A lot of people (including me) start out by thinking that when you’re being questioned in Cross-Ex, the best thing you can do is drone on for as long as possible on each question, restating your case several times and then capping it off by giving the most ambiguous answer possible to the question asked. This makes sense. The more time you take up, the fewer damaging questions they can ask. The fewer damaging questions they can ask, the more likely you are to persuade your judge, right?
Here are three reasons why:
Your Judges Aren’t Robots
As much as debaters would like to have judges who voted solely based on logic, your judges don’t simply write down the warrants you give and compare you and your opponent based on computer algorithms. Your judges will consider their impressions of you in how they vote. Cross-Ex is a big part of that. If you won’t answer questions, most judges (particularly community judges) will probably start to think you’re rude and dislike you.
We all know what it’s like to watch presidential debates and see both candidates giving their talking points in two minutes regardless of the question asked. We all know what it’s like to hate presidential debates because we see both candidates giving their talking points in two minutes regardless of the question asked. Don’t be a presidential candidate. If for no other reason than that you want to get judges to like you more, just answer the question.
Basic Human Respect
You’ve probably been on the other side of a cross-examination when someone employed the strategy of wasting time and not answering the question. I can almost guarantee your thought afterward was not: “What a clever and strategic debater wasting all my time in Cross-Ex!”
Instead, you probably felt slighted. It’s impossible to give a questioner the respect he deserves while also purposefully taking all his time up. Instead, you are saying that your goal in this debate is to win by taking advantage of the rules rather than by the strength of your argument. Debate is about more than winning a debate. It’s about learning to be a better communicator- something that requires you have a foundation of respect. If you can’t win without disrespecting your opponent, you don’t deserve to.
Your Ethos (or Lack Thereof)
You’ve probably seen videos on Youtube of Congressional hearings or press briefings that turn into shouting matches. Like this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H-J4FvxtD9I. Like in debate, these people have only a limited amount of time to ask questions. And so they often try to use it by talking as much as they can. It’s natural to want to promote your message like Acosta did in that video. But did you respect Acosta at the end of that exchange? Would you trust him?
I certainly don’t. He appears not to be able to let his opponent say his piece. It’s almost like he’s afraid to let the audience hear the other side. And that’s exactly how not answering the question makes a debate audience feel. How worthy is your position if your strategy for promoting it is to try to prevent the other person from getting his or her point across?
In other words, your ethos is harmed. As Joshua explains in this article, ethos is critical to persuasion, and it relies on being seen as a confident and likeable speaker. Rambling through cross-examination is one of the absolute best ways to make sure your judge sees you as neither. Be a speaker whose ideas and character stand up to scrutiny.
What’s Your Goal?
The purpose of rhetoric is to push your audience toward the truth. The way debate does that is by having an honest contest of ideas. Refusing to answer questions- taking advantage of the format- is working against that goal. So don’t be a sophist. Do what you can to be a credible speaker- one who respects your opponents and persuades your audiences.