Sailboats And The Spirit: Finn’s Thoughts, Part Two

Sailboats And The Spirit: Finn’s Thoughts, Part Two

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Finn” is a pseudonym.

< Part One

The other half involves an openness to new ideas.

I can remember people commenting on a quotation I used in one of my policy debate cases. The quotation dealt with some random technical aspect of immigration policy — the content of which wasn’t an issue. The issue was that the card was from someone who worked at the Ayn Rand Institute, and Ayn Rand was an atheist. Therefore (these people said), I needed to be careful about using this card. I remember being concerned by these comments at the time, but now I see no foundation for them. Instead, I see a byproduct of the somewhat insular community which Christian speech and debate creates.

Because the community is distinctly conservative and distinctly Christian, and because the community is centered around the ability to communicate a message, some of the most popular messages are those that create a group mentality (Jonathan Haidt has some important research about the importance group loyalty plays in conservative groups; give his works a read if you’re interested). In other words, the messages that get to the top are those that create an us vs. them mentality: Christians in a culture war, liberals trying to destroy the Constitution, America becoming increasingly immoral, etc. Regardless of whether or not you believe these messages are true, it should be clear that the combination of these narratives with the homogenous nature of the speech and debate community creates a very real possibility for students to develop a fear of outside ideas.

I can remember the first time I met an openly gay person. I can remember watching his hands to make sure he didn’t have a knife.

I listened carefully as we were talking, lest some underhanded message corrupt me. I did my best to stay polite, yet slightly gruff and on my guard (I was 14 with a somewhat squeaky voice – a funny picture, no doubt). I was confused for a while after he left. I didn’t see any attempts to undermine my faith (we talked mostly about the weather), and he was phenomenally well-spoken. This reaction wasn’t just because I thought “gay” was bad – it was because I had created an “us vs. them” narrative in my head and begun to fear people along with the idea. I had prevented myself from engaging with a human person because of a narrative I had created as a result of my fear of an idea.

But there’s a deeper reason why a fear of ideas is bad. To illustrate it, I need to introduce the concept of Hegel’s dialectic.

Hegel, a German philosopher who lived between 1770 and 1831, taught that knowledge was achieved through a threefold process: the thesis, the antithesis, and the synthesis. Essentially, you begin with one idea, contradict it with another idea, and then get a result (the synthesis) which is closer to the actual truth than either of the originals. In other words: every set of ideas has something to teach us.

Action items:

1. Students: you’re in high school. You have barely completed a fifth of your average life. You haven’t figured things out; you don’t have a perfect conception of God. That’s not a bad thing as long as your conception of God changes. If your faith and beliefs are not changing and developing, look carefully at speech and debate to ensure the insular community is not inhibiting the process described above.

2. For judges and parents: recognize that your kids are growing up. They’re going to be evaluating ideologies that you’re not comfortable with regardless of how much your try to shelter them. Competitors may advocate for ideas in debates that are contradictory to your own. That’s perfectly fine. Debate (particularly in the NCFCA and Stoa) is a safe environment. Your decision in a debate is feedback about the comparison between the two teams — not implementing a real philosophy or policy: occasionally you may vote for teams that you disagree with personally. Again, that’s fine.

In fact, one of the worst things you can do is to take a competitor aside in one of the infamous hallway conversations and tell them that the ideas are “dangerous” or discourage further interest in them. If you really believe that what you believe is true, then you should be comfortable with people exploring the arguments in a safe environment. Be their partner in discovery, not someone that holds them back from developing a broader understanding. Otherwise you may be surprised at what was suppressed when you are no longer there to restrain their intellects.

My time in the NCFCA was incredibly positive. I learned to speak professionally. I learned to analyze topics and arguments with an acuity that I couldn’t have achieved through any other method. I’m still involved in the homeschool debate scene because I want other people to experience this tremendous growth and development and get the maximal amount of benefit from it.

End of series.

Sailboats And The Spirit: Finn’s Thoughts, Part One

Sailboats And The Spirit: Finn’s Thoughts, Part One

HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Finn” is a pseudonym.

A few weeks ago, I ventured back into the depths of my Documents folder and found my apologetics cards. It wasn’t long before I started cringing.

My conception of God, though still distinctly Christian, has grown significantly since graduation from high school two years ago. A large part of this has been reading some of the greatest works in religion and philosophy in college; only a few years ago, I had read virtually no significant philosophical works and had virtually no knowledge of any religion besides Christianity.

I want to tell a few stories, and then I’ll close with a few action items for both judges/parents and students who may be reading this article.

When I first started speech and debate, I never did very well in impromptu because I simply wasn’t very good at talking about something random. Then, I noticed that I would get noticeably higher rankings when I would pick a topic which involved talking about God. So, naturally, I began connecting even the most straightforward topics to some spiritual-sounding stuff like grace, Jesus’s sacrifice, or our sin nature. I remember thinking during one round “alright, and for the third point I’ll just drop my voice really soft and sound all distressed about our depraved nature and then close with Jesus.” The topic itself had nothing to do with the Christian message, but by golly I was going to put some spiritual-sounding junk in there somewhere. And that’s exactly what it was: junk.

But it got me the rankings. 

I wasn’t glorifying God by using my soft, passionate voice to talk about the virtuous stuff I threw in there to get the judges to like me. I was literally only talking about God because I noticed the correlation between my rankings and the total amount of Christian spiritual content.

I tell this story because I want to warn students against doing what I did.

You might think that this phenomenon is rare. On the contrary, I’ve seen nothing but increasing numbers of competitors catching onto this. At nationals, I judged a round of illustrated oratory. Seven out of the eight speakers spent a sizable portion of their time talking about God despite the fact that only two or three of the topics were actually about spiritual matters. Some of the analogies and methods they used to tie in “God” were so laughable that I’m sure I just had a blank stare across my face for a good portion of the round. (As much as I’m tempted to share an example, I don’t want to call a particular speech out for doing exactly what I was guilty of.) A persuasive room was similar: this time, seven out of eight speakers spoke about some topic of spiritual importance or somehow tied in references to God without actually doing any real in-depth analysis of those spiritual matters. These people are discovering exactly what I did years ago: that judges evaluate speeches with spiritual content with a lower standard.

Now, the NCFCA and Stoa are Christian leagues. I’m not concerned that students are talking about God. I’m actually very glad that speakers are able to speak to religious matters in a Christian environment. Instead, I’m arguing that students should ensure that any reference to God advances the overall message of the speech. If your message is that “sailboats are really cool and interesting,” then make that point. Don’t leave me with a bunch of random spiritual concepts you threw out because they sounded good: leave me with knowledge about sailboats.

I’m also arguing that judges shouldn’t accept spiritual-sounding junk because it’s related to religion — more on this in a bit.

There’s a big gap between the NCFCA’s motto “addressing life issues from a Biblical worldview in a manner that glorifies God,” and “mentioning God every thirty seconds to get points.” To quote Lecrae: “I used to do it too,” but I count it as one of the greatest mistakes of my speech and debate career.

So, action items:

1. For students: speak carefully about God. What you say really does have power to change your audience. Don’t use it lightly. Don’t just parrot “spiritual-ese” in spiritual-ish tones. Say something profound. Make sure your judge learns something: write your religious-themed speeches and apologetics cards such that you can teach everyone something. This means research — not just rhetorical devices.

2. For judges and parents: start listening consciously for speakers that are only throwing out Christian-sounding stuff without any real thought or consideration. Don’t excuse weak analysis or lame metaphors just because the topic is somehow Godly. I know there are judges who do this (I’ve seen it happen on my ballots) because there’s a tendency to think that talking about God is far more important than talking about non-religious things. However, this perpetuates the divide between the sacred and the secular. Listen to speeches about missionaries and spiritual matters with the same intensity that you would apply to listening to a speech about sailboats. I don’t want to disclaim any responsibility for having done what I did, but it only happened because judges actually rewarded me for it.

So that’s half of what I want to say. The other half involves an openness to new ideas.

Part Two >