In the movie The Great Debaters, what does the following quote mean? Why does Tolson make his students repeatedly say this? Tolson: Who's the...

In the movie The Great Debaters, what does the following quote mean? Why does Tolson make his students repeatedly say this? 

Tolson: Who's the judge?
Debaters: The judge is God!
Tolson: Why is he God?
Debaters: Because he decides who winds and looses, not my opponent!
Tolson: Who's your opponent?
Debaters: He doesn't exist!
Tolson: Why does he not exist?
Debators: Because he is merely a dissenting voice to the truth l speak!

Asked on by jenjen456

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Professor Tolson seeks to get his debaters to understand that they are not competing against an opponent.  Rather, they are competing against a higher level of argumentation that transcends their opponent.  In this light, Tolson is trying to get his debaters to understand that they must be arguing and competing on a much more elevated level, one that appeals to the intrinsic natures of rhetoric, argumentation, and analysis.  Tolson seeks to impart to his students/ rhetoricians that their opponent is secondary to the larger configuration of debate, and, perhaps, secondary to themselves.  This mentality allows them to not be overwhelmed by debating at Harvard and facing the members of that debate team.

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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The scene with the quote between Tolson and his debaters is the scene after Dr. Farmer has the unfortunate and unnerving incident with the man and the man's pig. Since Dr. Farmer's car killed the pig, the man forces payment from Farmer, then forces him to "help" get the pig in the man's truck:

[Man] Whoa, whoa, whoa! Where the hell do you think you're going?
You got to help us get this hog in my truck.
Come on. Grab the tail end of that, boy.
Town niggers. They think they're too good to get their hands dirty.

The scene immediately cuts from Farmer to Tolson's living room, where the debaters are all assembled. In a juxtaposition of these scenes and events, the man with the pig is symbolically associated with the debate opponent; the one who doesn't exist; the one the debaters are to be better than; the one who is only a vehicle for words that deny truth: "he is merely a dissenting voice to the truth l speak!" Tolson has the students repeat the recitation, yelling loudly, to enforce in their minds the truth that they are to be judged by one standard only and that is the standard of truth, truth well spoken.

The scene following the debaters reinforces this symbolic treatment when, under the operation of "trying to get to know each other," Tolson responds to a question about his own life with the recitation of the life philosophy of one Willie Lynch, a merciless, "vicious slave owner in the West Indies." Lynch was asked by the colony of Virginia to "teach them his methods," methods gruesome, heinous and violently manipulative ("Keep the slave ... psychologically weak .... Keep the body, take the mind"). Tolson explains that, since by implication the Willie Lynchs stole all the students' minds, he and the other professors on campus were dedicated to the project of giving them their minds back, giving them their ability to reason and to speak truth back:  

I...and every other professor on this campus are here to help find, take back, and keep your righteous mind...

The reason Tolson has them repeat this refrain so incessantly is to train them "to find, take back, and keep" their minds. They will do this by knowing the truth (it is the judge who "decides who wins and looses") and speaking the truth (an opponent "is merely a dissenting voice to the truth I speak!"). The claim for this analysis is that the writer and director juxtaposed three scenes to create symbolism linking the debaters' "opponents" (those in debates and those on the streets with pigs) with the vicious colonial slave owner Jack Lynch. The youths of the debate team will prevail over the Jack Lynches and opponent debaters because they will know truth and they will speak truth.

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Noelle Thompson | High School Teacher | eNotes Employee

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I am going to go a bit further than the previous answer and say that the key is the very last three words (and punctuation):  "the truth I speak!"  What this means is that a debater must believe, ... further, ... must KNOW that the words he speaks are the truth (no matter WHAT the debate is about).  There are no other sides.  There is only a "dissenting voice," which is not a true opponent. 

Now we must go even further and realize the CONTEXT of this speech.  The debate coach, Melvin Tolson, must lead his African American team to victory, ... in the aftermath of the Civil War reconstruction:  the 1930s.  At the time, the African American fear of white people was very, very real.  Lynchings (and other hate crimes) were common. 

The African Americans of Tolson's debate team, then, were actually AFRAID of their opponents for their own safety as well as the muted (and erroneous) fear that whites were better than blacks, even at debating.  This was Tolson's attempt at getting rid of that fear.  God:  the only judge.  Truth:  the only winner.

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pwalle01 | High School Teacher | In Training Educator

Posted on

When we initially dissect Tolson's quote here, it can be a bit confusing. After all, Tolson claims that the competition is not even between the two teams, but rather between the debate team and the standing judge. Realize that Tolson's strategy is twofold. 

Tolson reframes the student's basic understanding of debate, asking them to consider their task as seeking "the truth", not just the "best answer" that may happen to beat their opponents. If his students debate against their opponent instead of speaking to the judge, they are already conforming to their opponent's questions rather than forcing the opponent to do so for them. 

Tolson asks that his students repeat this, near mechanically, in order to solidify the concept and to break bad habits. Think of when you have a debate or argument with a friend. Are you trying to prove him or her wrong? Or are you trying to be "right"? Often, we do the first despite the fact that the second is the more effective means of argumentation. 

Stepping back, this quote also could provide you with a decent chance to do some outside research of your own. Did Tolson actually say this, or is the scene in the movie a way to impart the lessons that he taught in a flashy, "hollywood friendly" way? It's important when we watch movies like this one, especially biopics, to ask what parts are truthful, what parts cater to viewers for show, and, ultimately, if we care about the difference between the first and second.

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