Competitive Debate versus Tournament Debate

I still regularly hear that people continue to say that I am against competitive debate. I am not. All debate is competitive, by definition. A debater is trying to sway an audience to their side, or at least, away from the side of the opponent (Yes, everywhere else but intercollegiate tournament debating, “critique without alternative” is a fallacy).

I am against tournament debating for many reasons. The tournament over determines what debate and good arguments look like. It encourages a flattened view of rhetoric as eristics instead of a complex view of rhetoric as meaning-making. Worst of all, it makes students believe that the best part of debating is rendering your opposition into silence, because it means you’ve won. Silence, as we all know, means we should probably go research a bit more and have the debate again before we determine what’s best or good - but then, tournament norms are not interested in the best or good. Too sloppy. Better to have clean arguments for clean decisions, otherwise we won’t know who the champion is.

I could email and personally correct these people, but I would be losing an excellent source of evidence that tournament debate teaches poor critical thought. Such a first-class equivocation proudly stated by a 4+ year tournament debater indicates both dangers of the tournament: Thin thought where complexity is eschewed because it doesn’t help you win, and equivocation as content (as opposed to device for inventio, which is the better use of the fallacies). I think a good sign of a poorly taught rhetor is use of the fallacy to silence the opponent or the fallacy as a reason to win, i.e. “They committed a fallacy, we win.” Instead I am just going to provide examples of my critique to provide more relief to it.

This week the parents of a 14 year old kid are suing his school for slander over how his debate team and coach treated him after a recent loss.

The lawsuit provides a narrative of events where the coach and team turned on a student for (and I need to italicize this I think) talking to students from other schools about ideas.

Think about that for a second. The role of debate is, ostensibly, to improve thinking, improve the quality of ideas, and hopefully for us to arrive at solutions, better plans, or at the least, better framings of the questions we face in our world.

But this coach (clearly not a teacher) and the students thought it was appalling that a student would share thoughts and ideas, talk about the debate topic, and compare quality of evidence with a student from an opposing school. They berated him for engaging in appropriate and valuable intellectual activity.

Any teacher would be thrilled to know that a student was engaged in conversation with someone who was not in the student’s class about what was being taught there. But we must remember that tournament-oriented debate directors are not teachers. They are coaches. They see their role as creating wins. They want to help create arguments and people that win debates. This is in serious conflict with the role of debate to improve the quality of thought in the world, to test evidence, and to engage in thoughtful conversation.

This reminds me of the nonsense pedagogy I experienced last summer at the New York Urban Debate league summer workshop where my attempts to encourage young students to read, engage with the topic, and examine varying perspectives on the arguments in law and society on an international treaty were dismissed in favor of playing games and throwing candy to students who were able to quickly answer or quickly give a speech about a trivial matter. Responses that conform to the rules of the tournament are the curriculum. Engagement with the complexities of an international treaty on the level of law, culture, and ideology are not going to help the students “win debates.”

This attitude grotesquely cuts out the most valuable aspect of debating which is uncertainty. A difficult feeling to be sure, but a quick look at politics these days should confirm to any thinking person that we need some doubt. Certainty, and the witty response - the “clap-back” - are killing space for reconsideration and thought in our most pressing problems.

What could replace the tournament? Here’s an idea.


On Monday, the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris caught fire and burned for hours. It was nearly totally destroyed. The French government has now started to debate how to rebuild the cathedral, starting with a competition about the spire. This is competitive debate in its full form: We have a problem - we are unsure how to address it - everyone has some ideas - let’s test them.

What’s central here is the approach to a community good, or a cultural good, instead of the idea that the people who will argue against you have nothing to contribute to the topic as a whole. Instead of trying to win with my idea about rebuilding, let me tell you why I think it is the best way to recover the building. Let me argue why this approach is best for us.

And conversations between people with differing ideas might happen outside of any formal legislative debate or contest submission. Why? Because the focus is on addressing the question well. If the focus is not on creating discourse worthy of the question, we all lose. What we get is a very narrow idea of what a few people think is best. Debate’s power, when freed from the norms and conveniences of the tournament, is to create solutions that no one person, nor group of people, could come up with on their own. The process of debating introduces what I call “debate’s desire” into the conversation, forcing people to yield, to concede, and to focus on different points during the process in order to better represent their claims.

In the Notre Dame example, there are no prizes except to solve the issue or address what was lost in a fitting way. This could easily be done with debate programs that focus on the school or community, or on what the students feel should be addressed. The reward for debating well should not be an artificial feeling of superiority in individualist thought, but the pleasure of community and the benefits of speaking well in response to a difficult question along side others who care. There is great pleasure and great learning in realizing that one spoke very well to the question, as did others, but the question was wrong. Or it was underdeveloped. Or it comes from a shallow ideology. Or any other result that would jam up a contest that is always oriented toward the question “Who won?” This topic would be rejected because there’s no easy way to determine the winning idea. The best ideas will come out of debating it, which will be the ones chosen. But the debate will be structured in a way not to exclude others from the inventional process, but to highlight the communal effort. Oddly, most debate topics are topics that require a multiplicity of voices, and attention on something other than the speaker, but these elements are trimmed away for the convenience of the tournament.

Imagine a competition that didn’t focus on creating silence but creating conversation. Creating the sharing of ideas not to get one over on someone, but to rise to the quality of the question. The only silence here would be that of the teacher’s surprise to find that their students are in conversation with students from other schools about controversies that vex most adults. Debate teaches confidence and questioning like nothing else. These things should inspire those who practice it to want to create and share, and to see thought and intellectual work as rife with uncertainty and full of community.

The joke of academia is that there is no such thing as a monograph. It’s full of voices and conversations of others. It exists because others speak, not because someone shut them up with a killer argument. Tournament debate has it so backwards. And the most dangerous part of this is how those who were shaped by its ideology use it as a stand in for all competition, ensuring nothing can rise to threaten the tournament, which also shapes their idea of good argumentation across society.

Exploring competitive debate should not involve an automatic integration of a “break” and a quarterfinal bracket. It should consider the role of competition in society and why we have debates in the first place. The quality of reason is always contextual and to think that reasoning could be taught in a vacuum through a series of weekend competitions is a very impoverished view indeed. Even worse, it creates a lot of very confident, very well-spoken people who automatically assume that arguments phrased in unfamiliar ways - that don’t follow “rules” - are evidence of poor minds not worth engaging. What we are left with is a parody of philosophy indeed: The speaker of truth addressing an empty room, seeing the absence of listeners as the best evidence that they are not only smart, but right.

Competitive debate is harder than tournament debate as the evaluation is much less clear. It’s contingent. There’s no checklist of right moves. There’s no consistency from debate to debate. There’s very little connecting the wins at one competition to the next. This frustrates most of those involved in tournament debate today, so they continue to create rules and policies to make debate even thinner, even more shallow. Uniform depth is what attracts these people to a massive body of inquiry. The lack of curiosity is frightening. The tournament is comfortable and provides that certainty that your argument is good. Historically we can compare the tournament debaters with the Peripatetics (as I have done with Prof. Eckstein) who crafted the 5 part canon of rhetoric as a pedagogical device. As philosophers, it’s good to have a checklist. And their students did well, going on to live very successful lives in a society whose laws and institutions were crafted and governed by the students of Isocrates, who taught no such certainty only questioning by the stasis, in contexts that were as dynamic as the day required. Who won?