Saturday, February 17, 2007

More Debate and Politics: Debate Against War?

In June of 2006, I started a forum called Debate Against War. I said that I conceptualized the forum in these ways:

"--Hey, go debate against the war! The war is one side, you are the other!

--Debate, as an institution, contains a lot of smart, thoughtful and committed people who want to participate in the anti-war movement. This forum will help them.

--Debate, as a practice and idea, contains foundational assumptions that are contrary to violence, especially institutional violence. Not everyone in debate may be against war, but among those who are, there is a common recognition that discourse, argument, discussion, and informed advocacy are peaceful, potentially peace-building activities."

Obviously, these themes, particularly the third one, has been on my mind for some time. From the Faculty Senate Speech to numerous debates both online and at tournaments, to my judging philosophy, to several years' worth of summer institute speeches, I've promoted a view of debate as an alternative to violence, a theme I even spun as an undergraduate in charge of the "war" issue of the independent paper, Student Review at the start of the 1991 assault on Iraq: "Violence begins when the conversation ends." Because I am in many ways a sloganeer, I've repeated, redeployed, those words multiple times. But they've formed a consistent slogan in my mind, all these years, because they point to a consistent idea: Let's talk rather than kill.

A few people joined the group, some enthusiastically, all sincerely. Perhaps foolishly, I allowed a couple of people into the forum who weren't really against this particular war, but their disruption effect was minimal, and their presence even helped clarify the purposes of the forum.

But alas, those purposes weren't really fulfilled. Those in the debate community who were and are anti-war may participate in actions and discussions outside of debate, but thus far the American academic debate community hasn't been a space for agency-enabling conversations or actions against the war, or war in general. The forum has now been silent for some time.

The main reason this forum didn't work is probably that it was misconceived. Perhaps in a fit of self-importance, I "overdetermined" the role of the academic community, debate in particular, to be a conduit for political activism, when both the structure and ideology of academia today is incredibly apolitical, at best wrapped up in soft, safe politics of identity and language games. In both academia and intercollegiate debate, we spend most of our time reading about reading about reading. Even if some of us deliberately reject the idea that language causes war or thinking itself is oppressive, we still participate in these silly conversations, obsessed with critique/kritik and not really understanding the politics of either K Street or the street outside our apartments. Even those of us who reject Plato's belief that thinking should be insulated and a refuge for the elites still insulate our thinking and spend most of our time talking among the elites.

A majority of the intercollegiate debate community, like those in academia who are lifers regardless of their level of education or particular job, simply sees real, get-your-hands-dirty politics as somehow beneath us. I don't. But in some ways I live and act and think as if I do. That's extremely hard to admit, but I don't see how we can't if we want to make a difference. We are arrogant. We know (and this is justified) that we possess methods to improve thinking, argumentative invention, public expression and criticism. But frequently we tie the value of this knowledge to its rarity and inaccessibility. We talk, mostly positively, about the insulated space of debate, a way to safely test out new ideas. We even talk about making that space available to others. But we don't talk about what those others will do to change that space when ours meets theirs...if that makes any sense.

But my complacency doesn't end there. I also overestimated my own political life. I assumed that I could help organize demonstrations, teach-ins, etc., when I often can't even do my own laundry because I'm at school or travelling sixty hours a week, and at home with young children the rest of the time. And while I try to live an "anti-war" life interpersonally, I have probably spent so much time demarcating (and subsequently avoiding) political behavior in my work life that it's hard to credibly reassert it to myself or others.

That demarcation, however, bears some further exploration. Many of us in the debate community provide our services to those outside of academia who can benefit from our instruction. We participate in Urban Debate Leagues, debate cooperatives, low-cost high school camps, etc. Those in academia, in general, may functionally do the same things in their communities. But in my experience, it's virtually impossible to introduce confrontational, anti-systemic, or even anti-war politics into those projects with any degree of effectiveness, because such brash politics risk offending the powers who fund or sustain the projects. One friend tells me of the parental and administrative policing of ideologies in middle school debate. Others complain of the discomfort they feel when forced to "remain neutral" on issues they assign their students to debate (I myself have tended to glorify, if not fetishize, this neutrality in my vision of pluralism in debate, a tendency I may need to rethink). When such pressures to conform to light civic engagement come from the outside, they are supplemented by our own ethical tendencies not to manipulate or indoctrinate the kiddies. Laudable, but then, whence "Debate Against War?" Is the laboratory of academia, and the speech-laboratory of debate, irredeemably Platonic?

On the other hand...why can't some of us, at least a few of us, do something when we are together? Can we try something small? And in doing so, resolve to live with all the imperfections listed above, maybe trying to solve a few if possible, but in general asserting our opposition to institutional violence in the face of all the reasons why we can't effectively do so? I'm looking for ideas as to how to do this.

Perhaps instead of insisting or implying that debate is intrinsically anti-violent, I should have said: "Some of the core assumptions about the activity of debate have the potential to be deployed against justifications of violence. Among those in the debate community who are opposed to war, there is a common recognition that discourse, argument, discussion, informed advocacy, and critical analysis might be conceptual methods of building peace and constructive dialogue among humanity." Because, perhaps, one of the reasons the forum didn't take off is that its founder is not as clear a thinker, as good a listener, as patient an activist, as he should be. I still have a lot to learn.

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