How Do I Reach These Kids?: An Affirmation of Polyvocal Debate

By Ben Koh & Rebar Niemi

For as long as there has been debate, there has been the debate about what debate is. We are not against a discussion of what constitutes debate. In fact we are absolutely for it. We argue that this is a crucial debate within debates. The question should not be “what is debate?” The proper question is “what can debate do?” The constitutive feature of debate that we are most abstractly interested in is the precise one that is so often banished by debate pundits – the possibilities of what it can do. We do not yet know what debate can do. All are welcome to accept the challenge of forcing debate into a linear and instrumental framework, but be warned it will certainly fail. Debate is a process and a field, not a mechanism.

This is the case for polyvocal debate. Our current definition (which is open to redefinition) is that debate should be thought of as a complex assemblage of voices (the debaters, the judge, audiences, coaches, the authors quoted, and so on), and that it is wrong to limit the possible voices or the possible enunciations of those voices. Debate is always about multiple voices – multiple ways of sensing/expressing. Even non-sense and non-expression have their own voices. This is not a paradigm. It is a hypothesis about the system of relations that co-creates debate. The power and potential of polyvocal debate is not located in some far-off future. It is right here right now, and it is also capable of contact with the outsides of one perspective on time and space. To paraphrase June Tyson – Don’t you know? It’s after the end of the world.

Within the system of relations composed by polyvocal debate, we always have the ability to ask “should we believe in something in the first place?” as well as “if we believe it, what are its normative implications?” These questions, in whatever form they take, are some of the most primal elements of debate. Restricting the scope of debate to only some of these questions is a serious loss. More absurd is the justification for restriction based on the value of being able to ask and engage with these questions in the first place. It is wrong to assume that chaos and doubt are bad. It is even worse to argue for a progressive fallacy that chaos and doubt can be removed from debate without debate ceasing to be debate at all. Debate is not soccer, or chess, or playing the trumpet. Perhaps it can do similar things to those activities, but if so it is because it does not feature the limits that define soccer or chess or playing the trumpet.

It is apparently very easy to make assumptions about what education is. Most often this is accomplished without citing a single theorist on the subject of education OR a robust understanding of what education could be outside of “commonsensical” assumptions (which are less common and relatable that they initially seem). As we often like to tell our students – read the literature. We call the kind of education that is often assumed “banking-style education” after Paulo Friere. This is the notion that education is about accumulating knowledge. 100 facts are better than 99 facts. People devalue education because they think of it only in these calculated terms. To the banking conception, the end game of education would not be an increase in self-respect, a commitment to social justice, or a development of communication and empathetic powers. It would be the resume statement of “things I’ve learned.” We must not buy into this conception of education.

In debate, the collaborative way voices intertwine builds a world of speech and frames it. No debate performance can be perfectly reproduced. The judge’s interpretation and voice are then added. The desire for absolutely objective or procedurally exact judging is a desire for an impossibility. We should not be afraid of the judge’s voice. We recognize it as one among many. Some judges speak loudly and have particular desires. We do not begrudge them this. What is important is that they acknowledge that theirs is only one voice among the many and one way of sensing among all sense and nonsense.

It is not a question of excluding the chaos or even controlling it, but understanding the value in hearing the clash of multiple voices. For nowhere else in school are we given the vibrant opportunity to be as real in the academic space as is in debate; where we are able to read multiple arguments from multiple views from multiple bases. We must encourage debate to be an outlet for the chaotic and doubtful elements of our beliefs for it’s an opportunity to bridge debate’s separation from the real world into our own world. Our lives aren’t always smooth unwavering stories. They are often a chaos that is hard to grasp outside the lens of community. Polyvocal debate is inclusive and encouraging of this chaos, of the hard questions and life changing moments of realization. A form of debate that acts as if it can omit doubt is not a true form of debate at all. This isn’t just an argument for “unique educational value” in the banking-sense. Debate should not be thought of as an esoteric extracurricular designed to spice up the resume.

Paradigms of debate that stop at the moment of rational justification treat the issue of what world we create for ourselves as an unnecessary step, but this conversation is what must happen in our lives and further what must happen in debate. Polyvocal debate allows for this discussion. We should not just ask “is deontology true” but further “is it good for me to believe in deontology” or util or contractarianism, etc. Rationality cannot be trusted to judge itself, but abandoning logic altogether isn’t necessary just yet. It is too easy to take up one side or the other (only truth matters or only the good matters). Debate is harder. The tenets of logic and justification can create questionable conclusions, and a truly valuable form of debate must allow us to criticize and reevaluate these conclusions to live our lives to the fullest. We must be able to ask if beliefs empower or disempower our lives. We always have the power to ask should we believe it or is it correct, and exercising this capacity is the practice of debate.

There are two ways in which we can understand and consider what we ought to believe – what is rationally justifiable, and what is good for us to believe for ourselves. In our lives we cannot just ask “what do I think is true.” We must always end up asking “is it good for me to believe in what I believe?” This is how we must act in our own lives outside of just the debate space. When we are faced with a difficult situation be it in our personal lives, work, etc., we are inevitably going to be confronted with moments of seemingly undeniable hopelessness; where despite our best efforts and our thinking, we cannot justify or rationally see a way to be happy or push ourselves through to the other side. Is it good for me to believe that no matter what I will do, that I will get a bad grade in this class? Is it good for me to believe that I will fail in my work? Is it good for me to believe in hopelessness? Our answer is no. Our answer is that debate helps you learn new questions as well as new answers. Again and again we’ve heard the articles and arguments that collapse everything to the old questions: education versus fairness, the rules versus innovation and expansion, correct ways of being versus incorrect ones. Bizarrely there are some who like to play with the same questions forever, perpetually flipping bits between one and zero, never writing new code. We are tired of these questions. Perhaps they would be enlivened by new voices. Polyvocality is the necessary and explosive generation of new questions. The practice of debate is an educational activity because it is generative and interrogative of voices. Use it for what it’s used for.

Education can be praxis – where the abstraction of theory becomes lived abstractness inside the fabric of everyday experience. Where a radical new way of thinking-feeling the world become possible. Where you don’t just learn about quantum physics, but cry at how beautiful the expression of quantum interactions can be and feel blessed to be a part of them, and then teach them to your friends and family. But this is only part of what education is. Education is a becoming that is necessarily political. Often times it is anti-reactionary or anti-conservative, not because it includes some biased political position, but because it is impossible to actually experience learning without it changing you – what you think is right and wrong, what you want to do, and who you think of yourself as. On our view, this makes education necessarily anti-fascist (where fascism is defined as the tendency to over-represent and prefer certain ways of being to others based on normative, intuitive, or ontological claims). No matter your petty political affiliations, too many people in our world must attempt escape everyday, live as targets, suffer, and experience domination. If education is not a force to help us address this, it is not a properly empathetic education. Even if the educational space of debate allows for slightly more opportunities to escape the everyday and find new connections and places to dwell, this is a greater benefit to everyone than any obedience to respectability politics, norms of conduct, or “correct ways of being” could ever achieve. This is how the world works. We should not abandon the cause of empathy just because we can have that elsewhere. It’s not as if we should not care about others at certain times because we do so in others

Debate is foundationally about empathy. Arguments are only persuasive in the ability for their to be foster a shared experience of understanding. Judges vote for arguments that have a particular effect on them – the effect of “being convincing.” Arguments that win send the judge on a path of becoming-convinced. In order for this to happen, the debater must actually get through to the judge on some level, whether intuitively, emotively, via rhetoric, the flow, or explanation. The best debating promotes empathy. Not empathy defined by biased terms – empathy defined by actual contact with actual others, perspectives, and ways of expressing oneself. It is not that young people are in need of moral training or must be told what is right and wrong or that debate should erase and conquer disagreement. Rather, it is that we should strive to learn to live with disagreement. For it is too simple and brute to believe in a monovocal system of thought – that your language is the only Rosetta Stone to translate the world through. Debate must be a place to see how to live with ourselves and live among others.

If being the better debater means being the worse person, we should NOT endorse this conception of better debating. There is no value to improving a debate related skillset that is not bracketed by being caring and affirming of the world. The argument against education, methodology, and performance debates is that these will somehow sacrifice an essential part of what makes debate debate. This perspective is entirely wrongheaded. What a polyvocal understanding of debate underscores is that what makes debate is multiple voices. Our belief is that it is possible to promote incredible skill, learning, and growth in students and be better debaters while at the same time being better people. Debate is a field where participants of all kinds create real experiences and real change. Students have the ability to speak their individual truths and have real academic and personal conversation about what creates, sustains, and restricts their worlds – and if the current “rules of debate” do not allow for that, we advocate breaking those rules.