I’ve been a nerd for a very long time. And I’ve loved stringing words together for even longer.
Back in high school, both of these self-evident truths manifested into three years on the speech team, where my group of like-minded geeks traveled in a stuffy Crayola green van all over the state to complete with other freaks. And yes, I do mean we went ALL over the state, delivering our oratories in tiny rural schools with a trio of names, like Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton. We watched for DOT signs that designated small towns “Minnesota Star Cities,” determining the common thread that earned the designation was a Dairy Queen on the community’s main drag. We listened to static-y country tunes on A.M. radio – nothing else would come in, and there were no iPods – and played stupid games and ate a lot of gas station food and sometimes, if we were really lucky, we’d stop at a Godfather’s Pizza for the lunch buffet.
It was the mid-90s. I slept in a Nirvana T-shirt, pinned a Gin Blossoms album cover on my wall, and bought Lik-a-Stik Fun Dip at the Proctor Milk House. Our country was enjoying a long stretch of peace and prosperity, and and the biggest political topic of the era was a President impeached for transgressions so minor they seem almost quaint now.
I competed in a couple of different categories during my tenure, having the most success in Dramatic Reading, where I chose a piece by Ibsen. My best friend, Jen, chose a category called Discussion.
Discussion challenged a small group of competitors to debate a single issue. I can’t remember a topic, but it would cover meaty topics like “Should teachers be tenured?” or “Should non-violent offenders be incarcerated?” Ideally, at the end of the session, the group would come to a consensus after hearing everyone’s point of view. This was training for the board room warriors of the future.
I woke up thinking about Discussion recently after a particularly dispiriting Twitter session. It wasn’t just the subject matter; it was complete and total lack of civility or understanding that we are all human, all American, and all seeking basic needs, happiness and fulfillment.
Discourse, dialogue, insults, hate like we see today wasn’t always given a pass. It wasn’t always okay.
Discussion required its problem-solving participants to adhere to three principals, and these guided how points were awarded.
- Facts. Assertions needed to be backed up with real, actual, indisputable facts. Not feelings. Not anecdotes about your sister’s mother-in-law’s cousin’s experience in the ER in that town three towns over. If a fact was presented that didn’t support a competitor’s position, s/he didn’t simply dismiss it as “fake news!” and continue to pout and dig in. It spurred further conversation and invited context.
- Sources. Expertise mattered. Research mattered. Legitimacy mattered. The aforementioned facts had to come from reputable sources, not a tinfoil hat blog or a tweet thread. I think there were maybe a dozen or so approved, widely sources that could be utilized for Discussion, but Jen would know best.
- Rules of Engagement. Politeness. Civility. Respect. If anyone were to approach the Discussion in a combative way, or use ugly language, or throw a toddleresque tantrum, or in any way model the communication styles of many of our leaders and oh-so-many trolls on social media today, they would have been promptly kicked out. I don’t believe this ever happened. People, way back then in the 90s, understood the rules, and they understood that to be successful as a group and solve the problem, everyone in the group would be treated decently and respectfully, despite differences of opinion.
Facts. Sources. Rules.
Without these, there can be no Discussion.