How Do I Reach These Kids?: An Affirmation of Polyvocal Debate by Ben Koh & Rebar Niemi

How Do I Reach These Kids?: An Affirmation of Polyvocal Debate

By Ben Koh & Rebar Niemi

For as long as there has been debate, there has been the debate about what debate is. We are not against a discussion of what constitutes debate. In fact we are absolutely for it. We argue that this is a crucial debate within debates. The question should not be “what is debate?” The proper question is “what can debate do?” The constitutive feature of debate that we are most abstractly interested in is the precise one that is so often banished by debate pundits – the possibilities of what it can do. We do not yet know what debate can do. All are welcome to accept the challenge of forcing debate into a linear and instrumental framework, but be warned it will certainly fail. Debate is a process and a field, not a mechanism.

This is the case for polyvocal debate. Our current definition (which is open to redefinition) is that debate should be thought of as a complex assemblage of voices (the debaters, the judge, audiences, coaches, the authors quoted, and so on), and that it is wrong to limit the possible voices or the possible enunciations of those voices. Debate is always about multiple voices – multiple ways of sensing/expressing. Even non-sense and non-expression have their own voices. This is not a paradigm. It is a hypothesis about the system of relations that co-creates debate. The power and potential of polyvocal debate is not located in some far-off future. It is right here right now, and it is also capable of contact with the outsides of one perspective on time and space. To paraphrase June Tyson – Don’t you know? It’s after the end of the world.

Within the system of relations composed by polyvocal debate, we always have the ability to ask “should we believe in something in the first place?” as well as “if we believe it, what are its normative implications?” These questions, in whatever form they take, are some of the most primal elements of debate. Restricting the scope of debate to only some of these questions is a serious loss. More absurd is the justification for restriction based on the value of being able to ask and engage with these questions in the first place. It is wrong to assume that chaos and doubt are bad. It is even worse to argue for a progressive fallacy that chaos and doubt can be removed from debate without debate ceasing to be debate at all. Debate is not soccer, or chess, or playing the trumpet. Perhaps it can do similar things to those activities, but if so it is because it does not feature the limits that define soccer or chess or playing the trumpet.

It is apparently very easy to make assumptions about what education is. Most often this is accomplished without citing a single theorist on the subject of education OR a robust understanding of what education could be outside of “commonsensical” assumptions (which are less common and relatable that they initially seem). As we often like to tell our students – read the literature. We call the kind of education that is often assumed “banking-style education” after Paulo Friere. This is the notion that education is about accumulating knowledge. 100 facts are better than 99 facts. People devalue education because they think of it only in these calculated terms. To the banking conception, the end game of education would not be an increase in self-respect, a commitment to social justice, or a development of communication and empathetic powers. It would be the resume statement of “things I’ve learned.” We must not buy into this conception of education.

In debate, the collaborative way voices intertwine builds a world of speech and frames it. No debate performance can be perfectly reproduced. The judge’s interpretation and voice are then added. The desire for absolutely objective or procedurally exact judging is a desire for an impossibility. We should not be afraid of the judge’s voice. We recognize it as one among many. Some judges speak loudly and have particular desires. We do not begrudge them this. What is important is that they acknowledge that theirs is only one voice among the many and one way of sensing among all sense and nonsense.

It is not a question of excluding the chaos or even controlling it, but understanding the value in hearing the clash of multiple voices. For nowhere else in school are we given the vibrant opportunity to be as real in the academic space as is in debate; where we are able to read multiple arguments from multiple views from multiple bases. We must encourage debate to be an outlet for the chaotic and doubtful elements of our beliefs for it’s an opportunity to bridge debate’s separation from the real world into our own world. Our lives aren’t always smooth unwavering stories. They are often a chaos that is hard to grasp outside the lens of community. Polyvocal debate is inclusive and encouraging of this chaos, of the hard questions and life changing moments of realization. A form of debate that acts as if it can omit doubt is not a true form of debate at all. This isn’t just an argument for “unique educational value” in the banking-sense. Debate should not be thought of as an esoteric extracurricular designed to spice up the resume.

Paradigms of debate that stop at the moment of rational justification treat the issue of what world we create for ourselves as an unnecessary step, but this conversation is what must happen in our lives and further what must happen in debate. Polyvocal debate allows for this discussion. We should not just ask “is deontology true” but further “is it good for me to believe in deontology” or util or contractarianism, etc. Rationality cannot be trusted to judge itself, but abandoning logic altogether isn’t necessary just yet. It is too easy to take up one side or the other (only truth matters or only the good matters). Debate is harder. The tenets of logic and justification can create questionable conclusions, and a truly valuable form of debate must allow us to criticize and reevaluate these conclusions to live our lives to the fullest. We must be able to ask if beliefs empower or disempower our lives. We always have the power to ask should we believe it or is it correct, and exercising this capacity is the practice of debate.

There are two ways in which we can understand and consider what we ought to believe – what is rationally justifiable, and what is good for us to believe for ourselves. In our lives we cannot just ask “what do I think is true.” We must always end up asking “is it good for me to believe in what I believe?” This is how we must act in our own lives outside of just the debate space. When we are faced with a difficult situation be it in our personal lives, work, etc., we are inevitably going to be confronted with moments of seemingly undeniable hopelessness; where despite our best efforts and our thinking, we cannot justify or rationally see a way to be happy or push ourselves through to the other side. Is it good for me to believe that no matter what I will do, that I will get a bad grade in this class? Is it good for me to believe that I will fail in my work? Is it good for me to believe in hopelessness? Our answer is no. Our answer is that debate helps you learn new questions as well as new answers. Again and again we’ve heard the articles and arguments that collapse everything to the old questions: education versus fairness, the rules versus innovation and expansion, correct ways of being versus incorrect ones. Bizarrely there are some who like to play with the same questions forever, perpetually flipping bits between one and zero, never writing new code. We are tired of these questions. Perhaps they would be enlivened by new voices. Polyvocality is the necessary and explosive generation of new questions. The practice of debate is an educational activity because it is generative and interrogative of voices. Use it for what it’s used for.

Education can be praxis – where the abstraction of theory becomes lived abstractness inside the fabric of everyday experience. Where a radical new way of thinking-feeling the world become possible. Where you don’t just learn about quantum physics, but cry at how beautiful the expression of quantum interactions can be and feel blessed to be a part of them, and then teach them to your friends and family. But this is only part of what education is. Education is a becoming that is necessarily political. Often times it is anti-reactionary or anti-conservative, not because it includes some biased political position, but because it is impossible to actually experience learning without it changing you – what you think is right and wrong, what you want to do, and who you think of yourself as. On our view, this makes education necessarily anti-fascist (where fascism is defined as the tendency to over-represent and prefer certain ways of being to others based on normative, intuitive, or ontological claims). No matter your petty political affiliations, too many people in our world must attempt escape everyday, live as targets, suffer, and experience domination. If education is not a force to help us address this, it is not a properly empathetic education. Even if the educational space of debate allows for slightly more opportunities to escape the everyday and find new connections and places to dwell, this is a greater benefit to everyone than any obedience to respectability politics, norms of conduct, or “correct ways of being” could ever achieve. This is how the world works. We should not abandon the cause of empathy just because we can have that elsewhere. It’s not as if we should not care about others at certain times because we do so in others

Debate is foundationally about empathy. Arguments are only persuasive in the ability for their to be foster a shared experience of understanding. Judges vote for arguments that have a particular effect on them – the effect of “being convincing.” Arguments that win send the judge on a path of becoming-convinced. In order for this to happen, the debater must actually get through to the judge on some level, whether intuitively, emotively, via rhetoric, the flow, or explanation. The best debating promotes empathy. Not empathy defined by biased terms – empathy defined by actual contact with actual others, perspectives, and ways of expressing oneself. It is not that young people are in need of moral training or must be told what is right and wrong or that debate should erase and conquer disagreement. Rather, it is that we should strive to learn to live with disagreement. For it is too simple and brute to believe in a monovocal system of thought – that your language is the only Rosetta Stone to translate the world through. Debate must be a place to see how to live with ourselves and live among others.

If being the better debater means being the worse person, we should NOT endorse this conception of better debating. There is no value to improving a debate related skillset that is not bracketed by being caring and affirming of the world. The argument against education, methodology, and performance debates is that these will somehow sacrifice an essential part of what makes debate debate. This perspective is entirely wrongheaded. What a polyvocal understanding of debate underscores is that what makes debate is multiple voices. Our belief is that it is possible to promote incredible skill, learning, and growth in students and be better debaters while at the same time being better people. Debate is a field where participants of all kinds create real experiences and real change. Students have the ability to speak their individual truths and have real academic and personal conversation about what creates, sustains, and restricts their worlds – and if the current “rules of debate” do not allow for that, we advocate breaking those rules.

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  • David McGinnis

    I’m much more comfortable with the article post Rebar’s clarification. However this line still gives me trouble:

    “(where fascism is defined as the tendency to over-represent and prefer certain ways of being to others based on normative, intuitive, or ontological claims).”

    First, and this isn’t super-relevant to the discussion, your definition of “fascism” is vastly over-broad. That’s a loaded term with connotations related to the political history of fascism in the 20th century, so labeling some educational practice that you disagree with as “fascist” is neither value-neutral nor accurate. It’s like calling someone a Nazi. Unless they are actually a Nazi, it’s probably not appropriate.

    Second, Rebar’s clarificaion (on my reading) suggests that the article is not intended to prescribe (or proscribe) any particular ways of being in debate. I think that’s fine — I think that debaters should be willing and able to defend their approach to debate, as long as the judge is either open-minded or open about their preferences (or both.)

    But this line doesn’t seem to hold with what Rebar says in his reply to my comment. If we assume that “fascist” behavior is ipso facto bad behavior in an educational context, then the article is saying that it is bad/wrong/”fascist” to (A) “over-represent” particular ways of being or to (B) “prefer” particular ways of being.

    First, over-representation: Each debater gets to represent only him or herself. The debate community is the collection of individual representations by individual debaters. Each debater should be free to represent him or herself as he or she sees fit. “Over-representation” doesn’t make sense in this context because it suggests that there is some third party actor with control over the overall system of representations in debate. It may very well be the case that one approach or style of debate is more common in one area or at one tournament, but that is not because there is some puppet-master pulling the strings and requiring that everyone debate a certain way. Norms operate communally, but everyone decides for themselves what they are going to do and how / whether they are going to challenge or accept norms. The idea of “over-representation” suggests first, that it’s bad for one style or approach or “way of being” to be more common (“over-represented”) than others, and second, that some agent is responsible for the distribution of representations. That seems wrong to me.

    Second, preference. This seems to contradict Rebar’s assurance (again, my reading) that the article is not intended to be prescriptive. But if we take the claim seriously, Rebar and Ben are asserting that it is “fascist” to prefer certain ways of being. This seems to support my original concern: that a rejection of any particular structure or way of being is, itself, a “way of being” that excludes all other ways of being. Saying that it is fascist / bad / wrong / uneducational to *prefer* one way of being over another sounds incredibly prescriptive — if you do not endorse the structureless version of debate herein advocated you are a fascist. I can get behind a thesis that says that if you try to use top-down authority to enforce a particular style of debate — i.e. if you create rules that proscribe other styles — that this is uneducational. (I would not go so far as to say that it is fascist, see above.) But it is certainly not wrong / bad / uneducational to *prefer* one style over another. For instance, I prefer topic-focused debate and I have made strident arguments to defend my preference. I think a norm that permits explicitly non-topical performances to count toward the ballot is bad for both debate and education. I do *not* endorse any kind of enforcement or “rule” preventing non-topical performances. So, per the article, I am a fascist because I prefer one way of being over another.

    I assume this is not what Ben and Rebar meant, but it is what they said, and I think it merits further clarification.

    • Grant Brown

      Excellent point. Thank you for clarifying your view on the use of “fascism”. The phrase “preference of being” is quite amiguous. I would assume they meant fascism and preferentially to a specific side to mean the closing off of a particular group, or creating a hinderence if you will. While polyvocality would be the hindering of that hinderance to reopen reopen debate to all sorts of being. However, that is just my view. Hopefully this is clarified by Rebar or Ben so we can have a clearer stasis in their advocacy.

    • Rebar Niemi


      You’re right that part is confusing and hopefully these clarifications will help:

      1. While the notion of polyvocal debate we forward is not strictly prescriptive, there is a fairly short leap from it to hypotheses about what “Better debating” would consist of. The section on education as properly being anti-fascist is likely a more prescriptive and less impartial part of our article. My assurance is that polyvocal debate is an attempt at an understanding of debate (pre-paradigmatically if you will) that grounds multiple and diverse possible methods of engagement, not that the article contains zero prescriptions.

      2. Fascism is not so narrowly understood by some. Yes, it includes forms of historical totalitarian governance. According to some theorists, it also includes the micro-decisions that allow for those kinds of governance and normative paradigms to arise. This is our usage. You may say we are incorrectly using the concept of fascism but we will say that we are using it in a useful way.

      3. You are welcome to argue that over-representation and preferencing of certain ways of being are not counter-educational/fascist.

      A. To me, claiming that “everyone is like X” is tantamount to “people who aren’t like X aren’t people,” and the history backs me up. That’s what I mean by over-representation. The notion that western cis/het white male subjectivity is a universalizable model is an over-representation. Over-representation can’t be empathetic/can’t actually foster polyvocality because it doesn’t admit other ways of debating or types of people exist, or rather, it can’t understand them and whitewashes their realities.

      B. When we say preferencing certain ways of being we mean the kind of hierarchal or top down authoritative stances you mention – not the aesthetic preference of one form of debate over another, although ultimately I’d argue (and I think Ben would agree) that we probably need to investigate and problematize why exactly we like some kinds of debate and not others (all of us, the “anti-fascists” included). I would argue that your tendency to strongly desire one form of debate is indeed a form of micro-fascism. Just like my tendency to prefer high theory and academic insanity is a form of micro-fascism. It’s not “you’re either a fascist or you’re not” – it’s that we’re all fascists in some ways and we need to minimize the harmful effects of that on others. The thing that makes these preferences or behaviors micro-fascist is the desire for same-ness and belief in an ideal that “everyone” should follow.

      4. Our argument is that education is best thought of as a method of liberation (sometimes of the self, sometimes from the self) and transformation, and since this tends toward celebration and reinjection of difference, it has the potential to be part of the anti-fascist toolkit. Further, we think that it is best when students have a multitude of ways to engage with and defeat racist, heteronormative, and other exclusive arguments, but also topics (or not) in general. The best way to support a variety of methods and as yet unthought positions to engage with things they find objectionable is thus a general support of the polyvocality of debate. We are not saying that students must run critical literature each and every round. We are saying that questioning the basis of any debate and picking an alternate method to approach it is crucial. These alternate methods would probably colloquially be referred to as Ks – but then again policymaking in its current form was once an alternate method too. Ultimately there is no centered method of debate, only a plethora of alternatives.

      Finally we’re not saying that our conception of debate doesn’t have disadvantages when compared to other general structures of debate. What we are saying is

      A. It is a mistake to think of polyvocal debate as a paradigm, rather than a pre-paradigmatic grounding for understanding what debate might be. We are not comparing to paradigms, because you can hold almost all possible paradigmatic assumptions and still maintain coherence w/ polyvocality.

      B. The disadvantages of thinking of debate in this way are not as large as insisting that a paradigmatic stance on how debate ought be done also serve as a general conception of debate, and also are not as great as most other conceptions of debate that we have seen up to now.

      C. It is impossible to create a conception of debate that doesn’t include some features that end up serving as ways of evaluating what a good debate might be. In this sense the prescriptive/descriptive delineation makes very little sense generally for debate, but in our case you can think of this article as positing a descriptive claim (polyvocal debate is how debate works), and then making some hypotheses about what prescriptions what might be able to make under these descriptive conditions.

  • Nebel 14

    definitely cutting this

  • Nails

    Is debate constitutively open, or is it foundationally about empathy?

    • Rebar Niemi

      Both and more.

  • ClashOfCivs

    Rebar and Ben,
    I agree that affirming polyvocal debate is in theory a great idea and has, in my eyes, flourished over the past couple years. There’s a reason that many of the most highly preffed judges at large tournaments are open to all types of debate and are willing to evaluate all types of arguments. However, I think that in many cases, this discussion of what type of debate to have or the best method to look at the debate through (i.e. performance, truth/falsity, etc.) makes the overall quality of the debate lower. I have been in rounds and seen many rounds myself where, in what would traditionally be considered a clash of civilizations round, the round becomes a stock theory against role of the ballot debate or fairness vs education debate where there are generic jurisdiction arguments, abstraction arguments, etc. I’m not sure how this could be fixed, as all debate voices should be included and debaters should have multiple avenues to debate. In these rounds, the two debaters have entirely different ideas of how they want the debate to go, so it often just becomes a question of which debate is better. I don’t think this necessarily is a complete rejection of your view of debate (I don’t intend it to be), but I think that this a pragmatic concern over these clash of civilizations rounds (which is what this is trying to address- or so I guess). I think this view should be endorsed, but I still think there are going to be the same generic theory against the K debates for this year and in the coming years.

    • ben K

      Hi ClashofCivs,

      So I’ll first off by saying that I don’t see these debates of Ks vs Theory as literal clashes of civilization in the most extreme sense. It ultimately seems to be a question of what we care of more- the claims of education about oppression through a “role of the ballot” argument or a fairness/education/jurisdiction claim in the form of “abuse” that occurs in round. But these two obviously have similar goals and aren’t intrinsically separated from one another- both are questioning what the fundamental aspect of evaluation and debate could be, and I think that’s great. We shouldn’t just automatically say theory is BS or Ks are garbage because there are valuable things in both of those rounds (discussions of what rules we can create on our activity to make things more equal in an in round sense and the question of our discourses out of round). Our call to fruition is one of inclusivity, that we shouldn’t determine unilaterally that one is absolutely more important/ key than another. It’s a discussion we ought to be open to.

      This all being said, I think the important thing here is not about what the claims are but how they are warranted. For instance, I think that our view would encourage a concept of theory that should justify more than just “vote for me cus fairness is important to the ballot” but rather “vote for the argument over other ones because the harm here/ the cause here is more important than other arguments on the flow.” It’s that we should be able to question what it means to vote on theory over Ks or vice versa- and that that discussion shouldn’t intentionally omitted. As to how to end the frequency of the K vs. Theory debates as they are now? I don’t think I have an answer to that, but I think the position that many take that we need to wait until ‘theory is dead’ or ‘ks are dead’ is a view that is counter-productive and that polyvocal debate rejects. There is space for both of these things to matter to the debate round. It’s a matter of seeing if debate is open on both sides to empathy for the other, and there we can have the most productive form of discourse.

  • David McGinnis

    The article is full of contradictions.

    First, you assert that fascism is “the tendency to over-represent and prefer certain ways of being to others based on normative, intuitive, or ontological claims.” The construction of this argument, and the article as a whole, suggests that some set of approaches to debate which are narrow and unyielding while the “polyvocal” approach is freeing and allows people to be as they wish to be.

    This is not the case.

    Any preference for a structure is exclusive of other structures. A preference for a lack of structure is exclusive of all structures. Say a debater walks into a round and, for whatever reason, they want to have a nice, traditional, value-criterion debate focused on the truth or falsity of the resolution. They have researched the topic, spent hours analyzing its meaning and pulling together information on the issues related to the topic and have prepared cases to that end.

    If their opponent rises during his or her speech time and begins a “polyvocal” performance, and if the judge decides that it is their wont to engage in this polyvocalization of the round such that the topical evidence regarding the truth or falsity of the resolution is no longer relevant to the ballot and we are, instead, going to read some poetry or engage in interpretive dance (but certainly not play soccer or the trumpet), then you have not created a more open, inclusive space. You’ve excluded the first debater and the kind of round that he or she wanted to have in favor of the second debater’s preference. All ways of being are ways of being; even ways of being that reject “wayness” are ways.

    I’m not saying that this kind of exclusion is per se illegitimate. I would just request that the authors acknowledge that it is an exclusion.

    It is natural for proponents of different approaches to debate to critique and even denigrate proponents of other forms of debate. This article is poetical, but it’s contains a serious set of digs at people who disagree: those people are “fascist;” they are “wrongheaded.” The article dresses these insults up in flowery speech about praxis and Paulo Freire but make no mistake, this is just a document designed to preach to a particular choir, and the villainization of the opposing choir is part and parcel of the project. I don’t generally have a problem with this. I’m not bothered when people declare that the debate round is a clash of civilizations. Linear, topic-focused debate has its merits as do more free-form approaches to argumentation. It bugs me when folks try to frame their arguments not as a contest between differing approaches but as a battle of good vs. evil.

    • Grant Brown

      First, I seriously question if you can say that you do not fall prey to the good vs evil dichotomy yourself. We have all read your article about your views on debate, and it certainly seemed to be very bluntly on the side of one particular stylistic form of debate not even being debate in the first place. As you would put it. I recall a particular moment on a ballot when the idea of a clash of civilization was completely foreign and outside of that particular round, and one side was surely placed as evil, the other as good.

      Secondly, I believe Rebar and Koh’s point here is one of antagonistic play within the space of debate. The fostering of clashes of civilization instead of an ex-ante creation of rules that destroy that space as a space of play. This seems to respond at least partially to your argument about structures always excluding other structures. That is certainly true, but their argument is not one of “either or” but “yes, and…” It seems that your conception of polyvocal is a clash of civilizations, and this is a particular side. It’s beyond that at this point, it’s a question of traversing the assemblage and existing within the inbetween – and finding a medium. We are past the point of clashes, we are in the point of stasis. Fascism is the destruction of possibility, and choosing a clear cut side is probably that as well. Engaging in polyvocal methodology of debate is being open to both sides of the coin, both ends of the structure. A judge who said “I’m not going to evaluate topical debate” is not polyvocal, they are a fascist!

      I don’t have much time tonight to reply to this in depth, but I’m hoping to be able to soon. With Nietzsche of course, because what else do I have in life? Being me and all.

    • Rebar Niemi


      Thanks 4 reading. Just want to say part of the reason you might feel it full of contradictions is a misunderstanding of our concept of polyvocal debate. Polyvocal debate isn’t “do a performance” or “do something that is anti- values debate.” Polyvocal debate is an understanding of what debate already is. Namely – multiple participants who each contribute to a realm of expression.

      Using your example, someone who said “no values debate” would be in the camp we criticize as denying polyvocal debate, you’re correct. We don’t advocate that. What we are saying is that the kid who wants to read value and criterion cases doesn’t get the guarantee of doing what they want absent defending it in round. Just like the kid who wants to run a performance.

      Here is the key difference that you’re missing: a polyvocal understanding of debate is one in which value and criterion may certainly win out over performance if arguments about why value and criterion debate is preferable are won. The same is true of the reverse.

      It seems like you would prefer a guarantee that value criterion debaters will be protected from being excluded – we are against that. We do not think having to potentially defend value and criterion debate as being a good way to use your voice is an exclusion.

      In NO WAY are we advocating that traditional methods of debate be excluded. Sometimes people read proactive justifications for why topical debate is good when they read their aff. Sometimes people just read a topical aff. Sometimes people read justifications to be non-topical. Sometimes they just are non-topical. In each and every situation the debaters in the particular round will have to negotiate and navigate whether or not these are pertinent issues.

      • Dave M

        Well, then, I don’t think we disagree much, except to be on different points of a spectrum in terms of what kind of debate we prefer. I do think topic focused debates are generally preferable, for reasons I’ve explained elsewhere. I do not think there should be any rules in debate prohibiting any style. I agree that I read prescriptiveness into the article. Thanks for clarifying.

  • meh


  • Ryan

    Great Article!