I’m Being Attacked!

It’s funny what students will tell you about their families. They often have less of a filter than their parents. I’ll bet that’s comforting to all the parents reading this article 🙂

As a debate teacher, one of the messages that I sometimes get through the teen grapevine is that one or both parents in a family feel reticent about debate as a subject. Specifically, they feel reticent because debate is, in the words of the parent (as reported by the student), “contentious”. Of course the parent doesn’t want contention in the home, so they have mixed feelings about debate as a subject. The idea isn’t awfully unreasonable at first glance. Debate is, by definition, disagreeing. Disagreeing is contention. So there you have it.

We all probably have experiences that would tend to confirm this viewpoint. Have you ever had a debate with someone and either you or they experienced a fight or flight response? I certainly have. I have some sisters who are razor sharp thinkers and debaters and I remember how frustrated I could get with them when I was younger (a near meltdown inside a local chinese restaurant comes to mind). I think most people have experienced some version of this, thus the idea that debate is contentious doesn’t seem so crazy.

But to think more sharply about this issue, let’s consider that fight or flight response. The fight or flight response is an evolutionary response that helps us deal with physical threats. One element of the fight or flight response is an “amygdala hijack”, a term coined by psychologist Daniel Goleman in 1995. The amygdala hijack is a pretty complicated physiological response, but it more or less shifts the brain from making reasoned responses to stimuli to instinctive responses to stimuli, which can also call forward a strong emotional response- hence the stupid things I blurted out in the angry near meltdown in the aforementioned local chinese restaurant.

If you follow the experience of my near meltdown in the local chinese restaurant backward you might think of it in these terms-

Sam is experiencing a contentious debate


Sam is blurting out angry things


Sam is experiencing an amygdala hijack


Sam is experiencing the fight or flight response


Because why? Again, the fight or flight response is an evolutionary response that helps us deal with threats. So at some level, when someone disagrees with me I become contentious because I believe that-

I’m being attacked!

Not just attacked in the sense that someone disagrees, but that this disagreement constitutes a legitimate threat that will be able to take away my wellbeing. And if debate starts with that assumption, then it makes a lot of sense that debate is, in its nature, contentious.

Thankfully, debate doesn’t have to start with that assumption. It can begin instead with the assumption that my arguments and my person are two entirely different entities and therefore an attack on my arguments is not an attack on me. If we begin instead with the assumption that an attack on ideas is simply a testing of the ideas themselves, then instead of being contentious, debate can fulfill a meaningful purpose that makes everyone better off. That purpose is civil discourse. Civil discourse is the exchange and testing of ideas that is the lifeblood of successful societies, communities, organizations, families, and really any group of people. It is the process that allows for people with opposing perspectives to understand differences, find common ground, come to value alternate perspectives, get rid of unfounded assumptions, improve each other’s thinking on an issue, and so forth. Civil discourse is marked by energetic debate, but also real listening, respect for the autonomy and value of others, and a desire to meaningfully engage other people’s ideas. So, in the end, debate doesn’t have to be an activity that causes contention, but rather can allow us to meaningfully resolve, or at least mitigate, underlying conflicts.

To demonstrate the differences in perspective, the following chart is instructive-

I’m Being Attacked!

People and their ideas are the same thingPeople and their ideas are different things
I’m being attacked! when someone disagreesWhen someone disagrees they are testing my ideas
Fight or flight response is triggered (including amygdala hijack)I can respond to arguments with my full rational capabilities
I become defensive and angryI listen, advocate respectfully, and consider which ideas I buy into and which I don’t
Debate is contentious​Debate is civil discourse
I do not learn or grow from the experienceI learn and grow from the experience

As you may imagine, one of the first orders of business for a debate teacher is to help students get rid of the idea that they are being attacked. If you can successfully convince a student that they aren’t being attacked, debate can stop being contentious and it can start to really benefit the student.

Now, at this point it likely seems that this article is about debate and civil discourse, but in reality I have, up to this point, been developing a metaphor. Because what I really want to accomplish in this article is to apply the previously developed concepts not just to debate as a subject, but to education more broadly.

To begin then, what if a student doesn’t just think that they and their ideas are the same thing, but rather that they and their academic performance are the same thing? Might there be similar results?

Over the years I’ve taught a number of students who have either become defensive and angry or shameful and self loathing upon receiving negative critique of their academic performance. In the circumstances in which I have been able to get them to talk to me about what is going on, the common thread seems to be that they believe that the feedback they receive says something fundamental about them. In the end, they believe that negative critique of their academic performance is the same as negative critique of their existence and being. In other words, at some level they believe-

I’m being attacked!

The result plays out much like it does when the concept is applied to debate. And, of course, just like debate, the process doesn’t have to begin with that belief. Students can instead foster a belief that their value as a student and person is entirely detached from their academic performance. In this case feedback can serve a much higher purpose.

The following chart makes the comparison nicely-

I’m Being Attacked!

Applied to Teaching Generally

People and their academic performance are the same thingPeople and their academic performance are different things

When someone grades, critiques, or otherwise offers feedback on my performance, I’m being attacked!
When someone grades, critiques, or otherwise offers feedback on my performance they are helping me test my performance
Fight or flight response is triggered (including amygdala hijack)I can respond to feedback with my full rational capabilities
I fight (become defensive and angry) or I run (I put my head down in shame)I listen, share my thoughts respectfully, and consider what feedback makes sense to me and what doesn’t
Feedback is contentious or shamefulFeedback is a valuable way to advance my education
I do not learn or grow from the experienceI learn and grow from the experience

A variety of studies have demonstrated that students getting detailed and regular feedback on their performance is key to students understanding and then overcoming deficiencies. So when students feel that feedback is an attack, they sabotage their own growth. On the other hand, if students can detach themselves from their performance, it’s amazing what they can accomplish.

Some years ago I had a student in a beginning class who stood to give his very first impromptu speech and, to his surprise, the moment he began to speak he started crying uncontrollably. He wasn’t the first or last student who experienced this particular effect from public speaking. For some small portion of the population, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, some people just cry whenever they speak in public. He was one of them, and this crying effect hit him hard. As you can imagine, the first day was pretty embarrassing for him. Afterward I had a one on one conversation with him. I told him that I had seen this happen for students before and that if he wanted to continue, frankly, he had a hard road ahead. I also indicated that at the end of the road was a world in which he didn’t cry every time he tried to speak in front of people. He decided to go through the difficulty. As predicted, it was difficult. In his first year, he went to tournament after tournament and cried his way through speech after speech in front of judges and classmates. But amazingly, through the whole process he was able to maintain enough distance between his value as a person and his academic performance that he was able to persevere, not become angry or defensive, and not become shameful and self loathing. I say that he kept enough distance between his performance and value as a person because there were definitely discouraging moments. But he was always able to bounce back and persevere. It was one of the most inspiring performances by a student that I’ve ever seen. It inspired me and it inspired his peers as well. After tournaments, I recall a number of students pointing out this student as their favorite competitor, admiring the courage that it took to persevere under such difficult circumstances. Over the next several years, he steadily grew. First he was able to occasionally keep it together during a speech. Then it was every speech. Then the speeches started getting better and better. I remember distinctly announcing the first time he placed at a tournament. He wasn’t the one crying at that point.

This is the sort of powerful growth that is made possible when students keep distance between their concept of self and their academic performance. Education is not experienced as an attack. Rather, education is experienced as a growing and ennobling process.

Therefore, I put forward the following suggestion – just as it is a first order of business in debate to help a student separate their arguments from themselves, it ought to be a first order of business in education to help students separate their academic performance from their self concept. And that having been done, to watch as students take on challenges and reap the rewards of doing so.