Last year was rough for the LD community; we had flying accusations, acrimony, and internet attacks which by their nature afford few defenses. A good number of people, both debaters and coaches, were attacked online by anonymous voices for things they did not do, which is wrong. A good number of people were attacked for things they did do, but since the targets were mostly minors or educators and the forum was the internet, that too is wrong.
I stopped writing a lot last year, largely because of these conditions. To speak up was to align oneself, taking a side where there should be no sides. I am averse to conflict, and get along with just about everyone in LD. That’s not by accident; it’s someone I have chosen to be. I don’t dismiss people who do things I dislike, or even condemn; instead I try to find out their reasons. Plenty of bad, unethical actions can at least be understood, if not forgiven, once you know the villain’s story. Plenty of villains, especially at a young age, can be persuaded out of it, helped by the compassion and concern of their “enemies”.
After all, life is just a collection of more or less broken individuals; the best we can do sometimes is try not to harm each other with our jagged edges. A lot of folks failed to avoid that last year, but many of them were young people with problems of their own, stories of their own, and our debate community failed them as much as it failed their targets.
So in retrospect, it was ill judged on my part to stay out of it. That was as active a choice as speaking out, after all. If all the responsible voices are silent, then only irresponsible people speak. As a result, we never really resolved anything in LD. We simply outlasted the issues by letting the students who served as lightning rods, unfairly or otherwise, graduate and move on. I fear we have no better handle on how to address or prevent such things in the future. That is our shame, and should be our challenge.
Collegiate policy debate is going through a much louder and more fundamental dispute this year. The divide between teams running arguments based primarily on critical race theory and similar literature, and those who concentrate on the more traditional government plan/disadvantage debate, has grown sharper and more acrimonious. There’s been active talk about splitting an already small world in half. The divide is mostly driven by coaches and adults: the debaters seem to be mostly trying to keep their heads down and win rounds. The nature of how their preference sheets work mean that while the “right wing” and “left wing” debaters regularly confront each other in rounds, their judges and coaches do not, and so the judges and coaches both seem uniquely uncompromising and hostile throughout this past fall. They view each other at some level as simply enemy generals.
I’m about to be thrust into the middle of it, as I travel to LA next month to tab the USC and CSU Fullerton tournaments, together a “major” tournament swing, occupying the same space an octos bid tournament does in high school. I will mostly keep a low profile, as it’s not my world; they’re a userbase for Tabroom to me, and I have no direct stake in their dispute. I appreciate the value of traditional policy debate, even as I laugh at some of its excesses like the politics DA and the consult counterplan. I can appreciate the need for boundaries like topicality, but at the same time, I cannot help but be persuaded and compelled by the criticisms of the society and debate itself which the “left wing” teams level. I too am an outsider, though I do not wear that on my skin as others must. Instead, I have to tell people, which is sometimes an asset, and other times a burden.
Times like last year in LD, and this year in college policy, are when debate disappoints. When an activity dedicated to discourse and communication fails to address its own issues in a productive forum, but resorts to ad hominems and vitriol, online and in whispered conversations, we have failed in our mission on face. We contradict our own purpose.
In both instances, the coaches and powers of debate have forgotten something about the nature of tournaments. They forget that we cannot, and do not, educate only our own teams. I am your students’ teacher too, and you teach mine. At tournaments I teach Lexington, but I also teach Bronx, Scarsdale, Whitman, Greenhill, Hockaday, Harvard-Westlake, PV Peninsula… as their coaches teach Lexington.
Debaters can and should compete against one another; one of the secret sauces of debate is that the competitive aspect encourages debaters to use what they learn actively, instead of just repeating it undigested, as on a standardized test. They have to assimilate information well enough to win rounds on it, and that teaches them a wider body of material with more depth than nearly any high school class. Debaters can challenge and contend with each other all they want, and not harm debate itself; their competitive drive is our engine.
But coaches should not. Coaches should see themselves as responsible for the whole of debate, not just their portion of it. We realize this when prompted, and pay lip service to it occasionally, but do not remember it enough. Smearing a debater online is a competitive tactic, meant to make the debater less successful; it doesn’t actually address any negative behavior, real or imagined, that debater may have committed. Attacking judges online for voting on topicality and framework, or for failing to do so, is a competitive tactic, concerned about the wins instead of the message.
In the end, when we start viewing some coaches as “them” and not all part of the grand “us”, be it because of debating style, camps, or worst of all because of race, gender or identity, then we have ceased to be coaches. The only “us” and “them” is the line between a coach and a debater. The debaters should play the game, play it hard and fast and to win. However, as coaches, we lose the right to make winning supersede our responsibility to debate itself, and each others’ debaters. A good coach is not always a successful coach; and a coach who only aims for success is a bad one.
If I could say something at the start of each tournament, I’d say: be colleagues first and antagonists second. Say something helpful every tournament to your biggest rival, your least favorite team, and the debater whose style is most unlike your own. If a debater is upset, ask why; if a debater wins a big round, congratulate them no matter who they defeated to do it, and no matter if you agree with the judges’ decisions. Wish your opponent good luck before you try and defeat them. In short: live up to this contest we have built together, and cannot have without each other.