Permissible Arms


Posted in united states by Karaka on 25 August 2010

Allow me to don my nerd hat for a moment–oh, who am I kidding? This entire endeavor is like a nerd flight suit. Anyway, I used to be a debater, and by used to, I mean I still am, I just don’t get scored on my arguments anymore.

In high school, I did parliamentary debate and forensics, and was recruited to my undergraduate’s forensics team based on that experience. It was a program I’d stay in for the next four years, and the only reason I didn’t carry it forward into grad school was because a) my uni didn’t seem to have forensics; and b) philosophy is basically a degree in debating. Or arguing. Debate-arguing.

Suffice to say I still have an abiding love for parli. It’s a lot of fun. You get wacky resolutions like, “Resolved: My Life Would Suck Without You,” or “Resolved: Hulk Smash!” Sometimes you get ones with a more serious bent, but the real joy of it was taking these sentences and drawing completely different arguments out of them. So, for “Resolved: My Life Would Suck Without You,” you might construct an argument about the benefits of increased trade between NAFTA countries. Or for “Hulk Smash!” you could argue that nuclear deterrence mechanisms only elevated global nuclear threat further. (You could also argue that killing flies was a moral evil. It depends on how fanciful you are as a debater.)

I bring this up because of the amusing debate about debating in Slate this week between Michael Horowitz and Mark Oppenheimer. The debate–aside from Slate’s general wry in-joke sensibilities on such things–originates with Oppenheimer’s recent book Wisenheimer, about his experiences as a child debater.

The debate about debating quickly devolves into point scoring about whether policy or parliamentary debate is a better sport (clearly it is parli; wit wins out) but in the exchange they share their experience as young debaters in either field, showcasing the way they difference. And Horowitz says:

I think you hit the nail on the head when you describe debate as a sport. If Washington, D.C., is “Hollywood for ugly people,” then debate is “football for dorks.” (Note the great number of debaters who have become successful inside the Beltway.) Debate was your most important extracurricular activity and helped define your identity, the way sports do for jocks.

I suspect that’s true. (Chime in, Beltway word jockeys.) There are skills that debate teaches you that I haven’t found paralleled in other academic sports. And at least in parliamentary debate, thinking on your feet combined with a facility for verbosity is an essential and incredibly useful skill to have, both on the house floor and off. Policy debate is a crash course in research and organization knowledge; but on the whole I found it too dry. Parli, though. Substitute “bullshit artist” and you’re on the nose, and that is a skill you can take all the way to the bank.

%d bloggers like this: