On Fairness

We’d like debate to be fair.

We’d like our tournaments to be maintained and run impartially, distantly, and to follow the covenants made with the attendees ahead of time, both those spelled out and those generally understood.   We’d like students to advance or not based on the merits of their arguments and the quality of their work, instead of their coaches’ influence, their position in the community, their identity along whatever spectrum identity can take, or those moments when random events blunder into the debate round.   We want the winners to deserve their wins, and the losers to learn from their losses.  We want debate, ultimately, to be a paragon; a paragon of education, of competition, and of intellect written larger than you can find in usual high school activities.

It’s an adolescent kind of fairness.  A typical high school with a strong debate team is a place where we can dare to dream the world is  perfectible.   The unfairnesses at such places are small, irritating, and finite; students come to believe that given enough work and fighting, surely  unfairness can be eliminated outright.  A good high school is built to be fair; grades are mostly given to those who earn them, and students who   work hard and do well in school are uniformly rewarded with great colleges and bright futures.  Students who don’t work or lack talent are relegated to lower tiers.   Unfairness and mistakes tend to be minor and exceptional; the general rule is a gradient of work mapping to achievement and rewards.

Where you stand is a direct reflection of who you are.

To such students, geared and groomed and pointed Ivywards from a young age, the greatest nightmare is that someone — that I — should stand lower than earned.  One way to stand lower than you earned is if someone unworthy should step in line ahead of you.  If a kid with poor grades gets into Columbia through influence & connections, or membership in a favored group, another student with better grades goes to their safety school instead.  To those aimed Ivywards, that fate is terrifying; they’ve been told if they work hard and grow smart, they’ll do well.  Education pays off.   So these kids will react violently in times when they see someone earn a prize, and yet not receive it.   The great terror is that they’ll be smart enough to get into Columbia, but end up at NYU.  And they save a special place in hell for the interlopers who cheat the system, and thus cause it.

But debaters, and high school students at schools without debate, tend to undercount their unearned blessings.   They can’t help it; everyone they know shares in those blessings. Does a fish notice the water?  The fairness of their worlds is itself uncommon, and unearned.  The rarity of debate speaks to a wider problem, the rarity of a good education, the kind of education that only money and resources can truly provide.  In America, we save that good education for a select few students, who can penetrate the barriers of property values that are raised around great high schools.   And the bare truth is, you gained entry to that high school on your parents’ achievement, not your own.

There are places where hardworking students don’t go to college.  There are schools where nobody at all goes to the Ivy League, not the best, not the worst, not the most connected.  There are high schools where more students have children themselves than go to college.  There are high schools where the best and the brightest end up in gangs and often then in jail, not because they are weak and didn’t listen well enough to the anti-drug and anti-violence programs, but because gangs offer money, protection, and support, and their schools, families and neighborhoods offer none of these things.  The boundary between school work and life is much thinner, in places where families are one illness away from disaster, where children go to school hungry and tired, where home isn’t heated in the winter or cooled in the summer, where the day to day insecurity of life makes people snatch and grab for whatever stability they can find.   There are entire school systems where students dread vacations and snow days, because school means seven hours of heat and lunch, and days off mean neither.

These students get Ds in math and English.  But that doesn’t make them lazy.  Or stupid.  Or undeserving.  The difference between them and you, my debater friends, is the legacy of accidents.  Of where they were born.  And to whom.

It is comforting for students at great high schools to tell themselves the world is fair.  If the world is fair and they sit atop it, then surely they have worked great deeds to enjoy their privileges, and should have no guilt over the benefits.  The poverty and problems that other, distant people experience  are the consequences of those people’s actions, and so are deserved.   If you ask, most privileged people will of course say they don’t believe that poor people deserve what they get, and many will vote solidly for tepid Democrats who promise to parcel off small margins of wealth towards poor people somewhere.  But by and large, they live and act as if the world were fair, and they deserved to sit atop it.   And so react very strongly when an event happens which threatens the balance.

Debaters are largely such people.  And so, debate rejects petty unfairness, but pays very little attention to the grand unfairness around us.  A student without a bid is going to the TOC — shock!  Scandal!  And worst of all, another one-bid kid may have to miss the TOC to accommodate a no-bid kid.  Gasp!  Terror!   The worst thing that happened all year!

There is an unfairness here.   The fact is that the no-bid student isn’t one of the top 80 debaters in the country.  I know this, because I acknowledge a reality most in debate prefer to forget: none of the students attending the TOC is one of the top 80 debaters in the country.  They’re just the top 80 students who have the chance to debate on the circuit.  For every kid who breaks, there are a hundred kids who are more talented and have more potential, but do not have access to debate, or anything like debate.  The same three dozen schools are at the TOC year and again; but there are about 18,000 high schools in the US, with over 14 million students.  Given that ratio, do any of you imagine you’re truly among the most talented 80?  The most hardworking?  The most moral and righteous and deserving?

Or do you choose to protest the advantages someone else was given, and neglect to see your own?

Debate isn’t the exclusive province of the wealthy.  There are a handful of schools that do well, despite drawing from student populations which face daunting real life challenges.  But everyone who debates is privileged to do so, whether it be by virtue of wealth your parents earned, or luck & happenstance of living near a school or a coach that values debate enough to offer it despite the daunting challenges of affording it, or the even rarer chance of having stumbled into debate without a program at all.

That’s the unfairness of debate that matters.  The unfairness of a bid round with an unfavorable panel pales next to the unfairness of millions of students living in poverty, never seeing a whiff of a debate round or even a stable life where their hard work could be rewarded or even recognized.  In a small way, debate realizes this, because we talk a great deal of helping new programs, and of outreach.  We know it should be done.  But we never do it.  We tell ourselves we don’t have time, but if it were important to the community, we’d make time.  After all, the amount of time we spend on debate has gone up a lot; when I started in LD, nobody wrote more than two cases, one on each side.  Tournaments were shorter, and had fewer rounds.  The amount of time debaters spend on debate has gone up, but the amount of time spent on new program outreach and accessibility has stayed flat.

So next to these injustices, I find it hard to get worked up about a no-bid student joining us in Kentucky to the exclusion of one-bids who stay home.  A vast horde of students is staying home with that one-bid kid, never having heard of a bid in the first place.  Debate itself isn’t important enough on its own merits to call this a tragedy, but these students represent vast untapped potential, for their talents are tied to less productive uses, their happiness and chance for a good life are subject to whims and mercies they cannot control, and their hopes of a fair life are long ago forgotten.

So tell me, is that fair?  If we’re looking for unfairness to fight against, isn’t that far more worthy of  struggle?  Can’t we do more about that than join Facebook groups claiming we’re “one million strong for the cause of the week?”  Is it worthwhile to spend hours on a VBD thread dissecting the TOC, and then claim we don’t have time to help new programs launch?

And should I have sympathy for those who ignore grand injustice but get pissed at small ones, if injustice it was to let JA in?   Simply because the grand injustice is a harder problem doesn’t merit ignoring it.   Hard problems need more work, not less.

You shouldn’t apologize for your privilege.  You didn’t earn it, so you can neither be blamed or praised for it.  But you shouldn’t ignore it either.   And you should never let small unfairnesses eclipse your understanding of larger ones, just because the small ones are pointed in your direction, and more immediate.   Your world isn’t the whole world, and ignoring that just reinforces the role privilege plays in our community and world.   And that is a terminal impact we all should avoid.