that presidential debates have happened recently, has given Mr Oppenheimer a good reason to trash on my activity for a few pages. Frankly his insults reek of being poorly researched and unashamedly inflammatory, so in a perfect world I'd prefer to ignore them.

But I'm a debater. Micheal Jordan shoots baskets. Charles Manson kills people. I talk. We all have a talent.

Like many games, competitive debate has its share of complications, jargon, strategic maneuvers, and community norms. But unlike, say chess or football, the average Wall Street Journal reader is unfamiliar with the intricacies (or really even the basics) of our game. To an honest journalist, this presents a responsibility to faithfully describe some of these rules so that readers might better understand her point. But to Mr. Oppenheimer, the lack of experience in his readership allows him an opportunity to build up vacuous straw men to knock down. Here's his first:

As the Chronicle of Higher Education and others have reported, some college debaters now practice "postmodern debate," in which they argue theoretical questions about the process of debate rather than the topic at hand.

Note that nobody in debate calls anything "postmodern debate," save for maybe a debate that actually occurs over the subject of postmodernism. "Postmodern debate" is a construction of the Chronicle of Higher Education author, which is something that Mr. Oppenheimer should know and should point out, given that he himself makes the appeal to authority by claiming that he used to coach debate at Yale. But being a weasel and a douchebag, Oppenheimer decides to give postmodern debate the meaning of "things I don't like," which is apparently arguments that don't involve "the topic at hand."

My astute readers will note that this definition includes Topicality, the question of whether or not an affirmative's plan fits under the resolution. This is one of the "Stock Issues", or basic tenets of competitive policy debate. It's one of the 4 things I teach my freshman novice debaters in their first lecture. If Oppenheimer's problem is with progressivism in debate, he sure has quite a few years of history to undo.

But we all know that Oppenheimer's problem isn't with T. It's with performance, maybe. Or kritiks. Wait, what is his problem with debate again? Oh yeah:

Predictably, debate traditionalists (like me) are upset about this postmodern turn. A commentator on the National Review academic blog said that the trend toward postmodern debate "shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with the increasing politicization of college campuses these days."

Oh, there it is. Listen, Mark. You want to trash on "ivory tower academics" or whatever, you do it on your own time. But equating competitive debate with whatever boogeyman you see lurking in college campuses is just silly. Sure, over the last few years debaters have sought out arguments from the extreme left. But we've also sought out plenty of arguments from the extreme right (if for no other reason than to answer those on the exreme left). To take the most obvious example, in my last year of competition you could root through my tubs and find Krauthammer, Kagan, Khalilzad, Murray, and plenty of articles from your own National Review in addition to advocates of nonviolence and, yes, "postmodernism." I teach students to argue the power of the market, the importance of democracy promotion, the benefits of American primacy, and the list goes on.

But the fact that I have apparently sold out to the left isn't Oppenheimer's only problem with debate:

Rather than try to win points with wit, allusion or elegant turns of phrase, debaters began loading down their speeches with multiple arguments; the expectation arose that one had to meet all of an opponent's arguments and that to "drop" an argument meant losing the debate. Thus debaters began skipping pleasantries, speaking fast and using ugly shorthand ("D.A." for disadvantage, for example).

Interestingly enough, Oppenheimer hints at the real reason that debaters decide to speak fast. Part of what makes debate different from other forms of communication is the expectation that my arguments be answered by my interlocutor. This focus on the content of argument, on logic, and on actually answering one's opponent is the basic foundation of debate. I could go on about how fast debate teaches strategy, attention to detail, and critical thinking skills, but apparently Mr. Oppenheimer is the final authority on the subject of the skills debate teaches (or doesn't teach).

Policy debate is no longer training young men and women for participation in civic discourse.

I know lawyers, activists, politicians, teachers, judges, and other outstanding members of society who might take issue with that. And then they would call you a douchebag.

But I digress. Mr. Oppenheimer wasn't done describing the reason that speed came into policy debate.

When debate was about majestic oratory, the naturally charming golden boys, or those polished by prep schools, had a distinct advantage; but when debate rounds could be won with technicalities and sheer quantity of argumentation, then industry could carry the day.

Frankly, this is offensive. The notion that us classless cretins would have the nerve to attempt to join the discourse of the elite is just appalling to Oppenheimer. How dare we invade an activity that purports to be about debate and argument and actually make it value debate and argument? Clearly it would be much better if we had an activity that was kinda about argument, but really about rewarding who spoke the prettiest and provided the most witty affectations and had their tie the straightest. Mark, we've only got one activity for argument. Just one little sandbox in the world where skills in logic and "industry" (apparently doing research to prepare for a debate is a lowly pursuit) are actually valued. You've got plenty of games that value Oratory. Please leave the debating to the debaters.


That was going to be my dramatic ending, but I've got one more loose end to tie up, involving the origin of this sudden interest in competitive debate. Shannahan mooned another coach and he got fired. If we condemned every game that occasionally inspired the worst out of its participants, I think all we'd have left is pinochle.

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