It’s early on a Saturday morning, and I’ve been listening intently to a back-and-forth on whether the US government should increase its cooperation with NATO in the area of cybersecurity. The conversation has drifted from increased threats to civilian infrastructure by countries like Russia to NATO’s collaborative strategy in addressing cyber risk. Frankly, I’m struggling to keep up with the onslaught of arguments and evidence, but I know I owe it to the students in front of me to step up my listening game. I’m a college professor of rhetoric and supposedly skilled at this; the debaters are 12 years old and novices at a Boston Debate League (BDL) tournament.
The BDL, a nonprofit founded in 2005, partners with Boston, Chelsea, and Somerville public schools that don’t include debate among their extracurricular offerings and that have some of the highest percentages of English-language learners in the Boston area. Its flagship after-school debate program engages hundreds of debaters, some of whom are on Spanish-language teams, who face off at city-wide tournaments between October and March. Each year, all the leagues in the BDL circuit take on a resolution to be argued for or against. That might be whether or not the US government should enact criminal justice reforms in forensic science, policing, and/or sentencing, or whether or not the federal government should increase protections of domestic water resources. Every debate season culminates in the City Championship Finals. This year, they will be held at the Museum of Science.
I have been volunteering at the BDL for about seven years, and here is what I have not heard there: shouting, heckling, derogatory remarks, interrupting, or questioning the outcome of a debate. I have observed each of these things, and other even more lamentable anti-social behaviors, everywhere from the floor of Congress to President Biden’s recent State of the Union address to forums on Nextdoor, a neighborhood app.
At the most basic level, the BDL offers an antidote to the vitriol that increasingly pervades our public discourse. But it offers much more than that. The kids don’t just practice debate that is civil; they practice debate that is civic-minded, meaning that they respect both their subject matter and their audience, treating each with integrity and seeking to manipulate neither for the sake of winning. In other words, the BDL debaters practice good rhetoric.
What do I mean by good rhetoric? Not necessarily the skills we usually associate with public speaking: knowing how to deliver a speech charismatically, crafting your words artfully, playing into your audience’s feelings, and adjusting your content to their values. Rather, I’m talking about an attitude, a spirit in which the debate takes place. It is generous, open-hearted, vulnerable, and honest — qualities sorely lacking in many of the debates that play out in real life. If we want to save civic discourse, we’d do well to emulate the approach to rhetoric that is a hallmark of the BDL.
Let me explain.
The goal of rhetoric, Aristotle maintained in “The Art of Rhetoric,” is not simply to succeed in persuading, but to discover the means of coming as close to persuasion as circumstances allow. He explained this nuance by comparing rhetoric to medicine: Instead of promising to make every patient healthy (an impossibility), a doctor should focus on putting each one of his charges as far along as possible on the road to health. A good debate, then, should put the audience as close as possible to the truth, without manipulating the facts to score a point.
Winning is of course a goal of any debate. Most debate leagues advertise themselves as helping debaters win beyond the debate stage, too, like at the game of life — graduating from high school, getting into college, etc. The BDL is no exception, and an important goal of the organization is to close education gaps by increasing access to higher education.
The BDL teams like to win, too. They take debate seriously and devote an impressive amount of their time to it. Some are so keen to win, they might even lapse into “spreading” — the practice of speed-reading arguments, which contributes to the toxic and nonsensical nature of so much policy debate.
But the value of attending a BDL tournament extends beyond individual, team, and school wins. Debating at the BDL is a community practice, meaning that it honors above all the coming together of a diverse group to have conversations about topics that matter to all of us.
The kids debate in front of unpaid judges who are, for the most part, amateurs. They are college and graduate students attending for service learning (academia speak for course credit), professionals sent by their companies for community service, retirees looking for a meaningful way to give back and spend time in the community. No matter who they are, they most often feel uncomfortable (and unqualified) deciding who wins. And that’s a good thing.
Unlike the paid judges on the national circuit, who have been submerged in debate for years, these judges, like the students whose rhetoric they are evaluating, are not well versed in debate. This creates an environment in which everyone is learning, judges are listening carefully for the most persuasive arguments, and debaters are empowered to be themselves. BDL judges are explicitly instructed not to judge debaters’ delivery, but their arguments. This means that students with accents or difficulty with some pronunciations can practice their debate skills without fear of being unfairly judged. This isn’t the case in all extracurricular debate leagues, which typically draw students from better-resourced and less diverse schools.
One of the last times I judged at the BDL, the team arguing the pro side became so lost in their argument they almost forfeited their round. “Keep going,” I encouraged them. They didn’t seem convinced. Then, their opponents turned toward them and said, “We know what it’s like to first start debating. We were so lost too in the beginning. Why don’t you guys just listen to our arguments so you can get prepared for your next rounds?” In this kind of environment, losing is winning. It’s learning, listening, making friends with your opponents, feeling yourself part of something bigger.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could take a page from this playbook instead of the one we’ve been using?
Stephanie Byttebier teaches rhetoric at Boston University and does research on the benefits of service learning.