Judging Bronx

A one time story.

This past weekend was the New York City Invitational at the Bronx High School of Science.  I wish I knew where Cruz gets his energy; after all, I’m exhausted enough at tournaments I run, and I call them things like “Yale.” I’d never been to Big Bronx before, and was hoping to see it first hand, so up I signed and found myself on the Lexington bus.

Energy indeed is required at Bronx.  The rounds begin at 3 AM and end about 23.75 hours later at 2:45AM the following day, to being again at 3 AM.  That makes housing a breeze; competitors spend about five minutes waiting for the subway together with a Bronx debater, before turning around and going back to debate.  There’s a bustle and energy to the whole event, beginning to end.  I escaped the weekend without being handed a trophy.

At the same time, the tournament was not nearly as daunting as running or even attending a college tournament; we had but one building, with one set of keys, and only four events to occupy our minds and schematics.  The friction and confusion was substantially reduced.  I even got to regularly see the policy debaters, which  is practically unheard of.

I was also, deliciously, just a normal shlub judge.  I do like tabbing tournaments but I had missed being in the mainstream of the activity too.  I’m going to be judging more this year, since I’ve reconfigured my forensics involvement to better fit the world I’m in, so I’m going to plenty of tournaments that don’t (yet anyway) have me auto-slotted to tab.   However, at Bronx I figured I’d be eased into it.  Because of the national circuit nature of the event, and its use of Mutually Preferred Judging, I had not expected to be judging terribly many rounds.  So I intended to use my time to do some research, help the Lexington LD and PFers with their strategy, and maybe do a little tabroom programming on the side.  I was going to watch a couple of rounds and get up to speed, literally and figuratively.  The best laid plans…

Evidently I am neither as forgotten or reviled a judge as I thought.  I certainly wasn’t the most preferred judge in the pool, but neither was I an obvious strike.  Strangers rated me 3, having bigger fish to fry with their 4-6s, while friends rated me 2, being assured of my somewhat average intelligence if not yet sold on my renewed fluency in LD.  A few brave souls even gave me 1s.  So I did judge a fair number of rounds.  I fulfilled the usual judgerly duty of bitching and moaning every time I saw my name on the table, but I have to say I enjoyed it, though I would have enjoyed it more given more sleep.

The rounds themselves were the usual clash of civilizations.  I voted evenly aff/neg and evenly on styles; traditional sometimes beat policy, theory sometimes beat tradition, and round and round it went.  I could sense some confusion sometimes, not from the decisions themselves but how I explained them, which leads me to suspect that I’m not entirely up on the lingo.  I do have a bad habit of giving general strategy advice in the midst of my RFD in ways that lead the audience to suspect I’m intervening — But she never extended that!  I know, but you shouldn’t have left it open anyway… — so I tried to be extra careful to separate advice from reasoning.  I failed sometimes, but there you go.

For the most part I judged students at the lower end of the brackets, which is appropriate to someone who hasn’t judged terribly much in the last year.   But the last prelim I judged, flight 6B, was a terrific round between two down-3 debaters who had intellectually interesting things to say and clashed exceedingly well.  It speaks volumes for the tournament that these two weren’t in the hunt for the break.

Sunday morning I ended up judging the bid round, which tells me more than anything that you really shouldn’t try to single flight double-octos, even with a judging pool as large and deep as Bronx’s.   Cruz has already decided that doubles will be flighted next year.

Here I ran into issues.  Judging high level LD does require some technical skills, and I freely and fairly admit in both my paradigm and before rounds that I’m only about 85-90% of the way there on speed and lingo.  And the double was therefore easily the worst round I judged all weekend.  The two debaters could have hardly done less to adapt to me.  Normally that’d tick me off, but I was a last minute sub, and an unfamiliar judge to most debaters.  Neither student had had time to read my paradigm and neither could have been expected to adapt.  Besides that, on a 3 judge panel sometimes the debaters will sense the other two judges have more in common with each other and adapt to them and utterly ignore your preferences; that’s part of the game, too.   While these two debaters didn’t do a particularly good job of adapting to the other two judges either, I bear no ill will.    And so, after some further madcap hilarity whose details I shall conceal to protect the innocent and the youthful, I was promptly was on bottom of a 2-1 decision.

But that said, one of the most responsible people I know this in activity (and a judge we rated 1 with room to spare) was on bottom of a 6-1 in the TOC final not long ago.  Life goes on.

And the bus returned.  I’m still tired.  But Cruz definitely puts on a good show, with trophies and food by the truckload — though unfortunately the Saturday dinner was evidently calculated to assassinate me, with mushrooms in every dish.   Next year will be radically different, as Cruz is going to start up an IE division, with me at the helm.  I’m thrilled by this, given that colleges for the most part have a lock on high quality IE invitationals, and there’s strong value in the activity being kept within our community instead of exclusively outsourcing the largest and best tournaments.  Cruz’s energy remains astonishing, as he’s already emailing me a ton about it.  I go comatose for several days after a major tournament; I’m in awe of his drive.  Hell, I still have post-Yale mail to reply to —which to those listening has much more to do with non forensics related disasters and worries than Yale fatigue.

But I have to say, I did enjoy this my foray into the judging pool.  Let’s just hope the kids I judged did too, lest I be banished further down the pref sheets of the world before I’ve gotten fairly started.


I dislike the NeoNov topic for nearly the same reason as I was appalled by the OldNov topic. It removes the particular offensiveness, which is positive. But it’s also unfortunate in some ways, because we’re left with a topic I find undebatable, but which now lacks offensiveness as a builder of consensus to forge our own. The Northeast was never going to debate the old one anyway. I would have preferred the resolutions we were tossing around to substitute over this dreck.

Why don’t I like the debate about debate? I don’t much like the debate about religion, actually.

The province of debate is fact. We derive rational debate from observations of the world we inhabit and share. A debate must begin by agreeing on basic axioms and common evidence; the argument is over the implication and meaning of those facts.

The province of religion is faith. Faith is often unrelated to fact. An act of faith is not always derived from logic, reason or observation. To believe in a religion is an act of faith. To believe in no religion is likewise an act of faith. And acts of faith are personal, ineffable, unexplainable, and therefore undebatable. In faith, I’m right because I’m right. You can be right too in a different way. But your rightness does not invade mine.

So there’s no common ground on questions of faith, unless you already agree. Without an accepted common ground to start from, there can be no debate; only argument and anger. In ancient times religious disputes were settled by war; in modern times we skip the wars and also skip much of the resolution too, by virtue of the fact that we leave the unbelievers alive. It’s progress, certainly, but doesn’t bode well for conducting religious debate.

Abortion is the first example of the resolution everyone avoids. Extempers drop topic slips about abortion faster than Regis LD judges drop debaters running kritiks. And there’s a reason why. Abortion is a question of faith. We have no clear definition of life that draws a logical and universal bright line between a fetus and birth. If you think a fertilized egg is a human life, you do so on faith. If you instead believe that the line between an actual human life and a potential one is crossed much later, you too do so on faith, even if you are a person without religious faith, since you have no better rational justification for your bright line than the pro life person does.

One’s views on abortion are therefore derived from a determination of faith. That’s why it’s the classic undebatable topic. That’s also why it has proven intractable in the poltical arena. The language of public debate is rooted in reasoning and logic, but the question of abortion is based on neither. Both sides believe what they believe very strongly, and they spend a lot of time arguing it, but no one is ever convinced.

Debate on abortion is therefore unproductive, and potentially hurtful. Debate over religious identity and religion can be worse.

A few folks have emerged from LD to weigh in, mostly in a patronizing sense of “Oh, this is easy, you PFers don’t know how to argue this, but we sage LDers deal with this type of argumentation all the time.” Of course, LD has its own issues, talk about an event without a rudder. But anyway, the popular LDer claim appears to be that simply running “religion is altogether bad”. Muslim students thereby need not engage in arguments that essentially group them together with terrorists as a virtue of their religion and culture. Instead, they can very ecumenically dismiss the value of all religion, and thus avoid the attack on their own particular group.

Here’s the thing. Religion outweighs everything to the religious. Those without faith tend not to understand this point, because in most cases atheism is much further down an atheist’s priority list. And the one thing that faiths cannot tolerate is repudiation. Faiths are belief systems; if they permitted routine denunciation for something so trivial as winning a debate round, they would not exist. Arguing “religion bad” in order to win a round would constitute apostasy to a faithful person; turning one’s back on God. It’s not an acceptable alternative.

One coach argues that refusal to take that option, renders the religious unable to debate both sides of the original topic. By being unable to debate both sides of one highly irregular and poor topic, the religious are proven unworthy of participating in debate at all. Is the tent of debate to be so small that it accepts only those who value it above all else — only those who, shall we say, worship at the altar of the ballot? I’m sure some of the irreligious would claim that religion and faith is a matter of choice, so people aren’t necessarily excluded from debate by that; they can choose between debate and their religion. But choice of religious belief is not so simple, and certainly not so casual. Some may say it is not a choice, but an imperative.

Yes, students should see the many sides of political ideas and rational arguments. I believe firmly in switch side debate. But faith is not an idea, and it’s not an argument. My political beliefs affect your lives; because I vote. That makes them fair game in the public arena.

My religious beliefs do not directly affect others; I disclose to very few what they even are. They may affect others indirectly, should they affect or control my political beliefs; but at that point, you can argue against those political beliefs and need not know the religious ones to do so. Debate should remain on the latter ground, and not touch the former. Or we’ll be repeating this November affair often.

Therefore, I affirm.

I’m not going to judge these debates. It wouldn’t be fair to the debaters struggling to overcome the topic’s limitations to also overcome my own objections. I’m probably not going to coach it much either, for the same reason. Thankfully I wasn’t scheduled to judge or coach it anyway; I’m only attending two tournaments on November’s topic, and I’ll be tabbing both.

Can’t wait for December.

PF November

“Resolved: An Islamic cultural center should be built near Ground Zero”.


On the affirmative side, you have property rights and freedom of religion. On the negative, you have innuendo, guilt by association, and mob rule. That should make for a cheerful tournament.

That the so-called Ground Zero Mosque is even a national issue is a stain on our democratic discourse; its selection as a topic by a supposedly educational nonprofit puts debate into the same arena of sleazy non-argumentative yelling that passes for political theater on television.

I don’t know what the NFL will do about it, if anything; there’s some pressure to rescind it, and I already put in my two cents. But I do know what I will do about it. I’ll remove this topic and put in an appropriate substitute wherever I have sufficient influence. We’ll either come up with an alternative topic, or we’ll run October late and then December early. And I’ll not coach it or judge it.