Vargo Praises Penguins: Internet Discourse Requires High School Debater Ethos

Pennington County State’s Attorney Mark Vargo spoke to TEDx Rapid City last month on persuasion, the Internet, and penguins.

Penguins is Vargo-speak for high school debaters, whom Vargo has often coached. Vargo identifies three major impacts of the Internet on civil discourse: loss of civility behind the shield of anonymity, more frequent reduction of complex arguments to straw-man headlines, and an explosion of decentralized, deprofessionalized media streams enhancing confirmation bias (a.k.a. the echo chamber that tells people they’ve been right all along instead of expanding and challenging their beliefs). Vargo says that if we “want to survive this age” and enjoy “more intelligent, rational, civil discourse,” we need to be penguins—i.e. debaters:

  1. “Make people sign their work”—High school debaters must offer sources for every bit of evidence they use. Vargo says accountability is always preferable to anonymity.
  2. “Go to the source”—High school debaters dig into their sources. Don’t take a loud speaker’s word on everything. Follow the fundamental blog ethos and see for yourself what sources are saying. (This is an upside of the “truly democratic, unbelievably fragmented” decentralized media: instead of having to rely on what the TV tells us, we can create our own reporting, complete with original sources easily accessible through hyperlinks.)
  3. “Know your enemy”—High school debaters must be equally conversant in the arguments of both sides of an issue. South Dakota Democrats commit intellectual malpractice if they read nothing but Dakota Free Press, just as South Dakota Republicans do if they read nothing but Dakota War College. You can have your preferred media, but you have to at least keep the windows open in your echo chamber so you can hear what your smartest opponents are saying.

Vargo likens debaters to penguins because both are “always overdressed, frequently ridiculed, but surprisingly graceful in the correct environment.” Being a penguin may not be easy, but it’s necessary for positive public discourse.

20 Responses to Vargo Praises Penguins: Internet Discourse Requires High School Debater Ethos

  1. Jeff Barth

    I really like the line in bullet three, “debaters must be equally conversant in the arguments of both sides of an issue.” That is the way we discussed issues at the dinner table when I was growing up. It has benefitted me my whole life.

  2. David Newquist

    The virtues of being a penguin are the same that freshman composition (advanced composition in high school) were intended to inculcate: assuming responsibility for your own thinking, clearly identifying and evaluating sources, and knowing your opposition (reviewing the literature on a topic). During the 60s and early 70s, when campuses were in a state of revolt against almost everything, the teaching of rhetoric underwent deterioration. Then in the 80s, with the advent of computers and the National Writing Project, there was a revival of rhetoric. Then with the expansion of the Internet and takeover by the corporate culture, literacy in the sense of recognizing and employing competent rhetoric plummeted. Comment sections are, for the most part, disturbing evidence of how few people who exercise freedom of speech are literate.

  3. Ahhhh…debate!

    Travel long distances. Meet total strangers. And argue with them.

    We would all be better off understanding the difference between arguing and quarreling. Two totally different things.

  4. mike from iowa

    Still waiting for something other than Fake Noise talking points from the other side on any policy or social program.

  5. bearcreekbat

    For a time I regularly read conservative commentators so I could get a clear picture of their thinking on a variety of issues. I looked at Fox news to get their perspectives. After a while, however, I began to notice that these writers and talking head commentators were never saying anything new or positive. Instead, they seemed simply to repeat negative ideas, often contrary to fact, over and over and over again. At this point I can no longer stomach reading that garbage as it tends to nauseate me.

    Salon’s Sofia A. Mcclennen’s July 15 article about why Jon Stewart decided to leave the Daily Show probably best describes this feeling:

  6. Cory wrote:
    >“South Dakota Democrats commit intellectual malpractice if they read nothing but Dakota Free Press, just as South Dakota Republicans do if they read nothing but Dakota War College. You can have your preferred media, but you have to at least keep the windows open in your echo chamber so you can hear what your smartest opponents are saying.”

    The blog analogy fails, Cory. Your smartest opponents aren’t at SDWC. They’re here in the DFP comment section. :-)

    Seriously, when I’ve challenged Pat Powers, he’s simply declared my comments off topic and deleted them. To your great credit, you generally don’t censor people until they’ve flooded you with comments so frequent and redundant as to seriously inconvenience other readers.

  7. RWB, the traveling and the meeting were two of the best parts of being a penguin. Of course, we debated lots of people we didn’t know… but then next tournament, we were quite likely to meet them again. Competitive debate teaches civility even amidst the most passionate debate.

  8. BCB and Kurt make a fair and important point: good debaters study the best arguments on both sides, not every bit of noise offered. The civility and openmindedness Vargo calls for does not oblige us to listen to every dreary, recycled snark from Pat or every tinfoil post from Sibby. Once we know the bad arguments and the bad arguers, we don’t need to pay more attention to them.

    Kurt, I welcome you and Troy Jones and other speakers of political persuasions very different from mine in this comment section in the spirit that Vargo advocates. Done right, a good open comment section can be the best antidote to the echo chamber. It also can promote civility and accountability. We don’t do those things perfectly here, but we should all keep trying. Commenters, sign your work, go to the source, know your enemy… and know that your enemy is also your fellow citizen, who might well be happy to buy you a drink and continue the conversation face to face.

  9. mike from iowa

    Good read,bcb. I don’t see Stewart often but his show gets pasted to various websites for all to see. Fake Noise-especially Orally -will take credit for running Stewart off telly.

  10. mike from iowa

    Not up to drinking Kool-Aid with the enemy. That is what has Fake Noise viewers pants in a wad about Obama. Process of elimination -dumbass dubya was a uniter,ergo,Obama has to be a divider.

  11. It is only somewhat surprising that Mike, who is from Iowa, considers the majority of South Dakotans as enemies.

    Know what South Dakotans think about Iowa, Mike?

  12. Donald Pay

    BCB has hit on the real problem. Most of the stuff coming out of the right these days is bought and paid for public relations serving some crony capitalist industry. It’s always been a problem on the right, but that’s about all they do now. Efforts to downplay the health effects of radiation and Agent Orange, and pesticides, ozone depletions, etc., etc., have a long history on the right, but two or three decades ago there was other good and interesting stuff being turned out by right. The right developed the backbone of Obamacare and market-based approaches to pollution. The “broken windows” approach to neighborhoods in stress may have gone badly off track, but it has some utility.

    I can’t find much of anything anymore of interest brought forward by the right. They are out of ideas.

  13. mike from iowa

    Kiss my #$$,Grudz. I got taters. Lots and lots of taters,again.

  14. Bob Newland

    Grudz is a POS.

  15. You have so much good will from me from back in the old days that I’ll always love you, Bob. Just think about all the times…

  16. Lee Schoenbeck

    Very well written and insightful piece. Along time ago, Larry Rhoden told me how it was important to watch more than Fox News, to get a different perspective. He, and you, are correct.

  17. hahaha lee-you had to be told to not watch fox news. there you have it!! :)

  18. Grudz, Mike, and Bob helpfully contribute to this conversation counterexamples of non-penguin-like expression.

    But then comes Schoenbeck agreeing with us. Arrgghh—Schoenbeck! We count on you to keep this from sounding like an echo chamber! ;-)

  19. mike from iowa

    Someone has to be inflexible on the Liberal end to counter the other side’s steady stream of worn out excuses for right wing ideas that benefit only the wealthy at the expense of the masses. Pretty sure I’ve told the whole world I ain’t educated enough to debate,but I kinda don’t mind getting down in the muck with the other side since that is where there arguments emanate from. I am what I am.