It's gotta be the jacket!
Yet, despite that, or perhaps because of it, some of my best memories of high school focus on that team. There was, of course, our freakishly sarcastic coach Mr. N, who could quote Kafka and Spock with equal facility. There was the team-mate we called "Stimpy" who once won the "Disgusting Noise Award" at the annual Halloween tourney by belching "I am Satan." If you've never heard what this sounds like, you've led a deprived, but far less depraved, life. There were roadtrips lasting hours that found four or five of us crammed into the cab of Mr. N's tiny Isuzu pickup truck. There was the infamous trip when my oldest and dearest friend acquired the rather unusual nickname, "the Teal Delgado." There was that bizarre superstition where my team-mates had to rub my sportcoat for luck before we split up for our events (When I started winning tourneys in my senior year after an eight-year hiatus for our entire team, the logical conclusion was that it was the result of my rather unusual suede jacket). There was everyone's favorite hypothetical criminal "Skippy the Wonder Punk," and a debater who seemed unable to get through an entire meet without once mentioning Vince Lombardy. There was our team battlecry, "Onward to mediocrity!" And, of course, there was my own dear nickname "Pitbull," born when my coach remarked to a new team-member, "Drek isn't really a very creative debater, but he'll find a flaw in your argument and latch on like a pitbull." Readers of this blog are no doubt already aware of my lack of creativity, and my tendency to be stubborn to the point of absurdity.
Despite the common perception, though, debate isn't actually a single event. We don't all stand at podiums and argue politiely. (As it happens, a team from the southern end of my state became notorious for mooning the judges, but I digress...) Oh, we do that too, it's called Lincoln-Douglas debate (becuase it's styled after the oratory contests between President Lincoln and his opponent Douglas), but we do a lot of other stuff as well. We have the dramaticists, who alternate between presenting poetry and acting out short scenes. We have the team-debaters, who engage in what could best be called a tag-team Lincoln-Douglas match. We have the extemporaneous speakers, or extempers, who only learn what their topic is approximately ten minutes before they have to deliver their speech. Yeah, ten minutes to prepare a five to fifteen minute talk. The slow-witted need not apply. Finally, we have the student congress wonks, who carry out entire matches in the guise of sessions of Congress, complete with Robert's Rules of Order, and bills submitted before the match (although you only learn the title of the bills in advance, the text remains unknown until the event begins, which really cuts into your prep time).
I specialized in student congress and, personally, think it was one of the most useful events I could have participated in. To understand why, you need to understand how it worked. While the winners, and losers, in other events were determined by a set of judges, the winners in student congress are determined solely by the competitors. The judges only duty is to nominate people as the best speakers for a given session; the event participants vote to determine which of the nominees will win the session and, eventually, the tournament. As a consequence, you have to be a good enough speaker to be nominated by the judges, but be well enough liked to win votes. If you're liked, but can't speak, you lose. If you can speak, but aren't liked, you lose. This introduces a rather interesting element into the event- an element we called "Schmoozing."
That was a big letdown, wasn't it? You were really hoping for some technical term, weren't you? Well, never let it be said that I satisfy my readers' expectations.
The rules of student congress introduced a strong social aspect into the matches. After arriving at a tourney hotel (Usually you'd arrive on a friday night and spend one or two days debating), when most debaters were busy reviewing notes, or practicing dramatic readings, the congress people would be out prowling the halls looking for other congress people to make nice with. Many an evening at tourneys was spent sitting in the hot-tub with other congress people trying to be as friendly as possible. (Perhaps what makes this so amusing for me is, despite that fact that I attended public school, we competed in the National Catholic Forensic League, or NCFL. If the nuns that ran our league only knew how much coeducational hot-tubbing they were facilitating.) For those of you who know me, I can understand your amazement that this was my event, much less that I ever won anything, since I'm really not that friendly. You're right, I'm not that friendly, I just don't like to lose. Fun as all this may sound, though, it was a considerable amount of work.
As I, and other, congress people discovered, beating someone is easy. It's always possible to find some bit of information, or twist of an argument, that takes apart your opponent's point. The challenge in congress, unlike the other events, wasn't beating your opponent. The challenge was beating them and making them like it in the process.
It was this difficult catch that, I think, was the most useful part of student congress. This is simply because it more accurately reflects what you have to do, day in and day out, in real life. Let me ask you this: if you're arguing with your spouse, do you want to beat them at all costs, no matter how hurtful you may be in the process? Well, depending on how angry you are, you might WANT to do just that, but in all likelihood you will hold back because beating them may not be worth the cost. Similarly, if you're in a meeting at work and you absolutely oppose a particular course of action, is it worth insulting your boss and making your coworkers look silly in order to counter that plan? Maybe, but the odds are against it. When the argument is over you still have to work with, and for, those people and burning bridges won't help you in the long run. In all of these situations the key is to beat your opponent, make them see your logic and ideally agree with it, but do so in a way that they can accept. Sound easy? Try it.
The hard part about it is that nobody likes to lose an argument, or back down, or lose face. We all want to believe that we are correct in what we say and fair in the way that we say it. Perhaps I could present an argument that would convince you that you were in the wrong, but are you immediately going to feel an outpouring of sorrow and apologize to me? Sure! Right after you grow wings and fly to the moon.
No, people don't tend to own up to their mistakes, at least not right away, even if they know they're wrong. It's humiliating to be wrong, doubly so if someone else knows it, and triply so if they knew if before you did. The fact that they had to convince you of that fact in the first place doesn't help in the slightest. So what good does continuing to push an argument do? You might prove to some invisible audience, beyond any doubt, that you're right and your opponent is wrong, but in the process you are driving the other person into a corner from which they have no choice but to either stick to their guns or make an utterly humiliating surrender. Which do you think most people pick?
The key to beating someone and making them like it is to leave them an out. The key is to allow them to plead ignorance, or misunderstanding, or to concede that some of their points were good but that you think they'll make more sense combined in a new way. Sometimes it can be as easy as directing your criticisms at the ideas, instead of the person, and refraining from calling them names. It can be as easy as just not raising your voice. For the most part it's simple things like that. The hard part is remembering to DO those things for the other person when you're in the heat of battle. That's what made student congress hard, and it is likewise what often makes life so hard.
So, why did I decide to talk about this today? Well, I'll tell you this, it wasn't because after yesterday's lengthy post, I didn't have the energy to do anything but vomit out old debate stories. No,that wasn't it at all. It also wasn't because I savor the irony of ME telling YOU to moderate your language. Nope, that isn't ironic in the slightest. I talk about it because I think it's a lesson that everyone needs to hear now and then, and we liberals especially.
We like to think of ourselves over here on the left as enlightened, but the truth is that the conservatives feel the same way about their positions. Their fervor over school prayer and a right-to-life is matched by out dedication to arresting inequality, and preserving a woman's right to choose. So, how do we react when they tell us that we're amoral and corrupt? Right. Not well. So, how do you think they feel when we act like we have a monopoly on morality and good intentions? Right. No better. There is a place for fervent debate, especially in politics and especially in an election year, but ultimately the American electoral system doesn't rely on extremism. This isn't a parliamentary system where you can be as radical and inflammatory as you like and still get seats. Here, moderation is the rule- it's also the reason why many complain that the Democrats and the Republicans aren't all that different. It's true, the Elephant and the Ass have more in common than not, but it isn't because of a failure of leadership, it's just the way our electoral system functions.
Moderation, though, doesn't mean you can't have issues. It doesn't mean that by a longshot, and there's no reason why the pressures towards moderation have to drive out real policy differences. They key, folks, is to remember that we don't have to beat the other guys: we have to beat them and make them like it. Much as I enjoy Michael Moore's work (And I do) he's terrible at this. His missives are so strong, they are actually insulting to folks on the other side of the issue. If you agree with him already, what he speaks is the pure gospel truth. If you don't agree with him, then he leaves you no room to change your positions without conceding that you were stupid. That can be a problem. There's a place for Moore's brand of activism, and I applaud his efforts, but if the only way you advance your case is with righteous indignation, you're doing yourself more harm than good.
As we gear up for what looks to be one of the most bitterly divisive elections since the Civil War, we would all do well to remember that when the dust settles and the votes are counted, we all have to live in the same country still.
Let's go out there and beat Bush, but let's make sure we don't beat ourselves in the process.