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Stupid argument looks smart at competition


Forest Groves Luke Berdahl takes sixth place in forensics impromptu category

by: COURTESY PHOTO - Luke Berdahl delivers his rebuttal during a debate competition this past year.Forest Grove’s debate whiz Luke Berdahl won sixth place in the impromptu section of the National Forensics League tournament by arguing that stupidity is necessary to survival.

Berdahl, who graduated from Forest Grove High School last month as one of its valedictorians, went to the national competition in Alabama after sweeping the state contests, taking first in individual impromptu, extemporaneous and (with a debate partner) parliamentary events.

At nationals in June, Berdahl first competed in the extemporaneous category, where for each round he had to draw three possible topics and choose one, then develop a seven-minute speech in half an hour.

He tried to select familiar topics, such as “How will the political meltdown in Egypt impact Arab relations with the United States?” or “How will the Indian foreign policy bureau handle increasing hostility from China?” and dump less familiar questions such as “How would the panopticon by the Russian public against Russian military police impact the effectiveness of Russian law enforcement?”

Googling was forbidden — an instant disqualifier — although contestants could use computers in other ways. Berdahl, for example, downloaded certain newspapers each morning so he could access up-to-date information.

A debate point is much more effective if he can say, “This morning, according to the AP [Associated Press],” he said.

In Berdahl’s first six rounds, competing against seven people each time, he ranked first in all six and made it to the quarterfinals. There, he got knocked out by two questions, including one on how alterations in global commodities markets will impact Chinese manufacturing.

In that case, Berdahl said, he knew too much for his own good and ended up just spewing information at the audience. “I’m really big on money and financial topics. I want to major in economics,” he said.

The other question dealt with politics in Latin America, one of his weakest areas. Berdahl, 18, said he failed to pull off his usual approach to his weak spots, where “other kids are out-factoiding me and out-analyzing me, so the way I beat them is by being funny.”

But humor helped him in the impromptu competition, where he competed against about 600 others.

In extemporaneous competitions, Berdahl said, “we guys on the West Coast don’t make it very far. We’re very informal. I wear funny ties. I make a lot of jokes.”

Impromptu is “much more my style,” he said.

In impromptu, he had 30 seconds to prepare a five-minute speech. The first round was dog topics. Berdahl chose an Ernest Hemingway quote — “My only goal in life is to be half the man my dog already thinks I am” — and riffed on loyalty.

The next topic was acronyms, and Berdahl spoke on MTV. In the final round he chose a Thomas Aquinas quote: “Stupidity is the intentional cultivation of ignorance.”

Berdahl presented stupidity as something we cultivate in our “entertainment or sexuality patterns,” which are crucial to survival.

Stupidity “defies the rational,” he argued. Although he admits to having a “Vulcanish side” (referring to the ultra-rational Dr. Spock character from “Star Trek”), Berdahl emphasized the dangers of a rational, cost-benefit approach to life.

“The rational allows you to dismiss the majority of things that make people human,” he said.

In the end, Berdahl’s rational argument against rationality polarized the judges, drawing sixes from some, ones from others.

It was still good enough to win him sixth place, on top of scoring in the top 20 out of 500 extemporaneous competitors.

What do those impressive results get him?

“Not a lot,” said Berdahl. The scores might play well if he applies to law school, which he’s considering down the road.

And perhaps, if his competitors in the college debate circuit next year hear about his exploits, “they will be scared of me.”