Mid-July of this year, 16-year-old Jayla Jackson and 17-year-old Emani Stanton made history as the first Black female duo to win the Harvard Debate Council’s international annual summer competition. These two reportedly competed against more than 100 debaters worldwide. Harvard’s summer workshops have been held for more than 35 years, and I’d never paid attention to any of them—until now.
Debate has been on my mind a lot lately after being hired to write a pros-cons speech for a client regarding this topic: Should the United States and China continue to travel to Mars? I was hired for the speechwriting gig primarily because of my background in Toastmasters, a public speaking group that’s been around since 1924 and has groups in 149 countries.
I had a slight problem though. Although I’ve been in Toastmasters since June 2017, and have been a five-time officer (including the president) of my community club, I’d only ever prepared speeches about topics I was intrigued by. Ironically, I’d worked in journalism since 2008 and constantly read both sides of any news story before reporting on it. But in my own personal speechwriting, I’d never taken on a written op-ed nor public talk that I didn’t 100% agree with and wasn’t passionate about.
I’m pretty sure I’m not as well-versed in debate speech as Jackson or Stanton, but I do enjoy participating in a constructive argument. However, this space technology speech was altogether different. Not only did I have zero interest in the topic, but I couldn’t really talk about it at length. My argument on space technology would hold up as well as Twitter “do your research” bickering. In other words, weak sauce.
Still, I flew through the cons of what I knew off hand, counting off everything from satellite pollution to travel funds that could be better used to decrease the homeless population in the U.S. By the time I was done, I was proud of what I’d written for my client.
The European Space Agency reported that there are over 9,200 tonnes of space objects in orbit around the Earth, from satellites to tiny fragments, which has lead to pollution. Captured by Canva
Then I realized I had to have this level of passion for the pros of space technology. And I came up blank. I read the client’s notes and started reading the perks of space technology. Then more reading. Then fact-checking. By the time I was done reading all the pros I’d never considered or bothered to learn, I wasn’t quite sure if I even agreed with my original opinion. I smiled. I was finally realizing that writing these pros-cons speeches were as fascinating to me as journalism is. I liked being my own devil’s advocate.
Why students need mandatory debate classes
I despise arguments that start with “everybody knows that” or “most people.” Whenever I hear this line of thinking, I know this person is making a broad assumption about their own opinions or has only talked to their limited social circle. They found five people to agree with them in somebody’s barbershop, beauty salon or family reunion, and decided this opinion may as well be the equivalent of the Bible. They just know they’re right. Challenge them on the opposing side of the topic, and you’ll read (or hear) lots of screaming, name-calling, passive-aggressive responses and be sent to random Wikipedia pages trying to prove their points. People are passionate about others being in agreement with them; it’s how Cancel Culture continues to thrive.
Cancel culture occurs when a celebrity or a public figures says or does something offensive, and a public backlash ensues. It is a highly contested idea, with some arguing that it is a means of accountability, while others see it as unfairly punishing people, and others see it is a mixture of both. Captured by Canva.
I am guilty of it, too. If someone gets under my skin a bit too much while debating, I’ll usually make my last comment and auto-block, disconnect the call or leave the room. I’m done. I don’t have the time nor the energy to debate all day long. Because I’m curious, I may revisit the conversation to see if there is anything new and thoughtful to say later on. Every blue moon on social media, I’ll see a response that will make me pause and wonder, “Wait, was I right about that after all?”
I’ve never been so full of ego that I couldn’t admit I’m wrong. But I’m also guilty of blocking people out before I can even get to the point of realizing I’m wrong. And that’s why I admire debate groups like the ones teenagers like Jackson and Stanton are in. Their whole goal is to be both sides of the argument. Great debaters often know what the other team is going to say in the first place, so they’re ready to argue the other side. And vice versa. It’s the most powerful “I know you are, but what am I?” tactic, and I like the discipline and patience involved in it.
However, I think if I’d have started exercising this tool earlier in life, I’d be better prepared to hear opposing views as I got older. I just turned 40 on Veteran’s Day. I’m set in my ways. My guess is by the time I’m 50 or 60, I’ll be even more reluctant to change my opinions. As adults get older, they too often create their own realities. Anything outside of that is “wrong.” To have the discipline, the open mind and the ability to challenge oneself to say, “Let me know as much about both sides of any given topic” is a talent.
From that one speech-writing assignment a few weeks ago, I’ve tried to keep that practice going with any further writing or public speaking that I’ve completed. In a recent Toastmasters meeting during Table Topics, I was asked, “Which news sources are credible and how do you know they are?”
Before that space technology speech, I would’ve counted off a list of sources I always use and insulted the ones I think are stupid. I paused for a beat as all eyes were on me and decided to do that. Instead, I talked about this space technology speech. I encouraged the other Toastmasters to not just check sources that they’re used to or ones they already agree with. I asked them to start reading news sites that they’d rarely give a chance. And once they read both, then they could decide which argument held up to be more reasonable for them. Regardless of what I consider my pros or my cons, that doesn’t mean that argument will hold up the same with someone else anyway. May as well see what’s on both sides of the coin!
Editor’s Note: This blog was written by Shamontiel L. Vaughn. Find out more about her at Shamontiel.com.