Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Kudos to the Tely

Among my friends and family and colleagues, I'm known as a hard-core skeptic. That doesn't mean naysayer or contrarian, it means looking behind the surface of what is said to get to what is meant. It means evaluating and examining what's before you with a keen and critical eye to determine the true substance of the matter.

My background is a little strange compared to some. A formative experience was my time at a small liberal school in the US, Rhode Island College. I was recruited there by their debate coach who spotted me at a out-of-the-way tournament in Cape Breton, of all places. For two years, I spent every second weekend in debate competition against the best schools in the US - Harvard, Princeton, Yale and the other usual suspects.

Each competition meant defending or attacking topics that were thrown out with lightning speed. You learned to listen closely, evaluate what you heard, and judge the logical structures, content holes and general weaknesses in the other side's position. At the same time, you learned to formulate a persuasive position of your own that was logically solid and consistent and which would win the judges to your side.

All this was done on your feet after just 10 minutes preparation.

And all the time, pitiless judges decided if you won or lost.

In just those two years I competed at roughly 25 tournaments on the regional, national and international level. In between, we'd practice at least 2-3 times a week. I figure I must have done at least 125 competition rounds and another 120 practice rounds or about 400 speeches in total.

I did other debating before and after these two years but never so intensely as this period.

If nothing else, this experience has given me a finely tuned internal BS detector. I just can't help it: I hear a politician or talk radio caller natter on about their favourite topic and my mind starts to tick over finding holes, misstatements, empty rhetoric, junk arguments, made-up history, fallacious attacks etc.

The scary part is how pervasive all these false arguments are and how quickly they are generally accepted. It's alarming to me the ease with which these positions trip off the political (and non-political) and journalistic tongues. These are generally people who really should know better.

I try to do my small part to clarify the public debate to a place where less bullshit reigns. Sometimes I will go on talk radio or whathaveyou and refute some particularly egregious lump of indigestible nonsense.

I've heard debating dismissed as a dry academic elitist activity that has little relation to the real world. They are wrong. The ability to think independently and to clearly articulate solid ideas in a persuasive way is never irrelevant. It's a skill that is useful to the person and the society in which they live.

This province has a proud history of producing great orators and debaters. More than any other place in Canada, we have produced public figures who could reason and speak and persuade. Some used those skills for the greater good of the province, some others used them to further their own ends and more than a few just liked to hear themselves talk.

But those skills should never be left solely in the hands of those who dominate the public stage. Those skills need to be in the minds of their audiences too. It's valuable and necessary to the public environment; it is the very essence of openness, transparency, accountability, fairness and balance.

We need the populace armed with these skills so they can defend themselves against their similarly armed leaders.

I try to do my small part in making this happen. One of my ongoing projects and activities is teaching debating to the next generation coming up through the school system. Lately I've been spending a lot of time with junior high students (some places start a whole lot younger than that, even at primary school), training them for local competitions and then taking them to national events. They do well and they are much stronger in thinking and speaking than you might expect.

What do I teach them? I train them to listen, think and evaluate what they hear. I teach them to never accept what they hear at face value. I teach them to read and digest information so they will understand the world around them. I teach them to reason through a position for themselves using the best tool they will ever have - their power of independent thought.

It's an uphill fight and the hill has never been steeper than it is today. But I always have hope and I figure I'm in this for the long game.

So when I see an editorial from the Telegram that closes with lines like these, I know that there are others who hold dear the same goals as I.
Unless you've already made up your mind on a political issue - whether it's the idea that the federal government destroyed the fishery or the belief that Confederation has been bad for this province, or even that oil companies are corporate monsters robbing a provincial birthright - you owe it to yourself to ensure that you have the most information possible.

We've lost a lot in this province when we've made decisions without complete information.

We've lost even more when we've let political masters tell us what we're supposed to believe.

Ignorance and prejudice are best fought with knowledge - and if there is anything we can give our children, let's remind them of the value of thinking and questioning and learning.

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