Others' Trauma is Not Your Trophy

Owen Casey | 8/16/23

From debates regarding Boko Haram to Police Training, the trauma of others is thrown around as nothing but simplistic stories and nameless numbers in a superficial attempt to gain a ballot. Other people’s trauma is not your trophy. It is time to stop tokenizing minorities for the sake of “pathos,” and it is time to serve justice to those that we advocate for in the debate community.

Before diving in, allow me to contextualize what exploiting other people’s trauma really is and why it is happening in the first place. Over the past few years, it has become ubiquitous across the congressional debate circuit in particular. But why? As an anonymous member of the congressional debate community explains, “When several people are speaking on the same side as you, citing the same empirics and sources and examples as you, it becomes vastly more difficult to ‘stick out.’ So now, debaters turn to blatant sympathy garnering.” As some debaters superficially garner sympathy, oftentimes they don’t have enough themselves to realize the real-world impacts of these actions.

The incessant habit of debaters using minorities’ life-altering experiences as tools to climb up a judge’s ranks is problematic on multiple levels—it exploits others' trauma for your own personal gain while simultaneously pushing the minorities who you are advocating for out of debate spaces.

All too often in the span of one speech, non-POC debaters can be forcefully shaking their voices about George Floyd being murdered at the hands of law enforcement and one minute later they can be making a joke about paw patrol police—take both 2023 NSDA final rounds as examples. In many of these cases, it becomes evident that they don’t really care about the suffering of others; they care about a ballot. For example, Rachel Ruggeri (second seed at NCFL nationals, 5th at UPenn, and captain of the Xaverian Debate Team) explained her experience in a final round at a major bid tournament, where a male competitor went into graphic detail about women being assaulted in Myanmar. She shared, “Yes, that speech needed a warning. But, it also did NOT need some performance about the experiences of women, considering the person giving it couldn't care less and just used those experiences to grab attention to his speech rather than give attention to the real cause.”

Not only is it superficial, but it also pushes those that these people are advocating for out of the forensics community. By graphically describing instances of extreme abuse—oftentimes without trigger warnings—people who have gone through similar experiences are forced to rehash their trauma. This makes it harder to perform or be in a stable mental state, resulting in them ranking lower. But additionally, it forces them out of the debate space when they have to choose between debate and mental health, a choice nobody should have to make as the result of their peers’ actions. Among other reasons including gender biases in judging and coaching, that is one of the reasons why an empirical study published by The Social Science Research Network found that women are 30% more likely to quit debate than their male counterparts. 

So what can YOU do?

To be clear, I am not arguing that people should not advocate for minorities in debate, I am urging that people not exploit their stories. So, how can you make sure you are not being exploitative? 

While discussing rhetoric, a prominent rising college freshman on the circuit, who reached final rounds at tournaments including Yale and TOC, once told a group of people, “If you can not serve justice to those that you are talking about as if they are right in front of you, you have no right to put their name in your mouth.” Next time you are debating any bill, remember the stakeholders as if you are giving your speech to them. If you think they could get possibly offended or triggered, then rewrite it until it is not, or scrap that argument entirely.

Great examples of advocacy are Iris Cheng's Speech on Police Training NSDA 2023 House Final (timestamp: 6:58:43), Tyler Luu’s Speech on Qualified Immunity in 2023 Senate Finals (timestamp: 7:21:45), and Dinah Landsman’s speeches in 2022 TOC Finals (timestamps: 42:56 and 2:41:55). What makes Iris and Dinah’s speeches so powerful is that they are advocating for people who share a part of their own identity—women.

While that is powerful, by no means does that mean you can only advocate for people who share your identity–if anything I encourage you to give a voice to those who don’t have a voice in the chamber you are debating in. Tyler Luu’s Qualified Immunity speech is a great example of how to advocate for other people. Not once does he exploit a specific person's trauma and instead expresses his disappointment in Congress’s inaction.

Regardless of whether or not your speech is rooted in genuine advocacy, graphical descriptions of violence can always trigger others. Over the past few years, the popularity of trigger warnings has grown. But it is important to note that one quick disclaimer before a speech does not fully solve the issue. As Rachel Ruggeri elaborates, “Many [debaters] feel as though they can’t really leave the round without missing out on the debate and judges oftentimes can’t leave at all without causing issues with the tournament itself.” What you should do is try to make your content as un-triggering as possible, because you can discuss triggering content without triggering people. Then, give a trigger warning before the speech, and give time for people to leave. 

This issue might seem larger than you or me, but I guarantee that until we can consciously work to dismantle it, it is not going anywhere.