To win the argument, lose the debate

Willow Yang/Staff

On a recent Tuesday, nine UC Berkeley undergraduates and I gathered in a lecture room at the Goldman School of Public Policy to debate the subject of jus soli birthright citizenship — a principle enshrined in the 14th Amendment, which grants legal status to all persons born in sovereign U.S. territory. Despite my preparation and my crafted arguments, I had no chance of predicting the outcome.

Those of us who participated in the debate were chosen at random and assigned to a position: Five argued for the preservation of the jus soli principle, and five argued for its abolishment. I was assigned to the former.

In any other context, I probably would’ve been shitting bricks at the thought of debating. But at UC Berkeley, winning an argument in favor of birthright citizenship seemed like low-hanging fruit, as it goes without saying that our campus is widely regarded as a paradise for leftist politics. Not to mention those who earnestly favor abolishing birthright citizenship have been (mostly) tactless conservative candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, effectively poisoning the well from which alternatives to birthright citizenship might conceivably be drawn.

Arguing at a place like UC Berkeley to uphold jus soli birthright citizenship is therefore basically preaching to the choir — or, to coin an appropriately secular equivalent, is like teaching evolution to atheists.

For my own part, I began the assignment feeling fairly neutral about the issue. This isn’t to say I didn’t believe in a position, but I genuinely thought my perspective was free from emotional bias. And in this unflappably unbiased state, I envisioned myself going through the debate swaddled in a golden fleece of sanctimony, floating on a cloud of my own self-righteousness, high above the heads of my squabbling peers, who’d be too focused on the performance of debating to see they had lost sight of its true purpose — whatever that might be.

All of that clarity evaporated the moment I began the research process, and what was once a clear academic exercise morphed into a hideous crucible of anxiety.
First and foremost, I was immediately sucked down by the tactical minutiae. My team and I parsed out our individual roles like soldiers preparing for war. We strategized about the likeliest route the other team would take and how best to engage it. Our language quickly took on a combative quality, and as the theme of battle cemented itself in the approach we took, the pressure of facing “the enemy” grew ever more palpable. I began to obsess and agonize over anticipating the possible responses to our arguments: What would the other side say? What could I counter with? What would they counter that with?!

I struggled to arm myself with as much information about birthright citizenship and U.S. immigration policy as I could stand — not because I wanted to be more informed about the issue but because the fear of sounding like I didn’t know what I was talking about and the fear of losing were so overwhelming.

As I soaked up information regarding the process of naturalization; the bog and labyrinth of bureaucracy, legalese and inept agencies; the sea of personal stories of people lost in a nightmarish limbo, all of it worked to convince me that jus soli birthright citizenship is the only reliable safety net this country provides to people attempting to gain legal status — people who are staggeringly vulnerable.

In the blink of an eye, I fell victim to the initial problem I set out to avoid and had thought in my arrogance that I was above. I became a partisan.

The speech I gave on the day of the debate reflected my deep partisanship. My words dripped with pathos, which I’d hoped would work to influence the audience and disarm my opposition. But as I spoke, what emerged was my own emotional outpouring. It wasn’t until that moment that I understood how much I truly cared about the issue of immigration and what abolishing jus soli birthright citizenship might do to people. None of my preparation helped when it came to my own visceral reaction, and it became clear that I was, in fact, deeply emotionally biased.

By the end of my speech, I wasn’t sure if I was shouting (my team said I wasn’t), but I do know that biting my lip until it bled inside my mouth and training my eyes on my notes was all I could do to keep from breaking down and sobbing once it was over.

The rest of the debate was a haze during which I may as well have been drunk. At least then I might have been better equipped to deal with my emotional implosion. And being drunk would have also shielded me from learning that I am a pretty lousy debater, despite the effort I had put into my speech and research. My pressure-induced sweating and inability to stammer out a coherent response do little to phase an opponent, apparently.

My nerves felt so shorted out that I was hardly able to keep track of the opposing side’s ultimate proposal on the issue of jus soli birthright citizenship. It was only after all was said and done that I was able to learn in actual detail what the opposing side had even argued for.

When the debate finally ended, our professor asked the class to vote for the side it supported by a show of hands. Before the debate had commenced, the class had taken the same survey.

None of my classmates changed their vote as a result of what we had done.

For all our efforts, we weren’t effective at allowing the debate to sway our own beliefs or the beliefs of our peer audience. And despite the debate’s openness, it seemed nearly impossible to open our social consciousnesses to include ideas that didn’t already reverberate inside the UC Berkeley echo chamber of liberal political discourse.

Maybe this is because the critical awareness that is assumed of UC Berkeley students blinds us to our own susceptibility to becoming as ideologically insulated as the people we disagree with. Bias doesn’t occur in a vacuum, after all.

Or maybe this is a fundamental misreading of debate. Maybe debate is not so much a forum to interrogate a complex topic as it is an arena where battles are waged and fought with words and wits.

If so, is it reasonable to expect people to emerge from a debate with new appreciation for ideas or political identities radically departed from their own? The latter scenario is probably rare, if not purely imaginary, and the reality is that people walk away from debates further entrenched in their thinking. How can this be otherwise when debates combine the imperative to win with the psychology of belonging to a team?

Debates foster a situation where people are no longer listeners poised to understand a different perspective. Instead, debaters become adversaries who monitor one another for weaknesses, who watch hungrily for opportunities to attack and undermine their opponents. When two people have a normal discussion, even if it concerns controversial or volatile subject material, there isn’t typically a clear objective, if an objective exists at all. A debate, on the other hand, carries the very obvious mandate to win. Debate is an artform where the debaters’ skill is measured by how well they can argue each side, regardless of what they believe, what is empirically true or what is objectively right and ethical. Because the competitive element exists in debate — defines it, even — the debaters are forced to orient themselves and their argument around winning.

This isn’t a benign side effect, and it changes the way people perceive their roles. It transforms debaters into combatants whose obduracy reflects little more than a human weakness to resist a flawed game. Debaters become both champions and bannermen for larger political ideologies, and audiences are consigned to a subdued spectatorship, where they lust and demand to see their champion win these political battles, to inflict psychic wounds and to draw figurative blood. New histories are created this way in the saga of “the culture wars.”

But the greatest loss comes when we lose an opportunity as students and as citizens to engage an issue that has material consequences for actual people — people whose daily realities exist far away from the classroom or the bully pulpit. In this single-minded scramble to play the debate game, everyone loses.