I’ve been out of the debate scene for a while. After my last tournament in 2015 and the small amount of writing/coaching I did subsequently, the sport was relegated to the same spot as a lot of things I did in high school – important in the sense of my own personal history but irrelevant to my day-to-day life. I did not attend a college with a debate program.
Over the years, however, I started to see practices from my competition days bubbling to the surface. Whether it be the research skills developed while writing briefs or the ability to quickly outline topics to use in rebuttals, I have come to realize that the benefits provided by competition in debate can be more subtle than I thought when I was 18. On the flip side, I have also come to realize some of the habits from debate that should be avoided. In this article, I will explore the four primary benefits I have observed in myself. In the next, I’ll tackle the corresponding detriments. You’ll notice common threads between all of them. That is intentional.
Benefit 1: Openmindedness
If you have participated in competitive debate any significant amount of time, you have had to argue for perspectives that you disagree with. Maybe you’ve had to argue against your own case. Maybe you ran a case that you disagreed with because the arguments were strong. In either situation, you found that there were strong arguments in favor of perspectives that you believed were false. What does this have to do with openmindedness? It’s simple: by being put in a situation in which one must acknowledge the merits of an opposing argument, debate puts individuals in a position where they are forced to acknowledge that whatever your position, there are going to be strong arguments on the other side.
Benefit 2: Humility
Humility arises from and perpetuates an open mind. We’ve all been humbled through debate (or we should have been). We’ve all been in a round where we were way over our head and got demolished by either a case we weren’t prepared for or a team that we were not equipped to beat. Throughout years of competition, we all lost many rounds and were forced to acknowledge that arguments that we thought were solid were, to put it bluntly, total garbage. For me, this has resulted in a new favorite phrase: I don’t know. Rather than a dismissal born out of apathy, I see the response as a result of learning that unless you have put real effort into researching and thinking through an issue, it’s more healthy and honest to admit your ignorance rather than express a baseless opinion. Plus, if you want people around you to listen to what you have to say, it helps if you aren’t the guy or gal always asserting an opinion whenever you get a chance.
Benefit 3: Rhetorical Precision
In today’s politically charged society, argument is characterized by two ships passing in the night. All too often, important topics are overshadowed by an inability to precisely identify the crux of a disagreement. Instead, auxiliary issues riddle the landscape and make the core of the argument more difficult to identify. Competitive debate can be an effective remedy for this. There is an incentive in competition to have laser-like focus on only issues that matter, given the time constraints of the activity (not to say all debaters can identify the crux of an argument, because that would be untrue). This incentive can build competencies in finding the most important aspects of a given dispute.
Benefit 4: Skepticism
Ever since I started taking debate seriously back in 2013, watching cable news or listening to talk radio became one of the most painful experiences to put myself through. All the hours that we put in as debaters to make sure we have evidential backup for our claims make the nonsensical babble of today’s political discourse a little nauseating. We live in a world where legitimate sources of truth have become more and more buried in a sea of half-truths perpetuated by social media. We should be questioning what we read. We should be skeptical of what sources our supposed facts come from. Healthy skepticism is the cure to gullibility.
In the next article, we will be looking at the other side of the coin – how these four lessons can be twisted in the opposite direction if the incentives provided by competitive debate push an individual in a different direction.