Tuesday, May 4, 2010

LD Debate: Go for the Jugular for God's Sake!

I thought it was about time for an update on the Lincoln-Douglas debates in my Speech classes. The intra-class tournaments are nearly concluded, and I am beginning to make preparations for the inter-class round between my two classes as well as the final championship round pitting my best team versus Mr. Green’s best team. The boys have done reasonably well in presenting cogent arguments affirming and negating the resolution. In case you weren’t here for the first post on this topic, the resolution is as follows—Resolved: In matters of collecting military intelligence, the ends justify the means.

Generally, the students’ affirmative cases have asserted national security as their value and the common good as their criterion. They then proceed to lay out a series of observations and contentions employing utilitarian philosophy as the justification for why any means are acceptable in supporting national security consistent with the common good. The most creative case so far has argued collectivism as the value, later amended to the criterion, as a support for national security. This team brought Marx’s, Machiavelli’s, and Hobbes’s philosophies to the table as credible support for justifying any course of action to preserve the body politic. They contended that the body politic is of primary value in collectivist states as opposed to individualism or the preservation of individual rights in democratic nations. The resolution does not specify that the argument must take place within democratic societies or even nation states at all, so I thought this was a particularly clever strategy.

The negative cases thus far have typically focused on justice, life, freedom, or individual rights as their value with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva Accords, or justice as the criterion. The philosophers typically chosen by students to represent the case for individual rights tend to be John Locke or Thomas Jefferson with some healthy dose of the former or the Declaration of Independence frequently cited for the latter. The more ambitious students bring Aristotle or Aquinas and virtue ethics into the discussion or defer to the amassed wisdom of religious thought about the golden rule with references to Buddha, Jesus, Socrates, Mohammed, Confucius, and others. They also try to highlight the internal inconsistencies with the affirmative’s approach and also its ineffectiveness.

The debate typically ends up with the ticking-time-bomb scenario and discussion of the justice or injustice of torture. The affirmative asserts that national security necessitates that any means by used to protect the citizens of a nation and the body politic, while the negative contends that it is a violation of a nation’s first principles, international law, basic inalienable rights to a dubious and questionable end that may or may not even have merit. In other words, the alleged terrorist under duress may turn out to be innocent and have no information about the bomb, or he may invent false information or say whatever he or she thinks his or her interlocutors wants to hear.

The main weakness that I have noticed with these first-time debaters is their inability to go for the jugular. They do not make effective use of their cross-examination time to call their opponent's arguments into question or to lay rhetorical traps or to gather data for an effective rebuttals. Their rebuttals are always, without fail, too short, and they rarely actually assail the opponent's value. This is a value debate after all, but it seems like most of the time they talk past each other rather than directly addressing their opponent’s primary arguments. I guess that is just something that comes with more practice and experience. The students’ focus seems to be more on just presenting something meaningfully relevant to the resolution than on making the debate a lively sparring of ideas and values. This is especially frustrating as the whole point of the debate in the first place is--duh!--to debate. I have seen precious little genuine debate. There has been the mere presentation of cases with an insufficient amount of intellectual battle. Hopefully, the final rounds will be more interesting, but I would very much like to see some of these young men rise to the challenge and throw down the gauntlet!

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