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Photo by Lou Hoglund Adam Bright of Boulder, Colo. won the 20th annual Great American Think-0ff in New York Mills. This year's contest revisited the very first debate question, "The Nature of Humankind: Inherently Good or Inherently Evil?" Bright argued that humanity is evil. He was one of four finalists to debate at the tournament-style contest.

20 years later, evil wins

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Is the nature of humankind inherently good or evil?

The very first question of the Great American Think-Off in New York Mills ended up being a draw, but evil won the argument when the question was revisited for the 20th annual Think-Off last weekend.

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Adam Bright of Boulder, Colo. won this year's debate contest. A student at Syracuse University pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in poetry, he argued on the side of humanity being essentially evil.

The debate's founder, John Davis, was present at the 20th contest.

"There isn't much of a change. The format has essentially been the same," he said. "Seeing it continue to draw a tremendous amount of people was very satisfying."

Kathy Anderson from the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center, which sponsors the event every year at the town's high school auditorium, said she enjoyed the debate and the four contestants.

"They're a very versatile bunch. They each had their own distinct identity and thought," she said.

Two of the original finalists from 20 years ago, the Rev. Jeff Ethen and Charles Eldredge, also attended the Think-Off and got to experience the same question as audience members rather than contestants.

Ethen, a Catholic priest, lived in Parkers Prairie at the time and is currently in transition between Elrosa, Minn. and Otter Tail County.

Eldredge was from North Dakota at the time and currently lives in Wisconsin.

"It's like we left off from yesterday. We only met for the first time 20 years ago. But we have that bond, that connection of being a Think-Off finalist," Ethen said.

He said that when he was chosen to be one of the finalists, he thought it was because he was from the area and the organization had run out of money to bring in contestants from further away. But then he found out that the process was blind and he got in fair and square.

Ethen argued 20 years ago that humanity is inherently good, and he said that being close to ground zero during the Sept. 11, 2001 World Trade Center attacks has not changed his opinion.

Eldredge also argued in favor of good, beating Ethen in the first round.

Ethen said it was an honor to be back to the debate 20 years later, and he was glad it has lasted so long.

According to a press release sent to the Pioneer Journal, Bright made a series of arguments that persuaded the Think-Off audience and he became the 20th gold medallion winner of the Great American Think-Off philosophy contest.

Marie Anderson of LaGrange, Ill. engaged Bright in the final round. Bright prevailed with a nuanced position on the need for every human to practice "radical compassion" in order for humankind to be considered good. Anderson's second place win in the contest brought her the silver medallion.

Bright's argument, and that of the other three finalists as well, focused on the meaning of "inherent" in the question. The existence of good or evil, Bright argued, stems from the time we begin to act (or fail to act) to make the world a more just and equitable home for all. And the evidence is pretty clear: we haven't acted, and the failure to act corroborates the assertion that we are evil.

Bright's concluding lines from his essay provide a summary of his winning argument: "How many of you know that other human beings desperately need your help? And yet you do not help them. Again, I know that I don't. Instead we accept the fact that we were born into an evil world. We accept that evil is taking place right now. We accept in other words an evil status quo. This isn't a case of moral blindness: we know the difference between good and evil and we clearly see the evil around us. But still we do not devote ourselves selflessly to ending it. By this grand act of complicity, we show ourselves to be inherently evil as well."

Anderson's argument focused on an absolute inherent quality of the nature of humanity. She argued eloquently that those who do evil things are not inherently evil, but representative of a delusion or distortion of the way humans inherently act in the world. Anderson emphasized that the preponderance of evidence in the world - giving to charities, supporting good works as groups or organizations, responding to cataclysms world-wide - provides evidence of our inherent goodness.

Marsh Muirhead of Bemidji and Ed DeLong of Virginia Beach, Va. were bronze medallion winners of Saturday's debate, on the side of good and evil respectively. Each of the finalists received a $500 cash award and travel and lodging costs to New York Mills.

Alan "Lindy" Linda, instructor at M State - Wadena, was also present. He served as moderator for the first 17 debates.

George Biltz moderated this year's debate for the third year.

Next year's question - the 21st annual - will be published on Jan. 1, 2013.

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