Gordon Mitchell, University of Pittsburgh

1990 - Space Exploration


One of my favorite debate pastimes is to observe the reactions of "outsiders" who witness the activity for the first time. Whether it be parents who attend tournaments seeking a sample of what their children have gotten into, janitors who clean buildings late at night, or just other students who happen to stumble upon the scene, the bewilderment and awe of these audiences is perhaps all the -proof that is necessary to reinforce the realization that modem academic debate is a fundamentally distinct and unique communicative activity.

Why is academic debate so unlike other forms of communication? Neophyte observers will point to the rapid rate of speech and the employment of an arcane technical vocabulary as elements of debate that set it apart from other phenomena in their realm of experience. However, in my view, these elements alone do not define the uniqueness of the activity. Rather, they are simple manifestations of a theoretical aspect of debate - it is communication that has evolved to the point where its participants rely on the written aspects of language, even though the delivery of that language is still through the oral medium. In short, debate is strange and foreign to outsiders primarily because it is an anomalous genre of communication-the clash of ideas on the written plane played out on the battlefield of the spoken word.

The thesis of this article is that modern academic debate is in essence, a masquerade. Even though the debates are still conducted orally, the spoken word has been replaced as the center of the activity by written artifacts, namely the "flow' and evidence "cards." In some ways, this development has been beneficial. But in other ways, it reflects a lingering contradiction in the activity that has limited the utility of participation. To further explore this issue, I will first investigate the theoretical differences between written and oral forms of language, then examine the consequences of debate's heavy written emphasis, and finally offer a modest proposal to improve the activity.

Often the mistaken assumption is made that as symbols that refer to objects and ideas, words in written texts are equivalent to spoken words. The erroneousness of this equation can be readily exposed by appreciating the fact that the written word is a communicative tool that has appeared only recently in human history
In the some 30,000 years of human existence prior to the invention of the written word, communication in the form of written texts was impossible, and oral speech was the only method available to convey meaning to others. According to Eric Alfred Havelock,

"The biological-historical fact is that homo sapiens is a species which uses oral speech, manufactured by the mouth, to communicate. That is his definition. He is not, by definition, a writer or a reader. His use of speech’Ķhas been acquired by a process of natural selection operating over a million years. The habit of using written symbols to represent speech is just a useful trick which has existed over too short a span of time to have been built into our genes’Ķ"

Contemporary scholars have shed light on this intriguing history of human communication by studying the language patterns of oral societies. "The striking conclusion of these efforts is that the advent of writing changed our conception of language and fundamentally altered the act of human communication. In the words of Walter Ong,

"In recent years basic differences have been discovered between the ways of managing knowledge and verbalization in primary oral cultures (cultures with no knowledge at all of writing) and in cultures deeply affected by the use of writing. The implications of the new discoveries have been startling. Many of the features we have taken for granted in thought and expression in literature, philosophy and science, and even in oral discourse among literates, are not directively native to human existence as such but have come into being because of the resources which the technology of writing makes available to human consciousness."

In oral, preliterate societies, there existed no written record of communication, so the only way one could see to it that ideas were "entered into history" (to use the literate term), was to share them with others in oral conversation. But since not every word heard is remembered, speakers in oral societies had an additional responsibility - to craft their language in an ornamented, formulaic way easily memorizable. Since no written text served the function of containing the ideas and events of preliterate culture, human memory itself was the only storehouse of knowledge that existed. Given the finiteness of the capacity of human memory, ideas actually competed for their place in the collective preliterate consciousness. Some of those ideas that prevailed in this selection process still survive today, in the form of the written representation of Greek epic poetry, namely the works of Homer and Hesiod. To the modern iterate, the linguistic style of these works seems downright strange. Only when one appreciates the unique, preliterate environment in which they were produced can one begin to understand the dynamics of Homer and Hesiod, authors of material that has come to be known as "oral literature," poetry designed without the aid of writing and for digestion and memorization by purely oral audiences.

A basic understanding of the nature of oral literature is useful in our examination of the state of modern academic debate, because oral poetry as a communicative form is really the antithesis of modern debate. While the requirements of preliterate culture forced speakers to design utterances that could be immediately assimilated and memorized by those who listened, debaters today are almost completely liberated from such requirements. Debate has become an activity that is not an intrinsic oral exchange, but rather an oral performance whose primary function is the generation of a written record that is examined after the conclusion of rounds. Immediate persuasion, the hallmark of an oral tradition, is no longer sufficient to win an argument--now, arguments must also survive the judge's exacting scrutiny of how such arguments appeal- in the written record to be deemed compelling.

This has led to a situation where the judge's participation in the actual debate itself has been reduced to, in the words
of one prominent critic, "a note-taking exercise." Only after the completion of the presentation of oral argumentation does the judge's real job start. At this point, he mulls over his written record of the debate and examines the written artifacts employed by the debaters to support their case in order to reach a decision. This detachment by judges from the segment of oral presentation in the debate is perhaps the strongest evidence for the claim that debate has evolved into a primarily written linguistic form. According to Marshall McLuhan,

"... in speech we tend to react to each situation that occurs, reacting in tone and gesture even to our own act of speaking. But writing tends to be a kind of separate or specialist action in which there is little opportunity for reaction. The literate man or society develops the tremendous power of acting in any matter with considerable detachment from the feelings or emotional involvement that a nonliterat man or society would experience."

In my judging experience, this phenomenon has reached the extreme that any serious contemplative reaction to the immediate oral presentation is often precluded on the grounds that it might interfere with effective note taking. If a judge is struck by a particular argument or a fit of eloquence, he had better quick,- transcribe it into written form and go on, because a reflective pause of any substantial time may create a situation where he has skipped several arguments uttered in the interim, failed to include them in his flow. And a further striking irony is that these "skipped" arguments do thus not exist, since the final determining factor of what existed in the debate is that which exists on the flow at the end of a round.

An additional aspect of the heavy written emphasis in debate today is the role of evidence. I sense that the true motivation behind judges' complaints that debaters speak incomprehensibly is not the fact that ideas presented in this manner cannot be immediately grasped, but instead the fact that incomprehensible delivery messes up the written record. The judge's primary role, of accurately transcribing the arguments, is thwarted when a speaker presents ideas that cannot be understood, and this is frustrating to the judge. However, there is markedly less frustration in situations where debaters present arguments comprehensibly, but still too rapidly to be immediately processed. In this instance, the judge rests comfortably with the knowledge that (as long as his written record is accurate), he can later go back to the event (by reviewing the flow and examining the evidence) as many times as is necessary to digest the argument. This ability to "go back" is a feature unique to written communication. In purely oral societies, the moment of utterance was the moment of truth - if the audience failed to comprehend and remember speech, it vanished as a communicative artifact.

It is apparent that modern academic debate has become a strange communicative exercise, its extreme written orientation making it as foreign as preliterate oral literature in the eyes of today's common communicator.

We should be somewhat tickled to be a part of an activity so unique, but if we truly desire debate to be more intellectually wholesome an rewarding than a circus side show, we must be sensitive to the compromises we make in allowing the written emphasis of academic debate become dominant.

Perhaps the most serious compromise is the simple fact that the activity produces debaters that are, in most cases, frankly deficient in the art of oral persuasion. I noticed that in my debating experience, the skills I learned enabled me to write knock-down papers on public speeches to "outside" audiences and speak persuasively in public debates. Contemporary debate teaches good thinking, but to learn good speaking, most often one has to turn to another activity.

Additionally, the extraordinary written focus rewards unusual skills that are, in blunt terms, rather useless. In past years, many debaters have relied on sheer "technical" skill to gain easy victories. In oral societies, technical facility meant the ability to fashion speech that was entertaining, pleasing to the ear, and memorable. In modern debate, technical skill is the ability to "win on the flow" - to "cover" arguments, arrange arguments in ways that make it difficult for the opposition to answer in their allotted time, and generally excel at a peculiar brand of debate gamesmanship. the only benefit I can perceive from developing this talent is improving my managing skills in rotisserie baseball.

It is easy to point to the elements of debate which reveal that it has an overwhelmingly written orientation. It is also easy to point to several unfortunate aspects of the activity that the written orientation cultivates. Finding a solution to the oral/written imbalance, however , is a more difficult matter. This difficulty lies primarily in the fact that any radical structural solution risks throwing out the baby with the bathwater -- of transforming debate into all orality and no literacy, all persuasion and no content, or as some more vociferous defenders of the status quo have warned, all fluff and no stuff. Therefore, my proposed solution is deliberately tentative and admittedly experimental. I propose that judges not call for evidence in the first round of every tournament. If a sufficient number of judges are brave enough to attempt the experimental venture, I predict that round one debates may change for the better in several ways, from the perspective of both judging and debating.

First of all in regards to judging, the "gray area of comprehensibility would become more clearly demarcated. Evidence which is currently read in a style that is barely comprehensible would no longer be able to be rescued by post-round inspection. It is often tough for judges to decide whether or not to "admit" a card into the round or "allow" one to be read afterwards. If the judge commits to not reading any evidence, however, there is an automatic, unconscious filter which determines which cards will be admitted: those that are understood, comprehended, and remembered.

Second, judges would have an incentive to become more engaged and involved in the oral aspects of the debate, rather than waiting in the wings, detached, until the round finishes and its time to read cards and get down to work. To a judge, the understanding that he cannot look at evidence afterwards takes away a safety valve and focuses the attention on the actual delivery of evidence and discussion of the evidence by the debaters. Perhaps judges will view actual debates as less of a note-taking exercise and more of a critical, involved and reflective process, where more evaluatory judgments are formed during the debate, instead of afterwards.

For debaters, the knowledge that no cards will be read ought to induce several tactical adjustments, adjustments which I think would be beneficial on the whole.

First, , the incentive to squeeze as many cards into the written record would be lessened. Currently, many card reading judges will allow all cards into the debate that are recorded on the flow, even in the form of cryptic symbols such as a dash or check. Knowing that the recitation of a piece of evidence need only to prompt the judge to make a quick written checkmark next to a tag spurs debaters to consistently hover near the outer limits of comprehensibility. If cards are not read after the debate, however, the equation changes from "checkmark =s card admitted" to "card understood, comprehended, and remembered = admitted." If a debater wants the judge to fully appreciate a knock-down piece of evidence, currently he can rest comfortably with the knowledge that if it is seen as important. the judge will inspect it after the round. But if the judge removes this potentiality, debaters would be wise to allow the judge to digest it fully upon initial reading.

Second, there would be pressure on debaters to be more sensitive to the importance of ranking arguments about evidence. Currently, this job is largely left up to the judge, who often resolves contradictory claim after the debate by inspecting the evidence read by both sides, reaching a conclusion based on a qualitative assessment of the relevant cards. Smart debaters, anticipating that no such chore can be performed if no evidence is read after the round. will seize the advantage of doing this themselves. What used to be one of Shaun Martin's favorite and most powerful arguments, 'our cards are much better, read them after the round," would be transformed into, appropriately, a non-argument, a claim without substance, while the more sophisticated claim that "our cards are better because of x, y, and z" would be rewarded and encouraged.

Finally. some concern has been voiced as if judges were to reading evidence, they would become vulnerable to the distortion of evidence claims, that debaters could easily -pull the wool" over the judges eyes. Currently, debaters realize that overclaimed evidence and false accusations about the quality of opposition evidence will be exposed in post-round inspection of the cards. It is feared that once this check is removed, debaters will have license to make all kinds of outlandish evidence assessments. This situation can be avoided as long as judges adhere to clear policy regarding assessment of claims about evidence. This policy, very simply, is that such evidence claims can only be valid if they are accompanied by a memory referent of the card in question. In other words, when a debater makes the claim that his evidence is superior, to be legitimate, the claim should trigger in the judge's mind a remembrance of the actual card in question. If the card was initially presented in a manner which precluded the judge from grasping the substance of the evidence, all subsequent claims about the high quality of the evidence should be appropriately discounted. Of course, debaters will always have the option of reinforcing the memory referent or at least clarifying by rereading key passages later in the debate. This policy additional incentives for the debaters to make the initial presentation of evidence easily understandable (and indeed, memorable), while also encouraging later claims about the quality of evidence to be issued in complete, developed form (containing arguments and referents) instead of relying on the catch-all "our cards are better.'

Whether or not the speculative transformations discussed here will actually take place if judges refrain from reading evidence remains to be seen. But the tentative approach of provides is a useful gather data. However, it is the vitally important that many judges join the experiment, so that debater will have frequent opportunities to make adjustments in their style. The Achilles heel of judge-driven change in the activity is fragmentation. When there are as many remedies to the current deficiencies in the activity as there are judges, it is impossibly difficult for debaters to react and plan for the large number of remedial judge approaches. Even a weak consensus on not reading evidence in the first round, however, will afford debaters the opportunity to focus reflectively on this change in judge approach outside of debates and provide a consistent in-round opportunity for debaters to test adjustments to this new approach that they feel will maximize their competitive advantage.

Modern academic debate has evolved into a highly sophisticated form of written communication, a form in which the orality of the activity has eroded to the point where it no longer plays a truly determinative role in the outcome of debates. In my view the written/oral balance is out of kilter, and to reach a more constructive equilibrium, I suggest that we remove one of the weights from the written side of the scale - judge evidence inspection.