Talking Sense

In New York Mills, the Great American Think-Off finalists debate to understand, not to win

A man speaks at a podium
Great American Think-Off debate finalist Bill Sutherland argues his point in the first round while eventual winner Dan Tschida looks on in the background in New York Mills, Minn., in 2021.
Courtesy of John Borge via New York Mills Regional Cultural Center

Allen Taylor’s Great American Think-Off essay starts with a story about his first car, a worn-out jalopy lovingly named FrankenChevy:

“It wasn’t a lemon. It was a time bomb with a randomized clock. Looking at it filled me with loathing and disgust. There was more rust than paint. It leaked oil, spewed smoke and random parts fell off on schedule every week.”

Over the course of his 750-word essay, Taylor, a truck driver from Colorado Springs, used his personal experience to answer the Think-Off’s 2023 contest question: Is it more important to protect the environment or the economy?

“If I were to say something up there, that was not part of my core value, that was not part of my story, then it would be very evident that I was just making things up in order to make it sound right,” he said. 

Three people stand on a stage
Dan Tschida (left) of Minneapolis debates AJ Gil of Atlanta, Ga., in the final round of the 2021 Great American Think-Off in New York Mills.
Courtesy of John Borge via New York Mills Regional Cultural Center

At 22, Taylor couldn’t afford a new car and didn’t have the credit to get a loan. He needed to reach financial stability first. 

Taylor argued that the same applies to environmental preservation: Achieving it first requires a robust economy. 

This year’s Think-Off takes place on Saturday when four finalists from across the country will argue whether freedom of speech is always worth the cost. 

Personal stories like Taylor’s are part of the event’s ethos because they lay the groundwork for effective civil discourse on any topic, says Blaine Rada, a two-time Think-Off winner and current member of the event’s committee. 

A girl holds a basket to collect ballots from audience members
A local Cub Scout collects ballots from audience members during the 2021 Great American Think-Off debate in New York Mills.
Courtesy of John Borge via New York Mills Regional Cultural Center

“That is actually one of the keys I think to not necessarily having your mind changed. It’s just trying to understand their point of view, and why they believe what they believe,” he said. 

“Some people have very strong and different views about the question in any given year, and yet when they come together to engage in this debate, it’s cordial. It’s friendly, it’s respectful. We’re not as far away from one another, as we’re often led to believe.”

Timely and timeless

The Think-Off started in the early 1990s around the idea of a philosophical debate modeled after a sports bracket, said Betsy Roder, executive director of the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center, which orchestrates the annual contest.

“We definitely try to choose questions that are both timely and timeless,” she said. 

Over the years, Think-Off contestants have debated same-sex marriage, whether God exists and if it’s better to win or play by the rules. 

Two women pose for a photo
New York Mills Regional Cultural Center executive director Betsy Roder (left) and moderator Ashley Hanson pose for a photo during the post-debate reception at the Great American Think-Off in New York Mills in 2019.
Courtesy of Betsy Roder

This year’s four finalists will travel to New York Mills this weekend.

Two will argue that freedom of speech is always worth the cost and two others will argue that it isn’t. The audience chooses who makes the most compelling argument. 

In part, the event is meant to deconstruct stereotypes about rural communities, said Roder. For instance, the Think-Off’s logo is the silhouette of Auguste Rodin's sculpture “The Thinker” sitting on top of a tractor. 

“We just believe that big thinking happens everywhere, including rural America,” Roder said. 

The contestants are…

Among this year’s finalists is Bill Sutherland is an electrical engineer from Eden Prairie.

It’s his second time as a finalist, and this year he will make the case that online culture has eroded the original intent of free speech, which is to promote a tolerant society by allowing people to express their opinions, and hear the perspectives of others.

“With the internet in general, and social media in particular, all of a sudden, people on the edges of society feel they have a microphone now. I think it’s become less of a discussion and more of a monologue,” he said. 

Meeting him on the debate stage is writer Michelle Mellon from Deming, New Mexico. She will argue free speech is worth the cost even if someone on the internet is using it to divide people. 

“As an African American, I have heard very insulting and hurtful things. And would I rather not have heard of them, of course.”

But she says hearing those hurtful perspectives is important because they exist and that knowledge has made her own views stronger. 

“Without freedom of expression, people are just sort of sitting mindlessly not really living up to their full potential, because they don’t have the curiosity, they don’t have the means to explore new ideas, new points of view,” she said. “The prospect of that I find very disturbing.”

Last years finalist Allen Taylor said participating in the Think-Off reinforced his belief that it’s dangerous to isolate from people he disagrees with. 

“Those barriers can be anything from cutting people out of your life, to wrecking a Thanksgiving dinner, to putting thousands of people into one spot and chanting like kindergarteners under the assumption that that is going to make a difference,” he said. 

Middle ground can be found, he says, when people debate each other as a way to understand, not win. 

A figurine of a person sitting on a tractor
A figurine of The Great American Think-Off’s logo, which represents the idea that big ideas can be found anywhere.
Courtesy of Betsy Roder