On Achieving Real Change in Debate

Online discussions in the debate community have had only mild success in recent years, often fizzling out only to be rehashed a few months later. Discussions do not necessarily have to end this way, however: there is nothing inherent about a conversation that makes it fizzle out, and it is our hope that a more deliberate approach to these discussions could make them more effective at creating change when change is appropriate. To that end, what are some ways that online discussions could be made more effective in really influencing people’s behavior? Should coaches encourage their students to participate more (as opposed to the current norm, where many teams ban their students’ participation)? Should institutions hold individuals accountable somehow for the discussions that happen online? Regardless of one’s thoughts on disclosure, LD Leaks, gender disparity, or whatever hot-button issue, making the discussions surrounding those issues better is a goal that everyone can support.

Below, Quinn Olivarez presents his point of view on how debaters can achieve true change. These views are entirely the author’s own and do not reflect the endorsement of NSD Update.

On Achieving Real Change in Debate
Article by Quinn Olivarez
Recently, I was reading an opinion piece on a New York Times blog titled ‘The Stone’ (a very interesting philosophy blog on the NY Times for those of you interested in the subject). In Bernard Harcourt’s piece, entitled “Occupy Wall Street’s ‘Political Disobedience,’” he suggests that the Occupy Wall Street movement is exemplar of the Foucauldian conception of critique: a refusal to be governed in accordance with current practices, a kind of “voluntary insubordination, a reflected intractability.”

Reading this piece turned my mind toward debate. In the last several years, there has been a myriad of controversies that have found ways of replicating themselves despite criticism and backlash (a phenomenon not too far off from the current state of American politics). Some years back, a student with no bids received an at-large to the TOC ahead of students who had earned a bid. This same thing happened last year. Some tournaments have imposed a mandatory disclosure policy, to the chagrin of much of the community. This policy continues to exist. The new practice in question (though, to be fair, it is somewhat old news) is the LD Leaks site that posts, against their will, the case content and rebuttal strategies of competitors. While these instances of controversy are loosely interrelated, they all share one commonality: the criticism of these acts happened largely on the Internet and it had no effect. In my mind, the current forum for, and method of, criticism are the problem. The OWS movement appropriately advances the same general claim: the rules of engagement are just as broken as the structure of government itself.

So long as discussion remains on the Internet, where uproar is sparked every few years over the same issue, change will not happen. Change can only be had when meaningful stakes (other than the number of ‘likes’ a comment receives) are attached to actions. Those who defend disclosure understand this, and disclosure theory subsequently emerged as a tenable strategy in debate rounds. Wins, for better or worse, are meaningful stakes to most parties involved in competitive national circuit debate.

Now, I was asked to suggest some means in which students could produce real change in the realm of national circuit debate. This is where things get dicey, and where the Internet becomes a seductive forum for criticism because of the possibility of anonymity. Speaking out against practices you see as unfit requires your face, your thoughts and your refusal to concede when you are right. Two ideas popped into my head.

I. Theory

Just as teams run theory arguments that demand debaters lose for a failure to disclose prior to the round, debaters should begin to make theory arguments that frame disclosure theory as an RVI. To take things even further, I would think students who find the LD Leaks site deplorable ought run theory that calls for losses for the students who are coached by proponents and administrators of that site. Like I said before, wins matter, and if debaters who are otherwise consistently successful begin to turn in poor performances, it could be chalked up to an inability to answer those arguments.

Now, the immediate response I imagine will pop in the comments is either, ‘well, they can still win the theory debate,’ or, ‘students shouldn’t lose for what their coaches do.’ As to the first, I think that depends on how you frame the theory argument: if it appeals to fairness or some other common metric for evaluating theory arguments, then yes, that’s certainly true. But if the theory argument is framed differently (and believe me, there are multiple avenues you can choose), then I think that sort of problem is avoidable. As to the second criticism, I think this only holds weight in regard to the leaks site, and not disclosure since students actively run disclosure theory. Frankly, I am not going to contest the merit of such a claim, but like I said earlier, wins matter, and if kids are passionate about seeing a practice go away in debate, then I think ‘by any means necessary’ becomes the new standard for action so long as it doesn’t lead to violence.

II. Tournament Boycotts

Just like wins matter, money and prestige matter, too. If a large bid tournament were to lose a sizable number of competitors because of an ideological disconnect with the community at-large, then two things happen: the money a tournament brings in for its team shrinks, and the bid-status of the tournament comes in to question. I imagine most kids will object to having to put their opportunity to earn a bid on the line in order to prove a point, and in a vacuum, I’d agree: if there is a noticeable amount of people speaking out against what you do, and you have been afforded the lucrative opportunity to host a bid tournament, you should put some principles aside for the sake of making your customers happy. But the world doesn’t work like that. You have to put things you value on the line in hopes of having it produce change.

Now, all of these ideas are easy to talk about (especially on the internet), but change will only occur through activity. Debaters, I think, are often sheepish about their beliefs because winning matters to them (this is exemplified by the anonymous post authored by students about the LD Leaks site), but the reality of the situation is that only by installing a permanent fear of losing in the opposition will change be had. This is the same fear the proponents of disclosure theory and the Leaks site (or whatever future controversy comes up) have bred in you; their method of critique is both subversive and produces real change. Why not take a page from their playbook and re-write the rules of the engagement, as OWS strives to do?