To hear Michael Rosecrans and Jake Ziering preach the merits of marine biodiversity, one would think the priority of their lives is to protect oceans. However, they argue the negative side just as persuasively. They even mock the very topic they spend so much time debating.
“After this year’s topic, I hate whales, but only because people love them so much,” Ziering said. “They’re sea cows, and they should be eaten.”
On the first day of elimination rounds of the 74th annual National Forensics League tournament that was held in Salt Lake City June 13-18, seniors Ziering and Rosecrans from Glenbrook North High School in Illinois took a break from their rounds of policy debate to enjoy lunch. Over chocolate milk, cold grilled-cheese sandwiches and pudding in a tube, they chatted about girls, poker and why they don’t actually care about the topic they debate. These two can convince judges of nearly anything, and have won hundreds of debate rounds this year debating both sides of every issue.
The pudding tube folded between Ziering’s hands is about to reach a breaking point. The only thing that separates his plum-colored shirt and patterned tie from a pudding disaster is a thin layer of plastic, but Ziering doesn’t care. He’s busy discussing how he and his debate partner Rosecrans have managed to maintain a normal life, all while dominating the national high school debate circuit.
“There are those that call us evil,” said Ziering, “but we’re pretty nice to everyone.”
Rosecrans and Ziering, like the 3,100 other high school students at the tournament, came here to argue—not for causes they necessarily believe in—and to persuade judges to vote for them. And Rosecrans and Ziering are good at it; they won the 2004 Tournament of Champions, the most prestigious high school forensics tournament and the Catholic Nationals.
Despite the fact that they have spent countless hours researching the protection of marine life and traveled to more than a dozen national tournaments to debate the topic, the two have no strong feelings one way or the other about the issue. Unlike most public speakers who choose a topic they are passionate about, then use rhetoric to support their opinion, debaters will argue any point, as long as they can use it to persuade a judge. Last year, they advocated for mental health policies and the previous year, the importance of limiting the use of weapons of mass destruction.
Inside of rounds, Rosecrans and Ziering demonstrate their knowledge. They know more about politics than many Washington insiders and more about marine protection than some biologists—all to create their strongest possible arguments.
When Ziering speaks, he rarely takes his eyes off of the three judges. Behind his comfortable gaze and jovial tone, he constantly thinks of every possible way to destroy his opponents’ points and to make his own seem more important.
“Policy debate is all about piling up dead bodies,” said one judge.
Despite the irony that the country’s most persuasive teenagers don’t feel strongly about their arguments, they do learn the arts of logic and persuasion. The skills debaters learn compensate for the passion they lack for their subject matter.
“Debaters improve their research skills, retention and knowledge, public-speaking skills and confidence,” said Scott Thoreson, a debate coach at El Paso Cathedral High School in Texas, and an official at the tournament. “Those who do well in debate often go on to become successful lawyers and judges.”
“Mike and Jake are undeniably intelligent, and that comes out in their debating. But the focus is on learning and not competition. They’re both going to grow up to be very important people,” said Yelena Filipchuk, one of the duo’s teammates.
Despite their powers of persuasion, Rosecrans and Ziering lost in the semi-final round of the tournament. After so many speeches and hours and hours of debate rounds, there was nothing left for them to say. They shook hands, hugged briefly and ended the season.
“Well, good year, Jake,” Rosecrans said, capturing their unprecedented accomplishments.
Though they did not win the tournament, Ziering was named the best speaker overall, and Rosecrans was named the fifth best speaker overall in the final awards ceremony.
In front of hundreds of sparkling trophies, LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, who won the 2004 communicator of the year award, summarized the importance of argumentation and communication.
“Ideas are important, but they become realities only as they are clearly spoken and acted upon,” he said.
As these debaters know, though, a strong argument does not necessarily represent a strong conviction.
“Because you have to debate both sides, it means that you don’t have to take an opinion,” Rosecrans said.