Commentary: Discourse and debate at the Great American Think-off
I used to drive through New York Mills a lot when I was attending school in Moorhead. I would come home on the weekend to see friends and family, then return to the F-M area, every Sunday evening. I didn't think there was much to the town, probably a school, some houses, and a quaint downtown district similar to Staples, which is where I'm from.
A few months ago while sifting through a sea of press releases and emails, I came across an intriguing message from the Cultural Center in New York Mills. I had no idea such an organization existed within the small town. The email was announcing the Great American Think-Off, an intellectual competition of wit and oration. The Great American Think-Off poses a philosophical question to the masses, people interested in participating must answer the question in the form of a short essay. If your essay is chosen, organizers will invite you to a civil debate. The chosen few duke it out in an arena of persuasion. The audience of this debate has the opportunity of selecting the sole winner.
Selected participants have all of their travel expenses and lodging paid for in addition to receiving a cash prize. I never participate in these things but for some reason I just started typing, maybe it was out of boredom during my lunch break or perhaps it was a desire for $500. This year, the question focused on voting, does it matter or not. I've actually never voted, and I don't plan on starting anytime soon. I see the process of voting, at least in our government's current state, as a waste of time. My essay emphasized this sentiment. I ranted and raved, then refined. I typed fast and furiously, then I revised. After pointing my finger at corporate interests, the lack of statesmanship, and the errors of our modern government, I arrived at a finished essay. I hit submit and I forgot about the competition, knowing I probably wouldn't get selected.
Fast forward to a few months later, I received a phone call from an organizer informing me of my alternate status. My essay had been selected for honorable mention during the event. So I wasn't selected to speak but my ravings got far further then I had anticipated. Not too bad for something I wrote in 20 minutes while eating a cheeseburger.
I showed up to the event and was immediately surprised by the number of people attending. This is one tradition the people of New York Mills hold very dear. During the opening statements, the importance of culture in small towns was discussed. The people of New York Mills don't just want their town to be another boring pocket of civilization with a few farms and couple gas stations. They want action, they want intelligence, they want fun, they want people to stay in their town. I respect their attitude and fervent attempt to inject culture into an area that many consider just to be rolling farmland.
The debate was fun, more fun than I anticipated. The format was paced fairly well with like minded pitted against each other in the first round. Winners of that round squared off in the final debate to decide the ultimate thinker. Jennifer Nelson was a finalist and her stance was in favor of voting, her opponent in the final round was Rick Brundage. Brundage adamantly opposed voting. He came equipped with a sharp tongue, with charisma driving his every word. To him voting was pointless because of systemic political issues. To him, one vote doesn't necessarily mean one vote. For voting to matter, the political system has to be radically changed, according to Brundage. Nelson took a more reserved approach, attempting to elicit an emotional response by using examples from history, for example, the importance of voting to women in our country.
In the end Nelson would emerge victorious. I did not agree with her victory. Not just because she was in opposition to my point of view but because throughout the debate she didn't provide enough hard evidence of the importance of voting. Anecdotes and emotion are fine, but they need to be mounted upon a foundation of cold hard logic and facts. Brundage did this more effectively and debated with more verbal skill in my opinion.
The entire experience was interesting. I got to see a different side of a small town. Although I didn't agree with the outcome of the event, that's OK because debates are all about exercising the open marketplace of ideas. Some ideas are popular, some are not.