FORT WORTH, Texas, September 26, 2016 — The long awaited bout between Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton will transpire on Monday in Long Island. In what promises to be the political equivalent of a WWE cage match the mudslinging and juvenile deportment has commenced already.
However, this piece is about debate itself, the history of it if you will, as opposed to the current candidates and their circus.
Where did formal debate come from? Who started it and what does it achieve?
Dictionary.com defines the word this way:
- a discussion, as of a public question in an assembly, involving opposing viewpoints:‘a debate in the Senate on farm price supports.’
- formal contest in which the affirmative and negative sides of a proposition…advocated by opposing speakers.
- deliberation; consideration
- strife; contention.”
Presidential debates offer varying attitudes and perceptions pertaining to subjects important to Americans like the economy, healthcare, civil rights, and so on. But these issues are not two dimensional. If they were it would not be so difficult to agree as to how best to address and crusade for these causes.
This is where Debate’s cousin, Philosophy, comes in. Collin’s English Dictionary defines:
- the academic discipline concerned with making explicit the nature and significance of ordinary and scientific beliefs and investigating the intelligibility of concepts by means of rational argument concerning their presuppositions, implications, and interrelationships; in particular, the rational investigation of the nature and structure of reality (metaphysics), the resources and limits of knowledge (epistemology), the principles and import of moral judgment (ethics), and the relationship between language and reality (semantics)”
The debate speakers’ philosophy about their (or their political party’s) view of life and reality, and limits of the knowledge about it affect how they use language and persuasion to get listeners to agree with their side of the debate.
But isn’t it arguing? What’s the difference? According to online Whitmore School:
“An argument can be defined as an opinion that is supported with evidence. Debates are based upon [those] arguments.”
In a 1989 article for The Morning Call, Frank Whelan says that formal debate has its roots deep in the heart of Western civilization. He said it is the Greeks who have the distinction for starting the practice. Greek teacher Protagoras of Abdera (c. 481-411 B.C.) has the honor of being the “Father of Debate.”
Whelan says of Protagoras, “Two of his most famous statements that survive are ‘Man is the measure of all things’ and ‘There are two sides to every question.’ That it was necessary for men to seek knowledge and ask questions was at the heart of Protagoras’s thought. “
One of the most popular Greek orators of the day was Demosthenes (384-322 B.C.) In2Greece.com says he was not a natural speaker because he couldn’t pronounce the letter “r,” stuttered, had weak lungs and a spastic shoulder. He overcame these maladies in several different ways: practiced speaking with pebbles in his mouth; stood under the point of a spear that stabbed him when his shoulder moved; and ran on stairs and hills to strengthen his lungs.
The Romans took up where the Greeks left off. The debate arena grew to encompass the courts, assembly and the senate. Whelan said, “Young Roman men of a certain class were required to learn how to support an argument or skillfully dispute one. The best orator of the Roman world was Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.)”
He was a lawyer and politician who was merciless against his opponents in court. His debate skills are legendary. Cicero also wrote many books on rhetoric that students throughout the millennia have devoured in an attempt to garner some of the master’s magic.
Philosophy and religion replaced politics as major topics of discourse in the Middle Ages. Public debate in Latin was common among college-aged students at the time. Subjects included everything from the inane (how many angels can fit onto the head of a pin?) to the deepest thoughts of existence.
The Age of Reason and the Enlightenment brought about political debate once again. The British led the reprisal and were the best. Schooled in the classical debate of the Greeks and Romans the English saw themselves as keepers of the ancient rhetoric. With them this tradition came across the Atlantic, laid the foundation for a Revolution and became the base for the function United States Senate, House of Representatives, and the Judicial system.
Because of this debate is an intrinsic part of the fabric of American life. Most junior highs, high schools and colleges have debate teams. IDebate.org expounds as to why young people should learn to, or at least the rules and process of, debate.
They declare that debate offers enlightening and indelible knowledge that goes far beyond the podium. Debate teaches critical thinking, effective communication, independent research, and teamwork. It instills competence that will take the student to the workplace and help them fulfill their civic responsibilities as well. A major benefit is learning to critically examine the statements and claims made by political representatives. Making informed judgments about crucial issues is an important part of being an involved citizen.
Presidential debates are one of the most anticipated parts of the election process. Some have made history. In 1960 Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon took part in the first televised presidential debate in history. A tanned Kennedy looked the picture of health and stood out against a sallow Nixon whose five o’clock shadow stole the show.
History.com reports that Kennedy’s tan was a side effect of Addison’s Disease that plagued him all his life. Nixon had the flu, campaigned, and was recovering from a severe infection that had landed him in the hospital for two weeks.
History.com goes on to say that though both candidates debated well, the radio vs. TV outcome came as a surprise. Most radio listeners thought the deliberations were equal or a Nixon victory. However, Kennedy won over the 70 million TV viewers by a landslide.
This begs the question, “What would the outcome of the debate be if the debate was aired solely on radio?”
Without the pomp and show maybe voters would better be able to see a real difference between this year’s candidates vs. previous ones. Now it’s all about what you see. What you really heard and what you truly did not hear is not encouraged.
When you tune in the debates tomorrow night keep critical questions in mind—no matter your choice of candidate. You may learn something. You might also giggle picturing either candidate with a mouth full of pebbles.
Critical thinking, effective communication, independent research, and teamwork are necessary for a successful debate. History testifies to this. Keep it in mind as you watch on Monday.
American presidential debates, before the millennial era, usually had the duplicity and spar of a Wimbledon tennis match. Not anymore. Since then the whole mechanism and its players has mutated to a duel with all the sensational melodrama that would make Gorgeous George or Jake the Snake proud.
Where’s Cicero when we need him?