Debate can take you nearly anywhere. Places you never imagined you could go.
Sometimes, places you wish you’d never found—places like media outlets dedicated to disseminating white supremacist ideologies.
For the last year, my research interests, background in debate, and generally antagonistic personality have brought me deep into the world of “bloodsport debating,” a style of unstructured, polemic debate practiced by the white supremacist far-right. By arguing amongst themselves, the right has created the aesthetic of flourishing political discourse while never straying too far from their core belief that the composition of a nation must be carefully curated and maintained.
A significant contingent of the left has rejected the political utility of debating those who hold such abhorrent views—a feeling I suspect is tied to an understanding of debate that is the most pedantic, elitist version possible. Such a case was recently made in an article by English feminist author Laurie Penny, who collapsed all forms of debate into “the way [she] was taught to do it at [her] posh school,” and “fundamentally an intellectual dick-smacking contest dressed up in institutional lingerie, and while there are plenty of women out there who can unzip their enormous brains and thwack them on the table with the best of them, the formula is catastrophically macho.” Yikes. That’s a link.
Most of us recognize that form of debate, primarily practiced by very online avatars, but it’s far from the only kind that exists. Policy debate presents us with an argumentative training ground that isn’t just about logic, but about persuasion more broadly. In a recent piece in Current Affairs, Nathan Robinson explains that “‘debate’ is not strictly a contest of logical argumentation; it is a contest of persuasion, and the strict presentation of factual arguments and conclusions is only one of the ways in which this occurs.” The most valuable aspect of policy debate is its uncertainty and ability to accommodate diverse intellectual tactics, putting everything from the audience to the argument style to the very definition of winning and losing up for re/interpretation.
Understanding debate holistically is critical for real-world advocacy. One significant reason white supremacists win the public relations war with the majority of civically-minded citizens is that they tend to the audience rather than beating someone over the head with the most correct and logical information. Any debater who has been caught with an unsympathetic judge in the back of the room knows that if your audience doesn’t have the intellectual tools or frame of mind to understand your argument, you may as well have never made it. White supremacists excel at speaking to the audience instead of the facts, tapping into the “common-sense” racism most Americans feel. Rather than allowing this to lead us to the conclusion debate is impossible, we should redouble our commitment to strategizing around the audience and truth, instead of hoping the truth will speak for itself.
Some readers may now be wondering, “Why bother?” The answer is simple. At some point, you aren’t just refusing to debate—you’re also refusing to persuade. The hesitation around this kind of engagement, Robinson argues, has tangible consequences:
“There’s something that sounds faintly dirty about encouraging people to think beyond purely rational forms of persuasion. But it’s that refusal to get one’s hands dirty with rhetoric that is the problem, not the willingness to use language rather than physical force as one’s chief political weapon. The choice is not necessarily between “trying to reason logically with the other side” and “engaging in violent struggle.” It could also be that for progressives, persuasion is usually best effected neither through violence nor formal deductive reasoning, but through effective messaging, telling people things that actually get them to support your politics. In other words, it’s not just what you say, but how you say it and who you are.”
I have been met with my fair share of suspicion and horror for engaging white supremacists in their spaces but am no less convinced of its importance. It’s not true that, as the refrain goes, “There’s just no debating white supremacy” or “We can’t debate over people’s humanity.” Those debates are already occurring, with or without us, in well-funded spaces and highly publicized platforms all over the world. Of course, any engagement must be careful to avoid amplifying or strengthening white supremacy’s public platform, but the fight for liberation and justice requires walking into deeply immoral spaces and hijacking them with better arguments and the kind of credibility that you can only build through repeated exposure and thoughtful consideration of your audience.
After all, white supremacy is not simply immoral in the abstract—it’s immoral because it’s a terrible argument whose backing falls apart with even the slightest application of scrutiny. Articulating those embarrassing gaps in white supremacy’s logic strengthens people’s convictions against it and empowers them to tackle those arguments in their daily life. Debate certainly can’t save us on its own (and we should not all run out to debate every random racist on the internet), but it is one important tool in the Big Box of Tactics because you lose 100% of the flows you drop.
When persuading people to turn away from the alt-right, I rely on four main lessons from my time in policy debate. While other forms of debate are wonderful for teaching public speaking skills or introducing someone to a civil or traditional method of argumentation, there’s nothing quite like this activity.
Lesson 1: “Framework Makes the Game Work”
Anyone who has debated in the Southeast in the last decade has heard Erik Mathis repeat this phrase, though I was far less appreciative of it as a competitor. The process of moving through a debate round teaches us that, no matter what you choose to do with your life, you will have far too little time to do it. The further you get into a career or a doctoral program, the more you have to make difficult choices about where to spend your time building depth at the exclusion of something else.
Given these temporal constraints, framework provides an argument about what information the audience should dedicate their time to evaluating. In other words, framework controls the rubric for what it means to win.
When it comes to debating white supremacists, the stakes can feel exceptionally high if “losing” means more people walk away believing in the elevated humanity of whiteness. Reworking a debate to be about something else—like the ethics of even allowing white supremacists to advocate for their position when it is not cogent enough to meet even a basic burden of proof—sets the bar higher and changes how people are approaching the question as they evaluate the arguments.
Lesson 2: Know Your Opponents Argument Better Than They Do
If there’s one thing that sets policy debate apart from every other activity, it’s the depth of research. From deep, two-sided research emerges “round vision,” or the ability to predict an opponent’s available strategic options in their last speech before the debate even begins. Those new to debate will often get caught up in the logical minutia of something that can be easily conceded in favor of ten new, late-breaking examples that can’t all be adequately examined. A deep understanding of what your opponent believes is the single best predictor of how persuasively you can preempt their positions.
For example, many on the right have begun to cite a recent academic “hoax” wherein people spent a year attempting (and mostly failing) to publish outrageous fake articles in feminist studies journals. There are a host of reasons why this hoax is not a sufficient indictment of entire academic departments, but anyone that invested in delegitimizing research that undermines power will quickly turn to hyperbolic examples about professors or graduate students that spoke too candidly about whiteness, or masculinity, or colonialism on Twitter. It’s far more powerful to indict evidence in the broader context of your opponent’s worldview—especially if you can explain their arguments and ridiculous examples before they do.
Lesson 3: Truth and Tech Matter Differently
Hillary Clinton may have won the flow in every presidential debate against Donald Trump, but a disproportionately powerful minority of people saw her as a loser. As she prattled off policy details and encouraged people to seek out live fact-checking websites, Trump accused her of starting ISIS and paraded in women who had accused her husband of sexual misconduct. The audience, with no idea how to compare those two things, defaulted to whoever and whatever they trusted before the debates began.
Knowing your opposition’s content is important, but so is knowing their form. A bombastic persuasion style must be met with something equally invested in emotional connection while also seeking the upper hand in credibility. A highly technical, civility-minded opponent requires a more controlled style that tackles precision with more accessible, but still truthful, explanations. Advocates find ourselves faced with every kind of interlocuter, and nothing teaches you to adapt your explanations to the setting quite like approaching the same topic 50 different ways with different opponents and audiences each time.
Lesson 4: Research, Test, Clash
As Wisconsin’s own Assistant Director Jordan Foley always reminds me, “You can’t beat the game in one night.” Debate is an iterative process of persuasion that can’t be reduced to even the most impressively and thoroughly researched files. Creating a persuasive message requires taking research and testing it by clashing against those who hold other perspectives. Things that seem obviously persuasive in your own head or friend group may have no resonance whatsoever with those outside of it. There’s no better way to figure out what is convincing than to try to convince people, failing, and reworking your arguments until you break through.
Clash also provides the opportunity to attack weak arguments—I truly cannot overstate the impact of the phrase “Can you point to a line in the study that says that?” in front an audience who has never seen their intellectual icons pushed to prove they are characterizing evidence fairly.
Debate will take you to places you never imagined, and to some you’ve surely been eyeing since you began your educational lives. No matter where you wind up, debate will have taught you a core set of lessons about how to persuade people, and what they can (and can’t) be persuaded of in any given context.
By the end of your career, you will have spent years training yourself in a particular style of argumentation. You will take what you've learned out of the often-cruel world of competitive debate and into a much crueler world that you will find yourself desperate to change. Along the way, persuasion will be a critical part of asking for help, building a base, and making real forward movement.
Growing into an advocate is a lifelong process of honing and sharpening and adjusting our tactics. As debaters, we have something necessary (but not sufficient) to spur change—good or bad. With those skills in mind, where will debate take you?
CV is the Director of Debate at the University of Wisconsin--Madison and a doctoral candidate in the department of Communication Arts. They study institutional use of genetic data and human taxonomies in political discourse.