Debate and the Virtue of Humility by Adam Torson

It’s hard for people who haven’t experienced it first hand to understand the transformative potential of participation in debate. We aspire to teach rigorous and critical thinking during a time when students are experiencing rapid cognitive development, both in terms of intellect and personality. This is a tremendous opportunity, but also a tremendous responsibility. I firmly believe that debate can play a major role in shaping a student’s self-identity. But, the lessons we learn in the activity don’t stop when the timer goes off. That means that everyone who participates in the community has a responsibility to think about what we want the debate experience to be. What follows is an attempt to address part of that question.

Why Debate Should Teach Us Humility

It’s always struck me as odd when top-tier competitors, judges and coaches exhibit arrogance and condescension. Everyone who has had some success at any level or has participated in the activity long enough has been guilty of this at one time or another (me included). A certain amount of pride and confidence will naturally accompany competitive achievement, but we all know that this can cross the line into unjustified confidence and disrespectful attitudes and behavior. I don’t claim that this problem is widespread; by and large I think the people in our community are thoughtful and well-intentioned. But we have all seen debaters, coaches and judges cross the line, and a little self-reflection on this problem is healthy.

In a speech at the 2011 IPPF tournament, John Sexton (the President of NYU and an experienced debate coach) offered a thought that struck me. Debate is the perfect vehicle for teaching us how to think in the 21st century, when technology is making the world smaller and our communities are by necessity becoming more diverse. We learn through debate that there are reasonable perspectives on both sides of just about every issue, and that persuasion in a pluralistic community relies on appealing to different points of view and building common meanings. When we look for the truth in both sides of a resolution and look for ways to resolve those tensions, we not only recognize diverse perspectives, we practice living in a world where they are the defining dynamic. This skill applies to the classroom, to the boardroom, to politics and public policy, and to our everyday choices. This is not to say that we shouldn’t stand up for our core beliefs (I’ll save the discussion of postmodern indifference for another time), but rather that we are likely mistaken to regard ours as the only defensible perspective and act as if all others simply exhibit a failure to think as well as us.

Beyond that, I hope debate teaches us that nobody is perfect. There are no perfect debaters – everyone gets beaten, everyone has a bad round or a bad tournament. There are no perfect judges – everyone misses an argument or makes a mistake in reasoning out an RFD. There are no perfect coaches – everyone advises a bad strategy, loses their patience or their perspective every once in a while. Everyone has been a beginner – every debater, coach and judge was once a bad debater, coach or judge, simply because we didn’t know better. I hope this reminds us of the importance of patience, and knocks us off our high horse when we remember what it felt like to be on the bottom rung.

Finally, debate should teach us an appreciation for what we don’t know. Many of the issues we debate have been debated for hundreds or thousands of years. There are volumes upon volumes of commentary, a seemingly endless supply of source material from which to draw in discussing just about any resolution. By the end of our debate careers, most of us have learned to reserve judgment on a topic rather than express our knee-jerk reaction. We have learned that we don’t yet have enough information to construct a reasoned position, and that by the end of a topic we’re likely to be thoroughly confused. Even when the core tension in the topic is empirical, many debates arise simply from the fact that we haven’t yet definitively answered the question. In the long run, does targeted killing undermine global security by feeding the narratives of terrorist groups, or is this outweighed by the reduction in their operational effectiveness? Some day we could know the answer to that question, but right now the best we can do is guess. By necessity we extrapolate from imperfect information in all aspects of our lives, and everyone will revise her opinions over time. The experience of abandoning some of the convictions of our youth should make us less cocksure about our opinions in the present.

Why Debate Sometimes Fails To Teach Us Humility

Despite all this, we sometimes go astray. Because our activity is competitive, we will always have a rank conscious culture. Who has won the most rounds, the most speaker awards, the most tournaments, beaten the best debaters, and earned the most prestigious titles? There is nothing wrong with recognizing achievement, but we should be leery of the pitfalls associated with constructing celebrity. This is particularly difficult to avoid in the internet age, where results are instantly communicated via Facebook, Twitter, and various debate sites; many websites, Victory Briefs Daily included, have struggled to find the right balance. There are many skilled debaters, coaches and judges, and they should be recognized for their ability, but no one is beyond reproach. It is unfair to them and unfair to the community to insist that they are.

Beyond that, communities are often full of cliques. It would be easy to blame this entirely on the fact that our participants are high school students, who are notoriously cliquish, but we are all guilty from time to time. We identify ourselves on the basis of teams, debate styles, camp affiliations, geographic regions, age and experience, etc. These associations are inevitable and often healthy, but they also facilitate building ourselves up in relation to out-groups. The “us versus them” social dynamic can override what debate teaches us about the importance of recognizing diverse perspectives.

What We Can Do About It

Our community is large and dynamic, and arrogance is not the type of problem that we can hope to solve completely. That said, we can all do things to make sure that this important character lesson is not lost on debaters, and at the same time make our community a more pleasant place.

Students:

All of us can be more reflective about the way we treat others. Let’s do away with the label “random” opponent. The connotation that if you haven’t heard of them they must not be good is supremely arrogant. Also, let’s drop the sense of entitlement to perfect tournaments and perfect judging. Having run many tournaments and judged many rounds, I can assure you that neither is easy. The community has a right to expect a certain level of effort and competence in these roles, but when individuals inevitably fall short from time to time, we should be understanding. Your righteous indignation when others fall down reflects a lack of perspective, and you might learn that lesson the hard way when someday your positions are reversed.

Don’t build yourself up by tearing others down. There is nothing wrong with choosing your style and executing it with conviction, and there is nothing wrong with disagreements about what the best style is. If you allow disagreement to turn into personal enmity (especially for people you’ve never even met!), you’re letting arrogance get the best of you and missing a valuable opportunity to learn from friendly interlocutors (and meet some cool people).

Don’t participate in making the community an unwelcoming place. Mean spirited gossip does this. Racist and sexist remarks and actions do this. Condescending to someone who is less experienced or who debates in a different style does this. Humility means recognizing that yours is not the only perspective, and your amusement or disgust are not the only emotions of which you should be mindful. Also, teach other people. You were a beginner once, and you benefited from the generosity of others. Use your knowledge and experience as a resource, not a justification for arrogance.

Being thoughtful, kind, and humble are virtues – thinking you’re always right is not. Of all the things you will take away from debate, I assure you that will be one of the most important.

Judges:

You should try. Stumbling in after a night of drunken revelry, then demanding that debaters supply you with three different colors of pen, cardstock paper, a timer, a laptop and a pillow obviously suggests that you think this enterprise is all about you.

Similarly, berating debaters for technical mistakes or stylistic differences indicates that you think that yours is the only valid way to view debate, and the debaters should be awed by your superior intellect and debate knowledge. Instead you should give constructive feedback in every round. As I said above, you were once the beneficiary of someone’s thoughtful critique – now you have an opportunity to do the same.

Finally, not paying attention because you think a round is beneath your judging abilities is superlatively disrespectful to the debaters who have worked hard to prepare. Sometimes we’re tired and it takes a lot to muster the attention that the round deserves, but making an effort will make all the difference to the debaters.

To many debaters, judges represent the community of adults in the activity. Be thoughtful about how you want to represent us.

Coaches:

I believe that the most important thing a coach can do is model the choices we want to see in our students. When we are condescending and arrogant, our students will be condescending and arrogant. It’s amazing how much debaters pick up the personality traits of their coaches. We need to be mindful of the responsibility that creates. Teach the difference between confidence and arrogance. Engage disagreements respectfully – we can voice our opinions and simultaneously work to prevent legitimate discussions from devolving into flame wars. We can treat opponents, judges and tournament officials with respect even when we disagree. We can teach our students that every choice they make reflects on their character, and we can be invested not just in their competitive successes but also in the people they become.

We are stewards of the activity. It was well attended by those who came before us, and we are presently shaping those who will come after us. Everyone hopes to get something different out of their experience in debate, but we can all appreciate that encouraging thoughtfulness and humility will not only help our community effectuate these diverse goals, it will also make our students better people. Regardless of trophies, medals, and certificates, a student who learns the value of humility, to my mind, will have had a successful debate career.