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Perspective: The Debater’s Playbook

Listen, Exchange and Engage

September 30, 2022 – Reading daily headlines or watching news programs lately, it is easy to forget that it is completely acceptable to disagree. Yet, rather than exploring the various sides of critical issues and learning more about them, many people are quick to reject opposing viewpoints out of hand. So, it was with particular intrigue that I read a September Opinion piece in The New York Times titled “How to Argue Well,” where columnist Pamela Paul observed, “[w]e spend more time vilifying, undermining and nullifying those we disagree with than opening or changing their minds.”

What good is that, really?

Fortunately, Ms. Paul offers a suggestion – and a source of hope that I certainly believe in: “a little high school debate club might help.”

With a new high school debate season beginning this fall, thousands of students are preparing to lean into — rather than avoid — difficult policy and public interest subjects.  Indeed, when policy debaters approach the 2022-23 topic of security cooperation with NATO and emerging technologies, they won’t shy away from controversy as they advocate for a better path for our country’s elected officials, decision makers, and voters.

This process of digging deep into pressing issues, and researching tangible solutions, helps debaters learn to build a case. Perhaps more importantly, as students advocate for their particular stance, they must really listen to what their opponents have to say — and give a counterargument the response it deserves, if they hope to emerge victorious. Debaters across the Urban Debate Network routinely demonstrate that, while these conversations may occasionally be uncomfortable, it is highly beneficial to engage in purposeful arguments.

Ms. Paul’s article also references a new book by Bo Seo called “Good Arguments.” (Incidentally, NAUDL was recently introduced to Bo through our corporate partner, The Asia Group.) Bo is a two-time world champion debater and a dynamic advocate for good arguments, which, he argues, can help all of us to disagree better. Bo encourages the public to “disagree in such a way that the outcome of having the disagreement is better than not having it at all.” He understands that academic debate plays a critical role in teaching students how to manage disagreement constructively.

We all benefit by stepping out of our personal comfort zones to fully engage our human abilities to listen objectively, make logical assertions, and openly exchange ideas. A democratic society demands that its citizens engage in civil discourse on important issues. Debate teaches us how to develop and hone the skills necessary to solve problems collaboratively.

With the midterm elections rapidly approaching, our airways are sure to be filled with division. However, imagine the cultural progress we could make if more of us channeled our “inner debater” – and leaned constructively into better disagreements. Our league debaters take pride in presenting their best arguments, hearing their opponent’s objections, and then incorporating feedback from judges to make their cases even stronger for the next round. I hope that our leaders take a page from this playbook and commit to engaging in the arguments that will make a more harmonious society for all of us.

Rhonda Haynes
Executive Director

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