At the November 17th debate between the British National Debate Team and the UNL Debate Team at the Lied Center, the two sides discussed if social media is a threat to human creativity. I was quite impressed with the eloquence of the debaters, and it was very clear they had a lot of experience in debate. However, I left feeling perplexed as to whether I actually enjoyed the debate or not, and I would like to present a review of the debate to explore the reasons behind that.
The UNL debate team argued against social media, claiming it is harming the human creative realm. They argued that due to the simplistic nature of social media, conversations are not as deep and people are using a rather shallow form of expression. Social media is about attention, and material that will get attention is not exactly stoking the fire of creative spirits. No one is recreating great ideas. They recreate the ideas that have been proven to get many likes. Also, social media users are limited to a like button. The like button does not give the creator an idea of good and bad, and this exchange of ideas that would possibly go on in person or even on a blog is what encourages new ideas to form. They touched on the idea of a filter bubble and how the polarization of ideas on social media is not allowing people to be exposed to ideas very different from their own. Finally, they talked about how social media makes people less free to express themselves because of threats of cyber bullying.
The British debate team argued that social media is helping peoples’ creative spirits. They talked about what it means to be creative and how even such things as a remake of Beyoncé dancing are forms of expressing ideas and emotion. Anything a person posts could be a creative art. In addition, social media allows more interaction among people who wouldn’t normally be connected, and it is a means to share non mainstream ideas. One of the women gave an example of the echo chamber made by FOX news and how this information source doesn’t present the less popular ideas that can be voiced on social media. Social media also allows a person to reach such a larger audience. The whole world could potentially hear someone’s idea, and the line is blurred between producer and consumer. They said how people now have the means to build on previous art and engage in it more than ever. The privileged class is no longer the only voice in presenting ideas and art. Finally, they said because of the anonymity of social media users don’t have a fear of being ridiculed and therefore can express creativity more freely.
Both of their arguments were very well supported, and when the whole speeches are stripped to the basic facts as I just did, it would be hard to say the debate wasn’t successful. However, I think both of their discussions about social media and creativity were clouded by an attempt to finesse their debates with too many rhetorical devices. It was very clear all four of the speakers were very well versed in rhetoric, and instead of letting their arguments survive off of the facts, they laced them with a lot of ethos and pathos just to win over the audience. For example, when either team got up to speak, they made an extra effort to thank all the people involved in putting on the debate. It shows they care, and it is a very good strategy. However, both teams mentioned it multiple times like they were trying to prove that their team is more thankful than the other team. The British team used pathos when they attacked the upper white class for controlling the creative realm hundreds of years ago. Most of the audience could then connect with what she was saying and realize they would have no voice without social media. Both teams specifically catered to the audience and mentioned pop culture references such as an Instagram picture of a pumpkin spiced latte or Beyoncé. It seemed a little overkill how much the debaters tried to relate to the audience to increase their ethos. The British team also tried to lessen the UNL team’s ethos by questioning their knowledge. For instance, a UNL team member jokingly talked of the invention of microwave pizza in response to a question he probably had deemed irrelevant at the time. When the British woman responded, she said her opponent couldn’t even come up with the invention date of microwave pizza. All the rhetorical devices were effective, but I would’ve much rather listened to an argument based on fact. It wasn’t a political debate.
I also did not enjoy how much both teams concentrated on a definition argument. The debate almost turned into what should be deemed creative instead of if social media is affecting that creativity. It was an easy way to distract the audience away from the core issue.
Finally, based on my own knowledge of the issue, I wished the teams had concentrated on certain issues more than others. I do believe social media is infringing on creativity, but I believe this because of facts about filter bubbles and not what the UNL team concentrated on. Polarization on social media sites causes a person to see things similar to himself. If he is only seeing things he already believes in, yes he might be pleased with the feeling of being right, but nothing is there to challenge his ideas or inspire him to come up with something different. Creative inspiration for art or ideas has to make a person look at something differently, so looking at the same stuff all the time will not do much.
I left the debate wanting more. The persuasion was impressive, and there were time constraints on the teams. However, I thought they appealed to the audience too much in trying to win us over. Then again, this was the first formal debate I have been to, so maybe I was just expecting something different. As in ancient Greece, part of the purpose was entertainment. The audience has to feel like they are involved in the argument and not being spoken at. Also, I knew the issue a little better than most just because of the nature of our class, so I could see where the arguments had holes or where the debaters had to leave out supporting facts in order to get on with their speech.
Beyond the content of the debate, I walked away with one very big impression. Rhetoric can be dangerously manipulative if the audience isn’t well informed. Humans are creatures of emotions, and very rarely do they just listen to the facts. I recognized how the debaters were trying to sway my emotions, and perhaps I felt slightly offended that they were confident in manipulating the audience. I think this issue of a naïve audience could improve if people attended more debates. However, since this isn’t all that possible, people only need to realize the rhetorical devices that affect them every day. Then they can recognize why they are being persuaded during conversations or presentations that really matter.
One last note: It was pretty cool to listen to people debate in British accents.