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Thank You, You’ve Been a Terrible Audience

A debate contest breaks bad In small-town America

Author Robert Lerose

ILLUSTRATION BY PETER OUMANSKI

MINNESOTA—Adam Bright grips the lectern with both hands, faces a crowd of 450 expectant Minnesotans and solemnly tells them that they are all essentially evil. Rather than being cast into the nearest combine harvester, he will receive a gold medal and a check for $500 for saying so.

A poetry student from Colorado, the 31-year-old Bright doesn’t seem the type to willfully antagonize people. But the Great American Think-Off—an annual debate competition that tonight is tackling the question of whether man is inherently good or evil—does not favor the meek.

Held in the small Minnesota town of New York Mills, the Think-Off marks its 20th anniversary this year. The very first event also posed the good-vs.-evil question, but that night the crowd—whose vote determines the winner—was undecided. Bright, one of four chosen from hundreds of finalists from across the U.S., is determined to avoid a similar stalemate now.

"How many of you know that other human beings desperately need your help," he asks the audience, "and yet you do not help them?"

Facing Bright in the final is Marie Anderson, an Illinois mom who insists we’re basically good. Even those who do bad things, she argues, are often simply misguided.

"She was very well prepared," Bright says after receiving his award, "but I guess I whipped myself up into the zealotry of my own position and sounded convincing." A moment later he is surrounded by fans, one of whom insists on plying him with Rice Krispies treats.

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