BY BEN DELSMAN
In Parliamentary Debate, we spend much of our time discussing impacts, and rightly so. Our rigorous impact calculus remains an excellent tool to evaluate...well, just about anything. However, I have rarely seen this metric applied to the very activity that utilizes it. If we are to invest the time of both ourselves and our coaches, as well as ever more scarce educational resources in this activity, shouldn’t we take a step back and critically evaluate what both we and society are gaining from all the time, talent, and treasure we’re plowing into this event?
For me, Parliamentary Debate is exhilarating intellectual competition crossed with the opportunity to discuss the issues of the day with similarly motivated, competent, and (usually) well-informed peers. It gives me the opportunity to practice and perfect the public speaking and critical reasoning skills so vital to future success, but so often lost in a curriculum of standardized tests and memorization. It also happens to be great fun. However, this is not why Parliamentary Debate matters.
Parli matters because, to quote Thomas Jefferson, “The cornerstone of democracy rests on the foundation of an educated electorate.” The world in which we live grows geometrically more complex with each passing generation, and the standard vehicles for equipping the voters of the future are not measuring up to their task. It is no longer sufficient to merely watch the nightly news; voters must develop their ability to recognize bias and motive in an increasingly politicised media environment. We cannot simply stop our inquiry at the official statements of politicians; in the post-Citizens United era, we must also investigate the actions of their affiliated Super PACs. Parli gives its participants the intellectual toolkit necessary for the modern era.
In order to show the value of this toolkit, I propose an intellectual experiment, not unlike debate. I see five possible deficiencies that meet two criteria. The first criterion is that they are issues essential to the national political interest and necessary for informed discourse and voting. The second is they are areas where Parli is immensely valuable. In classic debate style, I’ll present them as “Harms,” and loosely rank them in terms of complexity and danger.
The first and simplest is ignorance, where a group or individual lacks the basic factual information necessary for an informed opinion. The research for and practice of parliamentary debate frequently disabuses participants of their ignorance, and this factual foundation forms the basis for more complex reasoning and analysis.
The second is negligence, which in this context is the disinclination to seek reliable sources of information about important current events. This is a higher level issue than ignorance because it causes ignorance, and again it can be quickly remedied by Parli. Not only does the above mentioned research force debaters out of their negligence, it exposes them to how exciting the discovery and use of new information can be.
The third point is one of obstinate individuals. These are people gripped by the unbridled desire to believe what they want to believe, regardless of facts, evidence, and data to the contrary. For obvious reasons, they are a danger to any democracy that both a) endows them with a vote and b) wants to proceed on a rational basis. However, through the use of coaching, ballot comments, and RFDs, Parli brings its participants into the factual fold. A willingness to have your mind changed, especially by well-presented evidence, is crucial to any democracy. Why else have debates, write letters to the editor, and engage in political conversation?
The fourth issue is the Fallacy of Immediacy, which I define as grossly overestimating the value of near-term impacts while commensurately discounting the value of their long-term counterparts. One need only look at the current management (or lack thereof) of Social Security to grasp both this ease with which this issue permeates our public policy as well as how dangerous it can be. By evaluating the impacts of a plan through magnitude and probability as well as timeframe, parli lends appropriate weight to both immediate risks and those who can only occur many years from now. Furthermore, I have often seen experienced critics and coaches actively fight this fallacy in their ballots and impromptu coaching sessions, respectively, as well as in open conversation around tournaments.
The most devastating and pervasive is the diffuse category I call “Shallow (or non-existent) Analysis.” This is manifested in the susceptibility to meaningless phrases, stereotypes, irrational biases, and simplistic diagnoses and solutions that play on our hopes and fears. We need only turn on our televisions or venture online to find countless examples of all of these fallacies, and their effects are found throughout our culture. Thankfully, through Points of Information and rebuttal speeches, Parli allows its participants to call each other on all of these things, and offenses against logic are quickly exposed and debunked. Parroting banal truisms will never be enough to win a serious Parli round, and that forces us as debaters to delve deeper into the issues of economics, philosophy, and public policy that we are discussing. This forcing of arguments into a logical framework creates an excellent critical, evidence based electorate.
In short, the impact Parli provides society is a group of people: future voters who will hold their would-be leaders to a higher standard and future leaders who can meet that standard. I suspect if more students participated in this or any other style of debate, if only in their classrooms, it would change how elections are run and won, ultimately changing the course of public policy in this country. We’ve all heard both the data and anecdotes about the personal development Parli provides its participants, but the societal advantages of having the logical, evidence driven people Parli produces in the voting citizenry and leadership positions has not been fleshed out as well. Hopefully this essay is a step in that direction.
Returning to the original premise, Parli is worth it, especially by its own standard.
Ben Delsman is POI's Pacific Northwest editor and correspondent.