Tuesday, April 13, 2010

On Lincoln-Douglas Debate

We just began our unit on Lincoln-Douglas (LD) debate in Speech class, and I must confess that this is my favorite subject for this course. LD debate is the apex, the acme, the apogee of rhetoric. It demands a full battery of intellectual abilities and rhetorical skills to achieve success. This exercise is the tried and true means of introducing students to dialectical thinking and, God willing, dialectical living.

LD debate finds its inspiration and namesake in the historic debates of 1858 between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, the two contenders for the Illinois U.S. Senate seat, on the topic of slavery. Lincoln’s impassioned defense of freedom and liberty, though stirring in its potency and eloquent in its delivery, did not win him the office that he coveted. However, the media frenzy surrounding the debates put Lincoln in the national spotlight and established him as a credible political figure possessing sufficient bona fides to win the presidential election of 1860.

The original LD debates were about the compelling moral issue of Lincoln and Douglas’s day – slavery – and so were exceedingly germane, as the debate had real life historical implications and applications for their shared world. The rest is a familiar story to us. The legacy of LD debate, then, is a philosophical and political one. At the core of LD debate is a dialectical treatment of conflicting values with an idealistic hope that, through a vibrant Socratic discourse, we can arrive at truth and virtue together, or at least engage our fellow citizens in a civil manner that will enable mutual understanding and peaceful disagreement rather than strife and bloodshed. The dialectical treatment of a meaningful topic lends students an opportunity to test their convictions against alternatives and to begin to discern their own path in life.

This year’s resolution is the following—Resolved: In the matter of collecting military intelligence, the ends justify the means. What a loaded resolution! Students will have the opportunity to grapple with all kinds of interesting arguments in crafting an effective affirmative and negative position. This is just the sort of resolution for which LD debate was designed because it is philosophically rich and has tremendous real life applications in post 9-11 America. Let the battle royale begin!

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