Dog vs Cat: the Pleasures of Debate

Do you remember a time when arguing wasn’t a blood sport, an opportunity to be mean and forget everything we know about civility? When it was fun to have friends who believed different things than you do?  An exercise we did at our staff retreat last week brought that all back.

It was an exercise designed to exercise our flexibility and challenge muscles through debate. We did it, not because we are too acrimonious as a staff, but rather, too polite and careful sometimes, too much the same in our views.

I was assigned to be one of the demonstration debaters before we broke into small groups to practice debate. I was assigned the position: dogs are better pets than cats. This is a race I have absolutely no horse in, as I share my home with a dog, two cats, and an irrelevant rabbit.  And that is one of the things I loved about this exercise. It was fun to have to make the case for something in which I have no stake.  Being assigned a position to argue forced me to be flexible, to imagine how I could argue it. And debate was good for me in other ways.

First, it’s fun to do something one does all the time (talk) under the formal constraints and rules of a game. Two minutes to present; two minutes to rebut my opponent. Like the boundaries of a tennis court or the rules of scrabble, there’s joy at being let loose to play in a confined, agreed-upon structure.

Second, it forced me to think about evidence, and thus, my audience. What would be persuasive to them? And that, of course, made me think about who my audience was. What did I know about them? How diverse were they? How many different arguments and pieces of evidence would I need to persuade them?

Third, it forced me to imagine why my opponent would take the position he did. What case was he likely to make? Why might it be credible to others? How could it be countered?

The whole experience led me to think about what persuades. Let’s face it, we are not an evidence-based society. I knew I would have to make my evidence memorable by expressing it in clear themes. I knew that stories, humor, connection to my listeners, might be important, and that a cute picture of my dog and daughter lying on the ground with the exact same smile might be more convincing than anything I would say.

And, because I had to rebut, I had to listen, really listen to my opponent. That’s a good antidote to my natural tendancy to drift away and think about what I’m going to say next.

So an exercise that builds our sympathetic imagination and listening skills and makes our thinking more rigorous has got to be valuable.

Some staff members felt that the debate exercise made them  more fixed in their position. For me, it had theopposite effect. As I listened to my opponent (Heiner Baumann, our director of global giving), I found myself admiring and appreciating what I was hearing.  I had based much of my argument on dogs as pack animals and their great need for company. Heiner rebutted by saying that “cats teach us we must find our own happiness.” Wonderful point! I thought more, and more deeply, about this somewhat silly question than i would have otherwsie.

I saw the benefits of debate last summer when I visited one of our grantees. The Boston Debate League (check them out at brings after school debate clubs to Boston’s high schools. They also train teachers to use debate across the curriculum to build critical thinking and anlalytic skills. I got interested in debate when I saw a study of debate in Chicago’s urban high schools that found that students who participated in debate did better academically and were more likely to stay in school than their counterparts in a comparison group. This was particularly true for African American boys.

It was fun to visit BDL’s summer institute, where I saw kids who were debating for the first time and students who’d been in debate for one or two years. The difference in confidence, presentation skills, and quality of argument was remarkable.  After, I had a conversation with a wonderful young woman who was on her way to college in the fall. She told me that pre-debate, she only showed up at school most days for English class, because reading was the only thing that called to her. Debate made her want to show up for the whole day, and eventually, to put her whole self in, to school and to life.  Other kids talked about how debate had changed the culture of their high school so that smart was a little bit cooler. I watched English language learners struggle successfully to put together a polished argument. I left thinking that a little debate is good for everybody.





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