The Art of Debate

January 3, 2012
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It was going to be another twenty hour day. It was the last round of the night, and I was feeling exhausted. As the clock on the Berkeley Campanile tolled 9:00 p.m., I attempted to find my way through the famous Bay Area rain and fog, searching for the room in which I would be debating. As I reached my destination, my nervousness began to sink in. It was a round that would determine if I would move on in finals, and I wanted more than anything in the moment to make my team--and myself--proud. As my opponent and judge arrived, we took our places and the forty-five minute debate began. The topic was not an easy one: Should juveniles charged with violent felonies be tried as adults?

It was soon obvious this would be a difficult round: It would test not just my debating skills, but also my ability to maintain reason in a volatile situation. I had seen this kind of opponent before: He was the stereotypical red-faced shouting debater, speeding through arguments as though in a rage.

I had drawn the affirmative side of the debate, and thus had to argue that juveniles ought to be treated as adults in the criminal justice system. I argued that juveniles are treated as adults in most circumstances, most notably in terms of civil rights. My opponent, as expected, adamantly disagreed with this, and proceeded to shout back at me that students, for example, do not have freedom of speech. He sped through several other arguments, machine-gun style, punching them home with his index finger at a lightning pace. I began to worry.

I knew that I had good counter-arguments, but could I address all of the arguments he had made in my allotted time? If I failed to counter one of his claims, it was an automatic point in his favor. Could I be cool in the face of his withering attacks, but not so cool that I would appear intimidated?

I began my rebuttal slowly, but gained momentum as I ticked off the fallacies in his argument, point by point. I used humor as a parry to his fury; I used logic in contrast to his bluster. When the foundation of his argument had wilted away, the rest of it collapsed under its own weight. I won handily.

This is what I love about debate: You have to be prepared to argue either side of an issue, as you never know until the moment before the debate which will be your position. You have to be prepared for any style of debate: Had my opponent been deliberate and icy, I might have had to inject more fire as contrast. You have to be ready. You have to improvise, but you have to appear assured of the legitimacy of your stance. And I do love it, and I was prepared, and the devotion paid its dividends: I was the lead debater on my team for three years running.

There is great satisfaction in winning. When it's over, you feel exhausted with elation-but only until the next round begins.

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