Debate Team Nerd

I was on the debate team in high school and even earned a “letter” like the ones you normally get for playing sports. My first year on the team, the topic was, “Resolved: That the United States should significantly curtail its arms sales to other countries.” I knew nothing about arms sales and spent most of the fall researching the topic and filling little index cards with facts and information that supported various arguments that could be made on either side of the debate. In high school debate tournaments, you find out which side you’ll argue just before the start of each round. During the rebuttals, you must be prepared to address any argument the opposing team makes for their side. The little index cards helped with these responses. If you win and advance to the next round, you switch and argue for the side you just argued against.

A senior, who was the star of our team, helped me figure out a system for organizing the index cards. The best debaters like him filled numerous shoebox-sized containers with color-coded cards on which we wrote responses to every possible argument with supporting expert quotations, data, and facts from academic, policy, media, and other resources. Debaters took great pride in being able to extract the perfect index card from their stockpile to contradict or repudiate even the most obscure points that an opponent might offer. We strapped the boxes to small dollies with bungee cords and wheeled around tournaments in ill-fitting suits like the lawyers we aspired to be some day. The quantity of boxes was used to intimidate opponents.

We practiced our opening arguments after school and debated each other to prepare for tournaments. My mentor had memorized most of his index cards and could argue his case effortlessly and seamlessly, while I stammered awkwardly as I searched through my boxes for a card to fit the argument. By the end of the school year, I understood the issues well enough to feel more comfortable improvising, but by then, the season had ended and I’d have to start researching and learning the next year’s topic well enough to argue both sides the following school year. I was not naturally gifted in debate and rarely progressed beyond the first few rounds of tournaments. Though I was not a compelling orator, I excelled at organizing my arguments and could present my case in a methodical, well-reasoned manner. These skills have come in handy throughout my life.

A strict set of rules governed the format to ensure everyone had equal time to present their arguments and rebuttals. The score depended on both the substance of the argument and the ability to poke holes in the opponent’s arguments. Significant weight was given to presentation style. Speaking louder than your opponent did not usually earn you more points. The debates relied on facts, logic, and sourcing. Appeals to emotions and feelings had no place.

Could a dinner party with guests from across the political spectrum in a politically divisive time benefit from a set of rules for engaging in civil discourse? At the first Blueberries & Cherries dinner, one month after the 2016 election, all the guests started arguing about politics as soon as they arrived. One person dominated the conversation. Others cited dubious sources. The topics ranged from uranium deals to pussy grabbing to Russian interference in the election to tax returns to Syrian refugees and so on. Though I didn’t expect to find resolution after only one dinner, we all left feeling much less satisfied than I’d hoped.

The basic skills for civil discourse aren’t taught in school and most people weren’t nerdy enough to have joined the debate team. Parents don’t teach their children civil discourse the way they might teach other skills like how to drive a car, respect elderly people and help them across the street, or always say please and thank you. Most people simply don’t have the tools for engaging in civil discourse.

At the next dinner, I instructed everyone to talk about anything but politics for the first thirty minutes. Guests awkwardly made small talk until I gave the signal that it was okay to let loose. The short ban on politics without any additional guidance did little to prevent the dinner conversation from ranging about in frustrating directions. Though everyone was polite, we often talked past and around each other. As usual, some people spoke more than others and “facts” were presented without substantiation.

Little by little, the dinners improved, though, as I tried new ways to frame the conversation. Imposing a single topic helped focus the conversation. An experiment with the Jefferson Dinner model allowed everyone at the table an opportunity to speak.

The dinners became more successful when we began the evening with sharing personal stories. At several dinners, I distributed question cards from the “Ask Big Questions” series, which were designed to coax more self-reflective. One dinner began with pairing off a liberal and a conservative and asking them to tell each other a story about when they were their best selves. After we sat down at the dinner table, we introduced our conversation partners to the other guests using the information we’d learned about them.

I found that the more structure and rules I imposed on the dinners, the less frustrated and more hopeful guests felt at the end. Rules and structure reduced anxiety and fear that humans naturally have when encountering unknown and uncomfortable situations. Rules and structure also set baseline expectations of civility, which essentially meant being nicer and more respectful to one another. Adding the humanizing exercises to the beginning of the dinners helped increase trust, which allowed people to be more vulnerable, open, and truthful about the fears and desires that defined their world views.

Most of our beliefs about the world are rooted in our lived experiences, and not data. These dinners provided an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of those motivations and rationales. When discussing immigration, my immigrant mom says, if somebody wants to come to America, they have to do it the legal way and stand in line like we did. She always reminds me that our family was evacuated by the U.S. government at the end of the war and processed through Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, along with thousands of other refugees. They followed a lengthy and arduous process for which they were rewarded with citizenship. She tells me her oldest sister, who’d been left behind in Vietnam in 1954, applied for a visa decades later at great expense to come to the U.S. to visit family and was rejected three times before finally receiving it. She died not long after she returned to Vietnam. No data-based argument I could make about immigration can sway her from a political position supported by evidence from her lived experience.

Winning arguments and persuasion are not the goals of Blueberries & Cherries. The goal is to gain a better understanding of why people hold the beliefs they hold by hearing from them directly rather than through media and other filters. These interactions humanize the person beyond their social media avatar, and beyond the way the media lumps them into overly simplistic categories as if everyone in a group thinks (and votes) exactly the same way. Civil discourse that remains in the purely objective realm is interesting if you’re on the debate team. Civil discourse that asks the participants to be vulnerable and to share personal, humanizing stories can form the basis for meaningful relations that lead to real change in the real world.