Why “privilege” may be the wrong argument to use

Within religious studies, gender studies, and probably history and political science (and others I can’t think of), the word “privilege” has come to mean “a group of people is accorded special status due to their appearance or caste.” In my culture, it generally translates to WASPs, or White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and in particular, WASP men. Especially WASP men who own land and have decent jobs. And what privilege gets you is a long list of benefits, such as being able to assume you are generally right, and that you’ll have food and a home, and that you can get a job, and that police won’t harass you, and that your opinion won’t be dismissed due to your gender, race, or religious beliefs.

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Tell me your story

It was my novice year of speech & debate and we were approaching yet another series of out-rounds for which I had not qualified. For those less familiar with the organization of debate tournaments, allow me to outline their general chronology. In Missouri, tourneys usually span two days,  the first day consisting of regular rounds and day two being when things really heat up. You’ve just spent the night in a hotel with three or more of your squad mates, often cold and on the floor (in my case) because some wanker demanded to have the bed for himself, and you’re completely exhausted but wired for the second morning. You push through the day’s events, either making it to quarterfinals or not, and then settle into an awards ceremony for those who succeeded. The awards ceremony itself takes place before semifinals of debate, allowing the vast majority of the attendees to scarper before the last few ascend the podium for their final bouts.

If your teammates, rather than you, placed in semifinals, you still had to stick around of course. We generally traveled to tournaments en masse by way of a bus, so the rest of us would sit and watch while our champions defended our name. Those champions were generally someone other than me.

I hadn’t placed at this particular tournament, but there was some confusion immediately after the awards ceremony that necessitated my missing the beginning of semifinals. While most of my team went to watch, I was saddled with the task of moving all of our luggage from the gym, where we’d left it, so the janitors could begin cleaning. One other girl and I got it all moved and arrived somewhere in the middle of the first speech (spied through the tiny window on the door), then slumped down to the floor in the hallway rather than interrupting the round by trying to enter late.

“Tell me your life story,” Brooke said quietly.

“What, like, the whole thing?” I asked.

“Sure, we’ve got time,” she replied with a smile.

Of course, there was no way I was going to comply in full. I had a lot of secrets at the time, and I didn’t want Brooke to think poorly of me. But with nothing better to do, I began to spill, and talked for the next hour and a half without pause.

The round ended, we loaded up the bus, and Brooke and I sat next to each other. Somewhere during the two and a half hour ride, I fell asleep, drooling sweetly on her shoulder, and woke only when we pulled up to our high school. I was mortified when I awoke, and in retrospect am surprised that I didn’t turn the darkness to day with the heat of my blush, but she didn’t mind. She just smiled and told me not to worry about it, and as we began to exit the bus, she turned and hugged me.

It was the first hug I had received in over two years.

I’m a debater, not a journalist

I’m pretty secure in the knowledge that a blogger is not a journalist. Bloggers don’t generally report to anyone, we don’t usually have editors, and our publication is not competitive. We have a dedicated outlet for our voices and can put up pretty much whatever we want. If you don’t like it, tough, and if it’s not accurate*, well, it’s the Internet. Deal.

But my articles are usually self-contained, which is to say that I’m usually writing about an experience or thought I’ve had, or writing about how to accomplish something with a computer. I’m not critiquing anyone directly, so journalistic integrity isn’t something I have had to deal with.

That is until recently, when I lambasted a writer for ZDNet about his article on texting. I was a bit conflicted about the piece because I wrote it somewhat hastily and with a touch of frustration†, but I still didn’t think much about it until the original author commented on my blog entry, accusing me of not reading his article closely. I’d also been reading a few apologies from newspapers in recent days for mistakes they had made and failures to check facts, and it all had me thinking.

Maybe I should have contacted Chris Dawson to ask for a clarification on his article. I could then have written a complementary piece to his own, extending his observations and clarifying his points. Through instant message and Twitter conversations, I knew that I wasn’t the only person to reach negative conclusions about the piece he had written, but perhaps my response was unjustified.

As I read just such an apology in our campus newspaper about an inaccurate headline, something clicked for me. Or snapped. I’m not obligated to contact people and find out if they had meant to sound as stupid as they did or ask what they had really meant so I can clarify on their behalf. And if someone disagrees with my conclusion, that’s fine. I’m not here to report the news. I’m not a journalist, I’m a debater.

When we were just novii in Deana Butcher’s debate room, we were told quite bluntly that we would be attacked. We would be told we didn’t know jack, our intelligence would be insulted, and our carefully crafted and researched cases would be torn to shreds. No respect or quarter would be given to us based on our personalities, looks, or effort. The other team’s job was to attack us, and they would. Our job was to defend, and we must.

As I recalled the moment–my nodding contrasted with the somewhat shocked look on my squad mates’ faces (for where they had grown up somewhat wealthy, well-liked, and respected, I was the quiet nerd who had been beat up and shouted down throughout elementary and junior high school)–I was reminded of a similar concept shared by my religion professor of several years, Dr. Charles Hedrick.

Dr. Hedrick wrote a number of critical and scholarly books about Christianity, all of which received negative criticism and praise in equal measures, and all of which were easily argued against. As he wrote, Charlie knew that there were valid arguments against his statements, just as he knew the counter-arguments, but he elected to not include that discussion in his book. Rather, he left those points open for other people to raise in their letters to newspaper editors and in books they would, in turn, publish.

Attempting to pre-empt every argument would be both futile and boring. The book would be very long and, for those who hadn’t conceived those arguments, boring. And for those who would have raised such attacks, they no longer would. Pre-emption would lead to stagnation of discussion and debate. Better to leave an opening for someone to attack than to stifle them and prevent them from raising their voice.

Inciting discussion, dialogue, and debate is more important than always being right. When I enter a conversation that is more than just sharing pleasantries–when it is more akin to a debate–I am not interested in proving myself right or in showing how my conversational partner is wrong. Rather, my goal is for us to discuss, to share our passion, and to hopefully find some sort of understanding. I debate not to win, but to learn. If I attack someone’s ideas, it is because I want them to defend and explain them to me, to sell me on the concept, and to help me understand their point. Conversely, I would expect them to listen openly to me as well.

When a conversation degenerates into a closed-minded roundabout where each side is just trying to prove the other wrong, no progress can be made. Understanding cannot be reached when both parties feel, not only that they are right, but that there is no possibility that they could be wrong. Such bloody-mindedness is something I neither desire nor seek out, and I do my best to eradicate the vestiges of it in my own soul. I will defend my points, because that is my job, but I will not refuse to concede defeat if I am wrong.

I do not claim to truly understand the definition of a “journalist.” I feel that their calling is somehow greater than that of a “reporter,” but I also feel that the way has become clouded, the verbiage murky. Journalism, in my perhaps idyllic view, is not what it once was, but I do think that it is something great.

It is simply not what I do. I’m not here to dig into people’s words and minds and find out what they really meant or what really went down. I don’t have the time or resources for that, as interesting as it sounds. I love the truth, but I’m not going to drag it out of you. If you can’t communicate your truth clearly and succintly, I will attack you, shredding what you have said and exposing it for the rubbish it is. And if you feel that it is not rubbish, that your points were valid, and that there is still something worthwhile to uphold, then do so. Defend. Parry. Riposte.

I’ll be waiting for the 2NC.

* I always attempt to be accurate. In this paragraph, I am relating what seems to generally be the case among bloggers as a whole. If I write something that ends up being inaccurate or wholly incorrect, I will always (and have in the past) issue a correction.

† In this particular case, when I say “hastily and with frustration,” I do not mean that I regret the core of what I wrote, but rather that I didn’t polish the piece as I normally would and might, in retrospect, have phrased some things differently. I still feel like Dawson’s article was poorly done and insulting of an entire demographic, failing to take into account that texting is just the latest take on a well-established method of using text messages to communicate and collaborate that spans BBSes, telnet, IRC, talkers, email, and instant messaging. Dawson’s ideas are not new ones, but he presented them as if they were, and essentially said that everyone of a younger demographic were wasting their time and we, on our mighty pedestals, must educate them on the proper use of these tools. I stand by what I wrote; if I wrote hastily and out of frustration, it was somewhat to vent what I believed (and still believe) to be true.‡

‡ This concept, of educating those younger than us, and why it often annoys me, probably deserves an article of its own. I’ll write one this weekend.

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for sticking with it. Please drop by again on Monday when I continue this development by comparing debate and discussion. The piece above, despite being written and posted, represents something developmental–these ideas form and change as I grow and learn more, and continue to change this very minute. I stand by what I write, but that doesn’t mean that any piece represents 100% of me or what I think.

So, check in again Monday to see another piece of Matthew.

Moral Permissibility

Last month I had the honour to judge at the Hillcrest High School Speech & Debate Tournament (yay for long titles!). I couldn’t judge finals of policy (CX) debate because I had already judged one of the teams earlier in the day, but I was able to judge finals of Lincoln-Douglas Debate. LD differs from CX in that it focuses on values and morals rather than legislative or policy changes/solutions.

The topic for the debate was as follows

Resolved: It is morally permissible to kill one innocent person to save the lives of more innocent people.

There are two debaters in each LD round, an affirmative and a negative, with one defending the resolution and the other attacking it. The affirmative had some fairly common sensical arguments, mostly centered around utilitarianism, or doing the greatest good for the greatest amount of people. She maintained that it was inarguably better to sacrifice one person to save five, and that we must weigh the greater good in all circumstances. That sometimes sacrifice was necessary to preserve more lives.

I felt like the negative debater made a much more interesting argument, however. He claimed that the resolution was specious in its very wording, and that the affirmative’s argument of necessity (her value was “harm” but her focus was that it was sometimes necessary to sacrifice an individual) was flawed. Just because sacrificing an individual was sometimes necessary, the negative argued, that didn’t make it moral. His value was that of deontology, or “A non-consequential approach to evaluating ethics, whereby the degree of ethicalness depends on the intentions behind the decisions rather than the outcomes or actions that result.” (Esomar Research).

The negative went on to say that we simply cannot view human life as a means to an end, and that by the value of deontology we must evaluate the means rather than the ends. If it is immoral to kill one innocent person (as he convinced the affirmative to admit), then it does not magically become moral just because more people might be saved. Both options (letting the majority die or killing the single innocent person) are immoral. Necessity does not equal moral permissibility.

I voted for the negative, first because I felt like he made a strong argument that was correct, but also because the affirmative never replied to his attacks. I won’t debate for someone, so if she’d made a good response, the round would have gone to her, but she didn’t. Regardless, after reading a blog post about Jack Bauer from the hit TV show 24 and his willingness to kill, it got me thinking about this topic of moral permissibility again.

This blog entry is, essentially, by way of introduction; it’s already long enough as it is. Chew a bit on it, and I’ll extend tomorrow to discuss the valuation of different human beings, comparing the hale and healthy to the mentally or physically ill or impaired.

Reflections on Blogging

After this week, I intend to publish a post once a week for the next 5-6 weeks exploring why I do or think some of the things I do. I’ve received a few challenges over the last month questioning why I have this website, why I blog, why I write in general, why I value transparency, and some of my other philosophies in general. Therefore, I will answer those challenges as best I am able with more writing.

April and I watched a movie a week or so ago that really resonated with me because of its focus on speech & debate, primarily policy (cross-ex) debate in high school. I’m assuming the director and/or writers were debaters, because it was spot-on about so many things, and I really enjoyed reliving those times through film. What was particularly interesting, however, was the lead female actress in the film.

She had the role down solid, and as I watched her performance, I realized that most of the girls I knew in high school were all debaters. As such, their personality was very much like this character’s: forceful, arrogant, self-centered, knowledgeable, intelligent, well-read, well-spoken, etc. That was the type of girl I was attracted to, but I don’t think I quite understood that until last night. For most people watching however, she was probably abrasive and it would be hard to understand why someone might like her; she was clearly the antagonist. But to the 15 year old me, she was pretty ideal.

It reminded me of my days in debate, and watching the movie highlighted that there are aspects of that world that someone who didn’t grow up in it, didn’t experience it first hand and really buy into it, could understand. Lines like “debate is life,” and “you don’t take sides, they only prevent you from arguing them both effectively” still have close places in my heart, but non-debaters probably just find it an interesting idea. For us, it was a maxim or a mantra.

I say this to introduce this series by way of referencing academia. My philosophies and life are no longer influenced so strongly by speech & debate, but they are influenced heavily by my work and life in academia. I will talk more about this throughout the series, but the truth of the matter is that people who have bought into the dream of higher education, who really believe in what we are doing here, will understand what I’m talking about. For everyone else, it will likely be just an interesting idea.

I don’t know what day these posts will go live, but they will be tagged and titled appropriately. Look for them in the coming weeks.