Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The end of debate

As a debate coach I feel a certain irony in saying that sometimes there is no point in debating something, but in the “real world,” if that’s the right term, there often is no point to debate.  I would not say this about academic debate, which does not require a point, other than winning.  Academic debate is not a search for truth, but a sport, a sort of boxing match in which each side pummels the other with “facts” and “evidence,” and a judge then decides who did this with the most facility. There is never an epiphany on one side, in which a debater sees the wisdom of the opponent, in fact that would constitute a loss for the agreeing side.

The problem is that the academic debate approach, the endless repetition of positions, is the default mode in public discussion as well. Let’s take the current debate on gun control. Below is an exchange on the subject using the arguments we are hearing in the news, as they might be expressed in one of the popular debate events, such as Lincoln-Douglas or Public Forum, starting with a resolution, followed by a back and forth between the Affirmative (Aff) and Negative (Neg):

Resolved: In light of recent mass shootings using automatic weapons with high capacity ammunition clips, combat weaponry should be banned from civilian use.

Aff: There is no legitimate purpose in civilian life for automatic weapons.

Neg: These weapons will find their way into the hands of criminals and insane people with or without laws against them. Civilians need these weapons to combat those who obtain them illegally.

Aff: That is the role of police and military forces, not civilians.

Neg: The founders wrote the Second Amendment to make sure the population has the right to bear arms. Restricting assault weapons is the first step in a slippery slope leading to a total prohibition against all guns. The larger question is protection of freedom.

Aff: We are not talking about restricting all firearms. People would still have the right to arm themselves both for personal protection and for recreational uses such as hunting.

Neg: The ultimate purpose, however, is to ban all firearms from the population.

Aff: No it isn’t.

Neg: Yes it is.

Aff: No it isn’t.

Neg: Yes it is.


Of course the last four statements would not be made, but their equivalents would. There is no end to the debate. There is not supposed to be an end. The two sides “debate” essentially for an implied eternity.  Whereas academic debate forces a closure at the end of the round, at which point a judge rules- not on who is right, but who debated most skillfully- in “real life,” the debate is endless and, often, pointless.

The debate on gun control has reached the pointless point, not only because it’s at the “No it isn’t- Yes it is” level, but because the Neg, in this case the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its supporters are not debating. By this I mean that if the current national gun control debate were a formal academic debate at a high school tournament, the NRA would lose by virtue of its avoiding clash.

“Clash” is defined as the precise “hitting” of an opponent’s argument. So, for instance, if the Neg alleges that civilians need combat weaponry to protect against a hypothetical tyrannical government, the Aff could counter that internet carriers have already given up our right to mail privacy- one of the key steps towards a Big Brother state- and this loss of privacy happened in a country already inundated with personal arms, indicating that simple possession of weaponry does not in itself guarantee liberty. Such an Aff response would constitute clash, as it directly addresses the Neg point. If the Neg then responded by ignoring the point, which is in fact what the NRA does, then the judge would give the win to the Aff because it clashed and the Neg did not.

As an example let’s take a recent Tweet from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, that President Obama is “…coming for your guns!” This is McConnell's response to a number of reasoned arguments against combat weapons as domestic staples. I think we can agree there is no clash in the senator's comments, no reference to positions taken on the opposing side. Let's hope the general public is as observant to detail as the average parent/judge at a high school debate tournament, and can smell red herring from a distance.

So if there’s no point in debating gun control, what is left? The only thing that is left is strength and determination. This means that President Obama, in the aftermath of the defeat of his efforts to enact post-Sandy Hook gun control, must do more than argue against carte blanche civilian use of combat weaponry- he must use muscle to get his legislation passed. The arguments have all been made, and virtually no one on either side has been persuaded by the opposition. The debate is in fact over. Now it’s time to make something happen.

If the defeat in Congress of the President's Sandy Hook initiative is the end of his gun control effort- and that's the current impression- then the President's legacy will be not much more than soothing oratory.

If, however, the President uncharacteristically returns to the fray and prevails on gun control, and we have an opposition that is incensed and irreconcilable (deriving, likely, from both sides), the message to them should be: “If you don’t like restrictions on guns, move to Central Africa where you can enjoy urban warfare to your heart's content.”