Progressive Debate Is Killing Forensics

Karam Weigert | 2/24/22

Learning to debate involves learning an entirely new language. We’re thrown into a world of “contentions”, “impact calculus”, and “link chains” and our experience in this activity allows us to become fluent in this unconventional method of argumentation. Unfortunately, although we like to assume that the moment we enter a round we debate in a vacuum, the inequalities of the outside world are still present within the physical and invisible structure of debate, especially in “the upper echelons” of this activity. The introduction of “kritiks”, “flex-prep”, and “conditional counterplans” into the language of Lincoln-Douglas and Public Forum, events created with the sole purpose of combating elitism and racism in Policy debate, is exceptionally damaging. Only the wealthiest of schools (which coincidentally are majority white institutions, funny how that works huh?) are able to afford the language tutors who spend their time decompressing theory and writing out the kritiks and counterplans their debaters use on the national circuit. Ultimately, the view that debate is a game to win at any cost is driving more and more people from the activity, particularly debaters of color without the vast resources their competitors have.

In 1995, Lincoln Douglas was created as an alternative to Policy debate, which had devolved into a fast-talking, detail-oriented event dominated by the wealthiest schools in the country who could afford the volume of literature required to succeed. Just 7 years later, Public Forum was born as another event to combat the growing inaccessibility of the event as the "Progressive” disease ended up metastasizing in Lincoln Douglas as well. The creation of these events is a clear indication that countless people in the Speech & Debate community recognize that inequality runs rampant in the institution, which makes it ever more disheartening that they are becoming the mirror image of what they are supposed to combat.

The labeling of this growing style as “progressive” is exceptionally misleading. In reality, the fast-paced speaking style and hyperfixation on irrelevant details and facts of this debate is closer to Ben Shapiro and Tucker Carlson than Angela Davis and Noam Chomsky. While the literature that debaters spread is anti-capitalist and anti-racist, they are fundamentally reiterations of capitalism and racism. Capitalism thrives on it’s empty opposition because as long as people morally justify their unnecessary participation in the system by saying they recognize it is evil, it will never be threatened. That is the purpose of an Anti-Capitalism or Anti-Blackness kritik. Weaponizing racism and poverty as a strategy to win the round is an ethically abhorrent way to win the round. This is so because debaters have to make a fundamental assumption about their opponents ethnicity, gender, class, and sexuality before running using that part of identity (which they assume their opponent does not belong to) as an argument. Speaking from personal experience, the amount of times my teammates and I have hit Anti-Blackness, Queer Theory, and Anti-Capitalism kritiks because my opponents assumed that we were straight, cisgender, or white is surreal. The issue is that the overwhelming majority of people who ran these arguments against us belonged to traditional wealthy schools such as Strake Jesuit, Harker, Harvard-Westlake, and Lake Highland Preparatory. At the end of the day, this is performative advocacy that is disingenuous because after the round is over and the debater closes their laptop, they’ll continue their day upholding white supremacy and capitalism.

The rhetoric that accompanies these arguments in-round are just as damaging as the arguments themselves. The idea that a debater should be “dropped” or punished as a result of their arguments, or in many instances the wording of the argument itself, doesn’t teach anyone anything and has the greater implication of silencing debaters outside the round by making them afraid to voice their own (often time) educated opinions. The logic that to punish is to teach is akin to an abusive parent’s justification of beating their child whenever they do something rudely. You simply can’t beat manners into a child, instead they learn to fear and act subordinate in the presence of their abuser. The same occurs in the round. The most prominent example can be seen in the exceptionally disgusting and classist rhetoric a Strake Jesuit PF Team used at the Barkley Forum hosted by Emory University almost a month ago (which they ended up winning). The team ran a semantic kritik on the use of the word “black market”, which they argue is racist because it implicitly denotes the word black as negative and white as positive (neither individual on said team is Black). While there is nothing inherently wrong with that argument, it was their recommendation on how to “teach” their opponents to not be racist again. They argued that their opponents should lose the round so that they lose the tournament fee they paid, and that because the school they were debating was a poorer, minority-majority school in Washington D.C., the financial loss would be more severe and hence, “learn from their mistake”. In summary, the debaters that said the word “black market” should have their monetary investment devalued in order to ensure the lesson is learned, sincerely a 52% white school with a $23K tuition. It’s the paternalistic ideal that begins to shine through the arguments of “progressive” debaters, telling debaters that it’s their fault that their lack of resources make them horrible capitalists and racists and their only way to redemption is to lose the little money that they have ensures that debate remains a space only for rich white schools.

Debate is a fundamentally educational activity. If we truly want to make sure this activity’s environment is open for all and conducive for learning and self-growth, we must reject the “progressive” style of debate and call it out for what it truly is: a strategy to win rounds. Although language develops over time, there are certain words that are antiquated and unnecessary, and we should simply avoid using them.

Karam Weigert

I am a Junior at Wilson HS in Washington D.C. I’ve debated since I was in 6th grade and have done pretty much every event except BQ (thank god). I have competed on the local and national circuit levels, and have reached the final round of NCFL Nationals in Extemp and the Semifinal Round of NSDA Nationals in World Schools. I love reading and playing the guitar, and despite what my friends will tell you I have the voice of an Angel.