IMAGINE a presidential debate in which John McCain answers Hillary Clinton’s arguments by stripping down to his underwear or breaking into a rap song.
Strange as it might sound, such tactics are gaining cachet â€” and victories â€” in a top breeding ground for future politicians: America’s college debate circuit.
In recent years, renegade rhetoricians from Cal State Fullerton and other underdog schools have clobbered debate kingpins from Harvard and UC Berkeley with a hodgepodge of unorthodox methods known as “performance debating.”
Instead of relying on scholarly research to foil opponents, the teams employ guerrilla tactics such as reading from Dr. Seuss, impersonating pirates or ballroom dancing with a chair.
“People call us the terrorists of debate,” says Fullerton student Brenda Montes.
The goal of performance debate is threefold: Knock rivals off stride, impress judges with creative forms of argument and open the heavily white-male field to new voices.
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When performance teams face each other, things can get pretty weird. Long Beach State once faced two women from Concordia College in Minnesota who stripped down to G-strings and talked about reclaiming their bodies from objectification by men.
The all-male California team couldn’t get past the distraction. “Their brains left them,” said Neesen, their coach.
Another contest pitted a Fort Hays student dancing with a chair against a Northwestern team reading the script of “Dr. Strangelove.” The topic was federal control of Native American land.
“It was a wild debate,” Shanahan said. “Strangelove” prevailed.