Communication and communication

As an activity, forensics is supposedly all about communication. That makes me wonder how we can be so surpassingly bad at it sometimes. We’re good at talking, but really rather bad at other forms as a community. There are pockets of active offline communication, but pockets they remain.

This past weekend was the NCFL National Tournament, where the LD and the PFD resolutions met a mixed reception at best. The tournament featured some pretty classic arguments on both topics; on the question of fine arts education versus athletics, we’re told that the fine arts should be defunded, since that will help reduce the homosexual population. Ah, how cunning: musical theater doesn’t attract the gays, it creates them.

That aside, people seemed more unhappy than not with the topics. So, unlike most folks who just bitched in quiet voices to each other, I asked Greg, our local moderator who’s also on the executive council about it. He said they didn’t have much to choose from, just three submissions. Submissions, you say? Yes, it appears for years now, a call goes out in September for anyone and everyone to suggest potential topics for Nationals.

Well, I’ll be damned. That’s the first I knew of that.

The fault lines here are several. One is that the NCFL is structured in such a way to permit a lot of things like this to pass through the cracks. The league itself only communicates directly to the diocesan moderators, who do a variable job at best of pushing it onwards to their diocese’s members. I think the NCFL, like the NFL, operates under the false presumption that the diocesan moderators run their local league. This is untrue in Massachusetts, where the state league runs the show; it’s untrue in a lot of other places as well.

So where you have a structure like ours, the local CFL moderator runs the show two weekends out of the year; once when the qualifier is run, and once when Nationals itself happens. I can imagine there’s a natural tendency to pay attention only then. Or, a tendency among the moderators to worry mostly about the really important logistic details, and leave everything else aside.

The second issue is that league leaders are not uniformly drawn from all forensics persuasions. Some areas might have great debate coaches with lots to contribute, but if their league leader is mostly an interp coach, the communications channel may be inadequate to the task. Relying on the diocesan moderator to be an everyman who knows all the events well enough to express concerns is going to fail sooner or later.

So the NCFL loses touch of its local coaches, since it doesn’t really try to talk to the coaches directly; it talks to the moderators, who serve as inefficient choke-points for a lot of this information. I have a good moderator who also sits on the executive council, and yet the open submission of LD topics was news to me. That’s a problem, certainly, on the NCFL’s part.

But it’s a problem on the part of the LD coaches bitching about the topic too. It didn’t take me a heck of a lot of effort to just walk up to Greg and ask what the process was, and I don’t even coach LD anymore. There’s a strong assumption on the part of a lot of coaches that Things Are The Way They Are, and the only reason they haven’t changed is because some pinhead somewhere has managed to accrue a lot of power and privilege and refuses to budge. That’s sometimes true, but it’s not true a lot, too. Not all nuns are conservative, and not all traditions are hallowed; sometimes they’re traditions because no one bothered to try and change them.

So I’m going to short-circuit the whole thing next year, and do what perhaps the NCFL should have done in the first place, and bridge what the LD coaches should have bridged long ago. When the call for topics goes out, I’ll just post the friggin thing on Victory Briefs. Doing my part…


So I decided I don’t like debating economics, for the same reason I don’t like extemp speeches about science and technology. You need a master’s degree at least to talk about these issues directly in a way that can be debated.

In an ordinary comfortable LD debate, at issue are ethical issues which have voices of authority behind them, but at root there are no correct or incorrect answers once one has passed a relatively low bar of understanding the resolution at hand. Once you understand, say, that a question about security in a terrorist-threatened society is about protection versus liberty, you’re off to the races.

But what we faced this weekend in PF at the Just Another Tournament was a debate over economic issues; will Bush’s little checks and their related goodies actually dig us out of this economic hole? The trouble with this topic is that your average high school student, and average person, can argue effectively in terms of ethics and philosophy, but in the world of the economic, there are clear cut correct and incorrect answers in some fields. What do you do as a judge when a team flings a case of unmitigated falsity up there, and you know it? You can wait for the other team to tear it down, if they can, but it still leaves one unsatisfied. In extempland, I’d just write a ballot explaining the errors and move on, but that’s intervention in debate, and not fair ground.

Furthermore, what should a team do when their opponent starts flinging out (warranted!) things that are flatly untrue, based on misunderstandings of basic economic principles? Stuff becomes a push in debater terminology when really one team was absolutely correct and the other was not, and sometimes the judges know it and sometimes they don’t, depending on their own background.

Result? Lots of really awful debates. The resolution ultimately wasn’t about a question of thought and ambiguity. It’s a technical prediction. The question of whether Bush’s economic package will work does have an answer. It’s ambiguous not by nature, but by complexity; the model is too vast to know, but if we did comprehend it, we could have a clean cut binary answer. At root then, the only debates on this topic are debates as to interpretations of known facts trying to fill in unknown facts. That got messy, to say the least, especially given that the high schoolers in question somehow are not fluent in a field where PhDs still can’t make accurate predictions. Go figure.

This is not true of ethical questions that make the usual stuff of debate. We’ll never have an answer as to whether hate crimes are just or not; exploring that issue is exploring thought, not fact. That’s better ground for debate, and I hope the mysterious back room topic writers stay there in the future. There is room for economic debate of course, but it should redirect towards the social questions of economics; how much assistance should a society grant its poor? How should goods be allocated? Stick to that and we’re OK; but for now, watching high school kids trying to do the work of dissertation writers is nobody’s idea of fun.