Time For An Activist Outward Turn In Academic Debate

Gordon Mitchell, University of Pittsburgh

1995 - United States Foreign Policy: China Cards


In a variety of academic fields, an increasingly robust chorus of voices can be heard calling on intellectuals to forthrightly acknowledge and develop their roles as affirmative agents of social change, actors with the capacity and obligation to intervene and affect the course of events inside and outside the walls of the academy. Recent work in sociology (Touraine 1984/88), anthropology (Escobar 1992, 1993), psychology (Fox 1993, Martin-Baro 1990), critical theory (Habermas 1962/89, 1973, 1981/85, 1986, 1994a, 1994b), education (Giroux 1993, 1994, Freire 1994), communication and rhetoric (Andersen 1993, Farrell 1993, Hollihan 1993, Hollihan, Riley and Klumpp 1993), and other fields has thematized and emphasized the political responsibility of academic intellectuals to materially participate in live social controversies, to engage the world outside the classroom with the intent to spark progressive social change.

These calls put into high relief criticisms leveled against academic debate that it is an elitist, esoteric, isolated, exclusive, and increasingly rarefied activity. Given spreading desertification of the public sphere and evaporation of deliberative tradition in the polity, critics of contemporary academic debate rightly deride the community's hermetically sealed orientation as evidence of abdication of its professional responsibility to funnel some of its considerable resources directly into the ailing body politic. As time passes and activism remains on the wane, danger grows that history will judge the debate community as a protected oasis that kept water for itself while the practice of deliberation around it grew parched and steadily withered away. Positioned in response to this problematic, this piece is a call for social movement organization and mobilization by current and former academic debaters and their friends.

With warning bells sounding that the tradition of public deliberation may be in terminal jeopardy, one would think that academic groups formed for the purpose of promoting critical discussion and debate would take keen interest in this development and work feverishly to reverse desertification of the public sphere. But strangely, the response of the academic debate community appears to be a standoffish pursuit of business as usual, i.e. routinized execution of insular contest debates, with little or no attempt to link the experiences of these contests directly to those outside the academy.


How can the debate community break out of this pattern of political lethargy and right itself to take on the task of rejuvenating public discourse? I propose that this objective can be accomplished through vigorous pursuit of activist projects designed to open up spaces for dialogue, thus making conditions ripe for free, wide-open and inclusive exchanges of ideas on salient public controversies, not only inside, but outside the academy as well. The idea-oriented activism I have in mind is distinct in form from narrowly drawn ideological initiatives launched to secure political special interest victories. Thus, it is appropriate to term such discussion-promoting activity ideological (as opposed to ideological) activism. This distinction highlights the political flexibility of pro-debate initiatives. With a telos derived from the notions of constructive dissensus (see Willard 1987) and generative controversy (see Goodnight 1992), such initiatives resist taking on the color of any one particular political dogma, liberal, conservative, or otherwise. Instead, ideological activism aims to broaden and deepen important public controversies by enhancing the claim-making capacity of all parties to the dialogue, especially including those presently excluded from the realm of discourse. I have in mind three major modes of public engagement.

1) Spurring social momentum in the lifeworld and public sphere. Activist debaters are well-equipped to catalyze and organize public debates on controversial, pressing issues facing communities. As defenders of wide-open, inclusive public deliberation, academic debaters can step outside the academy and urge factions embroiled in contentious public disputes to come together in a debating forum to share and test ideas. Assistance can then be provided in the form of logistical support (finding a venue, advertising), mediation in format and resolution negotiation, and research and preparation support for all sides. Activist debaters can excel most in this mode of action once they recognize that their most valuable contribution to public debate may come not in the role of performer, but organizer.

Done properly, such efforts will spawn moments of social connection, instances where the public generates knowledge through critical face-to-face interaction. As the frequency of debates increases, the steady accumulation of social moments will grind into what might be appropriately termed social momentum. As social momentum mounts, conditions for the ripening of movement mobilization will improve as latent, ossified social forces are released (see Touraine 1984/88, p. 134). In this way, public debates can not only perform the function of staging areas for social movements, but they can also serve as sites where already existing social movements can impact upon public opinion with their argumentative appeals.

2) Minding the seam between system and public. Debaters can work to render the seams separating system and public more permeable, thus improving the chances that citizens' interests will be effectively coordinated with system level initiatives. This task is clearly conceivable in the case of public opinion formation and amplification. James Fishkin has advanced a concept of a "deliberative opinion poll" which can serve as an effective blueprint for the activist debate project of improving the capacity of polling to better represent lifeworld opinions to system level actors. Instead of gathering polling data with the traditional individual query-response technique, Fishkin's deliberative polling concept introduces the dimension of social learning into the sampling process. In a deliberative poll, citizens are asked to form opinions only after participating in "intensive, face-to-face debate" (Fishkin 1991, p. 2). Afforded time to interact directly with institutional actors, citizens are thus said to be given the capability to buck the manipulative effects of the mass media.

3) Direct legal action. Debaters should join together to aggressively oppose institutional policies which unnecessarily impede the free flow of information or interfere directly with the efforts of public citizens to enhance their decision-making competence. Measures can be proposed and supported which increase transparency of system decision-making by reducing secrecy and classification, while increasing the openness of bureaucratic operations by pressuring for greater accountability from institutional actors ducking public scrutiny.


As a group, the debate community is structurally and psychologically constructed in a manner favorable for movement mobilization. There is a latent solidarity built into the activity of debate preparation itself. Teams log long hours of group research, planning, and brief writing prior to each contest. These grueling work sessions have already sown the seeds of potential social movement cohesiveness, a sense of collective mettle which if cultivated could contribute significantly to the mobilization potential of the community. Many members have access to state of the art communication technology, and well maintained contacts permit the debate community to stay connected and tightly coordinate activities. Taken together, these factors combine to demonstrate that the American debate community, with political will, could politic. Such a project enjoys normative backing on realistically make substantial strides toward repoliticization of the public sphere in this nation.

One of the most promising aspects of activist debate mobilization is that such efforts might effectively skirt a key problem which has hampered traditional social movements in, their efforts to spur social change. This problem, the so-called "Michelsian dilemma," derived from sociologist Roberto Michels' "Iron Law of Oligarchy," is simply that success breeds failure. When social movements achieve their demands, they have a tendency to lose steam or break apart. As Cohen and Arato describe it, "any move toward formal organization, inclusion, and institutionalization will undermine movement goals and threaten the continued existence of the movement form of collective action ..."success" in institutional terms of inclusion signals the end of the movement and the dilution of its aims (the famous iron law of oligarchy)" (1992, p. 557).

Debate activism can neutralize this dilemma because ideologically motivated efforts aim to achieve, instead of an ideologically derived wish list (a la traditional labor movements), enactment of a form of social interaction: wide-open, inclusive public debate and discussion. Success, far from defusing, demobilizing, or co-opting the movement, generates social momentum which restokes the energy of activists committed to the project of refurbishing the public sphere.

This restoking dynamic can be grasped by appreciating the fact that the activity of debate itself contains seeds of its own reproduction, since there is an emancipatory potential woven into the structural fabric of communication itself (see Habermas 1981/85, 1994b). The social airing of arguments and viewpoints invites, and indeed impels subsequent discourse; thus success in the project of enacting social moments does not have the same Pyrrhic quality that might attach to a collective bargaining victory in securing slightly higher union wages.


The continual withering of the public sphere is a phenomenon which cries out for activist response by the academic debate community. We are well-positioned to make such a response, in the form of a torrent of ideological initiatives organized and executed by networks of current and former debaters and their friends. By embarking on such a path, the community would take great strides toward transcending its increasingly flat collective identity as a fan-n system for technocratic policy analysis and public opinion manipulation. Embracing the concept of social movement mobilization, the community could simultaneously thicken its collective identity and funnel some of its considerable resources into an ailing body politic. Such a project enjoys normative backing on several levels. Theoretically, it takes up and extends the prescriptions growing out of the burgeoning corpus of literature that decries the bankrupting of argumentative praxis in America. Pragmatically, such a project works to materially assist mobilization efforts undertaken by collective actors dubbed "new social movements." Empirically, the vision of the project is validated by actual previous successes of student actors in spurring social change in a wide variety of contexts in contemporary international society. The time is ripe for an outward activist turn in academic debate.


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A longer version of this paper was originally presented at the Seventh Wake Forest University Argumentation Conference, March 18, 1995. Hearty thanks for the participants of that conference for their insightful questions and comments.