On Not Being Sensitive

So the November debate topic for the High School Public Forum format is a meta topic about what they shouldn’t be debating. When I first heard it, I thought it was an astonishingly bad idea. But then I remembered that “he serves the state best who opposes the state most,” and decided that since I don’t much care for Public Forum either — it sows the seeds of its own irrelevance in the transience of its nature — this would be the perfect topic with which to critique the format. (A negative case may follow, as well as some discussion on empathy from Jeremy Rifkin; check back if you’re curious.)

Affirmative Case (runs 4:20 on my first reading of it)

Resolved: High school Public Forum Debate resolutions should not confront sensitive religious issues.

I affirm this resolution, mostly because I want to win, but also because I don’t want to see sensitive issues handled irresponsibly which leads to the intolerance that compounds the sensitivity of issues. As Paulo Freire explains in Teachers as Cultural Workers,

No one can learn tolerance in a climate of irresponsibility, which does not produce democracy. The act of tolerating requires a climate in which limits may be established, in which there are principles to be respected. That is why tolerance is not coexistence with the intolerable. Under an authoritarian regime, in which authority is abused, or a permissive one, in which freedom is not limited, one can hardly learn tolerance. Tolerance requires respect, discipline, and ethics.

Put another way, mutual respect for each person’s humanity as expressed through the opinions that they put forth is necessary in order to hold democracy as valuable. The problem is that debate isn’t about respecting my opponent’s position — which is heinously wrong, by the way — but rather boasting about the rightness of my own, which I will be holding intermittently in roughly 40-minute segments for the duration of one month, with the longest sustained exposition of my position not to exceed 4 minutes.

And this brings me to my second point: even if all participants in public forum debates had the cosmopolitan maturity necessary to debate and be judged in the realm of substantially sensitive issues, the format of the public forum speech would do a disservice to the issue proportionate to its nuance. This is because, as Marshall McLuhan synoptified in Understanding Media, “the medium is the message.” As Andrew Carr clarifies in The Shallows,

McLuhan understood that whenever a new medium comes along, people naturally get caught up in the information — the “content” — it carries… [T]he medium, however astonishing it may be, disappears behind whatever flows through it — facts, entertainment, instruction, conversation. When people start debating (as they always do) whether the medium’s effects are good or bad, it’s the content they wrestle over… Enthusiasts, with good reason, praise the torrent of new content that the technology uncorks, seeing it as signaling a “democratization” of culture. Skeptics, with equally good reason, condemn the crassness of the content, viewing it as signaling a dumbing down of culture.

Pausing only to point out that Freire says we’re not getting democratization without tolerance that isn’t taught in this format, it’s our position that it’s hard enough to have a simultaneously serious and staccato debate without having to move the “Handle With Care” baggage of a known-sensitive topic.

Topics gain sensitivity over time as they bind to a person’s deeply held values and beliefs. And whether we were to debate life versus autonomy on abortion, or state’s rights versus the federal rights of non-white people on either segregation or slavery, or some religious issue even older than that, the scant time we have here — no more than four minutes at a stretch — would do gross injustice to the years of existence that brought us to the highly-sensitive status quo. As Edward Tufte, a Fellow at the Society for Technical Communication (among a whole lot of other stuff) put it succinctly: “Pitching Out Corrupts Within.” When we have to cut years, decades, or even centuries of relevant history to fit in this tiny time limit, we can’t present a sincere — that is, complete enough to be honest — case to this public forum. That’s a disservice to the all of us as competitors, never mind the existential moral implications, but it’s also a disservice to your (the judge’s) intentions towards the education that is corrupted by this cable-news inspired format.

But it goes one step even further, because we’re really just guessing here. What would be our qualifications for talking about whatever sensitive issue was handed down from the national office? We could be four reasonably affluent kids deliberating about poverty or homelessness before going back to anonymous suburban homes, simultaneously wishing that our parents both cared more about us and would leave us alone. Our paper-thin evidence from barely-vetted sources that Google disgorged on our computers, such as this entire case, would be tribute to Alfred Korzybski’s revelation that “The map is not the territory.” Maybe we’d be lucky enough to get trounced by a team like Louis Blackwell and Richard Funches, former California state CX champions, as covered in the documentary Resolved, because they lived in the very territory of the topic they were debating… but chances are we’d all just be posturing our positions, claiming — in this case — religious or cultural affiliations of whatever stripe, all intolerant of the notion that you might reasonably be swayed to some nuanced position or middle ground that the ballot, another part of this medium, doesn’t support.

So in that way, we’re all very lucky to be debating a topic as ludicrously insular as this one: we are all personally invested and engaged in and caring enough about academic debate, both this format and more generally, to provide a territorial critique of it without doing gross disservice to its somewhat amnesiac history, such that we can tolerantly listen to our opponent’s position as peers, regardless of how heinously wrong and/or off-topic it may be.