My Defense of Debate

Jezebel posted a shoutout to the very excellent HBO documentary on high school debate “Resolved” – a film which I saw prior to its HBO premier at the Paley Center’s documentary film festival in New York, where I had the chance to talk with the film’s director, Greg Whitely. (I also was almost interviewed for the film, a fact I realized while watching it)

First – this movie is a rare find in a sea of immensely stupid things that people often say about high school debate. The film expertly portrays the spectrum of high school debate styles and methods, a diversity that makes debate the transformative activity it is for so many people. Debate encourages self-motivated educational creativity, something few other activities even try to do – and among those that do, many often fail (anyone who has been in the numbing mundaneness of public high school doubtless understands this). That freedom certainly encourages Machiavellian manipulation, but it also brings out the creative, conflicted, and highly-critical side of the people participating in it. Whiteley shows the pure joy debate brings out of talented but sometimes misdirected high schoolers, while remaining ambivalent towards an activity criss-crossed by racial, gender and class divides.

Jezebel’s reaction to high school debate was fairly standard: shock at the competitive nature, frustration at spreading (speed talking), disgust at absurd impact claims. First, this misrepresents the basic point of the film, which was about an ongoing struggle to change the problems with debate. I also think that they missed the boat on the film’s portrayal of individual debaters: each loves the activity they participate in, and it drives them to improve their education, in a variety of ways.

Honestly, I think it’s bullshit to take issue with an educational activity that encourages reading, research and critical thinking, just because you don’t like the style its done in.

Also, can anyone remember the last time any political decision was resolved with a good old fashion argument? Just two regular citizens, duking it out in front of a skeptical but neutral audience? No? That’s because it doesn’t happen, and probably never did. Every successful political figure in America knows how to speak to particular audiences, using codewords and careful stage managing to persuade narrow groups of people of different things. Important government functions are performed by people that often speak a language totally foreign to the average citizen. Not only to DoD hacks and EPA officials not care about your opinion, but even if they did, you probably wouldn’t have the words to describe a problem in a way they would find persuasive.

Debaters speak the way they do because they aim to persuade particular audiences. The language high school debaters use acclimates them to the language of the policy wonks that run our government in increasingly unaccountable ways, and puts the power to criticize that government in the hands of teenagers. That’s a powerful thing.

(Which is not so say that debate is a problem-free activity – just as our government requires constant radical criticism, debaters should [and often do] receive criticism from other debaters challenging the relevance and utility of their activity. College debate needs this type of criticism even more.)

Here’s the upshot: I have close friends who almost surely would have never made it out of high school and into college if it weren’t for the insane intellectual energy policy debate generates among the people who do it. Considering the crushing inanity of popular discourse (and for that matter, high school), policy debate remains one of the most important and valuable activities a high school kid can engage in.

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One response to “My Defense of Debate

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