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Radiolab’s Debatable – The Case of Ryan Wash & the Cracked Podcast

September 5th, 2016  |  Published in FEATURE, SOCIAL SCIENCES


| In third grade, there was a kid I would barter with — me: sugar in gelatinous forms; him: temporary access at reading time to a grocery bag full of Mad magazines I adored for their amusing and mind-bending fold-ins. Mixed in with the Mad were issues of something called Cracked magazine which I later (only recently) found out gets described as (by its own people) a poor man’s Mad. Nonetheless, I thought it was fun. nixon-fold-in

Both brands fell out of my life for years. Mad TV came along and went in the late 90s. Cracked remained nowhere really until I came upon a peculiar time-killing site somewhere between 2004 and 2010. Its staff would group content into random and interesting topic lists in a way that confirmed that the world was messed up and you thought “Why, humanity, WHY?!” At the same time, you would laugh because when the world is that dumb, it’s what you do.

Playstation GirlI was drawn to this post first — “10 Awesome Ads (For Traumatizing Children)“, not because I was plotting the fall of future generations, but because off-beat in media is a good thing that expands the mind and when I see it, I am compelled to consume it. I was onboard with what these guys were doing. They knew how to organize, make a point, and call people out on their garbage.

Years later I discovered Cracked had a podcast wherein like their written content, society is deconstructed and made fun of in an attempt to deliver understanding of why things are the way they are, and in many cases, despite what conventional wisdom would lead us to expect. Along the way, I realized the Cracked of today was that Cracked of long ago. Funny how things come back around like that.

In August 8, 2016’s podcast, “Things That Don’t Work the Way You Think,” I was introduced to the circus that is Debate at the high school and collegiate level in the US. So how does it not work the way you think? Well, in a debate, one would expect participants to sound like human beings for one. Now, play the clip below and at 0:43 prepare to have your eyebrows raised and your eyes enlarged.

This is the farm system for the future elite? Supreme Court judges, presidents, industry heads are coming out of this? Weird. I decided to explore this further and took Cracked’s reference to a Radio Lab episode on the subject. They did their own story on debate entitled “Debatable” in which high-schooler Ryan Wash was recruited/kind of forced onto his school debate team because of his presumably transferable chess skills. He goes from the daze of having his schedule mysteriously changed, to just trying things out, to excelling, and doing so as an underdog for reasons revealed if you check out the program (below). But most interesting about Ryan’s story is that he challenged my thinking, first, of how rules are applied in organizing human behavior. Are rules just guidelines? To what extent are they to be respected, challenged, or altered? Second, he reshaped how I view figures of change. There are two groups:

quote-following-victory(a) those who deliberately seek change, enact it, and desire to own it

(b) those who happen to have the power to bring it about by accident and who have no interest in working with the effects that follow.

That said, to what extent should responsibility rest on the members of these two distinct groups?

Below is the episode. Give it a listen and find out how Ryan Wash became a compelling piece of news. Form your own opinions. Below is mine.

I agree there needs to be a basis we all agree on as a starting point for discussion on a given topic. If there is no basis, there can be no chance of resolution of anything. I also understand the need to provide a forum for marginalized groups to voice concern over issues. And I get that Wash’s approach was unprecedented and by criticizing and challenging the practice and culture of debate he caused people to stop and reflect. However, I would have to say that the purpose of debate is to have focused discussion on a subject that will lead to resolution of that topic and so while I love that Wash changed people’s thinking, as an ongoing mode, his form of delivery is not productive and would be invalid insofar as the purpose of debate goes. And that he feels detached from the fame of being a game-changer and that he is not inclined to battle-on, that is perfectly fine. It’s his life to lead and not all of us are activists.

By the way, here’s the Cracked Podcast. The section about debates starts at 59:40.

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