Wokeism an existential threat to the fine art of debate
On June 11, the U.S.’s National Speech and Debate Association’s annual debating tournament kicks off in Phoenix/Mesa, Arizona, where 6,000 high school students from across America will gather in competition.
Normally, this event would fly under the media radar, but on May 25, by no coincidence, The Free Press published a revelatory article by James Fishback, a former superstar on the national debate circuit, titled, “At high school debates, debate is no longer allowed.”
In it, we learn that under NSDA rules, high school debaters get their topic a month in advance, but it is only hours before their first round that they learn the identity of their judges. They find it on Tabroom.com, a database NSDA maintains. Here judges post “paradigms,” sharing their personal preferences and pet peeves. The paradigms are meant to focus on format, not content. For example, one judge might declare he reacts badly to “spread” (talking too fast), so debaters can adjust their presentations accordingly.
In this social justice era, though, some judges have become highly politicized. Fishback cites one paradigm that reads, “(B)efore anything else, including being a debate judge, I am a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist…(and will) never vote for rightist capitalist-imperialist positions/arguments…(including) defenses of U.S. or otherwise bourgeois nationalism, Zionism or normalizing Israel, (etc).” Another judge’s paradigm declares that if an immigrant is described as “illegal,” he will stop the round, award losing points, and “give you a stern lecture” for “making the debate space unsafe.”
Delight in polemics and reverence for the art of rhetoric has its roots in the classical world of Socrates and his successors. The study of rhetoric hones critical thinking and the judgment to recognize faulty arguments, assertions unsupported by facts, and failures of logic. Alas, debating’s guiding spirit of evidence-dependent empiricism is antithetical to contemporary progressive totems like Intersectionality, which honours personal experience and “ways of knowing” of formerly disadvantaged and colonized groups over objective information. Undeniably a product of western civilization, loathed by progressive ideologues, the activity of debating has a target on its back.
In the U.S., that target has been bristling with arrows for a decade. In a 2021 New York Times article reproduced from his newsletter, Jay Caspian Hang gives readers important context for appreciating what’s happening on Tabroom.com. Hang wrote about the approach called “narratives,” now entrenched within the debate community, inspired by Ede Warner, a black debate coach at the University of Louisiana in the 1990s. Warner was enamoured of Critical Race Theory (CRT), which centres allegedly ineradicable, systemic racism suffered by black Americans under the yoke of white privilege. Warner’s team would, according to Hang, fundamentally transform intercollegiate debating through the use of “black discourse.”
Warner told his debaters to weaponize the “identity advantages” that gave them moral authority and force their opponents into a position of disadvantage. His debaters would launch into hip hop or poetry, recount personal stories of discrimination, or even refuse to debate the topic at hand and demand another more relevant to their interests. When they did accept the topic, it was perceived through the lens of black experience. (NATO? An “oppressive institution.”) When other teams refused to debate on those terms, Louisville debaters would shut down the round and refuse to continue. By routing all debate topics toward American racism, and narrowing the scope of the debate to the actual power dynamics within the room, “Warner created a literal hierarchy of who should be heard and what should be discussed.”
By logical extension, the judge’s ballot was not just a vote for a team, but a statement on diversity and inclusivity. “By voting for Louisville, the judge could affirm the validity of Black students in debate…(b)y voting against Louisville, he would be implicitly saying that everything was fine.” Warner’s experiment was eventually called The Malcolm X Debate society, and its style known as “alternative debate.”
It seems no judge, however extreme in bias, is excluded from the Tabroom database. A judge calling herself X Braithwhaite — a former debater, and obviously a product of the “narratives” school, who “almost exclusively read identity-based arguments from the time I was a sophomore until my senior year” — forewarns white debaters in her paradigm: “1. N****s don’t have to disclose to you (normally both sides disclose their evidence to each other before the round). 2. Disclose to n****s.”
Shocking. On the other hand, in a statement released by the NSDA following publication of the Free Press article, it was noted that “Schools or other organizations that use Tabroom.com to hire judges are free to evaluate those paradigms before engaging their services.” That is, schools have a near-infinite choice of judges (47,000), and no school was obliged to hire Braithwaite. Yet her paradigm indicates that in spite of this odious bias, she has judged 169 rounds involving 340 students.
It was rather cold comfort to learn that this phenomenon is presently confined to a specific genre of public policy/public forum debate that is peculiar to the U.S., which differs from those used internationally, like World Schools debate or, at university level, British Parliamentary. International judges adopt the paradigm of the “average reasonable voter”: someone who is news-conversant, but without political bias, and debaters are not subject to ideological purity tests in their choice of topic. Reassuring to know, but for how long? Performative social justice trends in the U.S. tend to migrate, as BLM protests and statue toppling did in Canada and Europe following George Floyd’s death by police brutality in 2020.
Debate — the art of civil disagreement — and freedom of speech are symbiotic values that need protection. Is debating’s integrity beyond America’s borders in peril?