The silent

There’s a kid on your team.  He’s a sophomore who did really well in his novice year.  He came close to breaking at a finals bid tournament last week; just missed on speaks.  He’s active and engaged in practice, and helps his teammates out.  He loves debate, signs up for every tournament, and helps his teammates cut cards and write cases.  In brainstorming sessions, he’s the one you have to restrain, to give others the chance to participate too, even though his ideas are admittedly usually better.

Today, that kid doesn’t speak.  His parents are divorced after three years of his mother using too much makeup to cover the marks.  His father is wealthy, but his family now struggles to get by, because his mother chose safety over prosperity.  She didn’t do it on her own account; she only mustered the bravery to leave when the father started to hit her son, too.

Debate was his outlet, his way of expressing himself.  Now he can’t open his mouth without risking tears.  So today, he is silent.  Tomorrow, he will drop from the next tournament; sorry, something came up.  Next year, he’ll be one of those kids who just lost interest, or had other priorities.  It happens all the time, nothing to be remarked on.

There’s a judge at your tournament.  She’s a senior in college.  She is a highly preferred judge who is regularly on deep out round panels.   She’s smart, gives good critiques, and usually the debaters she drops feel they were fairly treated.  And, like one quarter of all women her age, she was sexually assaulted.  It was at a party on campus two years ago, and was by her own boyfriend.  She told few people, and had to keep her assailant’s name private, for fear her father would be sent to jail after murdering the bastard.

She sits in the back of the room, listening as negative debaters accuse those who resort to vigilantism of moral cowardice and rights violations, because they need to cover the flow.  She listens to affirmative debaters argue that she is irreparably irrational and so should not be held to moral account for her subsequent actions.  She barely pays attention, because for the fifth round in a row, she is mostly trying very hard to not break down.  She’s not concentrating on the topicality debate; she’s thinking of that ex boyfriend, and wondering if she shouldn’t have spoken his name to her father after all.

And in the RFD, she is silent.  She has nothing to say.  Even the winner comes away baffled.  She uncharacteristically begs off judging early.  After this tournament, she will never judge LD again.  She’s graduating college, getting a real job soon; it happens, all the time.

Domestic violence is a crime that silences people.  Victims cannot bear to speak of it.  Family are your closest people; closer than friends, than colleagues, than anyone else.  We tend to protect our family’s confidences; and abusers hide under that protection, using the shame of breaking family trust to tie their victims down.  Victims carry guilt, and self-blame; they fear that leaving would break the family, that it would ruin their children’s lives for their own selfish needs.  They fear that even speaking out will cause the world to reject them, and their own extended families.  It often does.  This crime is silent.  Even when these long nightmares do end and people escape, the silence continues, because speaking of it at that point only stirs up memories of that shame and fear.

This topic is therefore as undebatable and harmful as the mosque topic; it asks some people to take positions that they simply cannot bear to take; and puts up for debate an area that the game of debate is ill suited for; the emotional content is too high, and the intellectual content overwhelmed by it.  But this attack is crueler still, because the targets are concealed, and may wish to stay so. You don’t know who that sophomore boy is.  You don’t know who that college judge is.  They are silent.  Millions of adult women, and more than a few men, walk around with this burden.  Millions of children grew up in houses that are homes in only the barest sense of the word.  If your team is large enough, it includes some of these children.  If your team is small, and fortunate, nonetheless your next tournament will include some of these children and judges.

But unlike most Muslims, the last group a debate topic called out in this manner, you cannot tell who they are, and you cannot even fairly ask.

The topic asks us to consider if domestic violence is so horrible that cold, deliberate murder, the ultimate immoral act, may nonetheless be a permitted response.  If deliberate murder is even possibly justified by domestic violence — and if it isn’t, how is this debatable? — why are its many victims, millions in number, supposed to keep their emotions in check while debating?  Deliberate murder is possibly in bounds, but hysterics because switch-side debate pits you against yourself isn’t?  And how can people make objective decisions, both in strategy and in judging, if their subjective pasts are so strong?

What happens to the kid who at age 10 dreamed of killing his father to rescue his mother, and now must excoriate his most private secret dream whenever he flips neg?  What happens to the college judge who felt so wrong in her impulse to seek revenge that she stopped herself in a supreme act of will, but now has that choice yanked out into the spotlight by an affirmative case?  And how can you ever know if the person in the back of the room, or across the table, isn’t that sophomore boy, isn’t that college judge?

Does the judge have an obligation in the name of debate to disclose her personal story?  Do you think she should put it in her frigging paradigm?

I know that sophomore boy.  I know that college judge.  Their details are masked, but their stories are true.  I know dozens others like them, inside and outside of debate.  Very few will speak out for themselves.  It’s not worth coming out as a victim and branding yourself with that shame publicly to make a point in debate.  So this topic, too, has silenced them, and banished them from an arena where there should be no silence.  We won’t notice them, because they will remain silent; drift off, leave debate behind them; they will appear to be part of a normal pattern.  And next year, we will again bemoan that few girls do high level debate, and wonder why not.

This issue isn’t about the circuit versus locals.  This uneasiness isn’t about wanting the targeted killing topic.   I’d trust a monkey with a dartboard to pick any of the remaining ones gladly.  It’s not about me; I’m not a victim, my parents never even argued much, much less hit each other.  There has been domestic abuse in my extended family, but not repeated; it was ended quickly in the one case I know of.  But I also know this topic will silence voices, silence debaters, and in doing so, just add more suffocating layers to the silence at the heart of the crime itself.  I want no part of it.