This Academic Life
  "Everyone made good points"
The other day a television crew contacted the student who runs our campus debate society, for which I serve as the advisor. (Shocking, huh? Me advising debate?) They wanted to do a piece in preparation for the presidential debates that evening, in which they would interview some "real" debaters and try to gain some sense of what a "real" debate was like. So they came onto campus with a camera, and I advised my debaters to stage a mock debate on the topic of -- cue "post-y meta" alert tone -- whether or not presidential debates were helpful to the political process. So they did the mock debate was filmed, in addition to a few brief interviews with each of us (which were of course subsequently chopped into small soundbites for use in the piece). And just at the end, as I was about to offer something approximating a summary judgment about who won (the anti-presidential debate side, I thought, did a nice job of demonstrating the contradictions in her opponent's position), the interviewer started clapping and said: "Wow. I thought everyone made good points. Thanks." And then they packed up to leave.

I have to admit that I was a bit floored. "Everyone made good points"? What is this, kindergarten? Of course everyone made good points; these are college debaters, and so by definition they are able to make good points. That's like saying "they played well" after a major league baseball game; duh, they wouldn't be in the major leagues for long if they didn't. [And when we say "they didn't play well" after a game, we mean "they didn't play up to the expected level of performance," i.e. something unusual happened and they didn't do as well as expected. Anyone on a major league baseball team can most probably out-play anyone who isn't, just by virtue of the operation of the system of professional baseball.]

It occurred to me later that evening while watching said presidential debates that the interviewer's comments were probably more representative of the attitude of most viewers than mine was. People don't know how to play this game called "argument," and they don't seem to feel that they have any obligation to learn the rules before wading in and making judgments about who won -- or, even worse, before becoming complicit in reducing the whole exchange to a meaningless exchange of soundbites and one-line zingers. Yes, the presidential debates -- given their position in the news cycle, and given the way that televisual media usually processes spoken words -- have increasingly become structured as that kind of performance. But participating in an evaluation of debates in that way furthers the process, sustains the (re)framing, and destroys any potential that the competitive clash of (s)words(s) has to produce connexion.

Actually, I am not particularly bothered by the application of soundbite standards to the presidential debate, where they seem appropriate and insightful. And they also preserve the fundamental character of the situation, which is its competitiveness: even if the exchange between the candidates is no longer an "argument" per se and has become a set of "dueling soundbites," it is still a competitive exchange that could, in principle, be scored and evaluated to determine a victor. One could imagine a scorecard: candidate one, six hits against the opponent, four times being touched by attacks, only two successful rebuttals…overall score of four. Compare to the other candidate and determine who gets to advance to the next round.

By contrast "everybody made good points" eliminates the competitive character of the activity in favor of a superficial and insubstantial sea of smiles and insincere good wishes. Blech. There's no connexion here, and no possibility of producing such, because no one is risking anything any more; everyone is comfy and smiley and set in their ways. Liberal heaven, perhaps: meet, greet, exchange meaningless pleasantries, go home and consume your goods in private. And then shoot me in the head, since that would be a quicker way of killing me.

Magic suggests that competition is always about establishing hierarchy, and that if I want to preserve human excellence I need to move to "internal competition" instead of looking for situations of interpersonal contest. "Internal competition, while it also produces a winner and loser, produces both in the same person. an internal hierarchy of better and lesser forms of self is established but no harm is done to outside others. Ergo: the production of excellence without the creation of hierarchy." Two reactions to this:

1) internal competition runs into the "private language" or solitaire problem, in that if I am simply playing by my own set of rules I can change them at whim, and thus not be playing by a set of rules in the strict sense at all. Rules mean that there is the possibility of making a mistake, as Wittgenstein argued, and that in turn requires a social practice through which the rules are (re)established -- because if I remain the sole judge of my own case I can award myself whatever I want to on a completely arbitrary basis. And if I end up engaging in such "internal competition" according to a set of social rules, there is at least in principle the possibility of judging between performances and performers (e.g. gymnastics, competitive diving, etc.). What this means to me is that "internal competition" is an unstable halfway house between competition and something else -- contemplation? navel-gazing? pure enjoyment of being alive? -- and as such doesn't produce a workable solution.

2) social relations are competitive, and they are about playing with hierarchical patterns. And I do mean all social relations here, whether we're talking about marriages or friendships or pedagogical interactions or whatever. [I have a colleague who serves on an admissions committee with me, and the other day at a meeting this colleague said the most extraordinary thing: that last year several students were admitted because this colleague was tired and not willing to fight as hard as some (pointed glance at me) about the issue. As though I was somehow to blame for having defended my preferred candidates during the admissions process. Of course an admissions process is a competitive situation, and often a zero-sum one: I have a vision of the program, and so does my colleague, and in order to realize that vision we each need students who fit that articulation of program identity. So we grapple for a limited number of slots. "Sore loser" is how my wife described this colleague when I told her the story, and I agree with one amendation: sore loser who is not willing to accept that the situation is and will remain a competitive one. Denying that a game was being played is a very convenient way of dealing with one's loss in a particular round of the game.]

But this does not mean that all social relations have to be about establishing "hierarchy." I am as uncomfortable with that formulation as I am with references to "structure" as an independent noun; structure is IMHO a way of seeing some-thing, a way of highlighting certain aspects of it and singling them out for analysis. "Hierarchy" is even worse, I think; I think that word should only be used as an adjective, as in "hierarchical pattern of social relations." Does competition -- and by extension, all social interaction, which I have suggested is somehow competitive by definition -- establish a hierarchical arrangement? Yes, it does. But need that hierarchical pattern persist outside of the local context? I think not. Someone wins one round of argument; everybody shakes hands and hugs, and then goes out for a beer. And because the players respect one another's abilities, they can shift modes from "playing this particular competitive game" to "playing a different game" -- a no less competitive one, but a game in which different skills matter and different people can emerge as (local, temporary) victors.

I am not interested in eliminating competition, or in getting rid of winners and losers. I am interested in using the competitive dynamic -- which does produce local winners and losers -- to promote that rare and precious kind of connexion that comes from a good (s)wordfight. And "everybody made good points" is the sworn enemy of such a project, which is why I despise it so much.

[Posted with ecto]

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"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



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