Tag: Lincoln-Douglas debate

debate me

Reading more of These Truths and I was struck by this piece of context to the Lincoln-Douglas debates

In the eighteenth century, debate was understood as the foundation of civil society. In 1787, delegates to the constitutional convention had agreed “to argue without asperity, and to endeavor to convince the judgement without hurting the feelings of each other.” Candidates for office debated face-to-face. With the expansion of the franchise, debating spread: beginning in the 1830s, debating classes were offered to ordinary citizens as a form of civic education. Debating societies popped up in cities and even the smallest of towns, where anyone who could vote was expected to know how to debate, although this meant, in turn, that anyone who couldn’t vote was expected not to debate.

These Truths, Jill Lepore p275

I am sympathetic to opinion, now common among certain commentators, that the debate format is tiresome and frequently stupefying. I can only think of one good debate, and really I mean I can think of one debater who ever impressed me. The fact that debate did little to remedy the impasse that the US was rapidly approaching in the nineteenth century demonstrates that even a citizenry singularly devoted to debate will do little resolve the deeper issue.

Citizens today are not expected to debate and we don’t teach that kind of rhetoric anymore. In its place I can identify two modes of discourse looming large in its place. The first being able to describe your personal identity and experience, and the other being able to articulate in the language and techniques of statistics. Each taken on their own seems deficient in obvious ways, but taken together, it almost feels like a kind of progress.