Throughout high school and college, I was involved in competitive speech and debate. My first job after college was as a high school debate coach. Skillful debate requires logic, research, and critical thinking. I think it should be a required subject in schools.
In a debate class, as in law school, students are required to be able to argue both sides of an issue. I remember a year when the national debate topic was nuclear weapons. I got pretty good at arguing against disarmament treaties to limit the number of warheads in the world.
Did I believe governments should ignore the horrific dangers involved in stockpiling nukes? Not for a minute. But regardless if we debated on the affirmative or negative side, debate was just a game. We were arguing for points, not power.
The danger is that people who get good at debate can forget the critical difference between winning and being right—both factually and morally.
Persuasion—making others believe what you’re saying—is an essential skill in debate. It requires appealing to the emotions, as well as the intellect, of the audience. Like any tool, it can be used for different purposes. You can use a hammer to pound a nail—or to hit someone in the head.
As citizens of a participatory, democratic government, we are morally obliged to look beyond the arguments—no matter how logical or persuasive—to see what their effects may be in the real world.
And what yardstick should we use to measure those effects? There can be no other than the impact of policies—the real-world results of successful debating—on individual human beings and the other living organisms that share our planet.
Looking at the impacts of arguments is not part of being a good debater. It’s part of being a compassionate, responsible human being.