High School Debate

This morning I read another article about the degeneration of High School debating into a highly censored space, where students can be disqualified not only for addressing topics that are out of bounds but also apparently for things they may have tweeted or posted on social media completely outside the context of the debate. This is alarming, but seems to fit with our society's current fascination with "de-platforming" anyone who seems to have stepped over the line in any aspect of their lives, at any time in the past. The worst aspect of this story, to me, continues to be the apparent lack of any type of self-awareness in the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA). I'm just going by what I've read, since I was not a debater in high school and have never interacted with this organization. But I have visited the website and I've read many of the "paradigms" judges publish and they really are out there. Most of the ones I sampled were elaborate explanations of the judge's own beliefs and worldview. As I had imagined debate and judging, I would have expected these personal beliefs to be irrelevant. At least beyond a basic commitment to fairness and impartiality.

I imagine some of these "activist" judges would argue that due to the legacy of systemic oppression (racism, sexism), there may still be some entrenched, invisible assumptions that create disadvantages for some debaters, and that they are trying to level the playing field. But do you really do that by announcing that arguing a position or even favorably mentioning a perspective will automatically result in points off or even disqualification? And in any case, does replacing one set of vague, ill-defined, and largely unspoken biases with another really level the playing field? I thought debating was about collecting evidence, building an argument, and then performing a rhetorical act. The NSDA used to be called the National Forensics League, after all. I imagine we have all heard stories about students instructed to argue the position they disagreed with, on a controversial topic, who learned a lot in the process. How would that ever happen if there's a "right" and a "wrong" position and those arguing the wrong side are predestined to lose?

The other thing that was alarming about the article was that students were actually
rewarded for shifting from debating the issue at hand to ad hominem attacks on their opponents, if they could find something embarrassing the opponent had said on social media. Ratting out other high-schoolers for ideological missteps rather than refuting their arguments in the debate. In addition to being creepy and inculcating a culture of informers that smells a bit like 1984, I think this also reinforces a very binary world-view of good vs. evil. There is no nuance. People are not allowed to be inconsistent, or to hold opinions they may not have fully thought through. Or to be wrong on a particular issue but also perhaps have something meaningful to contribute elsewhere.

This avoidance of nuance and inability to deal with complexity is crippling public discourse. It shows up everywhere; even in the comments section of this story, which I wasn't able to participate in, since it's limited to paid subscribers. As I've observed before, I think this is a flaw of the way some people run their Substacks. Not only is it a disincentive to people to read and engage with the writing (my immediate reaction to locked comments is to consider unsubscribing, and frequently I do) but much worse, it creates an echo-chamber of like-minded commenters. In my opinion, this inevitably dumbs down the discourse. People feel free to make unsubstantiated assertions that they know their fellow enthusiasts won't challenge. An example is the series of comments on "Capitalism" in this comments section. The author of the article had identified himself as a fan of free markets, which wasn't that close to the main point of the article. But a bunch of commenters expressed their opinions about how capitalism "works" and "Communism/Socialism" doesn't, or how capitalism has been around since "somebody set up a fruit stand" in the distant past. Or what type of "communism" the commenter thinks Putin is using in Russia today.

I guess it's possible that even in a more open discussion forum people might have been equally sloppy in their thinking. But it seems like the closed forum creates a safer space for folks to take shortcuts. It's more permissible to avoid specifying what definition of capitalism or socialism they're using or at what scale (fruit stand or global economy?), because like-minded people can be trusted to "get it". Doesn't this fairly rapidly devolve into speaking in coded phrases and ultimately dog-whistling? We dislike Putin and we dislike communism and Russia used to be the USSR, so Putin is a communist. And Bernie is a socialist, so he must be working for Putin. Maybe it's unfair to judge a blog post by the quality of its comments, especially on a site where there are multiple contributors. But doesn't it make you wonder what these paying subscribers are expecting from
this Substack?