Recently, there have been many conversations in our community related to uncomfortable subjects such as the nature of gun violence, racial privilege, acts of terrorism, and racism. Although we acknowledge the existence of these issues and to some extent talk about them, those discussions usually don’t progress beyond our regular social circles or past social media activism — tweets, shares, likes.
Obviously, there are reasons behind this “safe” way in which we regularly tend to approach social issues — including a culture of conflict aversion and an avoidance of microaggression. The unintended consequence is that many people become hesitant about sharing their views in fear of accusations of ignorance, racism, or of playing the race card.
When I first joined debate, it didn’t seem anything more than a senseless word crossfire for people who love to win arguments so much that they created a sport out of it. However, upon attending my first tournament, I came to appreciate it more.
Generally, debate is not necessarily separate from basic college expectations: You need to be well-read, and to speak (or write) eloquently. However, debate takes this a step further.
In a British Parliamentary debate tournament (a format we practice at UR), you can debate almost any subject in existence — from allowing marginalized institutions to practice respectability politics, to giving white supremacists legal representation. From legalizing sex work to allowing the creation of Savior Siblings and curbing assortative mating. In all these topics, two things almost always happen. First, you are placed in a position to think critically about issues and present a nuanced perspective on them in a very short timespan (15 minutes to be exact). Second, you have to objectively respond to an opponent in a sensible, equitable manner regardless of your actual stance on the topic.
During this process, in order to create the best arguments possible, the burden is to think in the shoes of the side you represent. This has a multifaceted impact. It creates room for you to engage objectively and factually without resorting to emotion whenever you hear something that you find remotely preposterous. It also enables you to sympathize and understand opinions before reacting to them.
If our society used this model to deal with real issues, it would help society understand contentious topics, such as why some groups feel sensitive to gun violence, why black people would prefer that you ask before you touch their hair, and whether affirmative action can work and why.
“So, like, should every class be a debate round?” you might ask. No, that’s not what I’m saying (even though as a debater, I think that would actually be dope). But the first step here is to create safe spaces such as regular public debates, town halls, and socials. Places where people are grouped into teams and randomly assigned different sides of a topic to debate. These can be weekly, monthly, etc. Among other things, these spaces will create dialogue and nurture an environment and culture of approaching uncomfortable issues objectively. These will be spaces where people will not be afraid to speak up out of fear of being labeled or discriminated against because of their opinions.
The point here is not to come to an agreement about social issues. The point is to develop the skill of empathy and understanding toward unfamiliar opinions and to educate ourselves through a constant exchange of views and perspectives.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” This is what debate teaches you to do. I think the point at which we are able to achieve this is the point at which we move toward social harmony, understanding, and empathy. And although debate is not the single solution to social issues, it is definitely a huge step toward it.