What I’ve Learned about Debating

Marian's high school graduation picture
Marian’s high school graduation picture

Prior to the Vice Presidential Debate last week, Governor Romney was criticized for saying he didn’t think his running mate, Paul Ryan, had much debate experience – maybe in high school he might have had some. That got me thinking about my experience on my high school debate team.

When I was a junior in high school, a few friends talked me into joining the debate team. I didn’t really know what I was getting into, but that was okay. I was having fun with my friends. The national debate topic for high schools in the 1964-1965 school year was: “Resolved: That nuclear weapons should be controlled by an international organization.” Almost fifty years later, I guess the topic is still somewhat timely!

According to the rules for high school debate fifty years ago (I don’t know if they’ve changed or not over the years), a debate team had four members, two affirmatives and two negatives. The affirmatives supported the resolution and the negatives argued against the resolution. Each debater spoke in a predefined order for a prescribed number of minutes. Timekeepers were absolute in cutting off the speaker at the precise second of the time limit. The judge, an English teacher/debate coach from another school, determined the winner based on how convincing the arguments were.

I always debated as second negative. My primary responsibility was to refute the specific plan proposed by the opposition, regardless of what their plan was. Going into the debate, I had no idea what specific plan was going to be proposed. That meant I had to listen carefully to what the plan was, determine quickly what the weakest points of the plan were, and attack the plan where it was most vulnerable.

How did I prepare for that? My fellow negative and I spent many evenings and weekends together reading news magazines, specifically looking for articles related to the debate topic. We discussed how the key points mentioned by experts in those articles could be cited – or refuted – to make our points. Not all high school kids would consider that a fun way to spend several hours every week, but it was a good way for non-athletic friends to have a reason to spend time together.

I gained a lot from my experience on the debate team. I learned how to listen very carefully to what someone says, and how to respond quickly and authoritatively to convince a third person that I had a better perspective on the issue than my opponent.  I also learned that the third person, the judge, responded to more than just the facts I presented. The judge was influenced just as much by my attitude, speaking style, and self-confidence as by my facts.

The rules for Presidential Debates are a little different. The timekeeper has become the moderator with the dual role of asking questions and trying to limit the time each candidate takes for response. The role of judge has been assigned to everyone who votes, although there are plenty of commentators on TV who try to assume that role. The debaters – the candidates – have also learned that the judges – the voters – are influenced much more by their demeanor than by their actual arguments.

In the New Testament, we can read how Jesus debated. The religious leaders of the day frequently tried to trip him up with trick questions. In Mark 10, the Pharisees asked him a question about whether or not divorce is legal. In the next chapter, the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders asked him what authority he had to be doing the things he was doing. In chapter 12, some more Pharisees tried to trick him with a question about taxes. Then some Sadducees questioned him about husbands and wives being reunited in heaven. In all cases, Jesus was a good debater. He always gave them an answer that made them think in more depth about the real question they had asked.

I think Jesus’ best debate performance is recorded in Mark 12.

One of the religion scholars came up. Hearing the lively exchanges of question and answer and seeing how sharp Jesus was in his answers, he put in his question: “Which is most important of all the commandments?”

Jesus said, “The first in importance is, ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord your God is one; so love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.’ And here is the second: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ There is no other commandment that ranks with these.” [Mark 12:28-31 MSG]

How did Jesus prep for his debates? At times, Jesus went off by himself to pray. I doubt that he had practice debates with his Father, but I’m sure they spent quiet time understanding their values and priorities, knowing what their love for the world would mean for Jesus.

The presidential candidates and vice presidential candidates, all four of them, are known as followers of Jesus. I guess that means they understand and agree with what Jesus said was the greatest and second greatest commandments – to love God and to love our neighbors.

As we listen to the debates throughout this political season, let’s watch for these values to come out as each candidate tries to express his vision for America. Or, if these values aren’t reflected in the official debates, maybe we can think about how they might be reflected in the informal debates we have in our families, churches, and communities.

Or, maybe, we can just think about how these values are reflected in our lives.

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