The Art of Debate is Dying
And that is a problem
The Cambridge Union Society is the largest continuously run debate society in the world. In the past, the Society has hosted such great figures as Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt and the current Dalai Lama. The union has become a global symbol of the practice of free exchange of ideas. The group proclaims to “Defend Free Debate since 1815.”
Every Thursday night the Union puts forth a motion on a controversial topic, invites prominent intellects to opine on that subject, and welcomes students to attend and engage in the conversation.
Past motions have included: The House believes Islam is a Peaceful Religion. The house believes the British owe Reparations and The House regrets the rise of atheism (to name a few).
If this week they put forth the resolution ‘This House Believes The Art of Debate is Dying,’ the chambers would surely vote in favor of the motion.
By any measure, the exercise of well-reasoned debate is moribund. Ideologues have found a home in their respective cable news outlets. Social media echo chambers have only magnified. American migration patterns over the past twenty years have sheltered us from people with different political leanings. Traditional venues of brainy discourse, such as college, have been diluted due to a burgeoning “political correctness” environment. Increasingly, individuals in the land of Lincoln-Douglas debate believe arguing with those with different viewpoint as a futile endeavor.
This is travesty.
The systematic avoidance of debate is the epitome of intellectual weakness. This lack of rigor ignores the role verbal jousting plays in sharpening of one’s moral compass and expanding one’s perspective.
One can blame the demise of substantive debate on a number of factors. But for certain, the ability to cultivate a quick, group-supported, and unthorough validation of one’s opinion is a significant reason we shut off from well-reasoned contentious discourse. The illusion of omniscience has become a seductive commodity.
This act of insulating our ego to outside opinion may feel better in the short term, but it is ultimately detrimental to our future growth. The vices we have are subdued when we are confronted with counter narratives to our natural habits and our virtues are strengthened by gaining a more holistic view of reality. Moreover, debate forces us into a vulnerable state of potentially unearthing the realization one is uninformed, has an undeveloped thought process, or has coalesced around the wrong conclusions. These mental pitfalls humble us and allow us to understand that a temporarily bruised ego can eventually evolve into a greater awareness of our shortcomings.
Moreover, the art of debate speaks volumes to the versatility of one’s persona: the confidence to speak in public, the mental fortitude to construct a logical argument, the cognition to read an audience, and most importantly, the ability to hear others’ arguments and respond precisely. The latter trait involves a character cocktail that is comprised of a dash of attentiveness, a sprinkle of wisdom, and a shot of empathy that so many of us lack but need.
Nor can one discount the importance of examination through eloquence and its ability to move the cloud of unknown hovering over our intellectual ecosystem. The research behind a well-reasoned debate presents an opportunity for individuals to familiarize themselves with a litany of topics at an in-depth level, challenge biases, as well as observe viewpoints one may not have evaluated.
In my brief stint as a debater, I had the opportunity to examine power structures, the moving variables in geopolitics, racial inequality, factors that impede economic progress, and actual fake news. If it were not for debate, I would have never scrupulously analyzed any of these subjects.
But it is in the activities opportunity for a panoramic understanding, and awareness, where it should be most treasured.
In 2015, only months after winning a national title, the prestigious Harvard debate team lost to New York prison inmates. Shortly after — due to their recognition of a tremendous blind spot in their comprehension of the justice system — debate members of the Ivy League institution petitioned its school to divest from prisons.
As Ife Grillo, a member of England’s 2016 Championship Debate Team explains, “We had a resolution on whether Obama’s policy did more harm than good. I didn’t want to hate him. But I had to think about the perspectives of people in places like Syria and Yemen. When you get up to speak you have to set aside your emotions and put yourself in someone else’s shoes.”
To those claiming argumentative gamesmanship is fruitless engagement, do your research.
The most profound verbal jousts have altered the course of history: Thomas Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce dissecting the theory of evolution in Oxford in 1860; the war cabinet debate of 1940 that led to Churchill’s ascendance; Richard Nixon’s perspiring unattractive appearance against a fit, bronzed JFK in the 1960 presidential race, as well as Nixon’s rhetorical demise to Richard Frost in the Frost v. Nixon discussions.
It was on the ground of Cambridge Union Society in 1965 where James Baldwin debated William F. Buckley on the topic, “The American Dream is at the expense of the American negro.”
At the time, James Baldwin was a prominent civil rights fixture, having penned Notes from a Native Son ten years prior. Buckley was the still-young founder of National Review, years away from being deemed the “father of modern conservatism,” He’d come out against desegregation in his own publication in 1961. After hearing Baldwin’s moving rhetoric on the civil rights struggle in his home nation, the debate galvanized white Europeans to speak out against racial injustices in America and eventually flipped Buckley to the right side of history (in his last days Buckley openly stated his support of segregation as one of his biggest regrets).
Granted, these examples are far and few in between and basic psychology concludes humans are strongly tethered to their beliefs. Yes, these are rhetorical fist-fights our world shouldn’t have, but desperately need. And that can be said about the exercise of oral sparring in general. As we become more physically cut off from diametrically opposite views, ironically, substantive debate may be the one connective tissue we have left. Shutting down or diminishing the exercise of contentious discourse circumvents our ability to grow, to learn, and possesses us to be academically lethargic.
It is time to squash the superficial appearance of conversation and baseless banter. There is no more prudent time than the present, to revive the art of debate.