Government team: “The purpose of debate is to have civil discussions about the topics before us.”

Opposition team: “No, the primary purpose of competitive debate should be fair competition.”

And so I listened as the teams spent chunks of the debate trying to debate the purpose of debate. Thankfully, by the end of the round the teams acknowledged that debate had more than one purpose. However, the teams struggled at first, some of the relevant goals in debate were still overlooked, and much of the debate lacked good structure.

Around the time, I was also outlining an article about why I dislike some of the aspects/rules of British Parliamentary debate, but I figured it would help to first write an article that addressed this issue: What are the purposes of debate? Or, to sacrifice some pithiness and familiarity for greater accuracy: “what are the goals and ‘anti-goals’ (things we want to avoid) in debate?”

Yet, as I began writing this one standalone article about the purposes of debate, I recalled how I used to informally use this concept for a few theory and definitional arguments (typically with a framework tag like “we want truth-finding, skill development, and fair competition”). At the time, it was just something I occasionally used when convenient. However, over time I increasingly reflected on the way that many people–my high school self included–can tend to just accept and apply the available theory paradigms and traditions (e.g., resolutionism, parametrics) without considering or understanding the deeper foundation that they rest on. That is to say, sometimes people fail to properly ask/answer the question: What ultimately makes any theory/paradigm/argument/rule “better” than alternatives?

Series overview

This is where we return to the issue of “goals/anti-goals of debate”: I would now argue that this is not just “an issue” in debate theory, but rather is the ultimate scale for whether any action/viewpoint in debate is justified, including judging paradigms, theory arguments, rulesets, etc. That may seem like a really bold claim (and there are many ways to misinterpret it), but I’ll be devoting an entire series to explaining, defending, and applying this idea. This first article will just try to organize/outline some of the goals and anti-goals of debate. Later articles will describe how the alternatives to this paradigm do and don’t differ, some of the problems with simpler paradigms such as resolutionism, how the goals/anti-goals framework should–and shouldn’t–be used, and why it is generally better when implemented well.

A non-exhaustive list of “goals” in debate

People will inevitably disagree about how one should categorize/structure a list of benefits of debate: should it be divided up by stakeholder (debaters, audience, society, etc.) or by “short-term, medium-term, and long-term benefits”? The following list is just meant to provide one possible rough division of some of the major points.

  • Direct Enjoyment: This may not be the most commonly discussed purpose of debate, but one should not ignore the direct psychological/wellbeing effects on participants and audiences. Consider for example:
    • Competition: The debaters in particular may simply enjoy the competitive process (i.e., regardless of result).
    • Accomplishment: Competitors also tend to enjoy the sense of accomplishment (and/or validation) when they do well (and/or get trophies).
    • Socialization: Debate clubs, meets, and tournaments can provide an enjoyable social atmosphere for both the audience and the debaters.
    • Learning/Development: Whether it is the audience or the debaters themselves, many people simply like learning new things or thinking about things in different ways without much regard to the ultimate usefulness of those new ideas.
    • Humor and other aspects of entertainment: Just because debate is known to be competitive and educational doesn’t mean “fun” is irrelevant!
  • Education: This is a really broad and important category, filled with a variety of sub-categories that all relate to indirect benefits (e.g., by improving a person’s ability or likelihood/willingness to do good later).
    • Informing: This basically relates to the spread of accurate information/beliefs among both the debaters and the audience, especially with regards to the debate topics (and the world more generally). 
    • Shaping/Forming: instilling good character traits, habits, and values, such as:
      • Honesty, integrity, and fair play more generally;
      • A passion for truth and for understanding both sides of an issue, even if you already have an opinion on a subject;
      • Thoughtful listening and evaluation (e.g., the reasoning behind flowing).
      • Civility and respect for others;
      • Respect for (good) norms–as well as the importance of and methods for sometimes challenging them (e.g., when there is a bad theory norm in the community);
    • Skill development: there are so many skills related to debate that a list here hardly does justice. Still, a small sample includes:
      • Research;
      • Communication (including its related forms and components);
      • Critical thinking;
      • Teamwork;
      • Organization;
      • And many more.
  • Social networks: put simply, this refers to the indirect benefits provided by the creation of social ties, such as lasting friendships, professional ties, etc. This is different from the direct enjoyment of socialization in that socialization refers more to immediate shifts in mood as opposed to creating enjoyable and/or useful networks in the longer term.
  • Signaling and evaluation: this is definitely more niche, but there is some debate over whether signaling is a valuable part of education (schooling) in general, and it seems to apply here. Basically, signaling is the idea that one’s performance in some setting (e.g., GPA in high school, tournament wins in debate) can provide information or “signals” about someone’s ability–both to onlookers (e.g., parents, colleges looking to identify talent and offer scholarships) and potentially even the debaters themselves (e.g., “Am I gifted at critical thinking relative to my peers?”).

There are more potential benefits/goals, but I’ll just leave it at that for now so that I can briefly cover the opposite: problems/anti-goals of debate.

Bad consequences/anti-goals of debate (non-exhaustive)

In reality, many of the potential problems stemming from debate are just the opposite of the points mentioned above, with a few exceptions. Examples of these issues include:

  • Costs: this is the perhaps the most noteworthy problem that does not have a clear counterpart among the potential benefits of debate. This includes costs in terms of money (e.g., fees) but also in terms of staffing for tournaments, opportunity cost of time spent doing debate instead of other extracurriculars, etc.
  • Direct displeasure: this relates to stress/frustration from unfair results, perceptions of incompetence, social anxiety/ostracizing, monotony (especially for the judges), and so on. Basically, it is the opposite of direct enjoyment.
  • “Miseducation”: essentially, the opposite of education benefits. Consider for example:
    • Misinforming: the spread of incorrect information/beliefs. 
    • Misshaping/Malforming: the spread of bad character habits, values, etc., such as:
      • A “win at all costs” mindset;
      • A strong sense of self-validation/overconfidence in one’s beliefs (e.g., as part of a “fake it till you make it” mentality);
      • Disrespect for competitors;
      • Promotion of bad norms.
    • Skill stagnation/impairment: for example, debate can emphasize communication skills which are bad for the real world (e.g., speed and spread, overcomplexity).
  • Harming social ties or creating animosity (such as due to perceived unfair/unethical behavior or just hyper-competitiveness in general).
  • Bad signaling/evaluation: basically, debate could end up doing a poor job of signaling people’s ability/potential, given how people’s records can be so heavily influenced by chance (e.g., getting three negative outrounds in a row at nationals) and/or people can get competitive advantages from sketchy methods such as surprise cases, misleading judges, appealing to judge biases, etc.

Linking to these ends

If you are trying to link some action/mindset to these ends, in some situations you will have to rely on principles or link arguments such as the following:

  • Accessibility: something that the other team is doing or some judging standard makes debate far less accessible (e.g., speed and spread for ESL debaters, novices, or people with speech impediments; demanding extensive plan details down to the sausage-making of bureaucratic implementation). This is important because if fewer people participate in debate (either as judges or debaters), this leads to fewer people experiencing the benefits of debate.
  • Enjoyability: this has similarities with the appeal to accessibility (i.e., fewer people means fewer benefits), but with the added emphasis on direct enjoyment.
  • Fairness/competition: again, this is similar to accessibility and enjoyability, except it also emphasizes a few things like skill development, topical education, signalling, etc.
  • “It’s the rules”: my philosophy on this is more nuanced, but one potential phrasing of this idea is as follows: “Debate without rules or strong norms would quickly become chaos. Additionally, we have limited time in debate rounds to debate/explain why the rules are the way they are; we can have these discussions outside of rounds, but during rounds we generally should accept the rules as they stand rather than re-litigating these issues every round, which wastes time for topical education.”
  • “It’s the truth”: again, a potential phrasing of this might be “we should not ignore the facts of reality or treat false claims as accurate out of convenience (e.g., even if it makes the debate slightly more fair and enjoyable). Debate should be about developing and challenging beliefs in order to establish truth, not about bending truth to fit our preconceptions or desires, which would instill bad intellectual habits.”

Ultimately, this is just supposed to be a sample of some of the potential linking arguments or principles; there are many other arguments that are more specific to certain situations. In future articles, I will be revisiting/using some of these points. Having said that, my go-to summary of the most important “issues” is generally just “educational value, fairness/competition, truth/reality, and the rules.” 

Conclusion

If you are ever debating about the rules of debate (either outside of a round or in a parli round about the rules of rounds/tournaments, such as the round I quoted from in the beginning), it is crucial to understand the goals and anti-goals of debate, as well as the related links and principles. However, this article is just the “beginning of the ends”: as I will argue in future articles, so many aspects of debate (e.g., judging paradigms, theory arguments, rulesets) are ultimately either good or bad insofar as they relate to making debate better or worse at achieving/avoiding some of the goals/anti-goals of debate.

See part 2 of this series here;
See part 3 of this series here.

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