On Fairness: Part II

I went to Greenhill for the first time last weekend, as the proud coach of the eventual tournament champion no less. Winning the first time around isn’t a bad way to begin with a tournament, I have to say.  L’Etoile debated 19 times over the course of the round robin and the tournament, and we had another six rounds from Tinfoil Hat*. Even though we had a massive assist in elim rounds from the lovely CT, that Long March drained my gas tank. Coaching LD is now very active; gone are the days when researching a single case took days and thus you went into each tournament with one affirmative and one negative, and the flip in elims decided which you’d read. Now we have options, and the luxury of matching our arsenal to our opponent’s, which means figuring out how to do so once you know your opponent.

My judging load at the tournament wasn’t so heavy, however.   One easy way to accomplish that is to forget to register oneself as a judge during the round-robin.  Oops.  I don’t put much stock in my status as a Circuit Judge, so it never dawned on me to question it until late in the 1st day.  During the tournament itself, I have the double challenge of being over the age of 25, firmly so, and not having been around the circuit more than a year.  So I don’t get rated that high across the board, and rounds are hard to find for me.  L’Etoile’s continuing success will at some point nudge me into higher ratings, my credit (blame?) for whatever ill defined services I render that help him succeed.  I’ll end up judging more rounds, and then people will come to hate me for what I’ve done, instead of doubting me because they don’t know me.  Such is life.

However, I had one round which turned out interestingly, in the alarming sense.  It started normally enough, until Aff threw a very quick, half-formed theory argument into the midst of his 1AR as defense against a negative argument.  I remember thinking this choice wasn’t tactically smart, and even wrote as much directly onto my flow, but didn’t consider it much beyond that.

Neg sure did.  His reaction was to run a full 6 minute critical theory argument with reverse voters and everything, saying that the affirmative had invoked an ideal of fairness in the round which upholds unfair outcomes.  Debate has notions of “fairness” baked into it that are anything but fair, and are not often questioned.  Aff invoked that standard of fairness without defending it.  So neg argued that I, the judge, should choose a different standard of fairness (as choosing between standards of fairness is necessarily itself arbitrary), and should choose one that checks against the exclusivity of debate, and the exclusion of other voices, by voting down this half baked and ill-developed notion of “fairness” that harms accessible discourse.

Aff, well, he didn’t know (or understand) what hit him.  He extended some arguments about time skew and win skew.  Affirming in LD is hard, and evidence does support that.   I’ve complained extensively about how little action that seems to inspire.  L’Etoile affirmed only once in his march through elims to win the tournament.  But those arguments all rely on that standard of fairness that negative told me to reject.  Aff gave me no clear reason to prefer “debate fairness” over another. He didn’t have much chance to; he had 1 minute of prep time left, and 3 minutes in the 2AR to speak, when he was hit with this thing.  He was set up to fail, therefore. I struggled a lot in sympathy; it was very hard to engage that debate correctly in the time left to him.  I kept wanting to see two more speeches to see how it’d really play out.  I did some work for him, no less, to see how much I’d have to intervene to write an affirmative story.

But I kept coming back to a salient fact: Aff started it.  Theory does boil down to accusing the other debater of cheating — and he tossed it off so casually.  He didn’t mean it flippantly at all, but that’s worse; we do these things without considering their full implications all the time.  Debaters in LD sling this powerful weapon around like it’s nothing.  My own debaters tend to — though L’Etoile will tell you this sparks some lively, ahem, discussions within our ranks.  Debaters will pull it even in front of judges who profess to hate theory itself (not me) or hate how it’s used so often (yeah, I’m guilty of that one).  There’s not much fair about that.  Negative spoke truth.

The unanswered rhetoric from the negative gave me a non-interventionist reason to vote — though I did suspect it was mildly interventionist  at the time, just less so than voting affirmative.  In retrospect, it was not.   I thought it might be, because the unfairness and the casual use of theory gave me active reason not to want to cut affirmative slack despite his manifest time disadvantage weighing heavily in the round.  But in the end, it just meant that my flow said I should vote for the side that I wanted to win, a distinction that I try very hard to maintain as a judge.  I vote on stuff I find stupid or wrong all the time.  Any judge who doesn’t isn’t doing their job well. So when my ballot and rooting interests come together, I doubt myself a little.  But they did come together.

And so, I negated.

I’ve written before about how our community expects and wants debate to be fair, and how debaters tend to react and rebel against unfairness when it affects them.  Boy howdy did I get that.  After my RFD, which I will admit was considerably less clear than the above two paragraphs (digestion of new ideas takes time, after all), the affirmative signaled some abundantly clear displeasure.

In the course of the ensuing post-debate debate, I was struck by something, something that ties in a lot to what I see as unfair in debate.  See, I’m a sleeper.  I look and sound like an aristocrat.  I went to Milton Academy and then Harvard.  Some of that polish rubbed off on me.  I have a comfortable intellectually-oriented job that carries a salary well above that of your average teacher/coach — another unfairness.  But those things are layers of paint, covering but not changing the shape of a kid who grew up on some rather mean streets in a fading paper mill town in central Massachusetts.  I’m also apart again, due to being gay, one of those minorities that is as visible as the individual wants it to be (and in my case, isn’t hugely so).  So I understand stacked decks and institutional  unfairness, even as I don’t look or sound like someone  who does.   The other three people in the room were the negative, who if he isn’t a Muslim from the Bible Belt, must certainly get mistaken for a Muslim kid often enough in his Bible Belt home so as to understand.  His coach is white, but through choice of dress and style deliberately sets himself off as an Other, which despite my white bread looks I understand is valid, and sympathize with — you should meet my youngest sister if you doubt me.  The third person in the room was an observer, a young African-American lady, presumably a debater who wasn’t debating this weekend.

The Aff debater looked (and this is a dangerous judgment, proven by myself, but the pattern is there) like your typical scion of a wealthy program in a wealthy town.  He  left the room very upset and not understanding my decision at all.  Partly he was too angry to hear, and partly I was not capable of fully explaining it, and I knew that, so I took my blows and my yells in silent acceptance.  However, I did notice that as I tried to explain how my decision came to be, the other three people in the room were nodding.   The young woman was my best barometer; after all, coach and neg debater had written this position, so they clearly understood it long ago.  But she hadn’t heard it before, and didn’t get to read it afterwards like I did.  But she got it.  There were concepts buried in the decision that I didn’t need to explain to her, to the neg debater or his coach, or to myself.  But I did need to explain them to aff, and failed.  They are hard lessons to hear, and harder still when mixed into the disappointment of a loss, even an  insignificant  one (the debaters were not in contention to break).

It’s an important lesson to learn, though I’m pretty sure I wasn’t able to teach it, and that he won’t learn it from me now — if ever a round ended with a resolution to strike the hell out of a judge soundly and permanently, that was it.  It is far from his alone to learn; we struggle with it in our own program.  (Jai ho!)  The vast majority of people in debate are in the same boat as the aff, operating with only one standard of fairness because many others are hidden from them, and growing uncomfortable when confronted with it.  Having your world shaken is something we all flinch against.  In that one room, that one round, for about 60 minutes, those who understood temporarily outnumbered those who did not.  Usually in debate, and in life, it’s the other way around; and those of us labeled outsiders don’t often get as upset, because we’re used to it.

The Project, as it’s called — and what a loaded word that is — is trying to bring these types of issues to the fore, mostly in policy debate.  A representative of it was top speaker at the TOC last year.  I saw him debate in Emory finals: he’s a very good debater.  The project struggles against a few things.  One is receptiveness to the very idea, naturally.  Another is that the resolution and topicality, one of the few guideposts we have in debate, rarely ties cleanly into the conversation that the project wants to have.  But they believe, not without reason, that the unfairnesses built into how debate is done, and the assumptions it operates under, have to be answered before the effective and open debate that we’d like to take for granted is even possible.

I have some sympathy for the view.  The question it begs, which this post does as well is: why participate in an activity that you believe unfair?   Debate is clearly biased to exclude people based on wealth, which given the wider unfairnesses in our country, therefore also excludes based on race.  So why play that game?  It’s just a debate round; aren’t there better venues for social justice efforts?

Well, life’s unfair.  America can be unfair.   Every society is stacked and tilted in some way or another.  The answer’s not to leave it behind.  If you want no inequality in your world, may I suggest living in the Yukon, far from anyone else.  If you believe you live in a world without substantive and unfair inequality, may I further suggest that you are simply at the  receiving  end of the benefits of said inequality, and thus are psychologically set up to not see it.

Instead of retreating, I try where I can to push the low end higher.  You don’t have to push the high end down; this isn’t a seesaw.   That’s because debate is education.  You don’t lose your education for others gaining it.  In fact, your education grows more valuable the more that others are educated: none of my high tech skills would command half a plantain if I were translocated into the Amazon rainforest and told to live among the hunter-gatherers.  Our country’s colossal  failure to properly educate the sons and daughters of the poor, much of it motivated by racial prejudice, will hang around our neck as one of history’s great lost opportunities.  Debate is education.  Debate’s job is to engage in hard topics, and hash them out.  That makes it a pretty good venue for this discussion in my book.  Unfairness is no reason to leave debate; debate itself is a good platform to engage it and expose it.

Just don’t flinch if you get burned by something hotter than you expected.  After all, it’s just a debate round.

*Thinly (if you’re a debate person) concealed nicknames preserve the identity of minors, ala Menick.