As a competitive high school debater, one of my pet peeves was when people would say to me, “Oh, I’d be great at debate. I love arguing with people!” It frustrated me that they would reduce debate to mere argumentation, because there is so much more to it.
Nevertheless, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate the simplicity of debate. I used to revere the structure and complicated theory, but now I think sometimes debaters get too caught up in those details. At its core, debate is really just a conversation about a choice. Of course, debaters who learn the formal structure of debate will be better off, but the foundation of any debate class should be simple and accessible.
Many novices are afraid of debate, and yet they don’t even think twice about trying to convince their parents to buy them a smartphone or an ice cream cone. They think of the two experiences as being completely separate, but they involve the same basic skills. If these mental barriers remain, the debater might end up mindlessly reading piece after piece of evidence, feeling too afraid to include their own ideas and personality. If you put debate on too high of a pedestal, debaters feel inferior and aren’t confident in their own ideas. Instead, a debater should trust their common sense and reasoning, and understand that those can apply to complex debate cases.
Many parents of first-time debaters feel afraid to judge. They think they don’t know anything or that they are inadequate for the job. What NCFCA (the speech and debate organization I competed with) brilliantly highlights in judges’ orientation is that we all are constantly judging communication. We do it every day. When you turn on the news, you make conclusions and observations about the people on TV. Whenever you see a commercial, they are trying to convince you to buy their product. After seeing that commercial, you judge that pitch by choosing whether or not to buy the product. When faced with a debate round, don’t be afraid of all the lingo and rules. Instead, just pretend you are listening to a politician on TV pitching you their new policy idea. It’s okay to not understand everything. It’s the debater’s responsibility to explain terms to you and be clear.
Did you know we also debate ourselves all the time? We have silent arguments with ourselves, trying to make decisions. Should I go to this party/go to work? We go over a list of pros and cons in our head. Should I have another cupcake? We analyze the marginal benefit and the marginal cost, unknowingly doing impact calculus. Should we get a dog? We think about the advantages and disadvantages. Should I vote for candidate A or B? We refute, outweigh, and qualify our arguments within our mind with almost every decision we make. But then we hear the word “debate,” and somehow, something switches in our brain and we start feeling like we’re not smart enough to think for ourselves in a debate round.
Whenever I watch YouTube videos of speed debates, where the speakers talk at insanely fast tempos, I usually don’t get very far. Why? Because I can’t understand more than half of what they’re saying. What’s the point of debate if you’re not practicing real-world communication? Taking the time to build your communication skills and logic will not only help you in formal debates, but also in every other aspect of your life. Arguing with a spouse? Debate can teach you to listen. Skeptical of a new medical treatment? Debate can teach you to research efficiently. Engaging in conversation with a neighbor about politics? Debate can teach you to think quickly and be persuasive.
To conclude, it’s important to strike a balance between structure and simplicity. If there were no rules, debate could easily devolve into chaotic yelling matches. On the other hand, if we make debate so formal people are afraid of it, we are only hurting its accessibility and application to the real world.
Anyone can debate. Everyone does debate. Instead of thinking, “Wow, I could never do that,” remember that you are always debating and judging. Now that you know you already have a head start, maybe this will encourage you to try debating formally. It takes a little bit of time and patience to learn the ebb and flow of different types of debate, but it will be worth it. Learning to think critically and to effectively communicate ideas is a priceless skill. If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably debating yourself in your head right now about whether or not you think I’m right. You’ll have to make a choice about what to do: move on and forget about this article, or invest in learning more about logical fallacies, policies, ideas, and debate. Congratulations! You’re debating!