Since my college is a little shorthanded in the speech department, the administration has resorted to using some English teachers like me to take up the slack. Of course I was excited about the political debates this year, since skills of argumentation are a large part of our program. We want to teach our students how to have civil arguments while putting their best foot forward. So, I had my students watch and write a report on the first presidential debate, paying attention to such fundamental necessities as dress, grooming, eye-contact, voice control, articulation and gestures. When they came in, I judged all the essays to be successful in that they covered the subject, carefully pointing out that both candidates were professionally dressed and groomed. They gave the Governor the edge in eye-contact and gestures, but on voice control and articulation, the two were generally thought to be equal.
However, even though I didn’t ask for the students to declare a winner, most did and most agreed with the apparent consensus in the media that the Governor “won” the contest. Only four out of the twenty students enrolled wrote that the President had been victorious in the debate, though subdued. These four opined that the Governor did not resemble their previous impressions of him and concluded that the image he portrayed must therefore have been false. Other students who mentioned the ostensible change in the Governor argued that the debate was his first opportunity to appear unfiltered alongside his opponent. The language most of my students used in describing the event included words like “clobbered,” “beat,” “overpowered,” “dominated” and other bellicose descriptors.
Those word choices of my students interested me because of the etymology of the word “debate” itself. It is from an Old French word of the 1300s “debatre,” which meant “to fight.” The “batre” part of the word is related to “battery,” which means “beat,” in the sense of “assault and battery.” So, I concluded that the ancient sense of the word “debate” as a fight is still very much alive and well in the minds of contemporary students. For them, it is as if the candidates are saying at the beginning of the debate, “Them’s fightin’ words.”
I’m writing this before the vice-presidential debate takes place, but I’d wager that the attitude of the event as a fight will be very much in evidence in Danville. No matter how much the candidates smile, shake hands and even embrace before and after the debate, it is a war of words they wage.
In Oxford, Mississippi one time, I attended a panel of the top Faulkner scholars in America, two of whom had some well-known disagreements. When question time came at the end of the presentation, an audience member persistently tried to get the two of them to argue with each other. One of the scholars replied, “So, what you are saying is, ‘let’s you and him fight’.” I loved the line and so did the audience. And that’s why we love debates—watching word fights, linguistic assault and battery, you know.