November 21, 2021

What is debate good for?

Throughout my high school years, I participated in a debate club, sometimes went to tournaments, and sometimes won minor awards. It was one of the two most important parts of my high school experience (the other being journalism class—a topic for another article maybe). But by my senior year I was feeling burnt out, and I didn’t debate at all in college. See, debating was always a stressful experience—which isn’t a bad thing per se, but by the time I quit I was starting to doubt that the stress was worth it. What is the point of debate, anyway?

Some people may be surprised to learn that this question often comes up at debate tournaments, and can even play a role in deciding who wins. This is because of one simple reason: In high school debate, your judge is usually a parent, and anything goes. If you can convince the judge that the other team is being unsportsmanlike, or is somehow subverting the purpose of the tournament, then you win. Here’s how this usually works: The affirmative team (Aff) will make an argument, and the negative team (Neg) won’t address it in their speech. Then the Aff will say that, since the Neg dropped their argument, that must mean they agree with it, and this means the Aff wins. This can be a devestating argument … if the judge is a debater. But if the judge is just a parent, the Neg can argue that the purpose of debate is education. We’re all here to learn, and if the Aff wins on a technicality then we might as well stop debating right now. But then we would be giving up the opportunity to learn who has the best arguments.

As an aside, this is a good example of how parent judges can actually improve the quality of debate. In policy debate, you often see teams deliberately talk as fast as they can so they can make as many arguments as possible. This is called “spreading,” and you can see an example at 1:42 in this video. It’s extremely annoying. And you rarely see it when the judge is a parent, since teams who do it tend to lose.

Anyway, all of this is to say that people will claim debate is all about education. But this is wrong. I did parliamentary debate, where both teams learn their topic just 20 minutes before they have to start arguing. With so little prep time, it’s simply not possible to have an educational debate, since most arguments are based on common knowledge. And while you’re not supposed to lie in a debate, in practice a lot of the arguments turn out to be wrong, because who has time to check?

So most of the time, it’s neither the quantity nor the quality of arguments that decides the winner, which means it all comes down to charisma. If you want to win a debate, you need to speak clearly and look like you know what you’re talking about, even if you don’t. In other words, you need to be good at public speaking. I think this is the actual goal of high school debate: teaching students to be good public speakers. You could also argue it’s about community or whatever, but you can have that without the competition.

And I think this is why I eventually burned out. Once I got good enough at public speaking, there wasn’t anything else to make debate worth it. And the fast-paced format was awfully stressful. And some of the topics were pretty stupid. For example, I once had to argue for “This House would go bananas.” How do you do that? Well, as the Aff you need to decide what “This House” and “go bananas” ought to mean. Which pretty much guarantees the debate will devolve into arguing whether the definitions you chose were “fair” to the Neg, who effectively have no prep time. Sounds fun, right? After four years of that, I realized debate wasn’t all that educational. It’s good for learning to bullshit your way through an impromptu speech, and not much else.