Brief notes

  • The Jan-Feb topic-induced emotional meltdown count, to my awareness anyway, is now at 4.
  • The NDCA email list decided to explode in a soul-searching Nature of the Organization thread the week leading up to our tournament.  Hurrah.
  • The Lexington tournament ran well, apart from the fact that I was dreadfully sick and lost my voice.
  • Bill Belichick’s pact with Satan is apparently more comprehensive than Tim Tebow’s arrangement with God.
  • UPenn approaches, and has significantly grown.  That, at least, is gratifying, in a month when there’s not much in debate to gratify.
  • And new, exciting things are in store for   More on that later…



The last post certainly stirred up the world a bit, but it didn’t unfortunately put together enough of a consensus to produce action in our nebulous, poorly governed and disunited community.  That’s a shame, because students will suffer for it.

The objections to a topic change came down to two categories.  Some defenses are largely procedural in nature; essentially, they say my objections weren’t lodged early enough, and the voting of the NFL member chapters must be respected.  I disagree; the governance structure of debate does not have enough inherent value to me not to give way to the needs of substantial numbers of debaters.  I didn’t pay close attention to the topic list earlier because I’m not an NFL member, I have no vote, and since the NFL doesn’t release voting figures — probably because turnout is very low, as with most nonprofit voting systems — I have little concept of what it would take to change the topic consensus.    Furthermore, in the days before the topic release, I honestly didn’t believe that a responsible educator could vote for that topic.  Apparently I’m wrong.  But  I don’t believe there is a time limit on objections of this nature.

The second category of defense says we should face this issue and give it a platform and voice, and that it could empower people.  Platforms and voices are important, but this platform is ill suited to it.  We should talk about, and confront this issue.  I actually relish the discussion online about the topic, as it has certainly increased awareness in our community.  We should not, however, force minors to engage it in switch-side debate.  Debate is not about giving voice to your own opinions, because you cannot choose which side you’re on.  There are some victims of abuse who would like to, and should be able to, speak loud and often about this dark problem in our society.  There are others who choose privacy and would prefer not to fight for the cause.  We should respect both choices.   There are plenty of venues to speak up on topics of your choosing; we have one in forensics, called original oratory.  Debate is too restricted for such a live-wire emotional issue.  We should not be in the business of excluding people who feel they can’t talk about this issue, or even who could but don’t want to.  This topic makes them choose between their private choices, and debate education itself.

The process of topic selection strikes me as primarily focused on competitive concerns.  For instance, the topics are released in dribs and drabs, not all at once — which hurts pre-planning, but reduces the perceived advantage that “those who go to camps” have.  I can forgive that the process produced a bad topic; I don’t blame anyone on the committee or anyone else for not thinking about my objections ahead of time.  To be honest, it didn’t fully hit me until after the topic was  announced  and I gave it serious thought.   Wider exposure of proposed topics before they hit the ballot might have caught this sooner, but it might not have.

However, the reactions of those in a position to do something about them has deeply disappointed me.  Just as the replacement to the Islamic cultural center PF topic betrayed a lack of understanding of the nature of the objection to said topic, the responses coming from many of the leaders in our community, formal and informal, tell me that they’re not just respectfully disagreeing; they don’t get it.   A lot of the commentary tells me that many coaches at heart believe debate is  all game, no matter the subject.  The game, and the need to win it, trumps all; those who can’t hack it be damned.  The competitive instinct underlies a lot of the discussion; and its presence is why I object to this topic.  If coaches can’t separate that out in their online discussion of a topic, how can we expect minors to in the heat of a limited-time round?

I gave serious thought to leaving debate; maybe just for this topic, maybe just LD, maybe for good.  I’ll be honest, it’s still a  possibility.  It grew in likelihood the more I read people I otherwise like and respect defend this topic in ways that ultimately assert that debate matters more than the debaters.  I do debate because it’s fun.  It’s not my career; I accept no money for coaching.  This topic is not fun.  Nor is discussing it in the context of a debate round going to produce valuable education.

For now, I think I’m going to add this to my paradigm.  It’s still not perfect, feel free to suggest alterations.  Feel free to also adopt it yourself, if you’re a judge.  Feel free to strike me because of it, because I don’t want to judge this topic anyway.

Some rules aren’t meant to be followed.


I've decided that in my own right I will not force you to debate this
topic. The NFL may be uninterested in reconsidering their decision, but I am
under no particular obligation to them to enforce it. Ultimately what happens
in a round is up to the judge.

Therefore, if both debaters mutually agree to debate an old topic of their
choosing, or any of the topics on the 2011-2012 NFL ballot, I will happily
judge that round. I will also give both debaters 30s for their efforts.

If there is no agreement on using an old/alternative topic, then the
affirmative, after notifying the neg before the round, may run advocacy that
addresses a topic about the core of the resolution -- vigilantism and self
defense -- while avoiding domestic violence specifically. If an aff pushes this
debate into non-emotionally charged ground thereby, I will not vote on topicality and I
will give the aff 30 points. The aff must only inform the neg; the neg need
not agree. Negs should have answers to those types of positions anyway.

If the aff doesn't decide to do so, then I will hold the aff responsible for
the entirety of the resolution, and will not affirm on PICs bad theory or
other limiting factors that attempt to box neg into ground where they must
risk arguments that offend or trip over emotional landmines.

If you don't like this, please do strike me. Every strike I get on this topic
is a gift, because I don't want to judge it anyway. If that makes me a
terrible judge so be it; I assure you, I would be a terrible judge for this
topic anyway, because I feel zero compunction on this particular issue about
intervening if one of the many lines this issue raises are crossed. There's a
chance that I may refuse to sign ballots on this topic; for example, if a
student simply cannot continue a round (which has happened in practice).
I don't really know what the limits are and don't want to find out, and
I'm willing to shower you with astonishingly liberal speaker points if
you help me avoid it.

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.





Yale survived and even flourished without me, which is good for both its future and my own.   I got September back this year, and it turns out to be a lovely month, with all kinds of nice cooling weather.   Though today it’s raining like hell, but ah well.   They even refrained from doing anything embarrassing in the awards ceremony, which I appreciate.   I was also sick all day Saturday of Yale, which had it happened when things depended on me there would have been an adventure.   I survived, though recovery has been slow. So that’s all to the good.

Now we have a lull prior to Bronx.   Bronx will be about four weeks long, so that’s good.   I’m running IEs, so there’s going to be a curious beat to the weekend, where I’m round-robinning for the first day, then this magical Sushi tour that Cruz is so enraptured with, then a full day off apart from coaching, since there’s no speech on Friday, which will give us time to panel and arrange.   Then we’ll be over at Fordham on Saturday for IEs, then back to Bronx for bubbles coaching presumably, then IE and debate elims together back at Bronx on Saturday.   Woo boy.   It also means we give Cruz another awards ceremony, and this likely a large and well attended one, as IE people are more into that kind of thing than debaters are.

We’ve failed to record a TVFT after about three times trying.   That’s par for course.   Timezones and too many people, it happens.   I’m also thinking of the best way to commit my Standard Economics Lectures to media.   I have given them at extemp camp and practices many many times at this point, and wouldn’t mind getting them down in a form where people can digest them at leisure.   But I don’t know that my style of teaching is suited to either video or audio-only.     I do have a good outline going though.

And I’m blogging.   Perhaps regularly.   We’ll see.

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.