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.

Afterwords, Part II

My father’s life was one to make you disbelieve in justice.

He was born to an outwardly decent family.  His father & namesake was a decorated Korean War veteran from a classic American Protestant family; his mother a Mattapan Jew.  He originally grew up both; synagogue on Saturday, church on Sunday.  It started out well enough on paper.

However, after six brothers and sisters, his father was gone, and his mother overwhelmed; so he was the acting father himself to his brothers and sisters.  His mother married again, and another brother and sister came, but that marriage too ended.  His litany of former residences read like a Hall of Fame for dangerous, poor and downtrodden towns and cities in Massachusetts.   The oldest of nine children, he worked from his early teen years.  He joined a gang, a notorious one, because it was easier to protect his siblings from its violence by commit it himself on others.

He was intelligent, but spent his life working with his arms, not with his mind.  He enjoyed none of the quiet, steadily accumulating success and authority that are supposed to gather to the hardworking American.  He began his working life just as Reagan dismantled that dream in favor of stockbrokers and magnates; the worker now runs in place, and my father was one of them.  His successes were mostly others’; he got to see me finish college, and missed my sister’s graduation by days; but he knew that she had done it, all the same.  He himself labored day after day, never adequate to his own dreams and potential, and never rewarded terribly well with money, prestige or comfort.

He was a proud man who refused to take gifts even in the midst of his sick helplessness. But he would ask to “borrow” my money, in a polite fiction of repayment he maintained until the very end.  He never admitted he was going to die, and that his cancer was beyond beating, even though it was past cure from the day he was diagnosed.  He was used to living in hopeless conditions, in worlds without reward, where you work for others and save nothing for yourself.  That had been his entire life.

There was some dim promise he’d have a better old age; because of his protection and efforts his children are doing what he should have done, given the chance; we may have been able to support him in doing many of the things he’d dreamed of and never did.  And then, on this cusp, lung cancer took him, two weeks short of his 57th birthday.

His joys were in his family; in his short travels.  He loved cruise ships and casinos; he got to be a father at Harvard’s commencement.  He started the path of the downtrodden who rose up, but his rises were always frustrated, always on the edge of failure and defeat.  Always some circumstance of life made the goal of a little breathing room and comfort just out of reach.

The point of this litany is not to depress.  The point of this is to cause America to understand what it has become.  America prides itself on opportunity and progress — we cannot exist without believing our system rewards work with inevitable success.  But those rewards no longer are broadly shared; we build yachts and golf courses with our excess, instead of better schools and housing for the poor.

Instead of rebuilding our system to be more fair, we’ve rebuilt our believes to make it seem fair, as long as you don’t look too closely.  We live according to selfish myths that mask the people who need help into cyphers of irresponsibility and deceit who deserve their lot in life.  Poverty without help breeds crime; and we build prisons instead of help.  We tell ourselves the poor deserve it; they don’t work hard enough, are lazy, and taxing those with extra — staggering amounts of extra — to benefit who cannot is thus decreed patently unfair.  The wealthy are deserving, because our system is holy and fair, so it rewards and punishes perfectly.  We sin who doubt its judgments of income and wealth.

There is no place in this myth for my father.  He’s the hardworking man who tried all his life and still got nothing for it but an early grave. He doesn’t even inhabit that grave.  He gave his remains to medical science, in the hopes that in his last dying, he could make the world a better place still.  Gave and did not get; perhaps his remains will help the research that cures his disease.  It would be a fitting, anonymous epitaph for this anonymous man that Republican and Democrat, Congressman and President, stockbroker and lawyer, all have forgotten.

And it brings me to want to do something about it.

Afterwords, Part I

Dying is usually thought of an instant, a moment in time, when a being tips over some unseen edge from warm familiar life into a journey that must remain opaque to those of us left still waiting in line.   There…there…and just now, not.  Sometimes death is exactly that, all too quick.  Wars harvest little instant deaths by the dozen; highways do the same, though in incidents far enough from each other that we find them less immediately horrifying.

My father’s death took 468 days.  He was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer on January 30th, 2010, and died a year and some months later, on May 18th, 2011.  Metastatic lung cancer can have many causes, but by far the most common, and the most likely, were the cigarettes that my father smoked nearly every day of his life from age 15.   He tried many times to quit; and even though he was profoundly stubborn and willful, the craving for cigarettes broke his will every time.

I did talk about it somewhat as the year went along, to friends, family and debaters.  But there’s a quiet fog that wraps itself around you that no words actually come through.  There’s a pale mood that cannot be spoken.  You find others who have been touched this way; others who watched or were watching a loved one die.  When you meet, you say no words, you just simply identify yourself, and then stare for a while.  Both of you know there’s nothing to say; both of you know it helps to feel less alone.

But usually you’re a lonely ambassador, speaking a different dialect: you don’t want to impose your grief on everyone else, but it’s always there and you can’t always hide it.  You don’t want to hide behind it as an excuse for every flaky moment, every outburst, every time you let slip the mask you keep around the parts of life you declare normal.  But it is the excuse, it is the reason, and you don’t care enough to lie, either.

You find each moment tinged with guilt; guilt that you’re not there in some way for your parent, that you’re not doing the right thing, that you could somehow be a better son in the last months left you will be a son.   You find each moment tinged with grief, wondering what it’ll be like when he’s well and truly gone, when you have the last sequence of last moments with him — the last meal, the last hug, the last word.  The last gift.  You don’t know which will be the last, but only that it grows closer and closer, and you worry that you’ll botch it, and be left carrying it forever, without possible apology or amends.

For four hundred and sixty eight days, life was about a series of endings, of things you’ll never get back or have again, culminating in that final one.  A last Father’s Day, a day that shall nevermore have meaning to me; last Thanskgiving, last Christmas — both my birthday and Dad’s favorite holiday; he was the one waking everyone up at 6 AM.  And then one last ending, May 18th.  Another holiday on the calendar, a new personal Father’s Day.  A day to spend in pointless rituals, lighting candles, doing whatever it is to try to inadequately show you’re still somebody’s son.

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.