“Do You Live in a Political Bubble?” The New York Times released an interactive tool last month to help you find out! Reporting on a study published in Nature Human Behavior, the authors looked at the registration data of every registered voter in the United States – more than 180 million people – and found that “a large proportion of voters live with virtually no exposure to voters from the other party in their residential environment.”
If you’ve paid attention to the cultural discourse over the past decade, this fact comes as no surprise. Polarization, sectarianism, and negative partisanship have rankled our body politic to an unprecedented degree and you’ve probably experienced the effects of these trends in your own life. Bubbles exist in politics, religion, race, universities, jobs, neighborhoods, and even in churches and families. These problems might feel too far-reaching for one individual to make real change, but I disagree. Each of us has the tools and opportunities to pop these bubbles, and I’d argue that for societal, individual, and moral reasons, your experience with speech and debate uniquely qualifies and charges you to burst your surrounding bubbles.
First off, speech and debate alumni should burst bubbles for the sake of public speaking and societal discourse. You may have joked during your competition years about how people should join Stoa to get over their fear of public speaking by speaking in front of a lot of people. While that’s a great benefit, public speaking is a lot more than speaking in front of people in public. It’s really about speaking to the public. Being outside of tournament rounds and having access to the internet means it’s easier to speak about public issues than ever before. And if you agree that polarization, outrage, and animosity from bubbles are damaging our society, you should be encouraged that as alumni we have the skills to speak to these problems and to change the dynamic of cultural conversations. Each of us has had the preparation to feel comfortable speaking to and with many different types of people. We should use the platforms and voices we have to engage people who are different from us and to do so with honor and respect.
Communication is far more than finding the biggest loudspeaker and aiming it at a crowd of people. In many respects, it’s more important to use communication to break down barriers and make connections at the individual level – think quality vs quantity. Consider what speech and debate taught you about engaging with others. You had to tailor your speech to the judges in the room, regardless of how different from you they might be. It didn’t matter how correct you thought you were or how many members of the audience thought you nailed your performance, your chances of success were slim to none if you didn’t connect with the person holding the ballot. The debate custom of asking for judging philosophy or background is crucial because building bridges with a parent judge, community judge, or an alumni judge requires you to communicate differently and uniquely with each audience. Take that same humble approach when you engage someone in a different bubble who might have a different way of seeing the world. Connecting individually is key.
The reasons to pick up your speech and debate toolbox and step out of your comfort zone extend beyond speaking with people, both at large and individually. God commands us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37,39). There are no qualifications on the command to love your neighbor as yourself saying that it only applies as long as your neighbor looks like you, votes like you, worships like you, or even posts on social media like you. Stoa trained each of us to speak with grace, truth, and beauty. We constantly face opportunities to engage with our neighbors in a Christ-like way to break through polarized bubbles and change the world for Christ. Our shared experience as speech and debate alumni means each of us can engage well, in a way that honors God.
What’s next? How do you take the steps to burst through your bubbles? The first and often hardest step is to see the bubbles that envelop you. Exercises like the interactive tool above can help reveal where you’re starting from. But honestly, you can also tell by considering if you’re surrounded in your daily life only by people who think and act like you. The next step is to look for soft points, maybe where your bubble overlaps with someone different who works with you or is in your college class. Finally, you must have real conversations with real respect. If you’re arguing like a judge is going to give you a win or a loss, you’ve already lost.
I live in a bubble. Many bubbles, actually. According to the New York Times tool, I live in a political bubble – only twelve percent of my nearest neighbors are Republicans. I also work and worship in a bubble, as a Christian pursuing a PhD in bioengineering and as a Christian in the San Francisco Bay Area. I’m also the product of the same homeschool speech and debate bubble that connects all of us, with its unique pros and cons. As the first chair of Stoa’s Alumni Committee, I’ve spent significant time over the past couple of years considering the role that alumni play in today’s world. My biggest takeaway is a challenge for each alumnus and alumna to consider the bubbles they inhabit and to view their speech and debate skills as the means to break out. You have a unique readiness to meet this cultural moment. Will you?
Peter Dykstra competed with Paradigm in San Diego, CA, and graduated in 2011. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Bioengineering: Biotechnology from University of California, San Diego in 2015 and a master’s degree in Bioengineering from Stanford University in 2017. Peter has been the inaugural Chair of Stoa’s Alumni Committee since 2019. He is currently finishing his studies as a bioengineering PhD candidate at Stanford where he focuses on the intersection of synthetic biology and regenerative medicine. He also works on policy issues around biosecurity and bioethics. Peter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org