Debating Debate: The Perversion of Ethics
"When we fight the system, the organization will have to reconsider its policies."
Trigger Warnings: Racism, Toxic Environment, Sexism, Sexual Violence (brief mention)
After a long day, running on three hours of sleep, and a frustrating 2-1 loss, my coach forced me to continue watching out rounds for the educational benefit. I, with a few of my teammates, grudgingly walked to a room where two prominent debaters were entering their round. It was late at night, the room had no heating system, and one judge was missing. Nevertheless, I was excited to watch debaters that the upperclassmen religiously spoke of.
The affirmative began with a case about the war in Yemen; I followed along lazily, already having debated the case numerous times. After 5 minutes and 30 seconds, the debater paused and looked up from her computer, not common in a typically rushed first speech. She said, “During this six-minute speech, ___ number of Yemeni children have died,” and immediately spread the card below as the clock ticked to zero. She said it in a loud and patronizingly slow manner as if the sentence sufficed as a tagline to an unrelated card as if a tragedy of that gravity could be rattled off between two gasps as if the brutal suffering and death of starving children were a reason for her to win the round. I wonder what exactly she wanted to achieve. Did she want the negation to feel uncomfortable and less likely to refute that card? Did she want to shock the judges into paying attention to her overused case? Did she want everyone to stop furiously scribbling, look up from their flows, and gratify her dehumanizing sensationalism?
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. When we asked the speech and debate community to share their stories, hundreds of students responded, detailing the discrimination and toxicity that has become commonplace.
"They weaponized and appropriated an identity that was not theirs to appropriate"
A debater wrote, “A team from an incredibly wealthy, well-funded high school with not a single Black debater used to regularly run a Blackness Kritik. They weaponized and appropriated an identity that was not theirs to appropriate, and in doing so, they contributed to making [parliamentary debate] a much more exclusive and inaccessible space. This is a violent practice from non-Black people who are actively anti-Black outside of rounds and refuse to acknowledge that.” Debaters, with a well-funded program supporting them, constantly run critical theory with no intention of uplifting marginalized voices out of round. In fact, they perpetuate discriminatory norms, making debate inaccessible to students who could actually empower themselves with such arguments. A debater wrote, “It’s hilariously ironic to me that so many people who read and preach critical theory reacted in this particular way.” The level of hypocrisy that’s currently acceptable within the community is destructive and disheartening.
"With discrimination ingrained so deeply in every aspect of competitive debate culture, debaters view their privilege as a badge of honor that can and should be flaunted."
Instead of rectifying the damage done by such debaters, the community only reinforces the divide between the have and have nots. About their experience at a prominent debate camp, a debater wrote, “Everyone seemed to make a competition on how many top PFers [public forum debaters] they knew personally, their records at every and all-important tournaments, who was their personal coach, and how elite their schools were. Coming from an underfunded public school and being given a scholarship to even attend this camp I felt completely alone and frankly, really stupid.” Elite debate camps are extremely expensive, and this is not something prominent coaches want to change. A debater wrote, “The director of a prominent camp . . . has been known to state several times that POC [people of color] cannot afford his camps and are not his audience . . . He only cares about his money.”
These coaches intentionally work with wealthy, white students only and create elite, cult-like groups. Students who attend these camps don’t miss the chance to plaster their camp name on every water bottle, timer, stand, and a laptop they tote to rounds. These debaters quite literally brand themselves with the connections, opportunities, and coaching they have simply because they can afford it. The few debaters who are able to overcome the socioeconomic barriers are excluded because they come from a different background. With discrimination ingrained so deeply in every aspect of competitive debate culture, debaters view their privilege as a badge of honor that can and should be flaunted.
These debaters face zero repercussions for their actions, due to their affiliations and therefore the importance they receive from the community. They escape sexual violence allegations with a slap on the wrist. They are allowed to continue attending tournaments, despite the obvious threat their presence is to community safety. And most importantly, they are still admired because of their accomplishments and social status.
This blind glorification of certain debaters is indicative of how interconnected privilege is at every level. The misuse of Kritiks in the round isn’t just representative of the debater’s unethical strategies, rather a larger problem with that person. A debater wrote, “Aside from feeling alienated in general because of our gender . . . there are the blatant sexism and objectification of women I’ve unfortunately witnessed firsthand . . . These same male (non-Black) debaters run Afro-Pessimism Kritiks . . . only to turn around, be racist, and say the N-WORD as soon as rounds end.” These debaters who harass women and use racial slurs without consequence also carry that entitlement into their round where they conveniently use critical theory to win.
"This blind glorification of certain debaters is indicative of how interconnected privilege is at every level."
Challenging toxic norms out of round also challenges toxic norms in the round. When we increase diversity at camps and tournaments, debaters will have to reconsider the arguments they previously wielded freely. When we hold sexual predators accountable, the community will have to reconsider who we deem elite. When we fight the system, the organization will have to reconsider its policies.
As members of this community, we must choose to not be a part of the problem. Email your NSDA district chair! Sign our petition! Most importantly, reach out if you have a story. All resources are linked below.