Debate911 is an experiment that grafts elements of dialogue and diplomacy into traditional academic debate. My motivations for this project can be found here and here. Like most experiments, I expect some failures and frustration. But we learn from mistakes. As Winston Churchill said, “success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” I am committed to raising the standards of academic debate for future leaders. But I am also asking some tough questions.
Should we attempt to combine elements of dialogue into competitive debate? Is “competitive dialogue” an oxymoron? Is “skillful compromise” beyond the scope of academic debate? Can a form of debate be created where partial collaboration is encouraged and rewarded? The Debate911 project attempts to answer these questions by considering new forensic models which seek ways to bridge competition with cooperation, ultimately providing students with more complete toolss and skills for healthier politics and global citizenry.
In all forms of traditional debate, judges are trained to reward organization and preparation, clarity, relevancy, delivery and poise, teamwork and effective refutation. Competitive Dialogue rewards similar criteria, but adds incentives and rewards for demonstration of empathic and perceptive listening, strategic compromise and diplomatic discrimination. I believe that any traditional debate format can be altered to promote elements of measured accommodation. I will continue to add new ideas to Debate911 for alternative forms of participative debate. Others reading this are also encouraged to add their ideas. Here are some initial ideas.
Multi-way Dialectic is a format in which four participants are given a topic of discussion, such as a policy proposal or resolution. Topic is released weeks in advance of the competition and participants allowed to prepare. Unlike Congress style debate, participants are not forced to pick between total “Affirmation” or “Negation” but instead reflect four distinct emphases that combine into a layered contrast of opinions. Additionally, scoring incentive for strategic alliance would be included. Each member is encouraged to ally and find a shared opinion with another on a topic where they both can find compromise. This allows for partial alliances and encourages participants to uncover and promote similarities, while countering differences. In addition to normal win-lose debate scoring, judges award points for the most effective allegiances. The Multi-Way format reflects a healthy model for policy discussions at the committee level.
Single Point Congress
In Congress Debate, participants take one side of a bill, affirmative or negative, but usually come prepared to debate either side. Participants are judged on eloquence and poise, logical arguments, thoughtful organization and preparation, extemporaneous ability and quality of questioning. There is no incentive for compromise or dialogue. In Single Point Congress, new judging criteria will reward participants who most effectively integrate a single point or partial point from the opposition. The highest scores will be given to participants whose single point argument strikes the best balance or realistic compromise between the affirmative and negative positions. A single point event will normally occur in later rounds. Single point is not the same as the Congress amendment process, which is a rare request for a blanket change in the original intent of the bill, impacting all participants. Single Point trains debaters for real world politics in which creative and thoughtfully balanced concessions must be achieved to create bills that can become law.
Objective Compromise Debate
Objective Compromise is a real-world political simulation where participants would be supplied with a number of different assets and a short list of objectives. Each asset would be assigned a relative point value, unknown to participants. Each participant would have the others’ objectives in their possession along with a number of meaningless assets. Using the tools of both debate and dialogue, each participant attempts to convince their opponent to trade certain assets – with the goal of acquiring objective items. This format encourages a competitive environment while awarding points for creative compromise based on strategic objectives gained. As in traditional debate formats, speaking ability and persuasiveness weigh heavily. Objective Compromise can serve as a model for political negotiation, where each participant seeks to maximize their objectives while being rewarded for well-reasoned compromise towards successful passage of law.
more ideas on the way..
I grew up in a small rural town in the Sierra foothills. When I entered our local high school (1,000 students), there was no debate team — so I decided to create one. I set up meetings with our school principal and the county superintendent of schools, who both agreed to let me start a school team. After weeks of phone calls and paperwork, I was given a budget and told to find an adult coach who would take responsibility for the team. I must have been rejected by most of the school faculty before finding a willing coach, who also happened to be one of my favorite teachers in the school. The debate team is now in its second year and I am captain (I’m 17). We plan on competing in at least 9 regional meets this season, and hopefully do well enough to advance to state and national qualifiers.
In my last two years of high school, I have immersed myself in every opportunity to practice the art of public speaking. Each year, I have attended an intensive law camp; one summer at Stanford and another summer at Columbia. My peers voted me best attorney at Stanford camp! I was also fortunate to attend Renaissance Weekend with my parents in Charleston SC. This gave me many opportunities to speak extemporaneously on a number of topics and engage with fascinating people. I’ve also participated in our county Teen Court program, acting as both defense and prosecuting attorney in real juvenile court trials presided over by a Superior Court judge. But perhaps my favorite experience has been a lengthy summer internship in the office of California Senator Ted Gaines. One of my responsibilities was researching public policy (urban redevelopment, etc.) and presenting my work to staff — an incredible opportunity. I have also been invited as one of 50 student leaders, and possibly the only high school student, to participate in the 2013 Intersection Event at Google in Mountain View.
UPDATE: I was accepted to USC! I’m planning on a new blended major called “Politics, Philosophy, and Law“, and participating on the USC-Annenberg Debate Team.
I’ve shared some of my experiences here to draw a contrast with competitive debate. I recognize that most social issues are not “black and white” where one side wins, and one side must lose. Yet this is the nature of academic debate. A participant either wins or loses, like a sporting event. There is no middle ground and no gray area. I have more to say about this on the Debate vs. Dialogue page. I know that many politicians participated on their school debate teams. Maybe this is one reason why politics is so polarized and unable to find compromise — politicians are simply products of their academic training. Instead of acknowledging gray areas and seeking common ground, politics seems more about winners and losers. This is not only unhealthy, it might even be called sociopathic — a national emergency. Please read my ideas for moving competitive debate into new forms of competitive dialogue.
I’ve read hundreds of science fiction, spy fiction, law and mystery novels (Grisham, Silva, Flynn, Eisler, Clancy, Decker…) and understand how the world is getting smaller and how weaponry and intelligence gathering is getting more pervasive and dangerous. We now have the tools to destroy all human life, and no weapon has ever been invented that wasn’t eventually used. It seems if we don’t find ways reduce our political identities and increase our collaboration as a “human family,” there is a high probability that we will destroy ourselves. I think we need to start moving towards a new political environment of dialogue rather than two political parties becoming further entrenched into a hardening stalemate.
Towards this goal, we need to reform the idea of political and academic debate into something less polarizing and more inclusive. If competitive dialogue can begin to replace old forms of debate, we will allow more voices and ideas to collaborate and develop shared identity. If we fail, the world may continue to become more fragmented, suspicious and dangerous. I’ve traveled to fifteen countries on three continents and realize that people are generally the same everywhere (more about me). We must assume better of others in working towards common understandings, transforming polarized conflict (debate) into cooperation (sustained dialogue).
In “Parliamentary” debate format, similar to our own U.S. Congress, scoring political points is often more important than compromising towards a solution. I observe this uncivil attitude in popular media as well, where identity becomes more about our political differences than our common humanity. In debate, as in politics, we see others as opponents and use “selective listening” that ignores their strengths while focusing on their weakest points. Even the French root word of debate (“debatre”) means to fight. Political debate seems to spend most of its time making the other party look bad, punching for a “knock out” rather than searching for collaborations that benefit all.
In dialogue, we try to temporarily suspend our own (limited) beliefs in order to fully consider other ideas. Dialogue begins with a mutual agreement to give all ideas ample attention. All parties in dialogue must see each other as colleagues — as equals in search of common ground. Just as in debate, there are rules, but the rules of dialogue are different (see below). Debate unleashes the creativity of individual performance, whereas dialogue unites the combined creativity of all participants. Pearl S. Buck said ““Self-expression must pass into communication for its fulfillment.”” Humanity will never be “fulfilled” until we move our politics from debate into communication. Please review my ongoing ideas for competitive dialogue and other new forensic models.
The following debate/dialogue comparisons are compiled from the work of William Isaacs, Shelly Berman, Peter Senge, Daniel Yankelovich, Nancy Klein, David Bohm, Leonard Swidler, John Rymers, Richard Gunderman and Pat Washburn:
Dialogue listens for strengths so as to affirm and learn
Debate listens for weaknesses so as to discount and devalue
Dialogue assumes that many people have pieces of answers and that cooperation can lead to a greater understanding.
Debate assumes a single right answer that somebody already has.
The goal of dialogue is increased understanding of myself and others
The goal of debate is the successful argument of my position over that of my opponent
In dialogue, I speak for myself from my own understanding and experience
In debate, I speak based on assumptions made about others’ positions and motivations
Dialogue allows others to complete their communications
Debate interrupts or manipulates the subject
Dialogue concentrates on others’ words and feelings
Debate focuses on its next point
Dialogue accepts others’ experiences as real and valid for them
Debate critiques others’ experiences as distorted or invalid
Dialogue allows the expression of real feelings (in myself and others) for understanding and catharsis.
Debate expresses feelings to manipulate others and denies others’ feelings as legitimate.
Dialogue creates an open-minded attitude, an openness to being wrong and an openness to change.
Debate creates a close-minded attitude, a determination to be right.
In dialogue, one submits ones best thinking, expecting that other people’s reflections will help improve it rather than threaten it.
In debate one submits one’s best thinking and defends it against challenge to show that it is right.
Dialogue calls for temporarily suspending of one’s beliefs.
Debate calls for investing wholeheartedly in one’s beliefs.
Dialogue respects all participants and seeks not to alienate or offend.
Debate rebuts contrary positions and may belittle or deprecate other participants.
Dialogue causes introspection on one’s own position.
Debate causes critique of the other position.
Dialogue opens the possibility of reaching a better solution than any of the original solutions.
Debate defends ones own position as the best solution and excludes other solutions.
Dialogue listens to understand, find meaning and agreement
Debate listens to find flaws and make counterarguments.
Dialogue admits that others’ thinking can improve on one’s own
Debate defends one’s own views against those of others
Dialogue is collaborative: participants work together toward common understanding.
Debate is combative: participants attempt to prove the other side wrong.
Dialogue is about discovering new options, not seeking closure.
Debate seeks a conclusion or vote that ratifies your position.
Dialogue is about exploring common ground.
Debate is about winning.
Dialogue aims to enlighten – Debate aims to defeat
Dialogue honors silence – Debate uses silence to gain advantage
Dialogue generates light – Debate generates heat
Dialogue is collaborative – Debate is oppositional
Dialogue enlarges perspective – Debate affirms perspective
Dialogue searches for agreement – Debate searches for differences
Dialogue causes introspection – Debate causes critique
Dialogue looks for strengths – Debate looks for weaknesses
Dialogue re-evaluates assumptions – Debate defends assumptions
Dialogue listens for meaning – Debate listens in order to counter
Dialogue remains open-ended – Debate implies a conclusion
Dialogue is divergent – Debate is convergent
Dialogue is about speaking with – Debate is about speaking to
Dialogue encourages reflection – Debate encourages quick thinking
Dialogue encourages emergence – Debate encourages lock-in