Monday, March 11, 2019 | 2 a.m.
In an age of predawn rage tweets by President Donald Trump and public cries from his opponents like “Impeach that (expletive),” a special debate last week at UNLV offered hope that civil discourse can return to American politics.
The contest pitted two members of UNLV’s powerhouse debate team against a pair of visitors from the Brookings Institution, who discussed whether the U.S. should adopt a single-payer health insurance system.
It was an invigorating evening. Not only did the event provide a well-deserved spotlight for the collegiate team, but it provided audience members a comprehensive look at an important topic.
And while the debate was a competition, who won and who lost wasn’t as important as the overall message of the event — that divisive issues like health care coverage can be argued aggressively but in a respectful manner.
“If you go back to the original arguments of free speech, the emphasis is not on the speaker, it’s on the listener,” said Richard Reeves, one of the Brookings visitors. “It’s about the capacity to learn from hearing different points of view.
“To successfully debate somebody, you have to really listen. And I think we have a listening problem. We just dismiss someone out of hand, especially if it makes me feel uncomfortable. I just ignore it.”
During an interview two days before the debate, Reeves was clearly energized about taking part in it. Twice, he paused to jot down notes that he intended to present as part of his argument.
Reeves is a passionate supporter of high school and college debate, saying he sees it as a key to breaking down the tribalism in American society over politics. As a biographer of John Stuart Mill, Reeves has examined the history of free speech through the prism of Mill’s chapter about the subject in his influential 19th century work, “On Liberty.”
“Mill has this great line. One of the reasons he’s in favor of free speech, he says, is that when two people are disagreeing with each other, it’s very rare that one of them has all of the truth and the other has none of the truth,” Reeves said. “Usually, we share the truth between us. And that’s the point of debate: We bring the facts together, and hopefully we get a wee bit closer to the truth.”
A central problem with political discourse in the U.S., Reeves said, is that people have made their positions on issues part of their identity.
“That means that if you attack someone’s idea, you’re attacking them as a person,” he said. “So the confusion of ideas and identity is a growing problem, and it’s a problem on college campuses where this very idea of ‘I can strongly disagree with you’ — on whatever it is — amounts to an attack on you.”
Debate creates separation between identity and ideas by requiring speakers to argue points they don’t necessarily believe personally. In doing so, Reeves said, it creates an opportunity for speakers to consider other views and perhaps either adopt them or move toward them. A better rounded view of a topic is often the result.
To the credit of UNLV and its debate coach, Jake Thompson, few places are excelling in the field more than our Southern Nevada university.
After the debate program was revived at UNLV in 2007, the team rose to the top 10 in the nation five years later and has remained strong ever since. UNLV advanced to the quarterfinals of the National Debate Tournament last year, its best finish ever, and two team members finished in the top 20 individually.
One of those competitors, Jeffrey Horn, was part of the team that took on Reeves and his partner, John Hudak, in last week’s event. Horn, a senior, was joined by junior Ember Smith.
For Horn and Smith, the event was an opportunity to test their skills against a couple of masterful opponents.
Reeves’ resume includes a degree from Oxford, service as a special adviser to the deputy prime minister of Britain and a spot on Politico’s 2017 list of the top 50 thinkers in America. Hudak is an international expert in marijuana policy who holds master’s and doctoral degrees in political science from Vanderbilt.
For those looking for information on the health care issue, and for those who’d like a break from the divisive rhetoric of today’s politics, it’s worth seeing the video of the event available at unlv.edu/brookingsmtnwest.
In one of the best aspects of the evening, there were several high school debaters in the audience. UNLV has fostered growth of high school debate in the area through tournaments, camps and other means, and a number students turned out to watch.
Here’s to Brookings Mountain West for putting on the event, and here’s hoping many more like it will be staged. Our democracy needs them.
Oh, and by the way: Even though the discussion itself was the star of the show, the UNLV team won. Did we mention that the Rebels are performing at an elite level?