How I Learned to Think of Conflict as a Virtue
Bo Seo on the Kind of Training It Takes to Be a Successful Debater
“Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit,” thundered the voice from the back of the room.
Over the three years I had known Bruce, starting from my first state team audition in the autumn of 2010, I had become expert at reading his expressions. The man’s natural frame—six feet, with a rugby player’s build—tilted at an angle of confrontation, and his manner of speaking leaned on jokes and denunciations. He was a country boy with a thick hide. However, I had learned to see in the movements of his more candid features—the folds at the corners of his eyes, the edges of his lips—intimations of approval, concern, and sympathy.
This Saturday evening on January 26, 2013, at a moody winter’s dusk in Istanbul, Turkey, I learned something else about Bruce: genuine anger surfaced first on his face, in splotches of purple‑red that eddied around his cheeks and crashed against his thinning hairline.
“Well, that was just—”
The sound outside began as a distant alarm, then within seconds swelled into an immense music. Soon it was coming through the thin walls of our second‑floor rental apartment, filling the cramped space like a rich liquid. 6:36 pm marked the time for Maghreb, the sunset prayer for Muslims.
Bruce sighed and sank back in his chair, resembling in sound and appearance a volcano asked to delay its eruption. The eight of us—five members of the Australian team, Bruce, and the two assistant coaches—had been in Turkey for one week. From the apartment rooftop on the night of our arrival, the city skyline had seemed a mirage, shimmering and preposterous. Now only several hours remained until our flight to the nearby city of Antalya for the start of the World Schools Debating Championships, and the overcast sky set conditions for a dark and congested night.“Whenever the opposition makes a new point, think ‘Bullshit.’ Then force yourself to come up with the reasons why it is so.”
For the past week, we had lived by a strict regimen: several three-hour debate sessions per day (one‑hour prep, one‑hour debate, one-hour debrief), interspersed with drills, lectures, and research. Aside from day trips to see the twenty thousand painted tiles of the Blue Mosque and the graves at Gallipoli, the site of a catastrophic defeat for Australian and Allied troops in World War I, we put our heads down and held out for delayed gratification.
Despite all that, we were making slow progress. Prior to this week, we had only spent time together as a group five months earlier at the national championships in Hobart. In many respects, the five of us—Nick, Tyrone, Zoe, James, and I—remained strangers to one another. Our performances in training, though competent, had not been winning.
As captain, I struggled to pull the group together and was beginning to fear that our team would be less than the sum of its parts. The pressure never relented. For the three of us due shortly to enroll at university—Nick, Tyrone, and me—this year’s World Schools tournament would be our last. The same went for Bruce, who had tendered his resignation as national coach, effective at the end of this competition.
Back in the apartment, as the call to prayer downed, Bruce spoke into its echoes. Now a pensiveness weighed on his voice and lent his words a different kind of urgency: “You are giving away the debate. Seriously, you are barely contesting these rounds. Where is the rebuttal?”
He gestured to the two assistant coaches—Chris, a tall, softspoken man from Melbourne, and Kristen, a caustic, bookish woman from Brisbane—whose job was to demolish us in these practice rounds. “You are letting them get away with murder.” The pair shot sympathetic glances in our direction.
The criticism was well aimed. In this most recent round, about the merits of public funding for the arts sector, my teammates and I had been so intimidated by the opposition that we had deferred to them. Instead of directly refuting their points, we took them as a given and looked for countervailing arguments. We said “Yes, but . . .” The coach had pointed out this tendency several times throughout the week, and now he appeared determined to settle the issue.
“This is what we’re going to do: Whenever the opposition makes a new point, think ‘Bullshit.’ Then force yourself to come up with the reasons why it is so.”
The coach spent the next few minutes demonstrating:
“They say the policy will increase the likelihood of nuclear war, you say . . .”
“They say this legislation violates the freedom of assembly, you say . . .”
“They say the opposition is being unreasonable, you say . . .”
There was a musicality to this refrain, like a profane call‑andresponse.
“In fact, let’s try something different in the next round. Instead of repeating the word in your mind, say it out loud.”
We went around the circle. The word sounded different coming from each person, but my delivery was conspicuously bad. I started too soft, overcorrected, and settled at an unhappy medium: “bULLshit.” The coach didn’t look up from his laptop, but I felt the weight of his attention all the same. I knew this activity was aimed straight at me.
For most of my life I had been terrified of conflict.
Behind the brutalist main building of my elementary school in Seoul had been an unpaved patch of dark‑orange dirt. There, away from adult eyes, the older kids learned with their fists the uneven weight of bodies. The scuffles lasted a few minutes. Two kids circled each other, mustering the courage, then broke orbit to the animal noise of a cheering crowd. In the pivotal moments that ensued, strength never failed the losers. What broke first was the will.
I watched this unfold in the first grade and learned that proximity to violence elicited in me a gastric response. The acid soured my guts, then rose to the back of my throat. Though one could safely watch these fights as a member of the crowd, I felt in my bones the thinness of the line between spectator and participant. So I stayed at the other end of the school—the side with the gardens and parking spots—and kept my uniform bleach white.
But my parents had other ideas. Worried about their son’s lack of preparedness for a cutthroat world, they opted for what was in Korea a national solution to shyness in children: enrollment in Tae Kwon Do. The dojang was in a steamy basement beneath a swimming pool. I never got used to the smell of chlorine and the vinyl stickiness of the mats. But I became fond of the sport, which in the beginning was ballet‑like in its emphasis on stretching and rehearsing forms.
Within three years, I wound up at the Kukkiwon in Seoul, the global headquarters of the sport, competing for a black belt. The facility had been described to me as a kind of mecca but turned out to be a large gym built in the 1970s. In the shallow well of the amphitheater, one hundred of us demonstrated our forms for a dozen officials who sat on a dais and picked off from our number anyone who made a mistake.
The last part of the examination was the spar. I had prepared for weeks. But in this moment, the gap between practice and the real thing seemed impossibly vast. I locked eyes with the doe‑like boy in front of me. We inched closer together and bowed. He threw the first punch—a jab that landed on my chest with a thud. I stepped back, shifted my weight, then kicked the side of his torso, a few centimeters below the ribs.
Beneath the starched white dobok, in the viscera between the bones, I felt again the part of me that hated all this. Soon after that, with my black belt in hand, I resigned from the sport.
Over the next decade I developed this gut instinct into a fullfledged ethic—a theory of how one should move in the world. In my everyday life I tried to dodge, ignore, and hide from altercations. I made an art form of non-answers and deflective jokes. The reward of assiduous avoidance was likability. Whereas friends lost days of their lives to petty fights, I relished the comforts of getting along.
This view of conflict aversion as a life hack had a long history. Under the guises of propriety, complaisance, agreeableness, and good manners, it appeared everywhere from ancient Egyptian papyrus scrolls (“Silence is how you establish your superiority over him, / while he is bad mouthing, / greatly to the disgust of the assessors, / and your name is the good one in the mind of the officials”) to How to Win Friends and Influence People, the seminal work of corporate trainer and former competitive debater Dale Carnegie (“There is only one way under high heaven to get the best of an argument—and that is to avoid it”).In this era of furious politics and culture wars, conflict seemed to me not only a prudent life choice but also a virtue.
The wisdom of such advice seemed to me self‑evident in the twenty‑first century. If one feature of our public life was the absence of reasoned argument, another was growing rancor and enmity between political opponents (both phenomena dovetailed in the word unreasonableness).
Back home the very bad election of 2010, described by one journalist as a “new trough in Australian politics,” had given way to a period of hostile and unrelenting partisanship. In one sign of the times, in 2012 Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivered a scorching fifteen‑minute speech in Parliament denouncing the opposition leader as a misogynist for, among other things, standing at a rally in front of a sign that read ditch the witch.
The speech had gone viral around the world, but in Australia, the reaction was more mixed and polarized along party lines. For his part the opposition leader called on the government to “stop playing the gender card,” a line also used in several major newspapers. At the lowest ebb of the discussion, people called one another misogynists and misandrists based on their reactions to the speech.
In this era of furious politics and culture wars, conflict seemed to me not only a prudent life choice but also a virtue. My aversion to political disagreements was not grounded in apathy or ignorance or fear. Instead, it resembled what the Italian philosopher Norberto Bobbio had once termed “mitezza,” or meekness, that “repudiate[d] the destructive life out of a sense of annoyance for the futility of its intended aims.” I even found for this moral position a theological justification. Turning the other cheek, scripture said, was neither stupidity nor weakness. It was wisdom.
So I lived this life of contradiction. Even as I climbed up the ranks of competitive debate, I remained staunchly agreeable in my everyday life. Friends who came to see me debate gaped at the transformation. My parents made jokes about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But I thought I had it all worked out.
Arguments had become the pastime of idiots and zealots. I was happy to stand with the silent, abstaining middle who rose above the fray.
Excerpted from Good Arguments: How Debate Teaches Us to Listen and Be Heard. Used with the permission of the publisher, Penguin Press. Copyright © 2022 Bo Seo.