Beyond Debate

The most disheartening story we encountered in the past month concerned the little-noticed world of college debate, which was once a stubborn outpost of rigorous intellectual exercise but apparently has since degenerated into just another territory of trendy academic nonsense. We found this alarming partly for personal reasons, as the old style of scholastic debate was a favorite pastime of our otherwise wasted youth, but also for more pertinent reasons, as the same degeneration is so painfully apparent in the quality of the modern world’s real-life debates.
Way back in our playing days high school and college debate taught how to formulate a logical argument and state it persuasively, among many other things. Intensive research about the topics chosen for each season was required to bring home those cheap trophies and silver cups and the satisfaction of prevailing in verbal combat, and we wound up knowing enough about subjects ranging from the criminal justice system to international trade to learn how very complicated they are and how very badly they are often managed. The sport taught us the basics of economics and political theory, how to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of particular policy proposal and compare its potential benefits to its inherent risks, and to consider the myriad of intended consequences that could always be found in even the most appealing ideas. Teachers, colleagues, competitors, and the thick stack of books we we devoured taught us enough about the social sciences to convincingly question the methodology of almost all of it. Debate taught how to spot a logical fallacy, and for showing-off purposes it even taught the Greek classifications for many of them. It taught us to question sources, a knack that came in handy during years of toil in the media, and to question underlying assumptions and check the results. Like everyone else that we know who took part back in those days, who are by and large a remarkably successful lot, we regard scholastic debate as by far the most educational experience of our education.
Nowadays, according to The Atlantic Monthly, collegiate debate competitions are teaching is distinctly different lessons. The magazine reports that the most recent final round of the Cross Examination Debate Association’s championship featured two teams that chose to ignore the chosen topic about presidential war powers and instead argue about an alleged war by the United States government against poor black communities. Instead, according to The Atlantic Monthly, “the two teams engaged in a heated discussion of concepts like ‘nigga authenticity’ and performed hip-hop and spoken word poetry in the traditional timed format. At one point during (a competitor’s) rebuttal, the clock ran out but he refused to yield the floor. ‘F**k the time,’ he yelled.” Such antics have prevailed in recent years, according to the magazine’s account, with an Emporia State University team winning the previous year’s championship with “Many of their arguments, based on personal memoir and rap music, completely (ignoring) the stated resolution, and instead (asserting) that the framework of collegiate debate has historically privileged straight, white, middle-class students.” The once-venerable Atlantic Monthly reports this as an exciting new development in an article headlined “Hacking Traditional White College Debate’s White Privilege Problem,” which goes to show that an alarming decline in standards is not restricted to collegiate debate.
A jaded scribe at the conservative Weekly Standard read the same article and cynically concluded that at least collegiate debate has become up-to-date, as personal memoir and rap music and screeds about race and class and gender and all the other fashionable concepts are the way arguments are won in contemporary America, and it pains us to concede he has a point. In all of our conversations with people outside our coterie of fellow right-wing bastards over the past many years we have found that facts and logics and such petty matters as results are of little avail in persuading people. During a recent discussion about out-of-wedlock births the woman we were talking with demanded the names of any pregnant teenagers we currently knew before she would even consider our opinions on the matter, as if knowing a presently knocked-up 16-year-old might make us more enthusiastic for bastardy, another friend was offended by the suggestion that the United Auto Workers bear any responsibility for General Motors’ recent woes resulting from the company’s faulty ignition switches just because they own the company as a result of the government’s sweetheart bail-out deal, and anecdote trumps data every time. One of our more right-leaning pals recalled attending a public forum on gun control where a woman gave a heart-rending account of losing a son to a gun accident, ergo more control is needed, and admitted with some frustration that there was no arguing with that fallacy. Of course, almost any logical argument seems to be negated the white maleness of the person making it. Logic itself is a white male construct, after all, as evidenced by those Greek classifications that the nerds use to show off, and is therefore a tool of cultural oppression or some such academic cant. As crazy as it sounds, though, the last two presidential elections were won by personal memoir and rap music and screeds about race and class and gender, even though the results were starkly apparent by the second one, and our country now proceeds with policies derived from these ideas rather than facts and logic and results.
The results, we expect, will not be beneficial. Quaint notions about facts and logic and dispassionate analysis and adherence to time limits and standards of acceptable language might have been originally discerned by those pesky dead white males, but so were the laws of gravity, and anyone who thinks his “nigga authenticity” renders such intellectual constructs irrelevant is invited to test that theory by walking off a tall building. Alas, the degeneration of public discourse threatens to take us all on that metaphorical plunge.
One of the better sources of news and opinion on the modern media landscape is the estimable web site, and we were not surprised to learn that its authors were veterans of the old-time college debate circuit. They shared our disheartened response to The Atlantic Monthly’s report, and noted that while the college debaters of the old days were in fact a very diverse group of people in terms of race and class and gender and individual characteristics they were all privileged to have learned from the best of the world’s civilization rather than its latest crazes. It’s a shame that the current crop of debaters won’t enjoy the same privilege, and that the rest of the country will suffer the consequences.

— Bud Norman