Editor’s note: This is the first of many forthcoming posts by our new coach Chris Ostertag! With a ton of experience coaching and debating, Chris has made a phenomenal addition to our team. Like what you read? Schedule a session of private coaching with Chris.
It’s easy to think about debate as its own thing. You’re trapped in a church basement with whitewashed cinder block walls, frigid because the A/C hasn’t worked since 1995, arguing about NAFTA with teenagers proudly flaunting their latest H&M haul. It’s a distinctly parochial sensation.
But, of course, nothing you say in debate is its own thing. None of it occurs in a vacuum. No debater is an aseity. Breaking out of this illusory perspective allows you to transcend the narrow provincialism of youth and ascend to engage with the perspicuity of your predecessors… or maybe just win more trophies, if you’re into that. By the way, you shouldn’t be.
Either way, it’s in your best interest to conceive of debates, and the ideas debaters instantiate, in their broader philosophical context. That’s why at Ethos we teach more than clever tricks for circumventing your opponents. Half of our coaches are philosophy students, and we teach classical rhetoric — precisely because we know that debate’s discourse exists in a firmament of ideas and discussions that’s been blazing for millennia. The best part: stepping into your place in it is simpler than you think.
Cases aren’t just freeform collections of arguments you like. Every case is built on a foundation of implicit assumptions: that life is valuable, that governments should behave justly, that we can believe what our senses tell us, that the past actually happened, and that we can predict the future by assuming its uniformity with our present experiences. These are all reasonable, justifiable beliefs. But you can’t assume them without argument — not in the long run. These frameworks aren’t inarguable, and treating them as such is intellectually and strategically myopic.
Eventually, your opponent might ask those hard questions — and when that happens, you need to be ready to give a defense for your assumptive framework. When your opponent probes deeper than that sweet Magna Carta application, you need to be prepared. The good news is that these ideas have been explored. The framework in which we think is has been meticulously and chaotically (and sometimes Quixotically) sculpted by a legion of scintillating minds for thousands of years. As a debater, you invoke these frameworks every time you make an argument. Knowing this, and knowing those arguments, is powerful.
The Power of Knowing More
Never run a case unless you’ve done your research on it — not just the facts, but the value framework and the assumptions undergirding it. The values you appeal to and the ideas you invoke are almost certainly not original. Don’t run from that truth; lean into it. If you’re making a Platonic argument, say so and subsume all the credibility of a philosopher so brilliant he reshaped all of Western metaphysics for 1700 years. Know the justifications for the argument within your case, but also understand Plato’s entire theory, the reasons he gave for it, and the objections that other thinkers have erected against his view.
I call this contextualizing debate, and it’s a deceptively difficult process. You’ll need to read, extensively, about subjects that may never come up directly in a round. You’ll need to contemplate complex, elusive ideas about abstract concepts and apply eye-wateringly complex logic to understand the deepest recesses of the cosmos. You’ll have late nights and early mornings, and you’ll wake up with Sartre and Descartes cavorting through your mind (okay, maybe not).
I’m convinced that this process will make you a more three-dimensional person, and a citizen ready to step confidently as a full member of an excellent society. You can become one by practicing debate assiduously; however, being an excellent, three-dimensional person will also make you a better debater. Knowing your case seven responses deep, and understanding the reason it assumes empiricism, and knowing why that’s different from logical positivism, empowers you to defend yourself against a litany of possible objections. It’s almost impossible to lose when you know more than your opponent. You know that his second contention is false because it’s a misinterpretation of Aristotle; you can defeat her value by arguing that it breaks Rawls’ theory of distributive justice; you can persuade a judge that human life is valuable by telling them why.
More importantly, contextualizing debate contributes directly to your flourishing. Debate isn’t just another extracurricular you grudgingly tolerate so you can obtain acceptance to your ideal university. For that matter, no extracurricular is like that. Everything you do represents a unique opportunity to cultivate your personhood and inculcate excellence in your perspective. Don’t squander the precious years you’ve been given to indulge the human thirst for knowledge on obsession with trophies or shortcuts.
How Do I Contextualize Debate?
Let that freezing-cold cinder block basement be your jumping-off point. Don’t settle for vaguely metallic plastic when you could be accruing this. Know every argument one response deeper than there are speeches in your debate format. Know your philosophy deeper than you think any opponent could ever probe. Acknowledge the framework in which your case operates, and have defenses prepared for every assumption, as well as objections to the assumptions your opponents commonly make. There is no unassailable case; if you don’t see the holes, you haven’t read enough. Research tirelessly, on diverse subjects, to unlock the power to know more — you never know what esoteric principles your opponent may marshall under their nefarious banner (or just, you know, that intimidatingly large evidence binder).
As an exemplary economics professor once told me before an exam: “if you know everything, you should do alright.”
P.S.: this is the first article in a series. If you’re persuaded that contextualizing debate is worth your while, check back in soon for a list of 10 Things Every Debater Must Read Yesterday.