With competition season just around the corner, you are no doubt in the thick of writing cases, researching the resolution, or (at the very least) thinking through its two sides. During this time, I urge you to take your analysis a step – or a question – further than you ever have before.
I have been busying myself with two things recently: re-reading the works of the Classical Greek philosophers and sitting in on (if not judging) debate rounds on this year’s Rez. I’ve noticed some similarities between the two.
Quick history lesson: Sophists vs. Philosophers
Back in the 4th and 5th centuries BC, there were two warring schools of thought in Greece: the Sophists, led by Protagoras, and the Philosophers, led by Plato. These two groups approached the art of persuasion in fundamentally different ways. The Sophists believed in using argument and rhetoric to appeal to the listener’s fears, insecurities, and doubts in order to convince them of their causes. The Philosophers condemned this method and declared that speech ought to be used to point the listener toward the truth and the truth alone. Both of these schools of thought are still very much alive and well today! According to Aristotle’s Rhetoric, everyone chooses to walk one of two paths – that of the Philosopher or that of the Sophist.
This is where we turn to debate. In the debate rounds I have witnessed thus far, there have been many of the same, superficial answers that are given each and every year. Affirmatives champion Privacy on the sole basis of it “being a right”. Negatives value Life. Pro-security arguments fear-monger the dickens out of terrorism and cyber warfare. Pro-privacy arguments prophesy an Orwellian 1984.
Walk the road less traveled—adopt the mindset of the Philosopher, not the Sophist. Your job as a debater is NOT to win the round; your job is to point the judge toward the truth. Do you really think “terrorists are scary” is the deepest, most reflective way to look at a topic so important as balancing privacy and security?
The truth of the real world is FAR more nuanced than the answers that are often given in debate rounds. In order to pursue that kind of truth, we need more practical understanding of how the security vs. privacy debate actually plays out. The solution: ask the next question.
It may seem basic, but asking simple questions is often the most effective way to learn more about a subject. Why, you ask? Because questions get straight to the underlying support for the statement you are questioning! (See what I just did? Ten points to Gryffindor.) In the context of debate, questions can be your greatest tool. This means two things…
- Ask the next question of your opponent.
A prominent assumption/misconception in contemporary debate is:
“To refute an opposing view, I must know it backwards and forwards before the round even begins!”
…With this mindset, debaters walk up to cross-examination, feeling unprepared, and sit back down a minute-and-a-half later, not having done their future speeches any favors. Forget about pre-scripted questions and close-minded strategies for a minute, leave your sticky notes at home, and consider this…
Solid refutation comes from two places:
- having a firm grip on your opponent’s concepts, and
- sifting through the debate to find the places where you can agree.
Questions have now become your new best friend! Not only can questions aid you in clearing up muddiness and understanding your opponent’s position better, but they also help you to push through the superficial level of debate and get down to the core concepts that really matter. For example, rather than asking your opponent why he does not agree with your value, ask him about his. Use questions like,
- From a super long-term perspective, why is your value important?
- What “goods” does your value provide for people?
- Why are those “goods” the BEST goods?
…Even if you don’t manage to come to an agreement, you have directed the judge’s attention to an important point in the round and laid out the groundwork for your refutation. And who knows? It may turn out that you and your opponent have very similar support for your values and you can compromise on the point! Just like that, you have established common ground between the two sides, cleared up one of the biggest issues in the round, and simplified the debate. Not bad for a couple questions!
- Ask the next question of yourself.
Here, we get to the real reason for this post. Ask any of the Big Three – Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle – and they’ll tell you that reflection and self-betterment are the most crucial elements of the critical thinking paradigm. You grow the most when you pursue that growth on your own time and on your own steam. SO…Ask yourself the same questions you ask your opponent: Why IS my value important? Why DOES my side matter?
For Affirmative: Impact privacy. And that does not mean simply attaching a little tagline at the end of your contention. That means asking yourself the question, “How does privacy ACTUALLY impact people?” Why is having privacy beneficial? What do people gain from having it? On the flipside, why is not having privacy detrimental? What harms result from a lack of privacy? You cannot leave it at “privacy is my right, not the government’s”.
Bad point: “Oh no guys! The NSA has no right to my snapchats! It’s my business, not theirs!!1!!”
Better point: “Robbing citizens of their privacy lends itself to upheaval by eroding away accountability and fostering distrust of governmental oversight.”
(Admittedly, a bit satirical. You get my point though.)
For Negative: Impact security. The same is true here. Make your arguments matter to the judge. What methods do government agencies actually USE nowadays? Why are current measures warranted? What does the ideal form of security look like? Why is privacy less important?
Bad point: “Government’s here for security purposes. Just let them do their job.”
Better point: “Some rights can’t be regained. Government’s duty is one of triage; protecting the homeland, a matter of life and death, wins priority over civil issues of privilege.”
It is YOUR job as a competitor to ask yourself these questions long before your opponent ever does. In doing so, you will discover new depth to your case, preempt refutation to your ideas, and set yourself up to be the best you can be. Adopt curiosity and self-examination as your own. Ask the next question and get to a concrete, tangible impact.
Debate as a Philosopher this year, not a Sophist.