The Ethics of Debate

Phoenix Wright

Phoenix Wright

As a nationally ranked (albeit, not highly) college parliamentary debate competitor, I’m blessed and cursed with access to a much larger reference pool of various debate styles and archetypes than most people deal with. While I can’t claim that it makes me an outright expert on the subject, as both an articulate debater and writer, I’m probably better situated to discuss the merits and ethics of debates than most of my peers, at the least.

It’s also made me more than a little cynical about debating, both in tournaments and the real world. The reason for cynicism in the tournament format is almost self-evident: debate culture has few parallels with the real world. Though it has its uses as a means of training its practitioners for fast and flexible analysis, thus making it extremely popular with legal, economic and even communications majors, the actual battle between college students isn’t just full of meaningless bullshit jargon – it’s stuffed full of fast and meaningless bullshit jargon. You’ve never heard “fast-talking” until you’ve heard a debater go at it full-speed.

I do suppose it works well enough, especially for those seeking a legal future. Talking that quickly necessarily means being able to think that quickly too – and the articulation required shows itself magnificently when you do eventually slow down to more human speech patterns. So for my fellow competitors, I don’t begrudge them too much for the culture we indulge in – while we’d be better off with more rhetorics than speed, at least there’s something to be gained.

I wish I could say the same for the people I go up against in real life.



The problem with debating in a real world context is that, while in the competition world, you necessarily have to be able to articulate both sides of an argument, no matter what that argument is, going toe to toe against an ideologue in real life has no such luxury. Much to the loss of real world debate, even. Non-competitors, paradoxically, take debating even more seriously than competitors, and in the worst ways possible: contrary opinions are often are taken as affronts upon their intellectual gifts, clashing ideas a personal insult and a source of grievances.

The question is: why? Why do we see conflicting opinions as something somehow harmful? Though we Americans set so much store by the concept of Democracy (despite living in anything but – a representative republic only resembles democracy at the surface level), our egos seem too fragile to bear the burdens of such structure. In fact, as a prior argument against an African-originated Twitter user had too clearly illustrated, this isn’t anything unique to western civilization – there is something intractably hypocritical about the human ideal of debate and our actual practice of it. A simple conflict of opinions over western civilization’s role in Africa’s continued socio-economic crisis led to a full-blown, one-sided attack of character instead. Which is dismaying, because while I think my ideas of the economic underpinnings of the continued socio-economic crisis in Africa is fairly sound, I could use a more in-depth perspective on the social crisis and origins.

The problem with that case sample is the same one I keep on running into everywhere else outside of tournaments: though I am careful enough to keep my own arguments at a neutral tone, with clash but without emotive confrontation, the very idea that I might somehow disagree with them seems to piss off the gross majority of non-competitors. Though I try to offset it by reminding them to keep a debate at a professional and non-personal level, two arguments in and we’re often back at square one.

There is, quite simply, an utter lack of basic respect for the idea of dissent.

As I’ve stated, one of the purposes of debate isn’t for one idea to triumph over another, but to test the strength of an idea. And you cannot strengthen or improve an idea without sending it through a gauntlet, be it basic or rigorous. One of the most often-used and important voting issues in competitive debate is the idea of the “education” of a debate round – that we are obligated to make the debate meaningful and as in-depth as the limitations of a time-restricted round can allow. We are obligated to use real-world examples and construct as narratively sound an argument as possible, so as to keep the debate focused on issues that actually matter, instead of something as trivial as “does Pepsi taste better than Cola?”

For us competitors, at least, there is the sense that the other side isn’t simply trying to argue semantics: the point they made about the potential weaknesses of your plan or argument have to be addressed, or your plan is simply and self-evidently a flawed one. Much like how our mothers have, or should have, taught us, if you cannot defend the merits of your ideals without resorting to basic name-calling, you are, in effect, no better than a whining, teary-eyed prepubescent kicking sand at your playground rival. To scream histrionically about your obviously superior educational and experiential advantage over your opponent as some sort of valid defense against an argument, without actually addressing the topic of the argument, is no different: it is a severe matter of disrespect against a fellow inquisitive mind, and speaks more about your character than his.

The ever-popular Godwin’s law is but another example of this: once the Nazis comes out, the topic has long since shifted away from whatever you were originally talking about, and straight into a matter of personal privilege: of character, not substance. And once that happens, there’s no reason anymore to continue the conversation.

Game over.

Miles Edgeworth

Miles Edgeworth


~ by Gonzo Mehum on March 17, 2009.

4 Responses to “The Ethics of Debate”

  1. I never liked the speed of debating, even as I participated in trying to get my word count up. I would prefer to have a more meaningful spot where points were examined in detail with argument and evidence together, rather than believing that throwing many thousands of cards at a point refuted it somehow. Probably why I never went all that far.

  2. The lucky thing is that I’m involved in Parliamentary Debate, as opposed to Policy, so rather than less reliance on cards, we’re banned from using evidence at all. Rhetorics and analysis trumps source citations, though a good debater can still pull a few headlines here and there.

    The unlucky thing is that parliamentary debate’s rising popularity, and conversely, the dropping popularity of policy debate, means that we still get a ton of fast-talkers, drifting in from the high school policy teams. Few of them can get anywhere near the speed of a policy round, due to the lack of readable evidence, but… man. Still scary.

  3. Mmm. Guess that means I should have gotten involved in other debate styles, then. As for fast talkers, I always entertained the revenge that if/when I got to judging debates, I would be That Bastard that told the debaters that substance was more important, and that anything spoken faster than I wanted to understand was not getting put down on my sheet. I still firmly believe that anyone who uses swift talking to bamboozle you is selling snake oil, not trying to have a real debate.

    Getting to the actual point of your post, however, I run into that problem, too. If you try to talk to someone about one of their core pillars of identity and worldview, they get defensive, even if you’re just trying to understand them. (I do, too. Have to work on it.)

    Maybe the proper answer is to take a page from Joel and Mike and chant? It’s basically what librarians are told to do when someone wants to talk about intellectual freedom (“ban/restrict this book, please”). It’s not us they’re against, it’s the library’s selection and freedom policies.

  4. I can’t even handle *tahat* one, Silver. A fellow came to a meeting recently and gave a fairly well-reasoned slide show on overnight parking along the coast. After the meeting, he came up to the A/V team and demanded that we delete his slideshow. We apologized and said we couldn’t, that it was now On The Record. He starts in “you HAVE to delete it, I ASKED you to, and I don’t have the rights to those photographs!” Got all up in our collective faces. He and my old man argued for a bit, and I remembered the parody and public use clauses. But when I stood up, it was right after “you HAVE TO DELETE MY SLIDESHOW!”

    And all I came out with was a very cold, very angry, “no. we don’t.”

    He walked off muttering about how he was going to sue us, and the state, and God Himself for this affront to his character. And I consider myself to be a fairly reasonable gentleman. But booya to you librarians for upholding the First Amendment.

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