I was never in the debate club. My after-school time was involved in play rehearsal, or if there was no rehearsal, just hanging around Miss Young’s room and talking about drama with other misfits. But I had a couple of friends in debate, one a button-down type named John, the other a future Iowa congressman Dennis, a pleasant dummy.
But I think I would have been a stand-out. I had a commanding voice, an analytic mind, and an egotism second to none. Plus, an intense desire to please: I might have had a stellar future in politics.
“Resolved, that we should recognize Red China” was the question of the year, as I recall, and the world was looking to Iowa teens for an answer. Not to mention the billion souls in Red China, eager for our acknowledgement.
My friends were required to develop cases both pro and con, since in the tournaments they were assigned their unshakeable beliefs just prior to the clash. A flip of the coin determined the fate of billions. And so they were playing a character throughout the debate, projecting a firm conviction in their righteousness. Not unlike we drama nuts, though they didn’t have to do it in greasepaint.
Good training for lawyers, obviously, as our legal system operates on the medieval principle of armed combat to determine the truth. God picks the winner, and the jury concurs. (Not that I can propose something better.)
From early on, I felt queasy about this practice. Was debate a search for truth or a sport? Did the fate of Red China depend on the smoothness of delivery and wielding a mace spiked with authoritative quotes? On the other hand, where else did anyone have an impetus to research both sides of an issue? Or to cast the mind into the mind of the other? The debate experience at least implied that a case could be made on the other side.
What seems to be lacking in our experience, whether in high school or in the so-called Real World (which seems more fictional day by day) is the concept of collaboration in search for the truth. Woe betide any elected public prosecutor who doesn’t use any semi-legal tactic to secure max convictions. Woe betide the defense attorney who doesn’t use every stratagem to defend his client. Who’s paid to find the truth? Yet at worst this may result only in a few unjust executions, not mass starvation or world war or the death of the planet. When we extend the game into the realm of politics, there are more chips on the table.
Is it impossible to envision a politics—perhaps starting in a high school club—that’s based on collaboration? On the same search for truth that impels my dentist to seek out each hidden cavity while lecturing me on my deficient dental hygiene?
Granted, if we can’t agree that we want to keep all our teeth or at least have something to chew with—perhaps have our slaves predigest our food—we’re not likely to come to agreement. But I’m not convinced that anyone is born with the innate desire to gun down folks in a shopping mall or to grind down all opposition by any trick in the book. What are the possibilities of games that combine respect for the individual and non-competitive collaboration toward a common goal? Even at the microcosmic level, are there juicier things in marriage than winning the fight?
Must all our debates require a winner?