American Debate Sediment 2: Punitive Judging

This is the second of a few pieces that I am working on to try to outline what I think are the biggest hurdles that Worlds debate development faces in the United States. It's not an exhaustive list by any means, nor is it a list that I think is completely accurate.

Judging is hard work. I really don't like it that much because it is exhausting. Doing it well all day is a real challenge for me, but when it's good it is really good. The attention and care required are always paid back in the development of the debate students in later rounds. For students it's becoming an essential part of my teaching of younger debaters to help them identify how a team creates victory out of almost nothing. 

Judging is a creative and developmental enterprise for me, but some judges I've worked with see it as a punitive exercise: They try to seek out the team that has made mistakes, messed up, or violated the rules in some way. These judges function like police - they look for infractions or violations of the "law."

I remember winging on a panel 2 years ago at the Yale IV where the chair started the discussion, "The first thing we need to ask ourselves is: Did any team knife any other team?" After we decided there were no knives, the next question was, "Did any team not fulfill their role?" After about 10 minutes of this, we finally started discussing the quality of the argumentation. Another judge I was with wanted to give a team a 4 because "everyone knows" there is a "card out there" that 

The manufacture of knives and the seeking out of mistakes is a very comfortable way to judge, and one that is very common in many American debating formats. The trope of "I really like the argument, but you dropped this or that response," or the dropping of another argument is enough to allow the judge to inhabit two worlds - the world of agreement and rejection at once, in a very pleasant way: "I agree with you, but the rules do not, and I must enforce the rules." In this way, the judge removes herself entirely from the rather uncomfortable and more difficult position of saying that one argument was "better" than another one.

This is not the fault of the judge, nor is it really bad. This sediment comes from a format, or a system of formats that try to replicate and/or simulate a sphere of expertise. In expert spheres, people in decision making positions do this all the time. They say, "I am with you in principle, and against you in technical merit." This happens in law, medicine, academia, and other such places. It is good training for those who wish to practice persuasion for expert fields.

We can see this also in the "tick box" judge - the judge who wants to give a team a 1 because, "They didn't do anything wrong." Sometimes this is articulated - as it has been to me a few times - because a team "did their job," or "really fulfilled their role," which puzzles me to no end. This is the other end of the "cop" judge, the one who wants to reward those who can follow the rules. 

But do we give a job to the person who has the correct margins on their resume? The person who filled in the application to the letter? It seems strange to not attend to content right away. It seems alien to not want to discuss content at all in evaluating debate performances.

 This is sediment that we must figure out how to remove from our Worlds experience. Why? Worlds debate, whether it planned to or not, has evolved to simulate a public sphere. The presence of a panel of judges simulates the discussion of the issues in a public before a decision is rendered. The need for arguments to sustain 8 different speeches also points to a format that doesn't believe that there will be limited voices with access to the ear of the "public" involved in the discussion. This is practice that is tuned toward helping people persuade general audiences.  Both formats are desirable, but we must resist the urge to push all formats toward the form that makes us feel comfortable.

The discomfort of having to say, "I didn't buy what you were saying" or "I didn't understand what you were saying, so I dismissed it" would be unacceptable in a policy debate - the judge must be an expert, and if the judge misses an argument or doesn't understand a technical issue, shame on them.  In a "natural language" format like Worlds, shame on the debater for not being clear enough or not explaining herself well enough to win. 

This explanation is measured with the ideal of the "reasonable person" standard, something derived from British law and applied to this debate game. The chair and the other judges must use it to temper their own potential expertise about an issue, or about debate in general, and render a decision that makes all the participants think about reaching general, intelligent audiences. The goal that a Worlds Grand Final should be a really engaging debate on a contentious issue is all the standard one needs. "Breaking the rules" is never a compelling case for anyone - in fact, it's the opposite of establishing any position. 

How do we remove this sediment? I've had little luck in trying to get both of these judges to express their views on particular arguments in the debate. They feel, I think, that to express their own view of the argument is to "intervene" in the debate - code for letting your personal view or resonance with the arguments to trump the role of enforcer of good debating standards. 

Unfortunately, I lack the language at this point to explain to these judges that they have already intervened, that they will continue to do so, and that their intervention is what makes debate possible. This is based on the idea that the public, by virtue of their interest and care for the issue, must and will mutilate your argumentation. Fidelity to the proper, expert form of the argument - like scientific reasoning for example - is lost once that document wanders out into the public. Once there, people will mutilate it to make it make sense to them, or make it fit what they think.

This sediment will take a lot of time to wash away - many judges are simply incapable of making a decision without the rules being involved because of decades of training in the opposite direction. It is a big challenge, and I struggle with the proper language in which to frame it to these judges. There's something strangely pleasurable about citing the relevant theory to make a decision instead of carefully comparing the articulation of a principled argument down a bench. 

Some might think that I am calling for less objectivity and therefore do not want a fair game. On the contrary, I do want less objectivity but only because throughout debate's recent history in this country, fairness has been held above realism. And a game is only worth playing if it is fair to both the players and to the game itself. In short, there needs to be some risk to teach properly, and the risk is over-padded with fairness at the moment. There should be moments where your best arguments fail because they are "best arguments." 

If you aren't going to confront your limits in constructing persuasive discourse, when do you plan to do it? The judge who is not afraid to say an argument lacks quality - whatever that might be - is essential to this important moment of rhetorical development.