September 12, 2007

What Debate Teaches About How To Deal With Life’s Disadvantages

Posted in Personal at 11:30 pm by Caleb Winn

Why Debate?

I have been involved in competitive speech and debate (”forensics”) for 9 years, since I took an Introduction to Speech and Debate camp in the fall of 1998. It has dramatically shaped the way that I think, and the way that I communicate. Speech and debate teach a lot about thinking, a lot about communication, and perhaps most importantly, a lot about the relationship between the two.

This has a lot of implications, not only for the academic game of debate, but for life. Beyond the obvious conclusion that it’s good to know how to speak in public, I’ve given little conscious thought to the lessons that competitive debate might have to offer. But I think that there is a lot to learn from forensics beyond how to make eye contact, and why a counterplan has to be mutually exclusive.

Unfortunately, many of the life lessons that I might draw from debate will be of little use to those who do not have some experience in the activity. So in order to explain myself, I’ll go through a little bit of basic debate theory, explaining how arguments work in forensics in order to better understand how they work in the real world. Please bear with me, and if I become incomprehensible to non-debaters, feel free to leave me a comment or email me and I will try to revise and clarify until it makes sense.

How To Make A Disadvantage

In competitive policy debate, both sides attempt to build their case by looking at the pros and cons of the proposed change. The affirmative team argues that their plan will create positive “Advantages,” while the negative insists that it will bring about severe “Disadvantages.” For the sake of simplicity, I’ll focus solely on the Disadvantages of the case, which are presented by the Negative team.

These arguments “link” the plan to a factual result, which is then assigned a negative “impact”. It works a little bit like a syllogism:

A (”Plan”) => B (”Link”)

B (”Link”) => C (”Impact”)

A (”Plan”) => C (”Impact”)

For example, the negative team wants to convince the judge that the plan is a bad idea, so they will run a “Disadvantage” about the economy. They argue that:

A. “the plan increases environmental regulations;

B. this will decrease residential construction by 30% (factual ‘link’);

C. this is bad because it will weaken the economy, increasing poverty and lowering the quality of life of the American people (evaluative ‘impact’).”

All of these connections are necessary to constructing an argument. If the plan doesn’t decrease residential construction, there’s no reason to vote against no matter how important residential construction is to the economy overall. If the plan decreases residential construction, but that doesn’t hurt the economy, then there is once again no reason to reject it. The plan has to link to the impact in order for the argument to be persuasive.

How To Respond To An Argument.

When it comes to responding to a disadvantage, there are basically three responses that can be made, either individually or in conjunction with one another. You can:

  1. Attack the link.
  2. Attack the impact.
  3. Grant the argument, and outweigh it.

1. The first approach is to attack the link-level. You can “no link” the argument, by claiming that it is simply untrue. In this context, you would say, “or plan will have no impact on residential housing.” You can also “link turn” the argument, by arguing that your plan would actually do the opposite of what the negative claims. So if the negative says that your plan would decrease construction, you would argue that it would actually increase construction. If less construction is bad, then more construction is good! By Turning the link, you’ve made their disadvantage into an advantage of your case.

2. You can also attack the argument on the impact level, by running a “no impact” or an “impact turn.” Here, you might agree that your plan will decrease residential construction, but insist that it will have no impact on the economy, or even that it will cause the economy to grow. (You could even argue that economic growth is a bad thing, if you wanted to get all wild and crazy about it.) These would be examples of impact-level arguments.

3. The third response is probably not as strategically useful within the debate round, but I think it may be the most realistic argument to be made. Basically, you admit that what the other team is saying is true, but argue that other factors are more important. For example, the affirmative might agree that their plan will hurt the economy, but insist that the benefit to the environment is far more important than the economic impact.

The Disadvantages of Life

It strikes me that this is an interesting metaphor for how we deal with challenges in real life. We are constantly confronted with challenges and disappointments. We are always taking account of our external circumstances (”links”) and evaluating them (”impacts”). As a simple case study, let’s say that life’s “Disadvantage” is that “I have little money, which is bad because I cannot buy nice things.”

In response, we can:

1. Attack the link. Since it’s generally a bad idea to live in a state of denial, the best way to go about this is to try to change the factual circumstances of our lives. If my problem is that I have no money, which keeps me from buying nice things, one solution is to get more money. This is a no-brainer, but sometimes it is simply not possible. For good or for ill, we can’t always control our external circumstances.

2. Attack the impact. Perhaps we cannot change our circumstances, but we can still change how we evaluate those circumstances. Even if we can’t earn more money, we can change how we think about that fact. We can try to convince ourselves that poverty is not bad (”no impact”), because there are lots of nice things that do not require money. We might even come to believe that it is a blessing (”impact turn”) because it allows us to focus on that which is truly important, and not be distracted by shiny baubles.

3. Grant, and outweigh. Sometimes external circumstances just suck, and there’s no way we can no-link or no-impact our way out of them. To the person who has lost a loved one to cancer, the external circumstances are far beyond human control, and the emotional impact is undeniably negative. All we can do is accept reality and find comfort in the fact that other factors outweigh our present pain.

This third strategy is far more powerful in real life than it is in debate. In a debate round, it’s hard to weigh economic impacts against environmental impacts. Nothing can be concretely quantified, and so much is subjective. But in life, the promise of eternal life is so far greater than any temporary pain that the comparison is clear. When there is no resolution to a problem, when no amount of thought or action can bring about positive change, then the ability to focus on other, more positive factors can bring peace.

The Power of Distraction

This is important because when there is no way to resolve the problem, continuing to focus on it is really counter-productive. The more we think about it, the more it will dominate our perspective, and the less we will be able to function with a healthy and robust view of our lives overall. The inability to accept unhappy circumstances and “get over it” is dangerous, as it creates an obsessive cycle that impairs our ability to see the good through the bad.

This has led me to appreciate the power of distraction. When God gives us a problem that is unresolvable, He also gives us the grace to ignore it, and to focus on other things. Whether we turn our thoughts to work, friendships, cathartic stories, or academics, these distractions help us break out of an obsessive cycle of negative self-reflection.

I suppose that various distractions have different values for different people. Some people can lose themselves in their work, while others would only be frustrated even more. Some people find academics engaging, but others would simply be bored. Regardless of how we distract ourselves, it is important to have an activity that can engage our minds and hearts to distract us from the Disadvantages of life.

Along these lines, I think that reflection on the grace of God can be an enormous source of comfort. The Word of God offers more than mere distraction; it offers Hope. We have an infinite, eternal Hope that outweighs any and all finite, temporal suffering. When we cannot change our circumstances, and we cannot accept our circumstances, we still have the blessing of being able to place those in a far greater context, and to realize how small our current pain is in light of the eternal joy that awaits those who are in Christ.


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