Monday, December 3, 2012

Making Your Case? Everything Counts

At a high school debate competition, kids barely old enough to drive, drink or vote argue in teams about the finer points of morality and public policy. One of them is my daughter.

It's interesting to see the different ways people justify an argument and how well those are received. It's noteworthy that each type of argument will likely appeal to a different personal mindset or culture. 

  • The logical types avoided judging right and wrong and merely related a possible course of action to its likely outcome. Clearly to the judges - I think they were academics - these kids were the stars. But what scared me as a regular person was the elegance of the argument combined with the completely morally absent nature of its potential conclusions - e.g., "Who am I to say who's a terrorist?" (Think about the Nazis, the Taliban, etc. and their "logic".)
  • The G-d talkers had a very straightforward view of right and wrong. They compared a possible course of action to what G-d would say about it in their estimation and in simple terms. For example, "Greed is not what G-d wants." I found myself uplifted by their faith but not convinced unless my personal conscience said the same thing as theirs. 
  • The practical ones took a straightforward, common-sense approach to issues by presenting what most people would agree with morally ("racism is horrible") and then comparing the cost of action with the likelihood of its having an impact: ("It's really hard to change people's beliefs and ideally we would all want racial bias to go away, we have to do as much as possible to do that, but there's only so much we can do and we have to do that to the best of our ability.") I was not sure what that would translate into in practice, but I found myself simply agreeing - especially since that last one was my daughter (so yes, doesn't personal bias always play a role no matter how hard we try to be objective?)

Another was to take away some communication lessons about argument style.
  • Fluidity of mind matters. It is so important to be skilled in mode of argument - to be able to go from logic, to spirituality, to practicality when it is appropriate. To never let your mind be fixed in one mode.
  • Good talkers are impressive. Even if what they say makes no sense.
  • People also notice when you do your research rather than just pulling straws out of the air. When one kid talked about the origins of the Taliban, and another one talked about the ecosystem in Alaska, it wasn't only the facts they shared but also the fact that they had bothered to research that facts that served as a wow factor.
  • Teamwork is impressive. To see the kids passing notes back and forth and helping each other build on the argument makes you have confidence in the team. Conversely to see one kid interrupt another kid to make a point - even if trying to be helpful - looks rough and uncoordinated. (Also noticeable was how freely the groups agreed with each other and how it was routine for them to genuinely congratulate the other side when the round was completed.)
  • The entertainment factor. Your argument may not be fully "there," but if you are comfortable onstage and make your remarks into a little bit of a show, the audience thinks you know what you are talking about and will give you more credit than they otherwise would. 
  • Symbolism counts. In the example of practical reasoning above, it was my daughter - a white Jewish girl - talking about racism before a competitor team that was entirely African-American. And all of their parents were in the room. Would she be seen as having a right to speak? But I was stunned - as she spoke - three of the competitor team's parents were nodding in agreement. Which brings me to the next point.
  • Sincerity. When you obviously want to do the right thing people know it no matter what differences may seem to separate you.
So there they were this weekend, our kids - different religions, different genders, different cultures, different skin colors and different economic classes. And they were all together. 

To be honest I felt a sense of relief watching them. We "old people" don't have to solve all the world's problems for kids. We just have to know when it's time to get out of the way.