Friday, March 15, 2019

Greybull High School's Speech Team Triumphed in the Wyoming State Championship, and They Are Prepared for Wonderful Futures

Spotted this in the news: the Greybull High School speech team won first place in the 1A/2A Wyoming state championships and seventh place in the state overall. This was a wonderful result, especially for a small-town high school. Various Greybull students triumphed in such events as Oratory and Program Interpretation, Duo Interpretation, Humor, Informative Speaking, and Debate. Congratulations! Much hard work went into their victory.

Many years ago, I participated in the Oakton High School debate club. My partner Ken Marton  (a future Ph.D. scientist) and I qualified for the state championship, where we finished somewhere near the middle of the pack, and four years of debate at the College of William and Mary, where John Vile and I took first place at the LaSalle University debate tournament. Debate coaches Barbara Sue Carter and the late Patrick Micken were among my major influences. Although William and Mary was and still is a first-rate school, and I learned a lot in all my classes, my experience in competitive debate became my undergraduate college highlight. Many of my debate team friends went on to various spectacular careers in business, academia and law. And, of course, my wife, Dr. Elaine Clanton Harpine, was a speech and debate team member at Southwest Texas State University (now called Texas State). Obviously we were made for one another.

Speech and debate contests give students far more speaking experience than any class could. Speech and debate team students gain confidence and skill. Public speaking contests teach students to prepare, to understand their audiences and relate to other people, and to express their ideas and feelings clearly and persuasively. Debate and speech contests teach students critical thinking and research skills far beyond even the best classroom opportunities. My speech and debate experience shaped my post-college career in more ways than I could have imagined. I pride myself on careful research and evaluation, and I thank my debate experience for teaching me how. Many outstanding leaders in and out of government learned about persuasion by debating in school.

In an era of tight budgets and anti-education propaganda, too many schools and colleges have cut back on these expensive, time-consuming programs. From the standpoint of education, these wonderful programs are worth every dime and all the effort. Congratulations again to the Greybull students. I expect to see you do great things in your lives. 

P.S.: Never, ever underestimate small schools.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Stephanie Flowers Showed Us a Different Way to Think About Stand Your Ground Laws

Sen. Stephanie Flowers

Democratic Arkansas Senator Stephanie Flowers spoke loudly and forcefully against stand your ground laws during a meeting of the Arkansas Senate Judiciary Committee. Stand your ground laws, found in several (mostly red) states, abolish the traditional duty to retreat from danger in public places, and instead authorize ordinary citizens to stand their ground and shoot people who make them feel threatened.

But we all need to see different viewpoints. In her short speech, Flowers pointed out two different ways to see the gun rights issue: First, that the stand your ground laws make life more dangerous for black crime victims, and, second, that, since people who are armed and ready to stand their ground pose a threat, it might be reasonable to feel anxious, shoot them, and claim a stand your ground defense. I don’t think anyone has ever put it that way before, but she had a point. Oops.

Let’s look at the first perspective that Flowers offered. Feeling that stand your ground laws discriminate against and threaten the safety of African-Americans, Flowers said: “I’ll be as quick as I can, as quick as it takes to kill someone, I guess.” She protested the limits on debate on this important issue. Noting that her children had a different experience than the children of the white legislators, Flowers asked, “How many black kids, black boys, black men are being killed by these stand your ground defenses that these people raise, and they get off?” She based her credibility on her motherhood: “I am a mother and I have a son.” She told the white members of the committee, “My son doesn’t walk the same path as yours does.” She said that she feared for her son’s life until he left Arkansas.

This led to her second new viewpoint. She told one legislator, “You don’t have to worry about your children, Will. But I have to worry about my son. And I worry about other little black boys and girls. And other people coming into my neighborhood and to my city. And they are saying they got open carry, right, walking right in front of my doggone office in front of the courthouse.” She said that anyone who did that was a “bully.” Such open-carry people were, she felt, intimidating her, but in doing so they posed a threat and she wondered whether she would be justified to kill them. So she asked: “Do I have a right to stand my ground with some crazy-ass person walking around with a doggone gun? I don’t know what . . . he intends to do.” She noted that legislators were walking around the legislature with their guns. 

She cursed a bit. She shouted. She didn’t shout any more than the Republican senators at the recent Michael Cohen hearing. That was too much shouting then, and Flowers shouted too much this time, but turnabout is fair play. Like the other members of the committee, I don’t approve of her foul language, but I heartily approve of her breaking the time rules to say what she needed to say. The Republicans on the committee were obviously trying to rush the bill through, and she insisted on making her points anyway. Her anger and passion gained her much attention. Her speech hit the national news. Internet videos of her speech attained millions of views in a short time.

So, here is what she accomplished and how she did it: she made people across the nation see the stand your ground issue in a new light. Her passion gained attention. She made the issue seem real, not theoretical, by putting stand your ground laws in personal terms. She helped people realize that stand your ground laws might endanger the pro-gun people who support them. Her speech got noticed, and more people may be thinking about the stand your ground laws. So, good for her.

Side note: the traditional legal doctrine, which is the duty to retreat in a public place if you can do so safely, developed from centuries of legal experience. Conservatives are supposed to favor tradition. So how do conservatives reconcile stand your ground laws with tradition? I don’t think they can. Do note that the legal issues are more complex than political talk would make us think. 

For my other posts about gun control speeches, click here.

Donald Trump and Argument by Ridicule

Donald Trump, White House photo

In his two-hour speech at the 2019 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), President Donald Trump refuted the charge that he and the Russian government had colluded to get him elected in 2016 by ridicule, and nothing else. Ignoring the issues, he made fun of the Democrats because they had the nerve to quote him accurately about Russian collusion. Trump had said, "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing." Later, when he was criticized, he said, "Of course I’m being sarcastic.” He doubled down at CPAC: "These people are sick." But he hadn't been sarcastic the first time, and at CPAC he used ridicule instead of argument.

One reason for speakers to ridicule their opponents is that their opponents say things that are, well, ridiculous. People who say ridiculous things have, for the most part, immunized themselves to reasoned argument. However, ridicule does not persuade them, either, for people who are unwilling to reason are also unwilling to be humiliated.

Another reason for speakers to ridicule the other side is that the speakers themselves have nothing else to say. This was the case with Trump at CPAC. He could neither deny nor defend his indefensible comments. What could he do?

So, let’s start with a seemingly indisputable fact: during his 2016 election campaign, future president Donald Trump clearly and explicitly (with a straight face) asked the Russian government to steal Hillary Clinton’s emails.

Here is what Trump said: "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 [Clinton] emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press. Let's see if that happens. That'll be nice." That certainly sounded like an invitation to commit a felony. It turns out that this foolish comment got the president into political trouble, and the Democrats, of course, continue to make it political. Worse, the Mueller investigation alleges that Russia did, indeed, hack the Democratic National Committee’s emails within a few hours after Trump's request. Oops. If his request had been private, instead of public, it would have been an obvious criminal conspiracy. Is really it OK if it's public?

What could we expect President Trump to do about it? He could not deny what he said, since his comment was recorded and broadcast around the world. When he was criticized, his response at the time was that he was being sarcastic. He did not sound sarcastic: he didn’t wink, didn’t sneer, and, worse, promised the Russians that the American media would reward them if they committed this crime. A joke? No.

The obvious way for Trump to deal with the continuing controversy would be to apologize, assure Americans that he never intended to commit a crime, and deny any interest in receiving stolen emails. Instead, in his CPAC speech, almost denying the obvious, he made fun of Democrats for bringing the point up at all. At CPAC he did bring out his humorous, sarcastic voice and gestures to full measure.

So, years later, at CPAC, while the controversy still burned, Trump said that: “And then that fake CNN and others say, ‘He asked Russia to go get the emails. Horrible.’ (Laughter.) I mean, I thought — like, two weeks ago, I’m watching and they’re talking about one of the points. ‘He asked Russia for the emails.’ These people are sick. (Laughter.) And I’m telling you, they know the game. They know the game, and they play it dirty dirtier than anybody has ever played the game. Dirtier than it’s ever been played.” This was ridicule: “fake CNN.” "These people are sick." "Dirtier than it’s ever been played.” If you can refute, then refute. If you can’t, just insult your critics. Trump gave no information; his denial offered no content.   

Trump continued: “if you tell a joke, if you’re sarcastic, if you’re having fun with the audience, if you’re on live television with millions of people and 25,000 people in an arena, and if you say something like, ‘Russia, please, if you can, get us Hillary Clinton’s emails. Please, Russia, please.’ (Applause.) ‘Please get us the emails. Please!’” He sneered quite effectively (to the audience’s evident delight) as he spoke. (What a shame that he did not sneer in 2016. We might have believed that it really was a joke.)

So: Trump did ask Russia to hack Clinton’s emails. They hacked the DNC the same day. Trump later said it was a joke. He blamed the press for having the temerity to report something that he and the audience knew to be true. His claim that his request was “sarcastic” is implausible. So, having no facts to offer, he ridiculed the press and insulted his opponents for saying something true.

Democrats ridicule Republicans for thinking that Obama faked his birth certificate. Doesn’t it just seem fair that Republicans should also be able to ridicule what the Democrats say? Even if the Democrats happen to say something true? Or is that just a case of two wrongs not making a right?

Should we just admit that all appeals to ridicule are fallacious? Or, worse, does being ridiculed just force people to harden their (silly) beliefs?