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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sue Lani Madsen: Sparring the Spokane way

Sue Lani Madsen (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

There’s a tough match up next Tuesday evening in the boxing ring at the Howard Street Gym.

No fisticuffs expected, only fact checking and flourishes of humor for the fifth edition of “Rhetoric in the Ring.” Members of the Rogers High School Speech & Debate team will face off against Rebecca White of The Spokesman-Review and Daniel Walters of the Inlander.

Volunteer organizer and promoter is Jim Hedemark, who is not affiliated with Rogers High School or either of the newspapers. “This is a celebration of high school debate,” said Hedemark. “I like to see debate students receive as much attention as the football or softball stars. And these students have a lot to teach us about civil discourse.”

Anybody think we could all use a few lessons on civil discourse? Let’s hear an Amen!

In “Coddling of the American Mind,” authors Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff identify three great untruths underlying the cultural slide into increased political polarization. One is the concept of fragility, the belief that exposure to challenging ideas is physically dangerous. The second is believing if an idea is upsetting it automatically must be wrong. The first two reinforce the binary thinking demonizing “them” who are not “us.”

When this newspaper had a comments sections online, the rhetoric trended nasty and frequently personal. Monitoring comments required the whole armor of God on some days. Hedemark’s liberal critique of a conservative column stood out for cleverness and made sparring fun. In classic Spokane meet-up tradition, we figured out a connection through high school. Jim’s father, Tom Hedemark, was a history teacher and coach at Joel E. Ferris High School for 30 years. Coach Hedemark had a wry sense of humor in the classroom and it showed in Jim’s online debate style. Coach Hedemark passed away in 2015.

Hedemark the younger organized the first Rhetoric in the Ring in 2014 after meeting Cara Heath, who was rebuilding the speech and debate program at Rogers High School. As a club sport, debate needs outside financial support to allow all interested students to participate regardless of family finances. It was a perfect match for Hedemark’s background in nonprofit fundraising and love of engaging in civil political debate.

It was the same year Haidt and Lukianoff noted a sharp rise in political tribalism and demand for protection from challenging speech on American college campuses. These high school students seek no protection. They have learned to research facts, ask questions and debate on the merits of ideas. And they are undefeated against all challengers, including Spokane’s Councilman Mike Fagan and Council President Ben Stuckart, state Sens. Michael Baumgartner and Andy Billig, Spokane Public Schools board members Paul Schneider and Robert Douthitt and District Court Judges Aimee Maurer and Debra Hayes.

This year they take on those notorious or mislabeled (pick your tribe) enemies of the people, The Media.

“Rhetoric in the Ring V: Rogers vs. Reporters” will be argued in a SPAR debate format, also known as spontaneous argumentation. Unlike spontaneous arguments popping up on social media, there are rules for these matchups and a referee to enforce them. Retired Superior Court Judge Jim Murphy will handle the striped-shirt-and-whistle duties.

“Nobody knows the topics until just before the words begin to fly, although I suspect ‘fake news’ and unnamed sources may come up for debate,” said Hedemark. After the question is announced, SPAR format gives the students one minute to choose which side they want to argue. Each side then makes an opening statement, followed by cross-examination and a one-minute closing statement. Winners are determined by applause.

Donations are accepted but not required. Donations are even accepted if you can’t be there to cheer on this demonstration of verbal sparring the Spokane way. One hundred percent of all contributions go to Rogers High School Speech & Debate Club for tournament fees, travel and related club expenses.

When the bell rings, expect both sides to come out ready to rumble. And if any of the participants seek future employment in the White House Press pool, they can list experience in an actual boxing ring as one of their qualifications.

The bell rings at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 13 in the basement gym at 165 S. Howard St. in Spokane.

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