Mansfield Lost the `Justice' Debate on Points


David L. Bosco's editorial "Looking Beyond the Scorecard" makes one wonder if the author attended the Mansfield-Sullivan debate on which his article was based. He attempts to divorce debating skill from argumentation, claiming that, despite "Sullivan's obvious superiority in debate," Mansfield's points were at least equally sound. Furthermore, he chastises Harvard students for their "shallow" reaction to the event, since Sullivan was deemed the victor more for style than for substance.

Bosco gives too much credit to Mansfield and not enough to the students. The reason for the nearly uniform pro-Sullivan response was that Mansfield was unable to articulate his ideas in a cogent manner. I talked to Mansfield after the debate and he did indeed give better arguments than he had previously, but (perhaps due to what he called "stage fright") those arguments were not expressed during the debate.

Because of Mansfield's surprisingly poor debating skill, his arguments were not made effectively and in fact were barely made at all. In the face of such weak opposition, Sullivan could not help but win the debate easily. He was far more persuasive because his arguments were clear whereas Mansfield's were not. Bosco's attempt to separate debate skill from arguments misses the point that the former can be a necessary part of the latter; Bosco cannot fault Harvard students for failing to appreciate arguments Mansfield never really made in the hour-long debate.

Furthermore, Bosco condemns "Justice" professor Michael Sandel for making "it clear with which side his sympathies lay." For anyone who watched the debate without bias, it was clear that Sandel was merely trying to elicit some argument from Mansfield, who seemed resolved not to make one. Sandel's attempt to draw Mansfield out--and to salvage an embarrassingly one-sided contest--was more of an effort to rescue the floundering Mansfield than to harm him further. It is Bosco's article, severely influenced by obvious personal prejudice, that makes it clear with which side his sympathies lie.

It is doubtful that Mansfield's position is as strong as Bosco seems to think, but regardless of that, Bosco's article misses the point that the debate was a massacre and that Harvey Mansfield acquitted himself so poorly that both he and his arguments may be justly subjected to ridicule. God forbid we should "judge the debate on debating points." On what basis should we judge it? Figure-skating points? John M. Bronsteen '97