Of the most treasured symbols of Western philosophy, perhaps none so vividly fills the mind with ambition as the agora. The ancient meeting place was the bedrock of debate — symbolic of the incessant human need to inquire, argue and resolve conflicting ideas. We admire the Socratic goal of finding truth through argument, or more modestly, eliminating falsehood through contradiction.
Yale tries to emulate the agora through the institution of the Yale Political Union. Spanning the kaleidoscopic range of political ideology, the Union principally dedicates itself to the notion of debate. “Principal” here is the suspect operative word. YPU debates are farcical imitations of debate, substituting ideological complacency and nonengagement for constructive, responsive debating. That’s not counting the incivility shown toward speakers.
YPU debates have become (have always been?) closer to spectacle or showmanship than serious discussion. Often, you are left wondering if the speaker has been told the resolution, or if they purposefully went on a ten-minute tangent. You have to feel some pity for the Union’s secretary, whose minutes are presumably filled with either a significant number of question marks or Lewis Carroll-esque poetry minus the insight. What is funny, or sad, is that almost everyone I have spoken to within the Union agrees that the YPU is awful compared to internal party debates. If no one can bare the rambling grandiloquence of the format, surely it is time for change. The format of debating in the YPU is critically deficient and needs reform. Serious debate requires two prerequisites that the YPU format lacks: responsiveness and shared assumptions.
Debating must be give and take. The YPU, however, is the equivalent of a bad seminar: lone, nonsequitur opinions shouted to the hopefully-listening void. You might earn your participation grade, but you will certainly convince no one of your side. The YPU format allows minimal interaction. Each speech is independent of the next, prepared in advance and followed only by a few unfocused questions to each speaker after their speech. If speakers do not engage one another, how can anyone judge the multiple arguments floating in the room? The audience member is left without a framework to evaluate the opposing arguments. Inevitably, she must fall back on her own prejudices to decide, enforcing an echo chamber rather than creating a public forum.
This underlies the second deficiency of the YPU: The ideological component banishes the possibility of shared assumptions. Often, the debates in the YPU feel like ideological purity tests rather than concern for what the other side has to say. It is scandalous if the Party of the Left doesn’t mention the overthrowing of the state in some form, regardless of the actual debate at hand. It is simply not possible to debate if you are trying to square all your arguments with Marx’s philosophy while your opponent does the same with Burke’s philosophy. How can you compare two fundamentally opposing ideas rationally? Don’t tell me why Marx was right, tell me why he was better than Burke, evaluating both their arguments for what the state should do for its people. At the moment, YPU debating is self-indulgent sophistry — an ideological arms race of who is more classically liberal, conservative, socialist/communist or whatever the Party of the Right claims to be (perhaps neo-fascist).
Lastly, the YPU is exceedingly discourteous and rude to visiting speakers. I am not referencing the famous, chair-thumping approvals and hissing disapprovals, which are rightfully part of argumentative banter. What is more worrisome is the constant chattering and even drinking during the speaker’s speech. You have invited a prominent speaker for a reason, so take her ideas seriously and show her due respect. There is nothing wrong in sharing arguments or even chirps with fellow party members, but the sound level should not be distracting to the speaker as it so often is.
Whatever the YPU currently is, it is not the agoric model. At best, we can credit the institution with providing an important public speaking opportunity for students, allowing them to hone their confidence in front of a crowd. At worst, it is a vanity project rooted in ideological dogma, which might more broadly explain the deep-seated partisanship in American politics. Reform the format to include more responsiveness to each speech, and actually listen to the opposing side. Perhaps look to the Oxford Union as a suitable guide. All in all, Yale still lacks the public debate forum it so desperately needs if we are to encourage true critical thinking and openness.
Adam Krok is a sophomore in Saybrook College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at email@example.com .