The theoretical portion of Debate as Global Pedagogy builds upon Voth’s previous work in The Rhetoric of Genocide. Voth sees genocide as developing out of the dehumanization of the other. When propaganda presented the minority Tutsis as “vermin” and “cockroaches” to the majority Hutu community, the groundwork was laid for 1.4 million Rwandans* to be murdered in 100 days. “Political leadership makes pejorative symbolic misrepresentations of an internal public group, and the repetition of these symbolic misrepresentations forms the foundation of individual action collectively galvanized toward the common act of genocide.” In a country of just less than 6 million inhabitants, the death of 25% of the population is astounding. While many factors contributed to the Rwandan genocide, Voth focuses on the communication element, contending that a single narrative dehumanized the minority population to an astonishing extent. Preventing this kind of brutalizing narrative in the future is the work of “discursive complexity.” Voth defines this as “the capacity among individuals and a society to endure and encourage dissent.” In the absence of discursive complexity, a single narrative permits abuse, murder, and genocide of the other as defined by the narrative’s propaganda. Voth traces the lack of discursive complexity through other genocides in the 20th century history: “The twentieth century confounded us with the most detailed documentation of the horrors of human society. The genocides of African Hereroes [sic], Armenian Christians, Jews in the Holocaust, intellectuals in Cambodia, Muslims in Bosnia, and more than any book can contain add up to tens of millions dead and four times as many as those killed in war.” The greatest need for the global community, according to Voth, is to reduce the likelihood that genocide will occur again by increasing discursive complexity. Minimizing that possibility, Voth argues, is the province of competitive debate.
Voth coached a nationally award-winning debate team at Miami University of Ohio and currently coaches Southern Methodist University (SMU)’s collegiate debate program. He is the Debate Fellow for the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation and widely recognized within collegiate debate circles as an excellent coach. It should be no surprise, then, that Voth has thought carefully about debate. He sees it as an exercise that requires students to listen to opposing viewpoints, carefully evaluate them, and respond. These actions occur within a game-like atmosphere that forges friendships through participation, developing habits that last a lifetime.
Central chapters of Debate as Global Pedagogy focus on Voth’s work with Jean Michel Habineza and the formation of iDebate Rwanda, a summer program that instructs Rwandan students and teachers in the art of debate. Voth sees this process as helping the post-genocide generation move beyond the horrors of the recent past into a positive future for Rwanda. Where the Rwandan education system previously concentrated ethnic prejudices within educational authority, the cultivation of debate develops within students the ability to evaluate claims, weigh evidence, and respond respectfully to false information. Combined with a consistent focus on helping students to develop their own voices, debate, Voth argues, places discursive complexity at the center of the new Rwanda rising from the ashes of genocidal prejudice (120). Habineza explains that “in debate you learn that conflict is inevitable, but that violence is a choice. Embedded into this activity is this idea that a conflict of ideas could lead to a positive outcome that can be revolutionary for societies that are recovering from violent conflicts” (118). Debate, Voth argues, is a mechanism that reduces the possibility of genocide and replaces it with the ability both to articulate and listen to diverse views. Through the inculcation of discursive complexity, debate makes the world more free and increases the potential for human flourishing.