I was a high school debating geek

debatingIn my youth, I was not the flabby, docile creature you see in the little photo atop this page. I was a warrior. I trained at least once a week, often more, and went into battle each weekend to defend what was right. I would dispatch my enemies with scornful panache, and sometimes facts gleaned from The Economist. For I was a high school debater.

A flabby, docile debater, admittedly.

Chairperson, ladies and gentlemen, here’s how it went down. On Fridays, I donned my foppish debating tie, which boasted purple and white stripes for reasons I’m still unable to comprehend, and hung around for hours after school, supposedly reading up on current affairs but in fact tackling the all-you-can-eat record at the local Pizza Hut.

Then, as night fell, we would either drive off to another fancy school or welcome them to our fancy school, so the Games, or at least the Talking, could Begin.

It seemed perfectly reasonable at the time, but in hindsight, debating seems a bizarre pastime. One team speaks in favour of a proposition, and the other against. For example (because debaters always need examples): “That terrorism should be a capital crime”. Each team has three speakers who take turns trying to convince the audience that their side is right, and their opponent’s is wrong. It’s supposed to be how parliament would be if it were a place for genuine pro-and-con debate instead of the high farce that is Question Time.

Debaters like to think of their pastime as a forum for rhetorical skill and engagement with the marketplace of ideas, except that this kind of pure argumentation is generally miles removed from what happens in high school debating. Instead of arguing about the facts or morality, which tends to be beyond 14-year-old debaters, we argued about the definition.

The affirmative team usually twists the terms of a debate to stake out the indisputable high moral ground for themselves, so in this case they might define “terrorism” to refer only to instances where dozens of innocent victims have been killed, or they might be really irritating and argue that terrorism overwhelmingly affects capital cities.

Rather than arguing the opposite to what the affirmative argued like they’re meant to, the negative team tends to make the exact same indisputable arguments that we heard from the affirmative, like “killing innocent civilians is bad”, except they claim that the arguments belong to their side. So the teams will argue about what they’re supposed to be debating, instead of debating it.

Then, after six tedious speeches with minimal interaction between them, some self-important ex-debater undergrad will get up to adjudicate. They’ll make a few snarky criticisms to prove that they’re way better at this debating lark than schoolkids far younger than them, and arbitrarily award the debate to whichever school their uni mates went to.

Only then does the real debate begin: the debate over which team should have won. The losing team’s coach and parents will harass the adjudicator to try and convince them that they got it wrong, even though nobody has ever reversed a decision.

The adjudicator will often employ snooty phrases like “Back when I was in the state schools’ debating team” and “Accepted practice in international debating”, while yielding no ground, and the fight will continue over the little quarter-cut white-bread tuna sandwiches that are the standard debating meal, washed down by bitter, watery urn coffee. Occasionally, the losing team will stick up a Scotch Finger at the adjudicator.

The theory is that debating teaches kids to think logically, to see both sides of an argument, and to analyse the flaws in opposing cases. But it seems perverse for such a valuable intellectual exercise to be conducted as a competitive sport, because what it instead teaches you is to always think that you won.

I did debating every year at high school. It seemed very important at the time, and I desperately wanted to be better at it than I actually was. Like many things that seemed important during my protracted adolescence, I thought it was a proxy for intelligence, and to a thoroughly stupid degree, I wanted to be considered intelligent.

Especially by girls, of course. My schooldays were almost entirely free of any contact with the opposite sex, but sometimes we got to debate against those mysterious creatures in drab uniforms, which was a huge thrill. Why we thought bright, outspoken women would be attracted to arrogant little brats who were trying our utmost to ridicule them in front of an audience, I don’t entirely know. I do know, though, that at least in my case, they weren’t.

The teams with better arguing and speaking skills generally win, not the team on the inherently stronger side of the argument – which is troubling when you consider that we use a debating-like adversarial system in our courts to arrive at the truth. School debating tries hard not to conclude any kind of truth, but instead to reward whichever team argues best. How can we possibly be sure that in our courtrooms, the most high-paid, experienced advocates aren’t the ones which prevail? How do we guarantee that a rhetorically nimble QC won’t out-argue a less experienced lawyer who just so happens to be right? If you watch enough debating, you’ll be convinced that being right is of very little importance when it comes to trying to convince an audience.

In hindsight, my biggest problem with debating is the kind of person I was trying to become when I was into it. I genuinely believed that my team won just about every single debate – and that we deserved to, because we were smarter and better. So adjudicators who gave a debate against us were stupid, or biased. Unlike sport, where it’s hard to blame the umpire for 100% of the decision when your opponents have clean-bowled most of your batsmen (the usual situation during my brief cricket career), in debating you can always blame the adjudicator, and we did.

Given that, you won’t be astonished to learn that the Venn diagrams of “debating geeks” and “arrogant gits” overlap significantly. It was common in my schooldays to begin a third speech (the final pair of speeches is mostly devoted to rebuttal rather than substantive argument) by saying something like “Chairperson, ladies and gentlemen, the negative’s case today has sixteen fundamental flaws”, and then list them. Impressive and effective as a debating technique, perhaps, but try it in any other social context and everybody will just hate you.

Although if you’re good at producing scathing lists, you might get a job at Buzzfeed.

What I’ve come to appreciate in my post-debating life is the uncertainty and complexity of most real-world problems – which are the two things that debaters are trained to gloss over. And I certainly don’t want to be the kind of person who believes that whatever opinion I happen to hold is the right one, and that the people who disagree with me are stupid or biased. Even though I probably still do far too much of the time.

Chairperson, ladies and gentlemen, I had to learn to grow out of high school debating. To doubt myself and listen to the quieter, less certain voices, instead of the boldest and brashest. And I’m still far from certain whether I should have been so desperate to be good at debating.