In prepping my first debate class for teenagers, I instituted a revolutionary rule: No participant would ever be permitted to argue a position he or she believed was false.
I can’t be the only instructor who’s ever done such a thing. Still, the pushback is proof of how strong our cultural prisons can be. The most common objection is: “How will students learn to see the other side of an issue?”
Well, that is where reasoning and research and good arguments come into play. If you forbid straw men, your debaters will be obliged to learn the actual beliefs of their opponents or else suffer mortal embarrassment as they are vanquished by the least little assertion of fact.
Teenagers do not enjoy being embarrassed.
Allow me to tell you what happens when you take a room full of teenagers from similar backgrounds, with similar religious beliefs, whose parents all hold similar political views, and who mostly get along with one another, and tell them that they must, as a class, debate the topic of their choice — and also everyone must argue a position they believe is true.
The first thing that happens is that the students gravitate towards emerging issues for which prudential judgement reigns. In my first debate class, the two big topics the teens chose to debate were (1) whether teens playing video games is helpful or harmful and (2) whether marijuana ought to be legalized.
The second thing that happens is that as the teens begin to research the issues, factions form and re-form as students change opinions as they learn more.
The third that happens is that even while, by debate day, there remain stark differences of opinion on a given topic, everyone has moved closer to a consensus.
Therefore, the fourth thing that happens is that when students present their cases, they marshal far more facts and use far more nuance in explaining how their position is different from a similar — but not identical — opponent’s position.
This is what happens when debate is treated as a tool for finding the truth, rather than as a device for rationalizing one’s preconceived opinions.
Very few Americans today have ever experienced a course, at any time in their education, where they were taught how to use debate as a means of discovering truth. Furthermore, when the concept of “listening to diverse viewpoints” is flung among Catholics, it’s usually code for “tolerate dissent.” Thus we have the tribalism that typifies so-called “discourse” in the wider culture and among Catholics, typified by choosing a pre-packaged set of beliefs dictated by one’s camp, and grasping for every shred of an excuse for evidence supporting those beliefs.
The average American Catholic, like the average American, has little training in using their minds to seek the truth.
Thus the kerfuffle over at Guadalupe Radio. I’m not a regular listener to Morning Glory, but I’ve been reading Msgr. Charles Pope for years now, I’ve briefly worked with Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, and there is not a doubt in my mind about Gloria Purvis’s bona fides.
Let’s not mince words: You could not ask for a better trio of faithful Catholics to be examining the question of racism and police brutality in America today.
If you were a Catholic event organizer putting together a conference on this topic, you’d consider yourself a hero to score even one of these three as a keynote speaker. If you got all three to show up for your panel? You’d be marching to your boss and demanding a raise, and you’d probably get it.
These are people who have earned a right to be listened to on this topic.
Would Msgr. Pope and Deacon Burke-Sivers get sent to the hall for interrupting in my class? Yes they would. If anyone wants to issue a statement about how talk show radio hosts should behave as they must in Mrs. Fitz’s classroom, allow me to be the first to sign the petition. Does Ms. Purvis need to strengthen her case by taking into account the valid defense of a law enforcement officer’s daily experiences that Deacon Burke-Sivers has asserted? Yes she does, and vice-versa. But friends: They are only getting started.
When you see three rock-solid Catholics with unshakable credentials take sharply disagreeing points of view on a topic of pressing national concern, this is not the time to plug your ears. It is time to acknowledge that Catholics of good will have hard work to do in grappling with the many and complex underlying societal issues that have brought our nation to this place, and to recognize that in matters of prudential judgement, our only hope for peace requires a fearless determination to seek the truth wherever it may be found.
Book Cover: The Fallacy Detective by Nathaniel Bluedorn & Hans Bluedorn. You could do far worse than to study this book.
Related: If you want to watch me tell you the boring truth about the top four most important things in evangelization, and also hear a couple embarrassing stories about my early attempts to evangelize (not told in the book) here’s the info on my webinar coming up Tuesday, June 30th at 1pm Eastern.