Homogenization in Speech & Debate

Athena Tian | 10/28/22

“I am the first and only person in this session to…”

“My opponent dropped x, y, and z.”

“I’d like to distance myself from the rest of my side….”

“Could not provide me with a competent answer.”

“My opponent’s claim will lead to extinction and death.”

“This is good/bad for the poor people.”

Ok, we get it. It’s obvious. Speech and debate is a competitive event. The people who are actively involved in the community are high-achieving individuals with aspirations for their future. From utilizing debate to gain admission into their dream college, developing their acting and collaboration skills, all the way down to improving their public speaking skills in preparation for a future career, speech and debate is an activity which requires relentless dedication and sacrifice from students, families, coaches and all other participants alike. Reaching a respectable level in forensics would not be possible for a person without motivation.

The short term motivation? Win the next round. How does one go about winning the next round? By appealing to those who possess the ballot - the judges.

While there were once a variety of unique ways through which a competitor could convince their judges to give them favorable ranks and scores, while the sheer volume of people involved in speech and debate nationwide and internationally increases, the variation of techniques which competitors use in competition are decreasing steadily.

Among the 134,000 members, 4000 coaches, and nearly 3000 participating high schools (1) across the country, each has their unique reasons for joining debate, and when starting out, each has their unique method of preparing for competitions, writing arguments, constructing speeches, and presenting them. They are able to use forensics competitions as a way to improve their argumentation and presentation skills in the ways which they see most beneficial for them, and gain exposure to perspectives and styles of other competitors at the novice and middle school level. For the competitors who are able to see the beauty and individuality which could be expressed through speech and debate, the activity manifests itself as an art form and a positively anticipated occurrence with the organized unpredictability of each round.

Fast forward a few months in a student’s competitive career. Donning a blazer Saturday mornings has become a normality, their Google Drive has a special section for debate cases, and perhaps, a few trophies and medals have begun to appear in their arsenal. What has also become a part of their arsenal is an unfortunate memory of times in which their arguments were misunderstood by judges, especially lay judges, and a keen knowledge of the phrases and persuasive techniques that are effective in earning a high placement from the judges - and those that are ineffective at accomplishing the same goal. The floral dress and Hawaiian polo which they donned to their first competitions have now been reduced to a modest shirt covered by a black or navy blue blazer, and their quirky yet convincing case introductions have transformed into a simple statement of which side of the debate they stand on, and the primary claim which supports their side of the argument.

Fast forwards even more to a stage in the competitive forensics career which most students will fall short of for one reason or another: the elimination rounds of national circuit competitions and fiercely competitive state championships which can be found only in a handful of state’s nationwide. At this level of competition, the homogenization among competitors is discernable. While their ballots, NSDA profiles, trophies, medals, certificates, plaques, and awards may be more complete than any others found nationwide, their individuality and differentiability amongst themselves is ostensibly the most depleted.

The percentage of students who have the name of a private institution written next to their name on the ballot is significantly greater than the nationwide proportion which could afford such schooling. Each student carries with them a functioning laptop, a blank stack of papers for note-taking, black and blue ballpoint pens, typed black and white plachards with their last name written in Sans Serif font, and water bottles which would be minimally disturbing should they accidentally fall over mid-round. Many arrive at the competition site with a coach, teammates, and guardians who have been able to dedicate themselves to the excellence of their high-achieving students, leaving jobs, dependent family members, and personal lives as a lesser priority.

Yet despite the increased likelihood of accomplished competitors lauding from the aforementioned demographics, it’s not a guarantee, and the speech and debate community has given opportunity to those who come from less privileged backgrounds, less established teams, and face more socioeconomic barriers. Yet once each competitor reaches a stage in their unique personal journey in which they are able to achieve commendable results at high-level tournaments, they all become compelled into assimilating into the same confining category for the sake of achieving even more ambitious goals within competitive speech and debate.

The way in which one introduces their name and speaker code. Being overly-polite to judges. Asking judges for paradigms in a last-minute effort to please their desires. Congressional debaters starting in the middle of the floor, walking to one side with one argument, and then to the other side while approaching their next contention. Hand gestures. Calling opponents out with the same trite phrases, accusing opponents of fallacies that never existed in the hopes that judges will blindly believe such attacks. Argumentation structure. Voice, tone, posture, movement. Rhetorical strategy.

What has led to the ever-increasing homogenization and draining of individuality in winning speech and debate competitors, and what can be done to bring art and creativity back to the competition floor in forensics?

Primarily, competitors resorting to the same methods which have been proven as successful can be attributed to the hypercompetitive nature that exists in speech and debate. When the National Speech and Debate Association boasts on it’s website that it’s members are exponentially more likely to receive admission into a competitive postsecondary institution (2), this can be attributed in part to the significance of speech and debate as an activity, however acknowledgement must also be attributed to the life and work ethic skills which student’s participating regularly must possess, as well as the high-achieving nature of students who pursue speech and debate. Students who regularly and passionately pursue competitive results in forensics are often also ambitious in their aspiration for excellence in other disciplines, including but not limited to academic coursework, standardized testing results, sports, jobs, internships, initiatives, arts, service, and various forms of involvement within their community. While the relentless desire to strive for results in every discipline in which they are involved can reap long-term benefits, it can also fuel an environment in which the materialistic result which comes out of an activity is more significant to an individual in comparison with the experience and efforts involved in the process. In competitive debate, such a motivation drives competitors to conform to the tested and proven methods which are known to be favorable across the widest range of judges, as opposed to experimenting and expressing unique methods of conveying an argument or presenting a case.

Additionally, the competitive spirit commanded and expressed by many students within the speech and debate community is exacerbated by the nature of the activity itself - competition based at heart. While the National Speech and Debate Association has made commendable efforts towards broadening the benefits and appeal of participation in forensics by introducing supplemental events at national competitions as well as service points to give an incentive for participants to think of speech and debate as more than a solely competitive activity, the advantages and involvement that are reaped from speech and debate under the status quo exist solely at competitive events. In fact, each aspect of the speech and debate experience is centered around competition. From rankings to awards, to NSDA points to recognition, an activity which lays its foundation on constant competitive events cannot expect that it’s participants will not make extensive sacrifices for the sake of achieving competitive results - including sacrificing expression, creativity, representation, and style in favor of an argument which is more confidently understood by those who hold the ballot.

It would be foolish not to acknowledge that the competitive aspect of speech and debate has drawn in thousands of students, coaches, judges, parents, and organizations alike, and that a level of competition is essential to motivation and scholarship distribution, as well as preparing students for postsecondary life and the real world. While the competition-centered aspect of forensics must not be eliminated, those involved with the activity can increase the appeal and accessibility of joining the community and encourage thinking outside the box while decreasing stress, tension,and unnecessary conformity.

On a smaller scale, coaches and captains of local teams should advertise speech and debate not as a solely competitive engagement, but as a commitment which could involve both competitive, recreational, and educational experiences. This word should then be followed up with not only organized training sessions and coaching for competition, but with fun events such as improv, acting, public speaking practice, community service events, and debate movies as a crucial part of involvement with a school’s chapter of the National Speech and Debate Honor Society.

On a larger scale, while the National Speech and Debate Association as well as other governing bodies such as the National Catholic Forensics League, and statewide initiatives such as the Florida Civics and Debate Initiative (FCDI), the University Interscholastic League (UIL) of Texas and especially circuits which exist in regions with lower rates of participation should put forth effort and funding not only into organizing competitive events which rank competitors and define speech and debate as a purely win-lose based activity, but also on civic engagement, encouraging service and outreach for it’s students, meeting professional opportunities related to forensics and politics, as well as developmental and educational events on critical skills which are necessary beyond speech and debate - including but not limited to presentation, improvisation, acting, public speaking, tone adjustment, and partnership.