Debaters, Do Better

Anonymous | 3/20/24

During a British Parliamentary semifinals with a motion on human smuggling, sitting in the audience, I watched in horror as one of the closing teams chose to run a case very contingent on immigrants being evil. As in, they called immigrants evil. 

Of course, the majority of the actual delivery was much more eloquent than how I’ve phrased it, with all the flowery rhetoric and word-games one would expect of an experienced debater. But the side-steppingley vague yet aggressive assertions of ‘probability’ and ‘plausibility’ did not hide the fact that at its core, it was an incredibly racist and xenophobic claim. Many people in the room were from immigrant backgrounds, myself included. The bewildered shock in the atmosphere was palpable, and that was probably the most uncomfortable I’ve ever felt in a debate room. 

Yes, people were appalled. Yes, people were confused. Yes, my team and I exchanged opinions that ranged everything in between confusion and sheer rage. 

But it was really more shocking than anything else as I processed what just occurred, and I heard someone say: “Well, sometimes in debate you get a bad side. They probably don’t mean it. Just caught up in the stress.”

Ah, that explains it. Somehow, everyone seemed to nod. That was the explanation, and we are all suddenly satisfied. The atmosphere lightened. 

Someone just spoke openly and earnestly in favor of problematic stereotypes and ignorant rhetoric. I was having a mental crisis over the light dismissal, I barely paid attention to anything else that was said after in the round. Only the immigrant line stuck with me, and left a bad taste in my mouth. 

The semi-finals ended. That closing team did not break, but neither did they receive much criticism. One of the speakers from that team I actually knew and they came up to me afterwards.  

“Oh my god, did you see that? That was such a weird round, I sounded so racist and that wasn’t my intention at all, but we had such a weird side to defend, what even was that motion?” 

They complained about the round for a bit, as we all do, but they were way more annoyed about not breaking than, let's say, calling immigrants thieves and sources of corruption, claims founded upon racist stereotypes. 

I try to bring the issue up, in a nice, calm way. I got an equally nice, calm answer back, that mirrored the type of attitude the audience had earlier; dismissively apologetic, but with such nonchalance that I’m not sure if the apology meant anything at all. 

“I am sorry that it came out like that, but I mean, we’ve all said problematic stupid stuff in debates. It’s just a speech, it’s fine, no one ever cares.” 

And that was exactly my problem. Subconscious problematic viewpoints built into debate are specifically excused, normalized, collectively accepted to not be the ‘original intent’, therefore accepted as part of human flaws. They are for the most part penalized in the call, but lack sufficient, actual criticism and self-reflection from debaters, who perhaps simply learn to repeat in a less overt way. 

Or, even worse, learn to capitalize their extreme characterizations, laced with rhetoric and peppered with jokes, and be actively rewarded with wins. 

I’m not saying that everyone who has ever said a stupid thing they regret, an opinion they don’t support or just came off wrong is willfully malevolent. But too often, in the heat of the debate, debates tend to repeat harmful rhetoric echoed around in our greater social conditions, and we as the speakers, ironically, don’t tend to actually think before we speak. 

These repetitions and reinforcements of problematic things range from blatant aggression, like that BP semis, all the way down to poor characterization, which is far more rampant and held to even less degrees of accountability.  

Do we all really know what economic reform would look like for LDCs? Do we even know how to characterize an LDC apart from being poor, uneducated and behind? Feminism and the civil rights movement, the tokenized or misconstrued examples that we simply throw around to explain in twenty seconds two hundred years of suffrage, oppression and resistance. Nothing can not be material for a case, and nothing seems to ever require a second thought from us. 

At the end of the day, the problem needs to be addressed with definitive solutions, before becoming even bigger of a problem that proliferates through the community. Starting from the sense of self-awareness, debaters need to be held more accountable for the things they say. They should be told when they’ve messed up, unconscious bias' and misconceptions clearly called out. Breaking the so-called bubble would be impossible without even knowing the bubble's existence. This is not to say that it is wholly other people’s responsibility to educate you, when you should be seeking initiative in trying to improve and correct your own bias. There’s a lot of equity material specifically pertaining to speech and debate, and you don’t even have to look past the very platform this blog is published on. 

Apart from this intrinsic growth, external accountability is needed too. After all, debaters’ attitudes are often indicative and reflective of the wider circuit. As a fellow debater, it is also your responsibility to help maintain equality within speech and debate, by reporting specific instances of blatant bigotry or judge inaction to your coach or the tournament organizers, or even talking to the person yourself. Even just by voicing your disagreement with what had just been said, you took a step forward in ensuring accountability.

But more importantly, judges and coaches across circuits also need to take better notice when they witness such occurrences or receive complaints, and give due criticism as part of their obligation to the community. Please do not brush it off as “I know you didn’t intend to sound like that, but…” - and instead address the issue as it is. Another way to address the issue is to include an equity officer on the Chief Adjudication Panel (CAP), whose role is to support the Chief Adjudicator for ensuring a positive environment for everyone. Their job ranges from dealing with judge bias to offensive speech, which would effectively help to not only educate debaters on what they're doing wrong, but also train the judges to be more aware. 

It is crucial to have a collective effort within the community when tackling this persistent issue, and it cannot be done otherwise. We cannot forever hide behind the guise of unawareness and ignore the impact our words can have. 

These choices from our own systemic bias will bleed into how we as debaters view either side of the motion, how we choose characterization of stakeholders, and ultimately how we influence the people who listen to us. To speak and be heard is a powerful privilege, so please do use it with the utmost care.  

Debaters, do better.