Tournament Group Chats are Harmful for Congress

Nicholas Ostheimer | 1/25/23

If you walk into your first national circuit congress tournament, and go straight to your first preliminary round, odds are the docket was decided long before you got there, by debaters who you may never have met.

In a world more connected by technology and social media than ever before, these platforms are a tool for improving fairness or perpetuating inequity. In the case of tournament group chats, typically used to discuss and decide dockets, they unequivocally perpetuate inequity.

From what I've seen, each group chat comes down to this: an active natcirc debater makes a group chat, adds everyone who they know is going to the tournament, and encourages them to add anyone they know. They add their teammates, their friends, their acquaintances. Once they feel enough people have been added to begin politicking, they usually begin discussing a docket - which bills in the tournament they would like to debate and in which order. A few proposals are thrown around until people start agreeing on a core group of some bills and then compromising on the others. The people involved in this conversation are overwhelmingly active natcirc debaters, as others scramble to adapt to the tumultuous and uncertain discussion. In the days leading up to the tournament, after they finally "conclude" on a docket, certain people protest, advocating in favor of their bill, or objecting to the process entirely. These are quelled by debaters who say this is the will of the majority, or that they've already started prepping bills based on this docket.

There's a few insidious harms of this entire process.

First of all, you will never be able to include everyone into a fair and equitable discussion. You can find maybe 50-75% of the tournament pool, but you will never have the contact of every single person. The more people you include, the more you disadvantage the people you exclude - it's a 'catch 22' because the more people are "in," the less autonomy is held by those who are "out." Not only that, but the debaters who end up being "out" overwhelmingly tend to be those who lack connections in the shifting world of congressional debate, an underrecognized yet incredibly valuable form of privilege.

Second of all, the members in the group chat are not on even footing. Politics is a meaningful element of congressional debate, but when unchecked, it can and does lead to unfair power dynamics and unhealthy relationships between debaters. This sort of group chat creates a powerful opportunity for debaters with "clout" to abuse their social influence and cajole others into supporting their own interests; a docket proposal, for example.

Third, and finally, the docket conceived through this unhealthy mess of politics and exclusion is often presented as final and infallible. I've been in group chats that concluded on some sort of compromised docket, where I say "ok, but I'm not voting for this in-round." For some reason, that has always seemed to provoke protest and objection. Congress is an event that prioritizes the freedom of the chamber, not the will of a fraction of the entry pool. Any discussion that doesn't end with "we'll leave it to the chambers" imposes upon the autonomy of each individual competitor.

This discussion fits into the broader picture of fairness and equity in congressional debate. Notable tournaments such as Harvard and the Barkley Forum at Emory University have taken controversial yet effective steps to protect equity. Both have chosen not to publish the entry lists of their congress, and not to publish pairings until less than an hour before round. Although I think this is definitely a good, strong step, this has raised some valid concerns from competitors: don't debaters make salient efforts to include everyone? if we discipline people for politicking, won't that just make docket discussions more inaccessible and elitist than before, without actually eliminating them?

I'm sure many in the congress community already hold these opinions. As I was discussing this article with some other debaters, I thought of some of the possible reactions to what I write here.

No matter how hard you try to include everyone, you will not actually include everyone. Not everyone has Instagram. Not everyone has Facebook Messenger. Not everyone even wants to participate in this sort of group chat, and for good reason.

As for the second question: the strength of these congress group chats lies in their size. The more debaters that can politick over a docket, the more likely it will actually influence the dockets proposed in-round. At a tournament like Harvard, a group chat of a dozen debaters that agree on the same docket is not going to change the picture much, even if it happens to be the dozen most successful, most respected debaters. A group of a hundred debaters is a very different story.

I've heard debaters say that they need a well established docket to guide their prep, or that they've already told "their novices" which bills to prep and which to ignore. Congress is not about eliminating risk or minimizing prep time. Believe it or not, the value of congress does not lie in brilliant argumentation or spectacular performances - it lies in unpredictability, adaptation, and making the most of an unusual situation. When we try to remove all of these dynamics from the equation with backroom deals, not only do we marginalize the outgroup, we degrade the value of congress as a speech & debate event.

One justification for this complaint is particularly disingenuous. On multiple occasions, I've heard debaters say that they need to minimize prep because they're from a small school, or that these unfairly conceived dockets actually improve equity. When debaters co-opt the rhetoric of class justice just to make life easier for themselves, they do a disservice to themselves, their teammates, and the debate space.

Ultimately, the potential for change lies in the hands of two groups: tournaments and competitors.

Tournaments ought to follow in the footsteps of the Barkley Forum and Harvard. There's no real need to have to publish an entire list of competitors - you can always reach out to your friends and acquaintances to ask if they happen to be going. This deters the search for Instagram and Facebook profiles that match the names of the competitors, especially if those profiles also happen to reference the same school as the Tabroom entry. 

Competitors ought to act in the best interest of their own community. We all have an interest in creating a fair, equitable, and genuinely competitive debate space. Instead of perpetuating unhealthy norms, the next time you're added to one of these group chats, just leave. Ignore the discussion and realize that your chamber, and your chamber alone, has the privilege of deciding your docket. Perhaps most importantly, and what I tell all the novices on my team: Don't prioritize prep based on the fickle and changing interests of a few natcirc debaters who think they have something to gain by dominating a docket discussion.