In Defense of Debate


by Gabe Rusk and Numair Razzak

This year’s Presidential primaries present us with such a heavily packed stage that candidates seem to primarily mine them for Tweetable moments in order to break from the pack. This problem will surely compound as it becomes harder and harder to qualify for the preceding debates. As the rhetoric of presidential hopefuls grows more divisive and ad hominem, the question arose: are us debaters partially to blame?

In an​ article​ in the New York Times last month, philosophy Professor Jonathan Ellis and law student Francesca Hovagimian posed the question: have former debaters turned politicians had a negative effect on political discourse writ large? They argue that debate competitions have their priorities misaligned: if competitors have to argue both the pro and con side of a topic they in turn would do whatever it takes to win that debate. The pursuit of knowledge is perversely flipped on its head for the pursuit of the win. Debate is increasingly ​compared to a game​ where strategy is valued more than truth. Given all that, we still believe these switch-side debate competitions have on net helped rather than harmed politics.  In a world where partisanship often takes the low road, competitive debate opens more minds and improves arguments.

There is no doubt competitive debate suffers from a problem of zero-sum gamesmanship among other issues that include explicit and implicit bias based on class, ​gender​, and ​race​. The community is actively working to fight these injustices wherever we can. In the fight for success, debaters are speaking faster, using more jargon, and hyperbolically claim all roads lead to thermonuclear war. Maybe an Ethics Bowl model is better for politics after all. For example, at American Ethics Bowl competitions teams of students are asked to approach a complex problem like formulating a uniform policy on how to regulate gene editing CRISPR systems. Instead of being assigned a specific side or policy angle to defend teams find their own solution to this CRISPR case. Even if competing teams have virtually the same argument they are evaluated based on who made the same argument best.

The comparative benefits of Ethics Bowl, write Ellis and Hovagimian, are that by design it promotes the cultivation of true personal beliefs and productive disagreement. The Ethics Bowl doesn’t require a pro or con team. Instead, you’re asked to present your argument as “is,” even if it is vastly similar to your peers. But this concept will exacerbate the echo chamber that debaters of a similar culture already live in. The diversity and scope of arguments that succeed when you try to approximate the ​one and only true argument is likely to correspond with the demographic preferences of judges and participants. A positive or negative political feedback loop is born.

Does being forced to argue a fixed side in debate disrupt this ‘Echo Bowl’? Evidence from psychology suggests that cognitive dissonance entreches or ​favors​ our existing beliefs when we are presented with a challenge or counter evidence. Competitive debate uniquely asks students to do something rare to disrupt this effect. We ask students not to just consider or understand the other side but, more radically, to repeatedly ​articulate​ the other side in a convincing and coherent manner.

Take a high school debate topic from last year: ‘The United States federal government should prioritize reducing the federal debt over promoting economic growth.’ Depending on where a student grows up, goes to high school, or attends college, they may never be asked to truly articulate why a balanced budget might be good for long-term growth or why President Obama’s stimulus package pulled the US out of a recession. Debate by this design incentivizes you to find the best counter narrative and dig into sources, theories, and publications a student may never have the motivation or reason to pick up otherwise.

In fact, not many of us have been asked to make a convincing argument against something we believe outside of a classroom, courtroom, or sales pitch. Some contend if these arguments are forced or insincere no minds will change. There is ​evidence ​to suggest, however, that ​attitudes can and often do change. Beyond this phenomenon, this style of debate has two other positive effects on political discourse.

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