Pop the Oxy bubble and take a debate class

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Julia Koh/The Occidental

As Oxy students, we are in the Oxy bubble, which shapes us to form similar opinions. A philosophy class I took last semester, “Ethics Bowl: Contemporary Debates on Ethical Issues,” helped me pop that bubble.

In class, 12 students would sit around a large table, prepare and then debate cases the Ethics Bowl committee gave us. At the end of the course, we flew to Arizona State University to compete in the California Regional Ethics Bowl competition against schools like Stanford University and University of California, Santa Barbara. We placed sixth. On the flight back, I realized how grateful I was to have had my opinions challenged. We build more concrete opinions when the opinions we discuss at Oxy are challenged by people outside of our bubble. College debate classes build teamwork and expose students to ideas or topics they have not considered.

Ethics Bowl pushed me and my team to interact with opinions that are different than our own. We had one case about callout culture, which refers to chastising people on social media when they have done something controversial. During one debate, we argued that when a celebrity posts a racist tweet, their unethical action makes it ethical to call them out on social media. However, another team argued that people should not call them out because they would be “treating them as less than a person” — disregarding the fact that a racist comment is dehumanizing, too.

Others opposed our opinions several times that day, and I kept writing my frustration in large letters all over my notebook. Throughout the course, we considered counterarguments, but it was hard to believe actual college students held these opposing views. That is the problem with the Oxy bubble: it is difficult to imagine that people think differently than the way we think. Yet that is the reality. Oxy is a great space to be able to discuss our opinions with one another, but it is even more critical to know why we hold these beliefs in the first place. It is important to be able to back up our opinions and show that they are not simply the product of group-think.

Some of the Ethics Bowl topics were things I never considered. In one case, called “Not Pimping Ain’t Easy,” I argued that sex work is ethical and should have institutional and societal support, based around the autonomy of the sex worker. I had never worked on this topic and I had to do extensive research. With another case, “Having Children as the Climate Changes,” I was already aware of the danger of climate change. However, I had never considered the idea of not reproducing because of it. Because these were such complex issues, our class struggled to ethically form an argument. That struggle was necessary: complicated ethical issues do not have a clear answer, and understanding them requires more than just taking one side.

I also had to learn how to consider others’ opinions and to trust my teammates. Even though Oxy students share similar opinions, our team’s greatest challenge was, surprisingly, forming an argument we all agreed upon. I had to learn how to compromise. Even after we arrived at our argument, we had to depend on each other to present it coherently. At the competition, when one of us was nervous or forgot to say something, we would quickly step in for each other. We worked as a team and not as individuals — after all, we traveled together and spent time refining each of these arguments. We taught each other patience, compromise and teamwork, expanding beyond the individualism of academic classes.

For many, sharing opinions with the class or speaking publicly is an uncomfortable experience. I felt that way, too. Even after I signed up for the class, I hesitated to vocalize my opinions to the class and, later, in front of other students and judges. I was worried I wouldn’t feel confident enough in my opinions. However, my mentor insisted I stay in the class, reminding me that, as an aspiring civil or human rights lawyers, these uncomfortable experiences would help me gain the confidence to do this kind of work in the future. Working through these uncomfortable debates was rewarding. I slowly put this discomfort aside and became more confident in expressing and working through my arguments.

More students should consider taking a debate class — not only to push themselves and challenge their beliefs but to learn the dynamics of teamwork in an academic and professional setting. I know this can be an uncomfortable step, but it is a necessary step into life after Oxy. We have to be able to support our own opinions in any field while still understanding that there are people who don’t agree with us. This teamwork and confidence from debating will support my future aspirations in law, and I know it can help college students both now and in the future. We can’t grow in our arguments if we are speaking to ourselves.

Serena Pelenghian is a junior Critical Theory & Social Justice (CTSJ) major. She can be reached at spelenghian@oxy.edu.