Points of Contention

Originally posted: April 13, 2012

Rebecca Wilson and Melissa Fussell

Rebecca Wilson ’15 and Melissa Fussell ’13 prepare their rebuttal. (Photo by Judy Watson Tracy)

As the Trayvon Martin case continues to dominate the news media, a national dialogue about gun control, racial profiling and the highly controversial Stand Your Ground law has begun to hit a fever pitch. Nowhere was that more evident than at Tuesday’s debate at Valencia College when the Rollins debate team faced off against Cambridge University on arguably the most contentious topic in the country.

The exhibition debate, one of several organized during the Cambridge Union Debating Society’s five-day invitational to Central Florida, was designed to give attendees of taste of parliamentary debating, a style that invites jeers and cheers from the audience as the debaters deliver their arguments for or against the resolution.

On this night, Rollins debaters Melissa Fussell ’13 and Rebecca Wilson ’15, ranked #2 and #3 in the nation, argued in favor of Stand Your Ground while Cambridge Matt Hazell and Alex Gordon-Brown argued for its repeal.

Falecia Williams, president of Valencia’s west campus, set the tone of the event with her introduction. “Tonight is really about an opportunity to challenge our assumptions and presumptions as they relate to the Stand Your Ground law,” Williams said. “It’s good to see that we can engage with our emotions as well as our intellect, and have our thoughts and beliefs challenged in a scholarly way.”

To Wilson’s surprise, the audience genuinely weighed both arguments. “I was a little scared that people weren’t going to listen or that I might offend someone,” said Wilson, who believes Stand Your Ground needs to be repealed. “But this audience was wonderful. I feel like they really listened to what we said. And the fact that we won, even on the unpopular side of the issue, showed that they listened to the other side.”

After the 90-minute debate, which included a question and answer period, audience members cast their vote for the night’s champions as they exited the room. The total score was 80 to 53, with several abstentions.

“I think the media tends to focus on random, isolated details of the case that are largely irrelevant just for the sake of making more news,” said Fussell. “We need to examine what occurred that night, the police actions after the fact, and the factual issues at hand.”

“I feel like we did something important,” said Wilson, a philosophy and English double major. “It’s good to get people thinking about the real issue. And personally, I’ve discovered that I can argue a horribly unpopular opinion and still win. It’s definitely increased my confidence.”

Rollins debated Cambridge several times during the Brits’ stay in Central Florida, including the only competition debate in the series, which was held in Tiedke Hall on April 5. The Rollins team was not so fortunate that evening, and ended up relinquishing the coveted Rollins Cup to their adversaries after losing the debate on U.S. military intervention in Iran’s nuclear program.

Currently ranked second nationally in novice parliamentary debate, the Rollins debate team participates in several competitions and exhibitions each season, which officially runs from September to March. “We have international debate exchanges with many schools,” said Assistant Professor of philosophy and religion Eric Smaw, who coaches and directs the Rollins debate program “The best schools always want to travel to debate each other.”

Smaw recently accepted invitations from the Fudan University in Shanghai, Beijing Foreign Studies University in Beijing, and PKU in Beijing to come to China and debate their national teams. As a result, Wilson and Fussell, along with Smaw, will travel to China this May for a two-week tour, which will include several exhibition debates with some of the best universities in China.

“I joined the debate team because I love good academic discourse, and because I think that personal values should have a solid, rational foundation. Having your opinions or preconceptions challenged is the best way to form these sorts of values,” said Fussell, who plans to go to law school after graduation. “A college education, especially a liberal arts education, should be a growing experience. Debating keeps you from becoming apathetic or stagnant; new challenges foster personal growth.”

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