Bo Seo was 8 years old when his family moved from Korea to Australia. “I had a handful of English phrases and words, but I really didn’t speak the language,” said Seo. It was the rough-and-tumble of playground arguments that helped him begin to learn. “It was really disagreement that showed me how little of the language I understood and how limited my capacity for self-expression was.”
In “Good Arguments: How Debate Teaches Us to Listen and Be Heard” (Penguin Press), Seo describes finding debate as a shy and conflict-averse fifth grader, and details how the discipline could help us all communicate better, whether in personal or public life.
Now a resident tutor at Harvard, where he just finished his first year at law school, Seo has won two world championships as a debater. The discipline is one he believes in strongly. “It starts with self-expression and then reaches toward the other person,” he said. “When two people come together and they argue on a point, you hope where they end up is not to default to either position but to end up somewhere else. That seems like a kind of progress to me.”
Debate, he added, is helpful at a national and even global level. Sure, it’s about how we can settle disagreements, but “at the level above that it’s about, how do we deal with the fact that we’re different but that we have to co-exist.”
In a world flooded with misinformation and alternative facts, can debate still help us? “I struggle with it,” Seo said. “But having a citizenry that understands argument as a kind of a craft, I think that is a citizenry that is much more immune to the kind of abuses of language and of argument that we’re seeing at the moment.”
Ultimately, he said, “those things are important because human relationships are important. I think the animating concern is the health of democracies and of our civic culture.”
Bo Seo will read at 7 p.m. Tuesday in person at Brookline Booksmith.
Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at email@example.com.