Why Young Debaters Make Good Leaders

Bo Seo Wall Street Journal 

When Ketanji Brown Jackson takes her seat on the Supreme Court, she will be one of four sitting justices who were once on their high school or college debate team. Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Carter debated, as did Toni Morrison and Bruce Springsteen, Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey and former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi. Oprah Winfrey has said of her time in speech and debate: “it’s about the power of words to influence ideas, to uncover higher truth, to change minds, and for a lot of people even to change lives.”

The rules of competitive debate are simple. Two teams are randomly assigned to argue for and against a proposition—say, that people should not eat meat. Each speaker has equal time, between seven and 12 minutes, to make their arguments before an impartial adjudicator, who awards the debate to the side that has persuaded them. No special equipment is required, though some debaters have strong feelings about the pens they use to take notes.

As a shy 10-year-old, I was drawn to participate in my first debate by the promise of attention.

People come to debate for a variety of reasons. Some are possessed by the adolescent impulse to utterly defeat their adversaries. Others desire the limelight but lack athletic or artistic talent. As a shy 10-year-old who had recently immigrated to Australia from South Korea, I was drawn to participate in my first debate in 2005 by the promise of attention—a few minutes in which the room would quiet to hear my voice.

When I stood to deliver my first speech, on a dreary afternoon in my suburban elementary school, I sensed the sour will of my opponents and the expectations of the audience. Then, as I began to talk, I felt the border separating inner ideas and outer expressions dissolve. I saw movements in the crowd, too: a twitch of recognition, an irregular breath, a slight nod.

That moment, when the hard surface of the world yields to persuasive effort, imparts the dizzying and addictive realization that one has the power to change other people’s minds. Malcolm X wrote of his first round on a prison debate team: “Standing up there, the faces looking up at me…if I could sway them to my side by handling it right, then I had won the debate—once my feet got wet, I was gone on debating.”

The thrill of this moment is fleeting, however, because the next stage in a debater’s education is a series of defeats. A newly discovered voice comes with no instructions on how to use it persuasively, and the most bruising lesson of debate is that being correct is no guarantee of being persuasive. In fact, when debaters feel most convinced of their position they often suffer the worst defeats, because certainty invites carelessness and bombast.

The separation of truth from persuasion is a troubling aspect of debate. A format that relishes spectacle can reward glibness and lies. Opportunists and bad-faith debaters often discover these vulnerabilities, and this too is a part of the activity’s legacy. But the limits of debate provide an urgent reminder that the truth will not prevail on its own. Debaters know that the moment of discovering the truth is the same moment when one must get to work.

And debate provides a tool kit for disagreeing better. By zooming out from individual disputes to the principles that apply across them, debate can illuminate the physics of everyday disagreements. Debaters learn to isolate the main elements of successful arguments: what is the point, why is it true, when has it happened before, who cares. They learn that arguments are most worth having when disagreements are real, important, specific and contested by two sides whose goals are aligned. They discover how to find the heart of a dispute. Debate imparts a body of knowledge that is more accessible than formal logic and more versatile than negotiation techniques.

Young debaters belong to a curious world. Every weekend, hundreds of teenagers and 20-somethings crisscross the U.S. to attend debate tournaments. Competition days begin at 7 a.m. and are filled with the drama of conflict. Tempers flare; gossip fuels the rise and crash of reputations. For the most part the community holds together, and regroups the following week to do it all again.

This is another important lesson of debate: It is possible to build a community around, and not despite, disagreements. Such a group may be cacophonous and at times dysfunctional, but it has a kaleidoscopic richness that a community organized around bland agreeableness can’t hope to emulate.

This lesson is falling out of fashion. In polarized times we are easily tempted to pine for consensus, to dwell on our commonalities to the exclusion of our differences. The prevailing ethic of our time is to find people who agree with us, to turn out the base—or, for the disillusioned, to rise above the fray.

As a naturally shy person, I feel the pull of this instinct most days. For most of my childhood I ran away from disagreements, believing that agreeableness in its many guises—solicitude, assimilation, compromise—would give me peace. But I learned that sustaining an agreeable life requires too many compromises and self-betrayals. The same is true of an agreeable politics. Nations are, at their best, evolving arguments. To abandon hope in persuasion is to give up on this vision of a shared life.

The most distinctive characteristic of successful debate alums is an abiding faith in the power of disagreement. To a fault, they refuse to shy away from an argument, seeking instead to harness its generative force in their workplaces and communities. This surely reflects an outsize confidence in one’s own abilities and charms, but it also evinces a confidence in other people’s capacity to engage in good faith. Arguing well isn’t all that matters in life, but good arguments are like human beings—flawed, demanding and more powerful than we imagine.