It was the summer of 1974 and it was unbearably hot at the debate camp I was attending. The “camp” directors made certain we knew we’d not have fun, it was going to be the hardest two weeks of school we’d ever had. The staff prided themselves on crafting polished public speakers, capable of eloquent, effective and winning arguments. Losers need not attend.
Our debate topic: the American welfare system. Should it be abolished? Morning lectures covered the policies and in the afternoon they drilled us on the pros and cons. Without air conditioning in the classrooms, the heat was oppressive. Taking copious notes, I wondered how our government could continue to be so wasteful.
The evenings were spent frolicking around the city, going to movies and partying in the dorms. Wrong. We were in the library framing our arguments. We’d now been divided in half. I was on the team debating to abolish the system. This was the most challenging position because while we could point out all the problems, in order to win we needed to offer a better solution. After the library closed we’d gather in the dorms, having hushed conversations so our opponents wouldn’t hear. We carefully drafted our cases and practiced together before class.
The two best teams were chosen to debate on the final day. I sat and took notes---I needed some award winning arguments. During the last rebuttal phase, one of the speakers delivered a one-liner that drew spectator applause. His sarcastic words poked hard at the people behind the broken system. I stole a glance at the stoic panel of judges. I just knew his well-worded rant would seal the victory for this team. Wrong. They lost.
The director gave us one final lesson. He said ranting would never win debates. It will not change the minds of those that matter. I guess in the thirty-some years since I heard those words it’s been easier for me to rant at the people behind the policies than the policies themselves.
I started a political rant jar in January. It quickly filled. But just because I penalized myself a buck a rant didn’t help me win any arguments. I recalled my debate professor’s words, “Rants don’t score points. You want to win? Then study harder.”
I need to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of both sides and then have a fair debate. Maybe politics has gotten so ugly because of excessive ranting. I don’t need to make things uglier. I think it’s time to put away my rant jar.