The Problem With Performance Activism in Debate

Adit Pakala | 3/25/22

Performance activism, often associated with slacktivism, is hindering the debate space because it fails to create meaningful improvements to the competitive environment. There exist countless organizations that halfheartedly pontificate equitable reforms through perfunctory social media posts, online communities, and low-quality online resources for the sake of inflating college applications. Although there are industrious efforts, the abundance of desultory slacktivism in the debate community inhibits the potential for debate to evolve as an elegant tool for the development of ideas instead of padding for someone’s resume.

Genuinely ameliorating the inequity in debate not only demands but is incumbent on an organization’s ability to supply resources of a quality comparable to those of elite institutions. This is because inadequately empowering less privileged debaters hardly gives them a fighting chance against the copious luxuries that affluent debaters enjoy. It’s true that inequity can never be eliminated, but using performance activism to reduce inequity in debate is analogous to using government welfare to alleviate poverty, effectively helping people from being dominated in tournaments to barely being able to stand chance.

Performance activism may not be inherently harmful, as any form of activism can be helpful, but it’s important to distinguish between helpful activism and impactful activism. Helpful activism, while beneficial, does not construct a lasting change in society. Impactful activism, on the other hand, both benefits society and constructs a lasting change. What makes impactful activism superior is that the permanent mark it leaves acts as a foundation to further supplement existing reforms. In the context of debate, merely helpful activism, while good, breeds more helpful activism and conceals space for impactful efforts.

After all, why should a passionate altruist drive their own activist efforts in an already saturated extracurricular activity space when there are seemingly powerful efforts made by already established nonprofit organizations? The problem of performance activism is that its nature as slacktivism is hidden from well-meaning debaters who want to give back to people. Consequently, less meaningful efforts are made as people are diverted to existing slacktivist organizations where their potential to contribute is vitiated by lethargic management.

Furthermore, without an effortful dedication to reducing inequity, it is difficult for slacktivist organizations to provide professional coaches or create an involved community that can compete against privileged competitors. An innocuous lack of effort in debate activist organizations is thus prolonging the unfairness in the debate space.

If performance activism is unintentionally stagnating growth in debate, then it is necessary to punctiliously ascertain what qualifies as “impactful activism” to spur change in the competitive debate environment and to prevent hypocrisy within Equality in Forensics. Given that impactful activism should build a foundation for reform in addition to helping people, there are a few key principles debate activism should follow. First, staff members should always be actively involved in an activist organization and be expected to contribute meaningfully. Second, an activist organization should try to involve its community because it creates a positive feedback loop that expedites change. Finally, an organization’s activities should focus on leading palpable change rather than just spreading awareness.

Palpable change can be defined by the organization by identifying key input and output metrics for change. Input metrics are ways of measuring the efforts made by an organization and output metrics are ways of measuring the results of those efforts. In the case of Equality in Forensics, some key input metrics include the number of debaters using staff-written cases, tournament attendance counts, and the number of coaching sessions provided. Key output metrics include increases in wins from debaters at less privileged schools and improvements in the records of members of Equality in Forensics’ community.

In essence, performance activism in debate is stagnating potential for growth as it diverts opportunities for passionate students to slacktivist organizations aiming to boost college applications disingenuously. As a nonprofit aspiring to mitigate inequity in speech and debate, it is Equality in Forensic’s responsibility to separate itself from performance activism by facilitating significant change.