First Affirmative, Second Negative


I debated in high school. I was better than decent but not excellent. Debate was the activity that best prepared me for a competitive school.

When I got to campus, I discovered that my classmates–from fancy eastern boarding schools and superlative public schools in Shaker Heights–already had college credits. I was all like, “Whuh? You can do that?”

Who knew you could take some tests and walk in a semester ahead? Not me. There were plenty of things I didn’t know. Nobody in my family had been to sleep away college.

But I did place out of freshman comp, unlike 93% of my classmates. Because I debated. The frosh comp graders looked for clear structure and organization. I knew how to quickly form an argument, create an outline of support and evidence and deliver a conclusion that summed up.

Traditional high school debate is all about ideas. It works like this.

  1. Somebody #1 makes a case of ideas using a bunch of evidence that they cite, chapter and verse.
  2. Somebody #2, in the opposition, directly responds to the ideas of the first somebody. #2 answers #1’s ideas directly. All of them. Each of them. If they don’t directly respond to an idea, they lose that point. Evidence is key here, as well.
  3. Somebody #3 presents a case that fixes the issues that Somebody #1 identified at the start. Backed up with evidence. This evidence thing keeps coming up.
  4. Somebody #4 tears the case down. More evidence.
  5. They rebut the case and the case for the case in the same order. And they have to at least mention all the prior arguments. If not, Somebody #4 comes up and says to the judge, “The First Affirmative did not address the ideas of my partner so they all carry for us.” That’s always cool. You can totally win on that. We did. More than once.

So there is a structure and points and usually a definite winner and loser. Reputable evidence is key. Sometimes you’d win a point over a “fact and citation battle.” (I know, exciting, right? We didn’t call it that, but that’s what it was.) One year I had an evidence card that cited the NE Journal of Medicine. It was during a year with a law enforcement topic. Nobody else went to a medical journal. I won maybe five matches on that one highly destructive fact from a legit source. Boom!

This is not how presidential debates work. There are questions, but the answers don’t address the questions. There are right-turn pivots to a point the candidate would prefer to talk about. Dropped arguments litter the stage, nobody picks them up. Well, maybe the sad moderator tries to put them back in play. It’s futile.

And evidence? Definitely not required. And definitely not required to be sourced. Say what you want. Say it again. Interrupt. Make your same point. Be aggressive in the face of a contradiction. Introduce non-sequitur, ad hominem attacks on your opponent. Light the dumpster on fire.

I wish they would chose another name. It confuses me. This is not a discussion about ideas. This is not a debate. But there are winners and losers.


Interviews and Debates and Speeches, Oh My!

The ruby slippers as worn by Gov. Palin.Somebody needs to remind Alaska’s Governor Palin about the differences between an interview, a debate and a speech. Oh, well doggone it, I’ll do it.

Interview: This is a format in which a reporter asks questions and the interviewee answers them. The interviewee–in this case you, Gov. Palin–doesn’t get to choose the questions. That would be more like a town hall or Ask the WhiteHouse as hosted by the White House. Sometimes the questions might be a surprise and sometimes if you don’t answer the question or you try to “pivot,” the reporter tries to pin you down with a follow-up question. The reporter gets paid to get to new information. You shouldn’t be annoyed when they do their job and follow the structure of a standard interview rather than a Speech (see below).

Debate: Here is another one where the format is already known. In political debates, the first thing that happens is that there is alot of negotiations regarding whether the debators (the candidates) sit or stand, limits on time and engagement, and even topics. The campaigns also decide on debate moderators. All this happens weeks before your preparation begins. So, it’s important to know what the rules are in order to know what to expect, but since your team is part of making the rules, it’s easy enough to find out.

During the debate, what happens is the moderator asks some questions, and you respond to those questions. It’s perfectly okay to direct your response to the pre-scripted talking points that you wish to cover. Everyone does that. It is not so okay, however, to say “And I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I’m going to talk straight to the American people.” When you talk straight to the American people in an unfiltered way, that is called a Speech (see below) not a Debate.

Speech: This is when you get to say whatever you want, for as long as you want, to the audience that you want. You can take questions, or not. But remember, not every exchange when you speak to the public is a Speech. You have been doing mostly speeches, so dagnabbit, maybe you forgot what happens in other venues, see Interview and Debate above.

Last reminder Gov., you’re not in Wasilla anymore.

Hardest on the Ones We Love

Photo of spaghetti sauce cooking by Joey Rozier under a Creative Commons licence.In high school, my friend Jenny was mortifyingly embarrassed of her mom. Jenny would yell if her mom spoke to me. “Nobody cares what you say!” She would bad mouth her mother to me–her stupidities, her clothes, her hair.

I always thought this odd. Jenny’s mom was nice to me, and always let Jenny take the car. She wasn’t rude or dirty or inappropriate (we didn’t use the word inappropriate back in those days, but she wasn’t). But Jenny knew her mom as a stupid old woman. Who reflected poorly on her.

Progressives who think Obama “lost” Friday’s debate remind me of Jenny. Familiarity makes them overly-sensitive to any potential misstep–not aggressive enough, should have hit harder, McCain didn’t implode so if Obama didn’t hit it out of the park he did poorly.

Here’s the thing, Obama has run a very good campaign so far. And his campaign knows that he doesn’t have to convince his supporters. He needs to work on the undecideds. The people who have just tuned into the election process.

Newly engaged undecideds and independents see the candidates freshly. They are checking out and evaluating the men that they are seeing now. And trying them on for President. That’s who Obama is trying to win over.

Those of us who have been engaged from Iowa see different candidates. I hope Jenny made up with her mom.