When every conversation becomes a game, we all lose

Do you remember the debate over marriage equality in the United States? I certainly do, because it was my future being discussed. I recall the distinct ugliness of the debate team energy that characterized the years before the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution guaranteed the rights of same-sex couples to marry.

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People screaming at one another on television about “traditional marriage” and acting as authorities on love cheapened the solemnity of that conversation, including for people who opposed marriage equality. The issue was turned into fodder for takes on social media platforms and Sunday talk shows and even in staid political magazines. And then, once the court’s decision was handed down — poof! — the debaters seemingly moved on, racing to argue about someone else’s life. Many of them never really cared at all.

What debate team energy lacks — and what academic team energy delivers — is empathy. It’s obvious: When subjects aren’t pawns in a game of chess, when we actually have to understand something or someone, we create an opening for caring.

Academic team energy also fosters empathy for the people you’re talking to and for yourself. Because even when I was competing on the academic team, traveling across suburbs of Cincinnati to compete against other high school teams, there was still a lot I didn’t know, from the dinosaurs of the Jurassic Period to what the Glorious Revolution was actually about.

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