Argument and Audience: Presenting Debates in Public Settings

Argument and Audience: Presenting Debates in Public Settings

Argument and Audience: Presenting Debates in Public Settings

Argument and Audience: Presenting Debates in Public Settings

Excerpt

In September, 2002, as the people of the United States began to consider the possibility of a war on Iraq, students at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, gathered to hear a public debate between two advocates—one, a U.S. Army colonel who favored an attack, and the other, a professor of social studies who opposed military action. The event proved to be lively, with frequent interruptions for applause, as well as boos and cheers. Because they were participants in a live event, the audience members became involved in a dramatic way. “Marist College debate coach Maxwell Schnurer, who organized the event, said watching arguments over the issue on television makes ‘people feel as though they’re not invited to the table.’ But ‘public debates are conversational lightning,’ he said. ‘They affect us.’ ”

We wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Schnurer—public debates do affect us. More than that, they are an integral part of any society that is truly open. An open society, as defined by the philosopher Karl Popper, is a society based on the recognition that nobody has a monopoly on the truth, that different people have different views and interests, and that there is a need for institutions to protect the rights of all people to allow them to live together in peace. Public debates offer a unique opportunity for the articulation of different views and interests in a forum that is characterized by reasonable argument and personal respect.

Debate has changed our lives, as it has changed many other lives. For Ken, debate helped transform a rather shy boy from a military family into a young man who found as a teacher, coach, author, and advocate that he could influence with the power of words, and later into a (yes, somewhat older) man who found, again and in a new career, that a fascination with words, ideas, and audiences continues to serve as a profound calling. For Daniela, a native of formerly socialist Croatia, debate finally channeled all the previously unsatisfied yearnings for free speech and open public debate, nonexistent in her country and so many others when she was growing up, and made her eager to share this epiphany with others. We can both say with confidence that debate helped to make us and many of our students into more tolerant people and conscientious citizens of the world. We have had the privilege of seeing firsthand the difference that public debates can . . .

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