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Debate Is A Dangerous Thing

by Alex Taubes
March 21, 2019

This interview with Alex Taubes, national college debate champion, founder of Rikers Debate Project, and lawyer, was conducted and condensed by frank news.

I'm curious how you look at debate, political debates, especially in the US. I'm sure your experience changes the way you perceive this information, as somebody who's been the person on the stage, what do you think of them?

It's an interesting question. I come at it from my own perspective as a debater, but also as a politically engaged person. I ran for office while I was in law school, and I've coached some political debates, and it goes all the way back to college and high school. But for me, it's never been debate as an abstract thing. It's always been debate as part of the things that I'm interested in, like the political situation and the state of the world today. Then also to a certain extent philosophical questions that are empirical, or that deal with things that are not strictly political.

There have been some big transitions for me in terms of thinking about debate. Because I was a person on a stage. After I finished debating, I went into the world of law, really deeply immersed myself in it. First with a job before law school, then law school, and now as a lawyer. Debate is totally law, they're very, very similar. Most legal arguments and legal cases are ultimately a debate about what a judge or a jury should do given a situation. And you've got two sides debating it.

Seeing it play out in a legal context gives me a different point of view than seeing it as a college debater. It helps illustrate some of the fundamental issues and problems with debate itself.

Debate is a dangerous thing. It's not neutral, it's not simple. It's something that can be used to manipulate information, and can be used to distort the truth.

There's certain cautionary principles about debate that I really have come to believe in as a result of seeing the world a little bit more fully than in the college debate world.

What are those things?

First of all, the role of power imbalances. I really believe that there should be no debate without consent. And that consent is a very broad concept that encompasses an informed consent as well. Because the terms of a debate can very quickly change, debate can involve very emotional attacks, and intense negativity. Debates involve a clash, that's what makes them a debate.

The platform, and the issues, and the questions, and the methods all have to be agreed to fully by the parties. You see that in the law. All the procedural protections that are built into the law to make a trial a fair trial, or to make an argument a fair argument. Those are not always perfect the way they work out in the law, but it's getting at this idea that debate can be something that needs to be tightly regulated.

And in the presidential debates in 2016, there were some really big problems. I thought that the biggest problem was that the current president, when he was running, was able to assert an equal authority with the moderator. And essentially use his power there to exploit the proceedings. So when no one ever cut off Donald Trump's microphone, ever, during any of the debates, that is a huge problem.

No one ever subordinated him to any authority. He was always the authority. And no one consented to that, no one agreed to that, he just decided it.

Couldn't it be interpreted that if a moderator shuts off a microphone they're being somehow impartial?

Yeah. But the thing is, there is no neutral, there is no impartial. To the extent that Donald Trump tries to take over the system and exploit its rules, there's no defeating him while maintaining impartiality, because he'll always ... if he loses, which is really what needed to happen, he'll maintain the thing he lost was not legitimate. You can't let that change a legitimate decision, which is to shut off the microphone if someone breaks the rule.


And if you have rules, you need to enforce them evenly. You need to have agreed to rules, and you need to enforce them. I actually think that in the context of the debates, in the context of moderation by a moderator, shutting off Donald Trump's microphone might have stopped him in his tracks. Because subordinating him to an authority and really putting him into the childish category, would have undermined a lot of his appeal, even to his own supporters.

Do you think there are other structural changes to debate that can make it harder for candidates to game the system?

Well, it's hard. I mean don't get me wrong, it's not an easy task that these commissions and these moderators and journalists have. Just like it's not easy to be a judge.

Because at some level, you do have to go into it thinking both sides have legitimate points of view. And that they are equally legitimate in essence, and that they're equally valid. What happens is that that's not always the case, right? I said at the beginning, I don't come at this from a neutral perspective, I have a political set of beliefs. But because there are sometimes good and bad sides, if you rigidly maintain that there has to be this neutrality, the system's always going to be exploited. And there's no neutral rule that can prevent that. The rule that can defeat that is an aware person who sees what's going on.

We see that all the time in the law, there are specific rules that sometimes get exploited. Therefore, you need to have broader, vaguer rules that the judge can enforce when they believe that the more specific rules are being exploited. That happens all the time.

How do you think the at home viewer should engage with debates? Is there a way to discuss them that encourages viewership through a particular lens, or with certain things in mind that could be helpful in interpreting the chaos?

I think it would be wise for people to take their expectations down for debates, and to recognize that they have less influence than their salience may suggest. I've told that to people running for office, blankly, that this debate that I'm helping you prepare for, matters less than you think it does. Someone's brought me in to coach them before a debate. I'm not working on the campaign beforehand, they think that they need my expertise. 

Usually the type of advice I'm giving is to focus on your supporters morale, to focus on your opponents morale, and how you can influence that. Morale is pretty much the limited expression of debates influence on victory.

In any election you have broad social demographic realities that determine a political battlefield. Some elections are just not going to be determined on debates because it's 60/40, 70/30. If it's a really close election, what the election is going to come down to is the ground game, and people knocking on doors and getting out to vote on election day. The debates are already over focused on. There's way too much of an emphasis placed on the debates. I would tend to tell people, "Don't worry about this, it's going to happen, it's going to end. This will pass, and get back out there making phone calls."

You mean in terms of a campaigning tool debates are not that effective?

They're effective, the limit of their effect, I believe, is in a close election they may affect the morale of the supporters, the die hards.

The goal of the debate for a candidate, should not be to persuade an undecided voter. It should be to give hope and strength to the people who are going to be working for you in the coming weeks, for free, out of their passion for changing the world, and making it a better place.

Motivate those people to go out and win the election for you. And if it's a close election, that's the only way you're going to make it a better chance of winning.

Isn't the point of the debate to be educational? To give the citizenry a glimpse into what these candidates governance would look like? It's more of a sign about how they would govern, in terms of character, emotional stability, and policy than it is about persuading people?

For those people for whom the decision is going to be made based on the debate, that's definitely how they feel about it. But by the time of a debate the people who are watching it have already made up their minds, the vast majority have already made up their minds. There's certain exceptions to this. Obviously you don't want to really, really embarrass yourself.

Because if you really embarrass yourself in a debate, and it becomes a part of broader popular culture, that's going to be an embarrassment for you. And that's going to affect your overall ability to be popular. For example, I understand Sarah Palin did very poorly, and that hurt Sarah Palin to a certain extent. But on the other hand, it didn't really hurt her that much, because she also still has a very strong following. You know what I mean?


I don't think debates matter in campaigns as much as people think, or would like to think. Except that I think they matter in a limited key way that I would advise candidates to tap into, especially in a primary.

Why especially in the primary?

You're really trying to ignite die hard people who are very well informed already. And trying to get them to be your advocates. Because those are the only ones who are going to pay attention to a debate. The only debates that are breaking into the popular consciousness, because people watching them are people not that into politics, are presidential ones at the very end, right before the election every four years.

The primary ones, they'll break through when there's a particularly funny moment, or particular big slam dunk, somebody getting dunked on. But really you're competing over these die hard people, in either party, who are trying to see how it’s going to advance their unique political idiosyncrasies, that drive them to donate their time, their money to politics. Over other things that people pay attention within their recreational and social life.

That's why Donald Trump was able to win in a very crowded primary. That's why Bernie Sanders is likely the favorite among the democrats in this primary now with a crowded field. That dynamic is not going to change until there's something like ranked choice voting. But the debates won't have an influence until more structural issues are dealt with. Maybe the way to do that is to have debates that aren't tied to campaigns, that are just tied to broader social issues that people care about between people who have very, very different opinions about them. But a campaign debate is not necessarily a good way to educate people.

For debate to be effective they need a structural overhaul –

Not just debates, but the whole political system and the media.

It is interesting to look at how the debates are branded, how they're advertised, how they're sold. The whole thing is a much larger reflection of the relationship between media and politics.

And a lot of it is meaningless in terms of competitive advantage. There's a spin room after the debates where people are advocating for their candidates, and it's very transparent. That doesn't really matter. There are certain times when there's a moment that really sticks out, like Rick Perry saying, "Oops." But the spin rooms are kind of like insurance. They're there, they're going to spin no matter what.

People are persuaded by things that have nothing to do with the content of the debate, like the body language, and who was being emotional. There's a lot of double standard for women debaters and the way they're treated in the media, and by people who are watching.

Again, like I said, it's dangerous to put too much of an emphasis onto it. Another danger of debate is this false equivalence. An example of this false equivalency is this vaccine stuff. On the one hand, you want to debate and have these issues out in public, do vaccines cause autism and all of these things. But on the other hand, you don't want it to be a debate, because the scientific community isn't really debating it. And by debating it, you give the appearance of two equally legitimate sides.

When that is not actually the case.

Exactly. Or you want to debate people who are saying there's no climate change. Is a debate really the way to do that? I don't think so, because if you take measures to counter the misinformation, you're accused of being impartial. Some things shouldn't be debated, and that goes back to no debate without consent.

That's a great point. I want to talk about your debate program at Rikers Island.

Sure. We founded the Rikers Debate Project in 2016. It has meant a lot of different things to different people over these last two-and-a-half years. I recently left the board, although I started a counterpart/chapter that's based here in Connecticut. We go to the York Correctional Institution in Niantic. We call it the York Debate Society. But anyways, it's a lot of different things.

We go to the prison, or the jail in the case of Rikers, with one to five teachers. We have a debate class, although it's also called debate team, depending on who you are and why you're there. We have open forum, we have meditation, we have discussion of selected public issues, or world issues. For some classes there are prepared issue packets, with lots of articles about those issues from different perspectives that are given a week in advance. Other classes it's on the spot based on the knowledge you have.

We still have lessons in a lot of the classes, based on what's going on, that teach debate based skills. Debate based skills could be anything from how to form an argument, to body language when giving a speech and hand gestures. Or projecting your voice, varying your volume, your speed, etc. It could be about the note taking methods that debaters use, and how to write while someone's speaking so that you can respond to them point-by-point. Or the skills involved in reading an article, and identifying the argument that it's making. And reading it and coming up with a counter argument.

There's so many ways debate can be used to teach lessons, basic skills, or more advanced things that people are interested in learning about. We also have competitive debates in the class between our students, sometimes involving the instructors as judges or competitors. Occasionally we've had public debates where our students have competed against each other, or students and teacher combinations have competed together against other student and teacher combinations, on the important public issues that we believe need to be debated.

For a lot of the people involved, it's part of a political social project where we believe in integrated public discussion, where people who are most impacted by public issues are the ones leading the discussion, and driving the change.

Some of it is about trying to encourage that, and create spaces for that. There's also a big component of the Rikers Debate Project that involves re-entry. Whether that means working with re-entry groups like Fortune Society to do classes in the community, involving people who are impacted by the justice system, where we do debate team, and debate class, and all those things I talked about.

Screen Shot 2019 03 20 at 1.54.58 PM

The Rikers Debate Project has hired fellows who are individuals who were formerly incarcerated who work for the organization and engage in public debates and lobbying in Albany, New York and at the city council level. And do a lot of other cool, great stuff. We actually started doing the York Debate Society in April of last year, kind of like frank news.


It's been at an all women's prison here in Connecticut, in Niantic. At Rikers we had a mix of classes. We had people who were serving short sentences, we had women's classes, we had men's classes. We had, for a while, classes involving younger people. There have also been other chapters that have been offshoots of the organization in Washington DC, in New Jersey. It's really cool stuff.

What was the impetus for starting with Rikers, and then moving into the women's prison?

Rikers was a random chance. We had this network of people who did college debating who stayed in touch. One of those people happened to be working for, of all places, McKinsey on a contract with the Department of Correction in New York City. They were making recommendations like, "Well you should have more programs at Rikers," stuff like that.

One of his ideas was, "Why don't we have a debate team?" For some of us who weren't working at McKinsey, we were like, "Hell yeah, we'll do a debate team at Rikers Island." I was in New Haven, Connecticut, but I made it out there many, many times. A couple dozen times at least to just go and be a part of it. Prison debate teams have a long history in the United States.

Malcolm X was on a prison debate team. Prison debate teams have existed in all different parts of the United States, in all different times of history of the United States. We wanted to be a part of that tradition. That's where a lot of our political bend comes from.

We got some quick victories, and the DOC was pretty welcoming of us. We have a very good pitch to correctional officials, which is that it's free. We're just volunteers who come in and do this, there's no cost to the prison.

That's allowed us to get into action without as many obstacles as some more involved, and probably more needed in many ways, services. It's kind of like Teach For America for prison. Except in this case, we're not replacing anyone's job, it's just something that's not being done in large enough numbers. And there really is a good benefit. When debate is at its best, it allows you to see a new point of view, and engage with somebody.

Having the people living within a system debate and discuss the system they're living in, seems critical. It's one thing for a lawmaker, politician, or civilian to hypothesize and discuss issues in theory, but I can't imagine someone making a more compelling argument than the person who's living it every single day.

Absolutely. Our first public debate was at Rikers, it was me, my partner Terrell, and we were up against my old college debate partner Rocky Lakito, and his partner Juel. The topic was whether prisoners should have the right to vote. We got the good side, and we won, which goes back to not all sides are created equal in a debate. But it gave two different points of view because Rocky's partner was very confident and was a very good debater from the beginning. Just couldn't wait to get up there to destroy us.

Terrell, who is younger, was not as confident at the start, and was a little bit shy about standing up and speaking in front of the entire residence unit at Rikers Island, as well as media, New York Times, our debate coaches, DOC officials, etc. But as the debate went along, he said some really, really beautiful things that I think you just wouldn't have heard anywhere else, because it wouldn't have come through. Terrell's been freed from Rikers Island, and he and I stay in touch, it’s been nice to make connections with other human beings that you wouldn't otherwise meet, or talk to, or exchange letters with otherwise.

Like I said, Rikers Debate Project, York Debate Society, and these other projects like it that have sprung up in cities all across the country spontaneously, they represent to me a lot of different things to a lot of different people, almost all of them good.

Despite being weary of how influential or important political debates are, you still think the medium is important for communicating ideas.

Today I'm a lawyer, and I represent people in legal matters. I'm very lucky to be able to say I've never had to make an argument I don't believe in, because I work at a firm that defends human rights, and doesn't try to violate them. But I also see the importance of arguments, and making a good argument.

I don't think you need to tell people that debate is important, because they know that an argument is all that keeps them from being thrown in prison, or losing their house, or even being deported, losing their child.

I think people know, people want to be good at arguing. They want to be able to follow the argument, and they want to understand it. What I would tell people is that the best argument is a story, and your best argument is your story. No one else can tell you, or define for you, what your story is, only you can. Remember that, you can't be wrong, you can't be turned down, or put down, or dismissed just for that. You have some power in your story. That's what I would say about that.