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Resolved: College Debate Should Allow Debate


College debate is societally influential to a creepy extent. Poke around Congress, courthouses, and publications, and you’ll find them infested with former high-school and college debaters. Debaters go on to be heads of marketing, finance, and all other fields that attract people with a heavy sense of rectitude. Debaters are deliberate and calculating. They learn to think by exposing their ideas to a true test: the active opposition of another mind. Debaters end up in charge.

Which is why it’s a problem that debate is going cuckoo.

The Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA) is the largest intercollegiate policy debate association in the United States. In the finals round of CEDA’s national tournament last year, the affirmative team from the University of Oklahoma proposed, “[Presidential w]ar powers should not be waged against niggas,” straying somewhat from the year’s given resolution. (The resolution is supposed to be the topic everyone pursues in a given season or set of debates.) Each team lavished obscenities upon the other. Conservatives predictably decried the spectacleThe Atlantic must have been surprised to have its broad-minded defense of the event received as whitesplaining, and not well taken.

Garnering less attention was this group of four apparently non-black people, who compete in the National Parliamentary Debate Association (NPDA), the largest U.S. intercollegiate parliamentary debate association. They spent the semifinals round of the 2014 National Parliamentary Tournament of Excellence (NPTE) debating the resolution, “The United States Federal Government should significantly increase its provision of disease monitoring and treatment to South Sudan.”

South Sudan made an appearance in the first sentence of the debate. After that came both shouting and lilting of many words the present writer is so moth-eaten as to find offensive. Also indicative of expired views is the suspicion that it might be kinda racist to prioritize the problem of low female participation and success in U.S. college debate over disease in South Sudan, which the debaters went on to spend the rest of their time discussing. Spoiler alert: the Lewis and Clark College team behind this interpretation of the resolution went on to win NPTE, one of college debate’s most prestigious tournaments.

Let’s Start With an Explanation

Intercollegiate debate is its own thing, and not what a lot of people think it is or should be. This subsection is an explanatory courtesy. Like a debate case, we need some definitions.

Collegiate debate is a game, subject to its own rules.

Resolution: the topic being debated

Affirmative: the team proposing a case based on the resolution

Negative: the team opposing the affirmative team’s case

Judge: the person evaluating the debate round and designating the winning team.

To regular folk, the heaving logorrheics of competitive debate look like oratorical dolts. Maybe they are, but that’s how debate works. Attempts to fix incomprehensibility, artlessness, and exclusivity arise continually. In fact, the NPDA was founded in 1994 with the goal of being less technical and exclusive than CEDA and other policy debate formats.

But after enough rounds in which teams did things like defining the resolution into a debate over the merits of the Ramones vis-à-vis the Sex Pistols (actual historical example), material research and speed became part of NPDA. In college debate, evidence wins, requiring an unnatural expectoration of arguments. Anyone looking for classical oratory should look elsewhere (NEDAPublic Forum, or Ethics Bowl might suffice). Collegiate debate is a game, subject to its own rules. It is not there to please outsiders.

Harms: The State of Debate

The question is, what will debate’s insiders tolerate? CEDA has allowed internal redefinition to obliterate its previous existence. Tournaments are now ridden with “project cases,” in which a team defines a social cause into the given resolution. Arguments in defense of this radical interpretation are based on personal experience and what I think we’re supposed to call alternative scholarship, and presented through performance novelties like hip-hop. Outright objection is anathema.

Duh, staying on topic is a function of privilege.

The issue with which project debaters wish to commandeer the round is proven more important than the given topic by means of project strategy itself. If the resolution is about raising tariffs, and the affirmative raps that we’re going to talk about how many speaker points lesbian Latinas averaged at the Dartmouth Round Robin and by the way both of this team are lesbian Latinas, the negative would be bigoted to argue that the case is off-topic. Duh, staying on topic is a function of privilege.

Furthermore, project cases are able to force a judge’s vote by means of social pressure. Who in academia is free to vote against two disadvantaged people demanding that an advantaged person agree that disadvantage is bad? Mediating proposals, like holding tournaments in which debaters voluntarily agree to play by the traditional rules (um?), are condemned as an academic retooling of White and Colored bubblers.

Those who wish to succeed in CEDA now have two choices. They may compete solely on project cases, which have the advantage of effectively declaring that all CEDA rules are privilege-based and therefore invalid. Or they must meet an even higher burden of preparation: affirmative and negative cases addressing the intention of the resolution, and (at least) negative arguments with which project cases can be successfully opposed. Traditional CEDA prep alone would make a third-grade room mother yearn for Valentine’s Day. So CEDA is now even less accessible to a novice who might want to join the debate team although her high school didn’t have one . . . unless she just runs project cases.

Impact of What Actual Nerds Do With Free Time

But project cases don’t allow external criticism or empirical judgment. Their foundation is personal experience, which cannot be refuted. They require all hearers to adopt their premise. The opposing team can only offer procedural arguments (reducing the round to debating about debate), or an alternative system of supporting the same premise (diminishing clash, or direct and active conflict, which is the life of debate).

A person who rejects these rules is disingenuous to join a game which operates by them.

Advocates of project cases assert that everyone’s foundation is personal experience. By their figuring, the experience of privilege must be challenged because it has not faced challenge like the disadvantaged have. But part of the debate game is accepting reason and logic as basic ground rules. Debaters willingly submit to the idea that syllogisms work, that A is A, and that the contrapositive of a true statement is true. A person who rejects these rules is disingenuous to join a game which operates by them. Feigning at play only to subvert the game deserves an ad hominum argument, as any group of kids defending their baseball game against a bully can testify. A game is not a dominant paradigm or a tool of oppression because it is openly artificial and self-defining, and even more because no one has to play. But those who choose to play make an implicit contract with other players to keep the game’s internal rules.

Again, debate is an important game. Even those to whom the discipline does not appeal benefit from it, just like we all benefit because some of our classmates loved cutting up dead cats, and others could run giant calculators. Debate is a training ground where smart and ambitious people learn to form, analyze, and deliver sound arguments; to understand positions other than those they hold personally; to solve problems by innovation. Debate is not there to please outsiders, but it has always served them. 

The particular importance of debate is that logic, the unifying principle of its game, also happens to be the law of reason and reality. Logic is the physics of the non-physical world. It’s a good idea to learn the rules of logic and play by them because they have an immediate and absolute relevance to real life. But to privilege-hunters, logic is among the tyrannies to be discredited and discarded. Like gravity or inertia, logic has a capacity for making people sad, and no one likes that.

Like gravity or inertia, logic has a capacity for making people sad, and no one likes that.

So the foes of logic are very clever. They know the ultimate enemy—reality—and have undertaken to dismantle a play-version of it. If a logic-based game need not submit to the external judgments of logic, to objective weights and counterweights, then neither must life. The new rule of reality strangely becomes “I get what I want,” the worst system for checking privilege ever conceived. Even in the most fogyish forums, everything must hedged with constant disclaimers that of course some women can do that many pull-ups, and roar for the at-home dads, and keep quiet about the convenience-store manager whose comparative privilege mattered more than his size.

Declaring that certain people’s thoughts and ways of coming by them are intrinsically invalid shuts down thought. The proscribed thinkers are by definition not allowed to think. Their privilege disqualifies them. They are required to sign the ballot in favor of the project case.

But if the judge wasn’t allowed to judge, it wasn’t a debate. The game is denatured, and its benefits are lost. I know this argument can’t work, but that’s the argument.

Please Get to the Point

So collegiate debate is a foundry for thinky bigshots, and CEDA is our canary in the minefieldshaft, sorry—of collegiate debate. In CEDA, the “project” fought the law, and the law wonders what happened. But it isn’t allowed to say anything, because that would be racist, heteronormative, otherizing, cis-matic, or all of the above. Do other debate formats stand a chance?

If project cases do not actually to speak to the real world rather than the game-world of the debate, they are manipulative, not persuasive.

Last year’s NPTE (an elite invitational tournament of NPDA) is unreassuring. Perhaps the saddest thing is first affirmative speaker McKay Campbell’s disclaimer at the beginning of the round, which she makes a point of delivering at a rate comprehensible to mortals (28:57): “This decision is intentional. We read policy with intent because we can win the boys’ game too” (meaning they’re running a case based on the resolution, not a project case). That’s after she and her equally brainy partner got to finals by running an obscene project case about sexism against two dudes, which the two-dude negative team in finals had to be prepared for them to do again.

Then what’s the real game here? If project cases may be run or not run at will, their claim of fourth wall-breaking absolute priority can’t be true. And if project cases are only pretending to break the fourth wall, and do not actually to speak to the real world rather than the game-world of the debate, they are manipulative, not persuasive.

Solving the Debate Problem

Konrad Hack, director of forensics at Concordia University-Irvine, says there are ways to beat a project case. For example, a negative team could bring physical evidence into an NPDA round (against NPDA rules). This would allow them either to bulldoze an affirmative project case by sheer volume of arguments, or force the affirmative team to call a point of order, which can’t really be well taken in a round in which the affirmative’s setup has fiated the rules away.

Hack’s team has not formalized this strategy. “At this point we still have enough people who believe that we should affirm,” he says (affirm means propose a case based on the intent of resolution). “The judging pool still believes we should talk about the topic.” NPDA’s history of trouble with topicality may make it more resistant to project cases’ rejection of given topics. Hack is not even convinced that traditional CEDA is extinct, and thinks the historical moment may pass: “Eventually people will say, what’s the point of doing all this research, why do we have topics, if we don’t debate the topics?”

We Beg to Oppose

If outsiders may offer the critique we are fit to muster: uh, yeah. What Hack said makes sense. If people who like the old game of debate want to play it, they’ll have to make a case for playing the way games are played: with all players voluntarily agreeing to the rules. That seems like a task for which debaters are well-suited. If their case fails, they could start a new game, like the NPDA founders did when CEDA was no longer the game they wanted to play. They’ll get screamed at for being bigots either way, but that’s no departure from the status quo.

Doubtless, this controversy drew many viewers from basketball and brought both NPDA nationals (March 14-17) and CEDA nationals (March 20-23) their largest audiences ever. When the public watches collegiate debate, it can see the enormous technical preparation and skill that go into it, much like basketball or marching band. If someone stole the game ball and handed the forwards bouquets of daisies instead, or insisted that the brass line appear at their next performance as a polyphonic chorale, and said that to proceed otherwise would be hateful, surely someone would call bogus, right?