Friday, February 16, 2007

Pluralism and Planting Seeds: Debate and Politics

Over on Net Benefits, on a thread about political pluralism (or the lack thereof) in debate, a comment by Patty Steck reminded me of recent conversations about "switch-side" academic debate, the ethical, political, and epistemic assumptions and challenges thereof.

"Getting people out of their comfort zones," as she put it, is the center of what is important about politically pluralist debate. There are many ways to say it--stepping into the other's shoes, putting on a different pair of glasses...

My last year as a debater, Korry and I ran what we wanted, mostly. Apart from one round running overpopulation bad and another running have NATO rather than the U.S. bomb Milosovic (both rounds we ended up winning), we found a way to say what we wanted to say--Marxism, movements, liberation theology, some crazy procedurals and theory, not much else--and still win a lot. But I felt like that was justified by the previous three years (plus high school) running all sorts of positions, treating them as competitive thought experiments rather than personal advocacy. I'm not saying everybody should do it that way but it was much easier to beat traditional and straight up positions after having run them, being able to meet them in form, tone and content rather than being one of two passing ships. Korry would have another year, debating at Alaska, to further refine his personal advocacy, but he was able to out-tech AND out-narrate people in part because of his argumentative upbringing at Weber.

I think it's had positive effects for both our coaching and political lives, although I know better than to speak for him. He'd just outpoint me...again. The important thing about strategizing is to know not only what the other side's argument is, but why they believe it, and why it's reasonable or justifiable to believe it. Only then can you get underneath those justifications. In politics, especially progressive politics, it's equally important to get inside people's assumptions. That way you can plant the seeds deep.

Korry was, and is, a seed-planter.

Admitting that some biases and presumptions exist in debate, Mike Owens added:
There are a number of things individuals can do to change those biases and presumptions. Sometimes they come with personal sacrifice. Sometimes one is still frustrated. But then again, maybe these lessons are just as valuable as ones that would be taught under a (probably impossible) community with full ideological diversity.

Once again, the debate community mirrors the outside political community even as it seeks to be insulated from it.

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