Debating Resources for the World since 1994
A COACH'S GUIDE TO ENCOURAGING NOVICE DEBATERS
New debaters and coaches, please do not get discouraged. Debate really is fun. Despite a growing number of detractors and disillusioned coaches and critics pining for the good old days when every inconsequential argument issued did not immediately invite twelve independent links leading to thermonuclear destruction of the planet at the hands of politically sensitive though highly unstable roaming bands of psycho-narco-feminist-skinhead terrorists debate really is still fun. The aforementioned claim, as bizarre as it sounds, is not that great an exaggeration from arguments I have heard in CEDA debate. Not withstanding such claims, debate is an exciting, intellectually stimulating way to engage bright young minds in a game which sharpens participants' skills in critical thinking and analysis, public speaking, researching, writing, and listening. Additionally, the game of debate teaches all the participants (coaches, judges, and competitors alike) the importance of staying well versed in both national and international current affairs.
As an argumentation educator and debate coach, surprisingly, ty chief concern is not the often unintelligible hyper-speed rate of delivery employed by some debaters before some critics. The smart debaters learn to adapt to the ballot. Natural selection will weed out the others if like minded critics stand by their convictions and award decisions and speaker points accordingly. Nor am I pedagogically demoralized by the bastardized risk analysis mega-impact arguments tossed around with great abandon. Here again, a worthy opponent will have a field day exposing the logical fallacies and at least on my ballot will be justly rewarded. My real fear, as someone accepting a paycheck for teaching a subject associated with the language arts, concerns the deleterious impact upon new or potentially interested debaters or coaches upon hearing the incomprehensible jargon or terminology which permeates our activity.
My greatest challenge in developing a debate squad is encouraging new debaters to stay with the activity after they watch a"real"debate round. I would be ecstatic if I could show these eager students a contest with eloquent orators demonstrating the polish and wit often showcased in Firina Line debates by William Buckley and others. Instead I spend most of my time translating what technocratic actually recognize, often making up words to go with the letters to which debaters typically reduce technical phrases of two or more words. Not surprisingly, I fail to see most of these students again since they just wanted to debate, not endure learning a new language.
Realistically, no article, no matter how compelling, has much chance at stemming the tide of terminological abuse in either CEDA or NDT debate at the college level, or Lincoln/Douglas or oxford Team Debate at the high school and junior high school level. Debate is, afterall, in many regards an elitist activity and debaters will likely always collect and display new and/or bizarre, cutting edge terms and phrases as if they were merit badges hierarchically elevating"enlightened debaters above the uninformed masses. At the risk of sounding paranoid, some of these jargon wars may even be waged by design in an effort to leave some of us dinosaur coaches, who can actually remember when evidence was read from 4"X 6"index cards, in the dust.
Instead of attempting to stop the abuse it is my hope to convince novice coaches and beginning debaters alike that despite the often confusing terminology employed the basic fundamentals of debate are actually quite easy to teach and/or learn. Best selling author Robert Fulghum contended that everything he really needed to know in life he learned in kindergarten. At the risk of offending those colleagues viewing Fulghum's premise as anti-intellectual, I concur wholeheartedly and would add that everything you really need to know about debate fundamentals you learned in kindergarten as well. Obviously, in the more advanced circles of the activity there is quite of understanding and application of subtler complexities. Yet, this need not prohibit satisfactory entry into the novice levels of debate. It is my intent to categorize and occasionally translate some of the more intimidating jargon of the current debate world into user friendly terminology. I will also show how many of these concepts were widely employed on the playgrounds between tricycle races, around the jungle gym set, or while socializing over graham crackers chased by healthy swigs of warm milk prior to nap time. The bottom line is that not only is debate fun, but at the entry level any child can do it.
Based on my observations most of the important lines of reasoning that debaters utilize can be categorized in the following taxonomy of simplistic responses or queries: (1)"But why?"whines, (2)"Huh-uh"denials, (3)"So what"challenges, (4)"That's stupid"retorts, or the all important (5)"Hey, that's mine!"claims. In the following paragraphs I will demonstrate how debate terms and arguments can be demystified by being subsumed into"kidspeak". It is not my intent to denigrate or belittle the activity of debate in any way, merely to throw open wide its linguistic doors which may have been barring admittance to many.
1. The"But Why?"Whine
Anyone with a memory of their own childhood or anyone that has spent time with children recently can confirm that one of their most annoying tendencies is their unending fascination with playing the"But why?"game. No matter how simple or technical the answer given, it is quickly met with a"But why? . . ."challenge. In desperation the questioned will finally declare"Because I said so!", promptly losing the contest since child and adult alike know that they lack the ontological authority to back up such a claim. In debate and in any other critical thinking activity there is probably no greater skill to develop than the ability to constantly ask yourself, or your opponent in cross examination,"But why?". The answer(s) will almost always expose secondary or tertiary fronts to attack that are less defensible than the opposition's first line response, and eventually will lead to exposing a level of ignorance on the part of the questionee."Because I said so"is no more successful in debate than it was in the intergenerational disputes between harried parents and annoying rug rat.
Also key to good debate is the ability to engage in point-by-point refutation. This tactic is not far removed from children responding"huh-uh"when they hear something objectionable. Debate is supposed to be focused clash over opposing views relating to the topic. Too often, I find, negative debaters will totally ignore an affirmative case's specific arguments. Instead, negative speakers insist on reading a prepared"negative case"or generic position, often granting the affirmative case, in lieu of their refusal to argue it. This tactic not only ruins debate by avoiding clash, it also causes much wasted flow paper, hence needlessly harvested trees, undoubtedly leading to an ecological disaster of biblical proportions . . . . (Oops, sorry. Force of habit.)
I would strongly encourage debaters to pursue the"Huh-uh"line of reasoning. A word of caution though, explain your objection. Evidentiary support would be nice but is not always necessary. Many critics appreciate the quick thinking debaters capable of using logic to analytically dismantle the opposition. Warning: Make sure you do not fall into the endless"Is not, Is too"loop, also learned in kindergarten. In rebuttals arguments should be extended, cogently answering the"But why?"question, not just mindlessly repeating earlier claims regardless of subsequent challenges or counter-claims.
3. The"So What"Challenge
What a simple yet amazingly powerful weapon of persuasion we have in just saying"So what!"It willingly admits, or at worst, refuses to address the argument the opposition has presented and is prepared to fortify. Instead, it confidently proclaims"Even if what you say is true it really does not matter". Even children seem to know this takes the wind out of sails of their tormentor. If someone accuses a kindergartner of wearing glasses or having freckles he/she can either try to deny it (difficult if the claim is true), become devastated by peer induced shame, or dodge the blow by simply saying"So what?".
As a debater, one should always be asking"So what is the damage to my position if this argument is true". Debaters call this an"Impact"challenge. Every argument you issue and every argument issued by your opponent should have a direct impact which weighs against the resolution. If it does not, the arguer is wasting time. Be forewarned though, wasting time can be an intentional strategic devise (called a"time suck"in the ever linguistically attractive jargon wars) designed to trick one's opponent into investing scarce time resources in arguing a position of relatively little merit. Instead of automatically denying a position just because you have evidence to read or arguments to lodge, consider side-stepping the argument if it fails the"so what"test and has no impact on either the resolution or the criteria in the round. Of course, you should expose its lack of impact or relevance before dismissing it.
Two other ways of saying"So what"can be found in the jurisdictional
issues of topicality and hasty generalization. Such challenges have been called many things through the years such as"non-topicality","extra-topicality,"sub-topicality","hasty generalization","jurisdiction","justification", even letter abbreviations such as"Hasty G.","T", and"J". All these challenges fall under the"So what"heading since they claim that the case, or examples issued by the affirmative, do not significantly (if at all) pertain to the resolution which is supposed to limit the ground of debatable issues.
If the resolution claims that"Blue is the best color in the world"and the affirmative argues that"Orange is the best taste in the world", all the negative must do is to wrap a"So what"argument in the jargonistic cloak of topicality and answer the anticipated"why"question by providing standards for topicality and specific violations where the affirmative failed to uphold those standards, and toss in some impact (spelled V-O-T-I-N-G I-S-S-U-E) and the round should be over Likewise if the resolution states"homelessness is a major problem in the U.S."and an affirmative tells about one homeless person as an example and fails to cite further examples, negatives should label their"So what"argument as a"Fallacy of Hasty Generalization"claim and explain"why"(as with Topicality above) and then describe the deleterious impact of basing a decision on such a narrow example. Always, always, always explain the impact of your arguments or explain the lack of impact in the opposition's arguments. Apply the"So what"test whenever you can.
4. The"That's Stupid"Retort
Kids bring things right out into the light, don't they? If they don't like the way something looks, tastes or smells they come right out and say it. So too, should debaters. Many debaters argue for"creative"debating rights, claiming that enforcement of a resolutional parameter for debate inhibits creativity. Why not just say"That's stupid- without a fairly defined topic you'll never have substantial discussion or arrive at an informed decision". Instead, too often debaters allow stupid arguments to stand unchallenged, thus granting them value with many critics (at least on a Tabula Rasa flow). Correct jargon for"That's stupid"is the term"counterintuitive", which means"any idiot knows on face value that this argument has no merit in the real world". Social niceties correctly restrain us from actually employing the term"that's stupid". I am definitely not advocating the use of these actual words, or any other words that could be misinterpreted as rude, or"fighting words". Neither am I suggesting we practice ad hominem attacks (that would be"you're stupid"- although also used on playgrounds, highly discouraged in debate rounds). What I am suggesting is that the debaters feel free to tap into their analytical skills by politely rejecting a view and logically explaining why it was argumentatively deficient.
The other valuable area to explore here in the land of"That's stupid"is the rich field of logical fallacies. Expose something as logically unsupported or inconsistent or contradictory. Critics love these maneuvers. A third method the negative may use to show the opposition's position is stupid is to expose all the disadvantages that would accrue should the judge either adopt the affirmative's policy change or (for non-policy rounds) extrapolate policy implications from pre-policy value or fact decisions. Another important line of reasoning that could be grouped under this category might appear in the"You pooh-pooh head"subset of the That's stupid"category. Debaters call these arguments by their slightly more politically correct name of"source indicts". It is very impressive to be able to read direct attacks against an opponent's source, exposing the author as unqualified, biased, or in some way unfit to be relied upon in the current discussion. It is even more impressive to be able to indict an opponent's source indict, and so on, and so on. . . .
5. The"Hey, That's Mine"Claim
Children seem to be constantly swiping other children's toys, leading to big conflicts. As soon as the first child recognizes that some other child is enjoying the first child's toy, he or she goes into an apoplectic frenzy screaming"Hey, that's mine. Give it back."Debaters are quite similar, and this tendency to at least claim the other person's argument for their own has been promoted to almost godlike status in the hierarchy of arguments. The jargonists have bestowed the secret title of"turn around","turn", or"flip"to these highly revered arguments.
The"flip"draws largely from the martial arts premise of turning an attackers mass and/or momentum back against them. In debate this position typically identifies an opponent' 8 argument and grants the impact and/or the link of the argument but claims that the argument really works against the opposition instead of in its favor. For example, advocates for a handgun ban may argue that marital-dispute induced injuries or fatalities are far too high in the status quo and will undoubtedly decrease following a handgun ban since guns are the weapons of choice in many such disputes. But, if the opposition can show a propensity for spatting spouses switching to potentially more deadly alternatives, say hand grenades (if they were readily available), they can turn the gun availability argument around against the ban proponents and argue that perhaps such a ban would be counter-productive since even poorly aimed hand grenades can be lethal. It gets to be a bit ridiculous, though, when debaters label every other argument as a"turn", or even more annoyingly as a"double turn". Simple refutation is after all a"huh-uh"argument, not a"hey, that's mine"argument. As a final illustration of the correctly employed"turn around"some of you may recall that the more rhetorically gifted pre-school scholars have effectively dispensed with their opponents argument by invoking the sacred phrase:"Rubber and glue, rubber and glue; bounces off me and sticks to you"(a particularly effective counter measure for name calling, or ad hominem attacks). It is not recommended, however, that debaters employ this specific verbiage past the third grade.
As you can see, one should not become too discouraged trying to comprehend the most recent changes in debate terminology. That comprehension will come far too quickly. Instead, encourage new debaters to rely on their own reasoning tools, which were adequately honed in kindergarten to cope with most intercollegiate debate issues. However, I am still a little unclear on a categorizing a cryptic new term I'm hearing in rounds. Next time you see a group of 5 year-olds will you ask them to explain what a"permutation"is, as it relates to debate, and let me know what you find out. I suspect it may also have derived from the"Hey, that's mine"argumentation line.