What I deem the most valuable gains from debating are not rhetoric or consequently the ability to bullshit, but rather the capacities for gathering information and rapid learning.
Maybe I should have written this piece many years ago, or maybe never write it at all. Why I choose to write it now, I don’t really know.
I remember when I was a first year student in China, I invited the president of the politics society (a 3rd year girl) for a meal to seek her advice on developing a debate team. She told me about a common phenomenon – that some debaters only participate until they’ve reached what they consider to be the zenith of their debating careers, and then leave the team while they’re still feeling successful. These people really aren’t very decent, I thought, after all, how are the aspiring younger debaters supposed to learn when there aren’t any veterans around? Part of the reason why I thought this was related to my own situation – the Mandarin debating scene on campus was a utter disaster and virtually no one wanted anything to do with it.
I attended university in China for three semesters, and by the third semester I was already the vice president of the debating society, with the president also being a student from my year. The makeup of leadership almost made us self-degrading: because we had to call the captains of other schools’ debating teams seniors. When I left, the team was transitioned to LeLe and YX, the former was a younger girl from the same high school as me, and the latter was previously a high school debating champion. I felt that I was extremely fortunate because with the current system for grooming debaters, it was almost impossible to churn out decent debaters unless they had solid fundamentals from high school.
Last February, I went back to China and went with LeLe to a pretty large-scaled inter-university debating competition organised by the Red Cross. We were evenly matched at the semi-finals, and one of the debaters on the opposite team who was in my year (we’ve debated once, and goodness knows why he was still debating), supposedly a crafty character, requested that our team send up LeLe and YX. LeLe and YX are a year younger than me and were in their fourth years at the time, but they resolutely refused to debate. Afterwards, people from our school who weren’t on the debating team (but followed our team nonetheless) told me that it was my fault – our star debaters were relatively young and lacked support and guidance, this on top of “over-usage” induced their burnouts and shortened debating careers.
This turn of speech made me feel guilty for quite a long time.
Let me rewind my memories a bit more to the senior year of high school， when university admission recommendation sent me into worry-free vacation mode. In the last half of that year, the debate team organized by my junior schoolmates made into the Shanghai city finals, and this rather excited the school administration. The staff advisor for the debate team sough me out to mentor my fellow school mates and even hinted that I could be part of the competition if I wanted to – the other debaters in my year were naturally still occupied preparing for the standard examination.
I was tempted by the opportunity but eventually turned it down. Of course I wanted to shine on stage, the debating talent in my year had been considerable but we didn’t chance to be part of city-wide tournaments. However, I couldn’t let this become the reason for substituting in for my junior schoolmates, since after all it had been them who led this long fight into the finals. Furthermore, my turn to shine had ended, and this was their chance at the finals of which I could not possibly rob from them. I was in my last year of high school. It was time to think about post-secondary education and not a high school debating tournament.
I had made a wise decision, and LeLe confirmed this with me later: the four junior year debaters had heard the possibility of my stepping in from the grapevine and consistently expressed that they would quit the tournament if I had said yes. So you see, I’m someone they could depend on after all.
So after all this, I was completely relieved. During university years I was also an “overused” debater, so if this made me a bad example to those to follow, it wasn’t intentional. Notwithstanding, LeLe had several internships during her last year in university, and was proactively applying for graduate programs; YX contemplated and created impeccable life plans, and went on to do an internship and then step into the job market. As of now, one of them is pursuing academia in New York, and the other is making mad money in Shanghai – isn’t this splendid? They had found what they sought from their debating experiences and were able to lead their team to sizable success, so then it was time for them to give up the stage. They needed to find a brand new one, and put on a more grandiose show.
The university leadership experience taught me many things, for example, that not everyone can stand up and immediately start spewing responses, this needs practice. As well, if one thinks too much, the likelihood of being able to spew also decreases, but this isn’t necessary a bad thing.
Since I have never been intimidated by public speaking and also love argumentation, when I debated in middle and high school I had no trouble spewing words and happily won many awards. My teammates in high school had similar tactics. This is the reason why for the longest time I felt that the soul of debating exists in making points – to research, learn, construct tight logical structures and fight as a team with united arguments.
Afterwards, I realized that not everyone has the ability to stand up and talk about these points, so I needed to review my strategy. However, I still maintain that the research and absorption outside of the debating tables taught me the most. Back in those days, every debating round tended to feature different topic areas, so that if we were lucky enough to qualify for finals, then we would for sure encounter all kinds of strange questions. My girlfriend of then asked me if I would become a generalist after four years of debating. I think that she meant that I was a generalist who knew a bit about everything but not much about anything, haha.
And even later, when I studied abroad, this research experience also came handy. Conducting debating research requires very results oriented reading similar to thesis preparation, course readings, as well as seminar readings. For this reason, I told many juniors from my school to value the research and learning from debating over the rhetoric and bullshitting.
I don’t think I speak as glibly now as I did before, but for me that is not necessary a step backwards. Sometimes, ample knowledge and contemplation slows down the tongue. Thankfully I no longer need to be flippant. I consider this to be a successful movement of thinking with the mouth to thinking with the brain.
Back-end research aside now, the most important thing I learned while on the debating floor is: you don’t need to convince anyone but the judges. This may sound utilitarian, but it embodies a principle – that the world is full of people who may not be convinced by reason, especially fans of your opponents.
Maybe I’m naive, but my view since childhood has been that everyone is reasonable and all conflicts are resolvable, as long as there are good open communication channels. That’s my wishful thinking. Even if everyone around you is intelligent and logical, life itself is filled with conflicts of interest. They may well only appear to be unreasonable, just as your debating opponents may not even believe in their own team lines. Instead of forming general expectations, I hope that at least I myself and those I mentor don’t turn out self-interested and blind to reason.
I would like debating to deepen our understanding of others’ arguments, discover the logic, facts, and errors within, and be willing to partially or entirely accept positions that are meticulously reasoned, fact-based, and objective. I also hope that debating bring our presentation skills for expressing our own opinions to a new level – to become concise and convincing,不给阅读设置不必要的障碍。 Nevertheless, there is no reason to conform when we maintain our views; debating teaches us that it’s not necessary to convince everyone.
Yesterday, I went back to the school I’d left for a long time. 小残学妹转了酿酿哥哥的一篇东西，说是他们社会学输给了研究生队。原以为她就是看到mujun的名字才转给我的，后来发现她居然是研究生队的一辩，囧。据她介绍，复旦这个校内比赛很神棍，复旦附中居然都参加并且是劲旅之一，研究生队往年一般都很水。What an extravagant school this is!
She said another thing which really interested me, she said everyone in the sociology team is very strong, 输在散沙一盘，基本没有统一战线，劲儿没往一处使。这一直是我认为辩论比赛的大忌，在大学里遇到这样的学弟，下场来是毫不犹豫要痛骂一顿的。不过现在我觉得，这也是复旦的贵气所在，不用每个人牢牢抓着立论死守，而是全部放出去打游击，也是一件很锻炼人的事情。虽然很容易输。华政的风格在我读大学期间也越来越朝着这个方向发展，更让我觉得，这是一个辩论上的蓝血学校所特有的气质，是一种对胜负不须在意的洒脱。
But having said that, I still think that the team is very important, this is another very important thing that debating competitions taught me. 我觉得作为队友，至少得让别人觉得放心把后背交给你。During those years of competition, whether we won or lost, no matter how strong our opponents were or how well we did, I always felt calm; 而让我沮丧甚至绝望的是，队友有可能会忽然跑出来拆台。高二班际赛决赛，遇到我方一辩强势拆台：所有讨论时说好不说的都跑出来了，所有该说的都不知道跑哪儿去了；明明可以用讨论过的东西对付的，他还能临场胡诌出一些莫名其妙的东西来。我当时就全身瘫软了。他还抢得特兴奋，一个劲儿地站，我们其他三个人拉都拉不住。不过，胡诌的东西总有被人抓住漏洞轰成残渣的时候，这时候他老人家坐下看着我们，好像在说：我都说了这么久了，你们怎么动都不动一下？这位一辩大人后来成了全程最佳。After the competition, I felt particularly weak, I didn’t want to speak a word, and I felt depressed for a few days. That defeat was like a knife in the back.
The reason I can remember this old story so well, is that the person who stood up and blanked at the time, was me. When I stood up, my mind went blank. This was the last debating competition of all my school years, and it was also the first time that, on the debating platform, my whole body went limp and my mind went blank. After that, I must have mumbled something, I can’t remember clearly, but since then, this never happened again. Thanks to debating, I realized that in this life, you must accept that ‘some of your team-mates are pigs’. And I did my best to not become that kind of team-mate.
Finally, let me summarize. The most beneficial exercises I derived from debating are the capacities for gathering information and rapid learning, as well as an understanding of how unreasonable the world can be. As an-once-important stage of my life, debating also tested my ability to move onto brand new stages. At last, the lessons in teamwork were: be a valuable team player but never shed tears over non-ideal team members – accept that they are part of the team and do the best that you can. It’s not necessary to comment on those team members after unhappy cooperation, but do keep a lookout to avoid team work involving them in the future.
So let this be my love letter and breakup letter to debating. I have dragged it out for too many years. Much regrets.
Source : Jiong Jiong's blog, April 02 2012