The Limits of Debate: Real-world Use of Competitive Debate Skills
After years of consideration, I’ve finally jumped on the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu train. Tonight is my 5th class, and man am I bad at it.
(we’ll get to debate, I promise. It’ an analogy brah.).
But I’m getting better. Yesterday I even tapped (beat) a new kid (putting my record at something like 2 wins, 50 losses in practice sparring).
And it forces me to consider the question: could you actually use BJJ to beat someone in a fight?
Well, it depends. If I train hard in BJJ, I can probably beat someone in a jiu-jitsu competition who has no or minimal training.
But the vast majority of bar fights or street fights aren’t BJJ competitions. What if your opponent is a fantastic kickboxer? What if you’re drunk? What if they have a friend or two? What if they have knives? What if they know the bouncer or the police or the crowd is on their side?
In these situations, it seems that BJJ skill is only one aspect of being able to fight. If you want to win all the (purely imaginary, I swear) fights you’ll run into on the street, you also need some striking skills, need to not drink too much, carry a pocket knife, roll deep with your armed friends, and make sure the security team and crowd is on your side.
Debaters, more often than not, must entertain similar fantasies—we all imagine arguments with our friends and enemies and parents and teachers in our heads, and of course, we always win, equipped with our exquisite debate technique and experience.
But does the average ‘street debate’ have many similarities with the classroom debate?
Let’s say you’re in a boardroom pitching a new product or strategy to the boss. Your arguments and rebuttals may play a role in what you actually say. But the best debaters often make piss-poor salespeople.
Does your boss actually like you? If they don’t, your debate skills may only be a shovel to dig your grave.
Or what if five other team members are against your plan? What if there’s just been a distracting personal or company or national tragedy? What if you haven’t slept well the night before?
Likewise, if your parent or teacher or boss want something strongly that you don’t want, they’re much more likely to get their way than you are. Social power means a lot.
And debate does give its practitioners a nice bag of tricks. An experienced debater might even be able to debate absurd positions—that alcohol is good for your health, that schools should be abolished. But at some point, being able to debate a position hardly means that people will agree with you. Unlike competitive debate (sadly), real discussions often have contact with reality at too many points for you to bring the discussion around to your point of view.
Now, I wouldn’t have sunk half a decade (and counting) into debate if I didn’t believe in its power and efficacy and educational value. At the same time, its merely a tool in your toolbox—be aware of the others, and take care not to neglect them!