More than 40 years later, I still remember the feeling of dread rising in my chest and paralyzing my brain when the person at the lectern presented a point I had not prepared to answer.
It was sophomore year of high school, and I was a proud but nervous member of the debate team. The topic that year was whether the jury system should be changed. And you had to be ready to take both sides, affirmative and negative, because you could be assigned either in any match.
Our arguments and evidence were written on stacks of index cards, the building blocks of what we imagined would be speeches of powerful persuasion. And then an opponent would offer an idea for which our two-person team had no card. And a scramble would ensue to produce a counter-argument — because one of the rules of debating is that if you don’t address a point, you’ve conceded it. In other words, you’ve admitted the other team is right.
I learned a lot that year. About the necessity of preparation, the power of logic, the value of facts that bolster philosophy, and the importance of being able to dissect an argument and present an alternative.
I’ve been thinking about my old debate team as I watch with disbelief and dismay what’s happening on some of our college campuses and in our political discourse. The universities I remember as a kid were noisy, cantankerous hotbeds where students were accustomed to spirited clashes of ideas. Now we have colleges where speakers are disinvited because some students disagree with their views or actions. Where students demand campuses be “safe spaces” where they are protected from hearing opinions that are different or that make them uncomfortable. Where professors worry that certain topics or texts will be deemed offensive.
Then what’s the point of college? How do we learn without being exposed to what we don’t know, examining it and debating it, and rejecting — or, perhaps — accepting it? Being challenged by ideas and feeling uncomfortable is OK. Experiencing that dread and conquering it is necessary for growth. It’s good preparation for dealing with the adversity certain to come later in life. And speech, no matter how noxious, is protected by the Constitution.
A hardened form of the virus infuses our politics, where the notion of debate as exchanging and testing of ideas is impossibly quaint. Instead, you express a point backed by dubious facts, then do it again a little more loudly when someone challenges you, citing equally dubious facts. As for the high school debate rule that a point not addressed is a point conceded — try scoring one of our presidential debates like that. There are lots of concessions.
In college and in politics, we build our silos tall and hide behind them. I worry about our intolerance of others’ ideas, and the short leap from there to intolerance of others. I lament the loss of our willingness to consider arguments and apply logic to defuse them, without resorting to bluster or simply ignoring them. I long for the days when it was OK to change your mind based on a powerful argument you heard. And I worry about reductions in civics instruction in our schools, so kids don’t learn enough about the right of free speech and the indispensable role it plays in a true democracy.
As we gather around our various holiday tables and rub elbows at assorted parties at work and home, I hope we all remember to listen as much as we speak. And respond to what we hear.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.