Policy Debate and Race: No Defense

Policy debate's focus on race has attracted some media attention.

The Atlantic ran an article that wondered if the way that winning debaters were interrogating the question of institutional racism, or white privilege, was doing harm to debate.

Not far behind, the blog Powerline argued that yes indeed, from their point of view, these changes to debating - performance, poetry, rapping, and angry swearing about time limits - are indeed a threat to the advantages of debating, such as logical thinking.

The response from the policy debate community so far has come from Dr. Ede Warner, who argues in a blog post that, yes, there is white privilege in policy debate. He argues that he will unpack debate historically to show that black people have always had to break the rules in order to succeed at debate.

While I have no doubt that there is merit to Warner's claim, what we have is another example of debate's inability to defend itself from people who are not grounded in debating.

Both the Atlantic piece and the Powerline piece, in different ways, accept the idea that debate contains and is possibly construed via white privilege. The Atlantic interviews a critical race theorist. The Powerline bloggers happily admit that college has always been a place of white privilege, and therefore debate probably is too - but for them there's little impact to this: "so what?" they write.

What both articles are concerned with is whether or not this method of getting to white privilege  in debate is worth the cost of harming or damaging debate and its myriad benefits. This is where both the Atlantic and Powerline are inviting the debate community into a conversation. Instead, they get nothing.

I will never understand why debate professionals and former debaters have such trouble defending debate itself. Perhaps it's a part of the history of debate that Warner does not unpack. There was a time, probably close to when the Powerline authors were debating, when debate required no defense at all. It was a part of any communication program. Examining issues of the Journal of the American Forensic Association from the 1960s - 1980s and you find many advertisements for graduate programs. Debate was a pipeline into rhetorical and communication scholarship. It needed no defense.

Now communication departments are far more diverse in background of the faculty and objects of appropriate research. Debate is no longer an obvious part of a communication department. And we still do not have an adequate defense of it to provide to those from outside a debate pedigree. Although many conferences have been held since the 1970s, and the turn toward representation in the humanities, every conference on debate since Sedalia has been thwarted by its own positivist outlook. We cannot stop believing in our own tournament winning strategies. Until we distance ourselves from the tournament governing our discourse, debate is in jeopardy.

The tournament has us. Warner's defense begins with an explanation that the essay will use the method that was taught to his debaters. Although this technique and pedagogy is admired within the debating world, and probably has great success (the impetus for the articles being written was the dominating success of non-traditional African-American teams) it generates arguments for the tournament, arguments about the presence of white privilege in debating, something that both articles accept. The rush to the familiar tournament logic trumps other forms of engagement, forms that both articles are ready to accept. But in a world where listserv disagreements often proceed line by line, and interlocutors accuse other participants in the discussion of "not answering" other participants, it should be very clear that we are always already mired in the debate tournament rhetoric.

In order to engage with those outside of the debating tradition, we need a rhetoric of debate. We need to be able to articulate, explain, and defend the practices that we engage in for the broadest audience possible. The reason being is that decision makers - on longevity of programs and funding - read publications like the Atlantic. If there is no defense coming, there may be no funding coming. And no matter how saturated with privilege debate might be, I doubt anyone wants to see it fade away. Creating a divide between tournament debating and arguing might be a good first step. What works at a tournament will not necessarily work outside of it. Why? Because of the demands of form, situation, and audience - in short, the rhetorical tradition.

As a start, let me borrow an example from Warner's essay - the example of the character of James Farmer in the hit film The Great Debaters. At the conclusion of the film. Farmer offers a personal narrative from his experiences in the south as an argument in his final speech to win the debate. Warner interprets this scene to be evidence that Farmer had to break the rules in order to win a debate - proving the dominance of white privilege in debating.

I suggest that we read this scene as Farmer exploiting the ancient rhetorical theory of kairos, or opportunity lodged within the temporal. Kairos is when the speaker recognizes a moment in time where the inappropriate ontologically becomes the appropriate politically. Farmer knows what to do, and what not to do - and he chooses to tell a personal story rather than make a traditional argument. I see this moment as a place to engage both the Atlantic and the Powerline and remind them that debate is a place for rhetoric, for human communication, for human contact, and the development of it.

Here is our kairotic moment - engagement with the media. These are not opponents, and do not require a line by line response. There is no ballot. What is at stake is the legitimacy, in the media and to the readers of these pieces, of the method, art, or procedure of debate as a pedagogical contribution. They are seeing tournament debating and not getting it. If we had a rhetoric of debate that could distinguish between tournament debating and argumentation, that would be a great way to approach the media.

I am not saying that what is going on inside policy debate is somehow bad or wrong. What is happening in policy debate now? How is it different than the activities of Bobby Seal, patrolling the corrupt police in order to call attention to how laws are enforced? What about the arguments of either Ralph Ellison or Richard Wright, two authors who bent the rules, possibly broke them? And their arguments were found persuasive, sound, and yes, even logical. But we would not be able to find the object of their arguments without their seizing of an opportunity to use the rules as a platform of investigation. Most notably here is Malcolm X, who claimed his experience in debating in prison gave him the insight into rules, how they functioned, and how audiences of different races responded to different rhetorical approaches. Breaking the rules? Hardly. Making the rules? Possibly. Exposing the arbitrary nature of the rules? Definitely. But debate, like any other form of communication, can hold those rules in suspense and highlight them in ways that are particular to that form - and seeing it from outside might not make much sense. Legal reform, for example, might begin with something procedural - something most people would feel is a waste of time, or boring. But the change to the entire operating procedure of the court might allow access to a discourse for many who were left out by the designs of power. This is the advantage of being able to explain explanations meant for a limited, specific, and very small audience to a very large one.

It might not look like debating should look, but who is to say what debates should look like? Is a trial a debate? An appellate court? A congressional hearing? Who got to decide those? Who gets to decide what policy debate looks like? Oh, history? Who wrote that? Who decides what gets remembered? And who is in charge of the forgetting?

Debate changed massively with the introduction of switch-side debating. And counterplans. And paradigms. And utopian counterplans. And PICs, and Critiques. And it continues to change. Why? Because it continues to push against its own limits to derive value. It always has. The Powerline essay accepts this - the challenge of debate was not the following of the rules, but the pushing up against them with logic and worldly experience that made it good. If it was merely rule following, why such admiration for their coach?

Warner believes policy debate, and black debaters breaking the rules has been going on for hundreds of years. But policy debate has not been around for hundreds of years. What has been around for hundreds of years is people from different experiences, different approaches and thoughts, and different levels of privilege interrogating why things have to be a particular way. Policy debate - the kind defended by the Powerline blog - is a result of the methods that Warner is defending. That is, without changes and challenges and pivots off of and to the rules, none of us would have the debate experience we treasure and value. This recognition, this kairos, can only come from a distancing of oneself from what works at a tournament. Today's tournament innovation is tomorrows hilarious van-ride humor. If you don't believe me, pick up an old debating book from 70 years ago. Read passages of it to your team mates. You'll see how fragile our best ideas will be in another 70 years. But this is the beauty of debating.

Atlantic, Powerline, and CEDA/NDT all care about the value of debate. But without new techniques of investigation, debate will not be able to provide the type of challenge that makes people want to return to debate. That value though must be rhetorically constructed each time. It cannot be good enough that it won a round or a tournament. That isn't good enough, especially when those outside can easily read that victory as evidence of an activity in decline, or ripe with political dogma.

At the same time, being able to explain the value and nature of the process to those outside of debate requires a turn away from the tournament. Developing a rhetoric of debate requires a place for the tournament, somewhere between examination and thesis, somewhere between advocacy and theater. It is not enough for arguments to win a tournament, the winning of the tournament via those arguments requires an explanation to those on the outside.

Policy debate is undergoing a huge self-reflexive and critical examination. I wonder if those in policy debate will also see the kairotic moment to construct a defense of what they do for the outside. Powerline and the Atlantic seem ready to dialogue. Are those of us who take debate seriously ready to leave competition behind, sit down, and explain what we have here? Or are we just going to continue to use casefiles written for competitions when we choose to engage with those outside of debate?

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