Make Debate Less Personal

Connor Engel | Jul 27, 2021
11 min read


As debate has evolved, so has the scope of popular arguments and evidence. Debaters are regularly choosing to not entirely affirm or deny the resolution. Today’s norms in high-level National Competition allow debaters to even redefine the resolution entirely or ignore it to discuss the necessary rules and norms that should govern a debate round. But recently a troubling trend has emerged: many high-level debates have started to depend not on kritiks, policy, philosophy, or theory, but rather about debaters themselves. As the length of this article will demonstrate, there is an inexhaustible amount of things to be said about personal argumentation in debate. For the sake of brevity, this article will only deal with positions which require a moral judgement about an opponent’s character and/or utilize personal evidence about an opponent gathered from outside of the round in progress. I will present the problems with such arguments and urge a moral and pragmatic imperative to put an end to them.

The Ballot as a Moral Referendum

More and more frequently, I have been encountering debate positions which are structured to indict the out of round actions of a particular debater. These positions are usually criticisms which allege that the targeted debater made an offensive statement out of round in the form of an offensive position they read, comment they made, way they interacted with other debaters, etc. Their syllogism (logical structure) is usually as follows:

1) X statements/beliefs are morally wrong regardless of intention;

2) Debater A has at some point made X statements or endorsed X beliefs;

3) Debater A has therefore done something morally wrong and or their actions have negatively impacted the accessibility and welfare of the debate community;

4) Debater A should thus be voted down.

Circumstantially, many of these premises could be false. Sometimes the criticism fails at premise 1 as its accusations involve an action which is only debatably offensive. Or even if the action stated is clearly offensive, evidence of its occurrence is non-verifiable, rendering the K incoherent at premise 2. But rather than pick apart each premise, this essay will focus only on premise 4, because it cuts to the heart of the argument I’d like to convince you of, that regardless of a debater’s past actions, the ballot is never an appropriate tool for moral judgement. We will start with a situation in which a debater is being accused of something they definitely did that was unambiguously wrong.

Imagine Debater A goes into round against Debater B who has a documented history of having used the n-word. Which is to say Debater A has a clear screenshot of Debater B’s Facebook page on which they have said something equivalent to, “There are too many n-words in debate”. In such a case premises 1-3 are undoubtedly true. Such a statement is morally unforgivable, has clearly been made by Debater B, and directly negatively impacts the safety and inclusivity of the debate community. So the question becomes: “Is voting down Debater B an appropriate response to their actions?” In my opinion, the answer is always no. Not because Debater B shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions, but because such a situation is beyond the purview of judges adjudicating and debaters competing in a debate round. I want to be clear about something: debate is first and foremost an activity meant to educate highschoolers. It is our responsibility as adults and educators to make their physical and mental safety our number 1 priority, period. At the point at which Debater A feels actively marginalized or endangered by Debater B’s comments, a judgment needs to be made by the Tournament Administrators as to whether or not Debater B should continue to participate in the tournament. Instances of blatant bigotry fall in the same category of dangerous behavior as threats of violence. The safety of debaters is simply not something that should be left to the results of a debate round. And more importantly, voting a debater down does not stop them from affecting the safety of the tournament. If debaters are actively uncomfortable going to rounds against Debater B, the solution isn’t to vote them down every round, it’s to not let them participate in the first place. If this article should convince you to do anything, it’s to draw a line in the sand between debaters you think have acted immorally, and debaters that have acted harmfully. We will discuss why I still don’t think the ballot is an appropriate moral referendum, but if you think that a debater presents a serious harm to the mental/physical health of you or other debaters, even if you don’t have clear evidence, please go to your coach and let them talk to the Tournament Administrators! Do not risk your health and safety or that of your peers for the chance to read your criticism in hopes of winning a debate. Luckily, as far as I’m aware, these serious cases are few and far between. Of course there is no perfect brightline as to what positions we should consider offensive enough to bring to the attention of administrators. Certainly any position that utilizes slurs or threatening language should be reported immediately, but it is doubtful that many will be so blatant. If you feel a position might be offensive try to isolate which part of its assumptions, logic, and rhetoric are problematic. Do your best to differentiate between a position that is objectively discriminatory and one that espouses values you may heavily disagree with. Most importantly, go with your gut. If you truly feel uncomfortable chances are your opponent’s case has something objectionable in it. The rest of this article will examine the majority of personal kritik positions which allege that a debater has not done something actively dangerous, but rather something morally wrong.

Let’s imagine a different scenario in which a black debater has accused a white debater of committing a moral wrong due to the white debater’s previous reading of afropessimism “hereby afropess”. Afropess is a branch of critical race theory made controversial by its harsh depictions of black life and being in the United States. But without delving into the nuances of afropess,  let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that it would be at least slightly offensive for a white debater to read afropess against a black debater, granting that it does not pass the aforementioned threshold of harmful offensiveness. In this situation, the criticism  would dictate that because the white debater has acted immorally, they should be voted down. The remainder of this blog will explore the question: is this a good norm to set?

In my opinion, the answer is a resounding no. Turning debate into a referendum on personal morality creates numerous problems.

First, it creates a race to the bottom to see who can accuse the other of being a worse person using personal evidence. Instead of debating about anything educational, the round devolves into debaters sharing screenshots of each other’s Facebook pages and wikis hoping to catch the other saying/doing something offensive. Some may argue that discussing why certain behavior is problematic can be an educational process. But regardless of whether we think callout culture is educational, it is a lesson that can only be imparted once. Topic literature, and even generics, facilitate clash around contestable stasis points and offer numerous strategic avenues with which to constantly create new educational positions. In contrast, calling someone out for making an offensive Facebook post is a position whose content does not vary over time, and it is not a debate so much as an admonishment.

Second, it incorrectly assumes that the general morality of a debater is a relevant consideration in a debate round. In debate, a judge should vote for who they think did the better debating, not for who they think was a better person. If this were not the case, then theoretically, debaters could win every round by providing proof that they do more community service than their opponent. One might argue that the precedent of determining rounds based on the morality of one’s opponent has already been set by in round rhetoric Ks like the gendered language criticism. But when one reads a rhetoric K about statements made in round, the claim being made is not that one’s opponent is immoral and should therefore lose, but that they articulated their advocacy in a gendered, racist, ableist, etc. method . This is an epistemological and/or performative disad that means judges should vote for down the offending debater for a lack of solvency and/or for violating the framework/role of the ballot. In other words the offending debater should lose, not because they themselves are a bad person, but because their advocacy contains offensive rhetoric which would hypothetically diminish its effectiveness, and/or because their literal speech expressed immoral ideas. At any rate, the rhetoric K is making a claim specific to the offending debater’s position/speech, not their character.  

Third, it’s an unfair practice that leaves no room for forgiveness or personal improvement and actually creates more offensive rhetoric. If we accept arguments that question the morality (not harmfulness) of a given debater, it doesn’t matter when or in what context a white-identifying debater reads afropess, what’s to stop them from losing every debate round for the rest of their career on the grounds that they once said something offensive? And from that point onward what incentive do they have to inform themselves about these important issues or even bother saying non-offensive things if they’ll never be forgiven by the debate community anyway?

Fourth, I don’t think we should  encourage high schoolers to make serious accusations about each other’s character. I have witnessed too many debate rounds in which one debater became seriously distressed due to the accusations of another. Have we all forgotten that debate is still a pedagogical activity for teenagers? It is simply inappropriate for a senior to berate a freshman for being a horrible racist, ableist, sexist, etc. human being over an action they may not have even known was offensive. And while there isn’t always a power dynamic introduced by age and experience, or the literal act of angry beration, it is still inappropriate to make arguments meant to degrade another debater’s character. At best, this style of argumentation encourages intellectually unproductive ad hominem arguments, and at worst, it promotes bullying under the guise of wokeness.    

Last, but certainly not least, debates that center on the moral reprehensibleness (or lack thereof) of one side’s advocacies often make rounds irresolvable or forces us to discriminate between oppressions. What happens when Debater A uses a screenshot of the afropess k on Debater B’s wiki, and Debater B counters with a Facebook screenshot of Debater A using a gendered epithet against a woman? Judges are either left concluding that one act is worse than the other, or giving a double loss. The former outcome incentivizes debaters to trivialize oppressions in an attempt to qualitatively compare them and would often be irresolvable as most oppressions cannot be qualitatively compared. And the latter outcome could logistically destroy a tournament if enough prelim or elim rounds resulted in a double loss.

An Aside About Outing and Authenticity

It is worth noting that many personal positions are phrased along the lines of “Only X identity debaters may do Y thing”. If gatekeeping identity is fair game when it comes to white debaters reading afropess, what about non-queer debaters reading queerpess, or men reading the fem K, etc? To some, this may seem like an active benefit as it stops the appropriation of serious identity positions by potentially uninformed or non well-intentioned debaters, but by the same token, such arguments establish a norm that it is acceptable to force your opponent to justify the existence or authenticity of their identity. This allows disgusting, dangerous, and totally innapropriate tests of authenticity in which debaters are encouraged to accuse their opponents of not being authentically black, queer, etc. enough to read certain positions; like if a debater reading an aff about trans people was forced to prove they identified as trans in order to dodge the claim that they were appropriating trans politics.

How Do We Stop Immoral Behavior?

My reticence towards using debate rounds to chastise participants in said debates does not  mean I don’t care about how debaters behave. I agree that we need to hold ourselves and others morally accountable for the ways we speak about and treat each other in and out of round. My position is that  these pushes are far more effective if they occur in the right context and come from a well intentioned place. If we want students to stop using offensive language and/or stop reading offensive positions, the best solution is to have open discussions about them at camps, tournaments, and online. Having these discussions in debate rounds cheapens them by turning them into frivolous strategies. To be clear this isn’t a “wrong forum” argument. The fact that it is acceptable to read the “you should lose for saying something offensive in the past K” and then abandon the position it in the 2NR without consequence demonstrates that this isn’t a problem we really care about, but rather a slice of wokeness that we can bring to bear as a weapon against the less informed when it suits us. Make no mistake, we should truly care about the collective morality of our community. We should talk about it, write about it, and thoroughly introspect about it. But we should keep it out of debate rounds, unless it actively harms the safety of participants, in which case we should immediately bring the issue to Tournament Administrators.

The Opinions Expressed In This Blog Post Are Solely Those of the Author And Not Necessarily Those Of DebateDrills

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