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How Academic Debate Became A Propagandist Tool

Continually catering to leftist activists through debate transforms young, talented students into committed ideologues for the left.

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In a recent essay at The Free Press, James Fishback reports on the radical leftist bias that has taken over the judging of high school debates at the national level. Although he focuses on the developments of a particular extracurricular program, his account should worry everyone since it’s illustrative of what’s happening to the culture at large.

After showcasing his credentials as a former nationally ranked debater and debate coach, Fishback gives a not-so-hypothetical situation of a sophomore studying a debate topic intensely for months, only to discover that one of her judges is a radical leftist who has explicitly declared, “I am a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist. … I cannot check the revolutionary proletarian science at the door when I’m judging. … I will no longer evaluate and thus never vote for rightest capitalist-imperialist positions/arguments.” Although this judge was among the most aggressive and outspoken in her partiality, Fishback mentions others with similar profiles.

No matter what side the sophomore must argue, she will need to make sure to do so with a leftist slant. And for anyone with an inkling of history, economics, and basic common sense, such leftist arguments are notoriously weak and incoherent — not to mention immoral. Thus, rather than learning more facts about her issue to make a stronger case, the sophomore is unlearning those facts to make a weaker case to a prejudiced judge.

As Fishback notes, “Once students have been exposed to enough of these partisan paradigms, they internalize that point of view and adjust their arguments going forward.” Over time, this practice of continually catering to leftist activists transforms young talented debaters into committed ideologues and seasoned propagandists for the left. By extension, it transforms the whole culture of competitive debate into an absurd echo chamber where the very principles of a reasoned argument are replaced with mindless partisan signaling.

Naturally, the habits and attitudes of these debaters have made their way onto college campuses. As with high school debate, more and more colleges have become the inverse of what they were originally designed to be. What were once centers of academic scholarship, ideological tolerance, and intellectual discipline have degenerated into cesspools of partisanship, anti-intellectualism, and groupthink. This was on full display a couple of weeks ago when Scott Atlas, a public expert who happened to be right about everything on Covid, was heckled by graduating students at New College of Florida.

All that said, in the interest of following the rules of an honest and proper debate, it’s worth considering whether Fishback’s report is actually representative of what’s happening in national high school debating circuits. Therefore, I asked Josh Herring, a fellow teacher-writer who happens to coach debate (and even hosted a podcast about it) to relate his experience.

In my conversation with him as well as in an article he wrote for The Federalist a few years ago, Herring attests to the leftist bias of judges and partisan pandering. According to Herring, the elite debate teams that usually win national competitions have all mastered the art of invoking critical theory and “applying a kritik” to the debate’s resolution. 

In layman’s terms, this strategy involves shifting the debate from a specific topic to a general issue, usually pertaining to social justice. Herring gave me the example of a debate over Turkey joining the European Union:

While debaters on one side research the topics and come up with economic and political reasons why Turkey should join the E.U., debaters on the other side simply argue that the E.U. is a racist, free-market system that should be dismantled altogether. Thus, the debate quickly shifts from Turkey and the E.U. to the evils of capitalism and Western civilization. It’s underhanded and unfair, but the judges often won’t care and will usually reward these teams for pushing narratives they agree with.

Herring did qualify this scenario by saying this was mostly a problem with the competitions hosted by the National Speech and Debate Association. Saner minds tend to prevail in alternative circuits and venues, like The Coolidge Debate League, which Herring helped organize, as well as regional and local competitions in more conservative regions of the country. Debaters are usually judged more on the merits of the evidence, delivery, and logic. Because of this, the arguments are much stronger and tightly focused, and the participants and their audience are better informed and have more understanding of the opposing side.

Throughout America’s history, the tradition of debate has been a centerpiece of free speech and democracy. Every major decision that has contributed to the progress and well-being of the nation, from declaring independence from England to ensuring basic civil rights for all citizens, has been the result of vigorous argumentation between multiple sides deploying an array of evidence, deductions, and rhetorical techniques. And while the better argument didn’t always win right away (e.g., abolition of slavery), it would eventually happen when Americans finally arrived at the truth of the matter.

Sadly, the idea of debating ideas on their objective merits has increasingly fallen by the wayside. Not only can this be seen in the left’s collective opposition to open debate in the public square, but this is also happening in the world of formal debate itself.

As it stands, the blatant partisanship and sophistry that Fishback and Herring talk about have already corrupted academic culture and public discourse, and it’s only growing worse. On important issues that concern everyone, Pope Benedict’s “dictatorship of relativism” has arrived in full force, with censorship, propaganda, and brazen intimidation pushing out what is true, good, and beautiful. When this happened in the past, people could count on talented debaters who would argue on behalf of the truth. Sadly, like snakes eating their own tails, today’s talented debaters have abandoned the truth in the pursuit of ending real debate altogether.


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