Junior Nick Chaiken leans back in his chair and shoots a smug smile to the floor. Arms folded across his chest, he subtly shakes his head in disagreement.
Across from him, senior Davis Marsh’s eyes are glued to the Harkness table’s glossy surface — too focused on his opening statement on gun control to notice Chaiken.
Four minutes go by and the two continue their “debate.”
Marsh proposes the government should issue a voluntary gun buyback program. Chaiken fires back.
People could just get the guns in Mexico instead. It’s not going to make a difference if —
Marsh sits up taller in his chair and cuts Chaiken off before he can finish. Now, it’s a battle for speaking time, and you can start to hear their conversation from outside the door.
As the clock ticks above them, the two students continue walking the line between a peaceful debate and a violent argument.
The same line that media outlets claim presidential candidate Donald Trump is crossing when he made a statement about wanting to “punch” a rally protester in the face. Although Trump says that he does not “incite violence,” media outlets have claimed that he is straddling the line between encouraging peaceful debate and violent arguments.
On the first day of Middle School debate, Director of Debate Tim Mahoney always teaches his students that debate is “learning to listen and respond.” Having built the program on top of this, Mahoney believes that peers should aim to have debates, and they should stick to this foundation in order to keep it from becoming an argument.
“There’s nothing wrong with these being intense discussions and having strong feelings, but always [try] to be a respectful listener,” Mahoney said. “We don’t necessarily have to disagree with everything that our colleagues have to say. Find those areas of common belief and then go from there and be like, ‘what is our actual thing that we disagree about?’ As opposed to being more personally or emotionally driven.”
One of the main ways Mahoney teaches his students to avoid these emotionally driven conversations is keeping it about the research rather than trying to solve a moral or relative issue.
“We don’t try to answer if Trump should be the next president or if Hillary should be the next president,” Mahoney said. “We don’t try to take a position on that kind of thing. What we are really trying to do is teach people to be able to research those things themselves and then gure it out.”
Chaiken, however, who enjoys discussing issues with Marsh and others in places like Political Forum, believes that using research in conversations with peers can constrain both sides to be more closed-minded.
“When you talk about just the issue — if it’s just me and someone else, talking about whether something is right or wrong — you can kind of come to more of a middle ground without stats,” Chaiken said. “[Debaters] are in a competition and have to prove that they’re right. But here, part of the goal is to see what you agree on. If all that you’re trying to do is show that the other person is wrong then you’re not going to get anywhere.”
Having six years in the debate program under his belt, senior Ammar Plumber finds that using his competitive debate skills of listening and responding in his conversations with peers helps make it a more productive conversation.
“A lot of conversations tend to happen in a way that one person is saying what they think and the other person is saying what they think, but those two don’t clash in any sort of way,” Plumber said. “Often those aren’t very productive discussions or very meaningful conversations. When
I have a conversation with someone, my thoughts are organized in a way that my mind sort of organizes what was said and groups them into certain categories of arguments and then respond to them.”
According to Interim Head of Upper School Scott Gonzalez, once peers can get to the point where they are listening and responding to each other, both end up taking something away from the conversation and it ultimately becomes enjoyable.
“What happens is when you have a debate, people get so defensive and they put their shields up and they’re not willing to admit that neither side is perfect,” Gonzalez said. “A debate should be that not only do I espouse certain facts and viewpoints, but that I learn in return, and that’s the fun part of it.”
Despite the shouts over each other, the snarky sarcasm and the interruptions of one side in order to criticize the other for interrupting, Chaiken and Marsh get to hear the other side of things whenever they sit down to discuss issues — and they both think it’s fun.
They can stop their argument on gun control, laugh about each other’s “I got him” and “he’s going to use that against me” moments, and then pick the discus- sion up another day right where they left off.
And even when Chaiken smiles at the oor and shakes his head in disagreement, he can’t help but have a level of respect for Marsh.
“I like Davis,” Chaiken said. “He’s well educated, smart, witty, he definitely does his research. And in terms of the debate setting, he’s a really smart guy.”