The ancient Greek philosopher and rhetorician Gorgias was a very talented orator. He was so persuasive that he said he could persuade people into believing him through charlatanry, which led to the term “sophistry.” Socrates labeled sophistry as a manipulative form of persuasion to get the audience to believe something, regardless of its truth. Inherent in the philosophy of sophistry is a deficiency of transparency.
Have you ever decided to run a “squirrel case” because no one in your region ever heard of it and no one would have evidence? Here’s why that’s not a good idea.
The Advantages of Transparency
1. Helps the Audience
One of the sophist’s primary characteristics is that he sacrificed the welfare of the audience for his own benefit, which runs contrary to Ethos’ philosophy. If you think debate is all about winning, read this. Instead, debate should also be about influencing your audience towards the better. Transparency is critical in achieving this. John Stuart Mill, an English Enlightenment thinker and philosopher, in his book On Liberty, concluded that a free market of ideas was essential for truth to emerge. He applauded a “clash of contrary opinions” and robust debate as the means in which society could strive towards truth. His views have greatly influenced American constitutional law and the adversarial process. After all, the judge/jury is most likely to make the correct decision when both lawyers present all the (true) facts. By intentionally withholding information, you are doing the judge a dishonor – he/she misses the educational value of a competitive clash of ideas.
2. Real-world benefit
A. Reputation. How debate impacts your reputation is faaaar more important than how well you do in debate. Your reputation lasts longer than your debate success and is more important than the number of medals you earned that will probably end up in a cardboard box in your basement. Do you want to be remembered as someone who manipulates evidence or practices secrecy to win? Would you want someone who manipulates others in order to succeed to be your business partner or boss? You may think that your reputation in high school will not be remembered, but in reality: your reputation definitely sticks with you.
B. Great practice of real-life virtues. Being transparent in debate is great practice for being transparent in real life. Practicing will make it easier when you really have to be transparent in your career, etc. Moreover, being transparent strengthens personal honesty and trustworthiness. These character traits are important in interpersonal relationships and daily living.
3. Learning & Growth
A. Learn how to present arguments persuasively. It is one thing to be able to persuade the judge when your opponents are not prepared; it is another thing to have prepared opponents present the other side and still persuade the judge. Last year, several judges disagreed personally with my case. By being transparent, I found out what parts of my case were not as persuasive and it forced me to make my idea more appealing to judges. When your idea is fully exposed, you don’t have as much incentive to make your case more persuasive. That’s not what is going to help you most in real-world communication.
B. Learn more. The rounds in which I learned the most were not when my opponents were not prepared, but when they were most prepared.
C. Enjoyable debate rounds. Like the above, the rounds I enjoyed the most were not when my opponents were not prepared; the rounds I enjoyed the most were when my opponents were most prepared. The caveat to this is when you are not prepared. But when both sides are extremely prepared, the ensuing clash is one of the most enjoyable experiences of debate.
D. Practice defending an idea. In the real world, you cannot escape or win by not being transparent. The ideas you communicate will be exposed, tested, and evaluated. You learn true rhetoric in the excess of information, rather than its absence.
E. You learn the most by teaching and sharing. See Isaiah’s article on the Ideal National Champion (Hint: they share).
F. Easier in the long-run. I’d say, yes, without a squirrel you might have to work harder in the short-run. But it will pay off in the long-run, like all hard work. It’s actually a lot harder to consistently be pumping out squirrel case after squirrel case for each tournament.
4. Winning in the Long-Run
There are many reasons why being transparent (particularly with your affirmative case) makes you more likely to win in the long-run:
A. You learn the arguments against your case as soon as possible. Sure, exposing your case might not seem like a good idea in the short-run. In doing so, however, you learn arguments against your case almost immediately. By the end of the season, you will be much more prepared against stronger arguments that you otherwise would have not been ready for.
B. Having a long, continuous case means you have more time to develop humor, a theme, clear tagging, epic openers and conclusions, compelling pathos, figures of speech, and many other rhetorical gems.
C. Form a better developed, prepared, and successful case. When you are truly transparent and develop a long-running case, you obtain optimal practice. Last year, by the time nationals rolled around, although everyone in the nation knew our case and all the arguments for/against it better than the start of the year, my partner and I felt very confident in our ability to defend it because we practiced it so many times. Being transparent with your case is a win-win. I cannot stress this enough! After all, if you are scared to be transparent because you fear you will lose once your idea is exposed, you either (a) shouldn’t be defending that idea or (b) be more prepared. I firmly believe you should not be running your case if the only reason you are running that case is that you think it will be successful while relatively unknown. I do not know of an example of when being more transparent did not force someone to be more prepared. Here is an example of a team (McPeak/ Rose) that shared their case ALL year (including giving out their 1AC as soon as postings were up) who were 2nd seed and 9th place at Nationals – and in just their 2nd year of debate. If anything, being transparent helps a meritorious AFF case succeed, in which case you should have nothing to fear.
D. Predictability. Squirrelly case = squirrely arguments. Oftentimes, when teams run a “squirrel” case, opponents respond out of desperation (with nothing else to think of) with tangential and obscure arguments that you are not prepared for.
However, this isn’t to say there is something inherently wrong in running a case that most people aren’t prepared for. You can have a “squirrelly” case that you’re pretty transparent about. There’s nothing wrong with exploring unexplored aspects of the resolution. The problem comes when you misconstrue evidence or run something so obscure that there’s one article written on it and it’s not a real issue. If you can find an obscure case that still matters, “gopher” it! However, we shouldn’t argue for things that don’t matter. That’s the key here.
So, what does transparency look like? It means:
- Sharing case flows
- Sharing neg briefs
- Not withholding your case flow
- Giving the negative team a brief against your case
- Brief trading
If every debater was truly transparent, not only would the quality of debate markedly improve, but debaters would become much better at applying debate to real life. Don’t be a sophist. Be transparent.
Joshua Anumolu is in his fourth year of speech and debate. Last year, he was blessed to place 6th at the NCFCA National Championship in Team Policy debate. For him, competitive debate is about learning how to communicate truth effectively. Every round he lost, was a round he learned from to become a better communicator. He believes true mastery of rhetoric is accomplished when one finds their own balance between ethos, pathos, and logos. He loves to use debate as a platform to inform the audience of issues he cares about.