I am taking a break from the book I’m working on to write this. Yes, after a two-year hiatus defending public schools in Jeffco, I’m actually back to the book project I was working on with a former student. (Sorry, Danielle—I’ll have to get those markups to you Monday.)
These are potentially divisive times. Well, they are just plain divisive within our country, but I’m writing this in hopes that they need not be as divisive among each other.
There is this form of debate in the world of high school forensics known as Lincoln-Douglas (LD) debate, and it draws upon ideas and skills that would serve us all well. The other term for this kind of debate is “values debate.” You’ll see why as I explain.
Let’s say the resolution (topic) of today’s debate is: The United States should place stronger restrictions upon the Second Amendment.
A student who competes in this area will have to debate both sides. There are usually three preliminary rounds, so they will go affirmative (agree with the resolution) once or twice and negative (disagree with the resolution) once or twice in a combination equaling three—his or her actual opinions notwithstanding. Sides are assigned in the tab room; debaters do not choose. To advance to the fourth round, the debater will most likely have to have won all three rounds, depending upon the number of competitors.
Both debaters must build their cases upon a core value. Common core values in LD include such things as justice, security, freedom, utility (the greatest good for the greatest number), etc. They must defend the supremacy of their value using philosophers like John Locke and John Stuart Mill, as well as reason and logic.
“But these are such vague values!” I hear you cry. Part of their task is to define the value and defend the definition. Another part of their task is to offer a criterion, a way of measuring whether or not the value is achieved. This is done with a combination of philosophy and real world evidence.
Going back to the resolution, it might play out like this: The affirmative offers the core value of safety with the criterion of reasonable protection from accidental or malicious injury or loss of life. After explaining why safety is the ultimate value in this debate and why his criterion is the best measurement, he is going to explain how stronger restrictions on the Second Amendment provide reasonable protection from accidental or malicious injury or loss of life. He’s going to cite gun-related accidents, suicides, and murders using statistics from credible sources, like the FBI, the CDC, etc.
The negative might then offer a different core value, such as freedom. She may use the Bill of Rights as her criterion. After she defends these, she will explain how the entire Bill of Rights is the foundation of freedom in America, and how any encroachment upon it risks all of the freedoms we hold dear. She may go more deeply into the topic by explaining how the right to bear arms prevents the rise of a despotic government.
The debate, which is highly structured and lasts about 45 minutes, will usually involve a clash of core values, where each tries to prove his or her value is of greater importance than the other’s. They will attack each other’s reasoning and evidence, trying to show contradictions in each other’s cases or show evidence from other credible sources that mitigates or negates altogether the other’s sources.
It doesn’t always go exactly like that. Sometimes both debaters offer the same core value. They might even have the same criterion. At that point, the debate will be about which side best protects safety—reasonable protection from accidental or malicious injury or loss of life. Is it gun restrictions that save people from gun-toting murderers, and gun-free homes with lower gun accident, suicide, and fatal domestic-violence rates? Or is it gun freedoms, which allow homeowners to protect their loved ones from intruders and despotic leaders?
You see, a difference in views on a particular issue does not necessarily mean a difference in values. And where there is a difference in values, this does not necessarily indicate a lack of values on the part of one side or the other.
In debate, neither debater is trying to convince the other. They are trying to convince an impartial judge (or three or five judges in an advanced round). That is to say, they are convincing a judge who is not invested in one debater or the other and who has been trained to base the decision solely upon the arguments and evidence presented in the round and the skills of the debaters—the judge’s own opinion on the topic notwithstanding. On the ballot, judges explain the rationale behind the decision. Most judges do a pretty good job of keeping their own views out of the decision.
Ethics are important in debate and are part of the judge’s consideration. It does not behoove a debater to get nasty. There is no reason to get nasty about one’s opponent’s side of the debate because neither debater chose their side. They may or may not actually hold the position they are defending, and each one may never learn what the other actually believes. It doesn’t matter.
Besides, if one’s opponent is cute and funny and smart, one may be wanting to get the other debater’s phone number for when the tournament is over…
Does this sound hard? It is. And remember, the kids doing it are between the ages of 14 and 18, and many of them are AMAZING!
I hope you’ll think about all of this in the weeks and months ahead. Have the hard discussions. Question your own and each other’s positions. Just don’t assume that people who disagree with you have no values or even that their values are different from yours. You might even try stating the values upon which you base your position, and ask other’s for their values. Find the common ground, the humanity in each other. Then we might find truth.