The Magazine

Decline of Debate

Apr 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 30 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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In recent weeks, Emporia State University became the first team ever to win both the Cross Examination Debate Association national tournament and the National Debate Tournament—the two biggest prizes in collegiate debate. But it turns out that Emporia won the National Debate Tournament in a rather unorthodox fashion. It employed the “project” style of debate pioneered by the University of Louisville in 2000. 

Emporia State

Not being terribly up to date with the world of collegiate debate, this revelation sent The Scrapbook scrambling to Wikipedia, which explains:  “Louisville eschewed traditional forms of debating like speed reading, debating the resolution, and presenting traditional forms of evidence. Louisville instead uses hip hop music, personal experiences, and other media to present their arguments. They argue that many elements of policy debate are exclusionary and ask the judge to cast their ballot to sign onto their project to increase diversity in debate.” In other words, win the game by attacking the rules of the game. 

At this year’s National Debate Tournament final, the topic was “Resolved: The United States Federal Government should substantially reduce restrictions on and/or substantially increase financial incentives for energy production in the United States .  .  . ” Emporia’s winning “affirmative” statement on the resolution amounted to 1,500 words of rambling about Diana Ross in The Wiz, loosely taking up the theme “There’s no place like home”:

If home is necessary for members of aggrieved communities to find the power to resist, debate precludes the possibility of becoming a site of resistance for those who need it now. .  .  . Our current model of debate is disconnected from the lived realities of those affected by structural violence. That makes this activity useless to those who need it, and turns oppression into a game for those who are already here. .  .  . In fact, this is the true purpose of energy. When the Dorothys of this world think of energy, they don’t think of thorium reactors, but the energy required to get out of bed and navigate the struggle. .  .  . Thus, the Role of the Ballot is for the judge to endorse the team that best methodologically and performatively brings debate home. Unlike Dorothy, those excluded voices can’t click their silver slippers and fly away. We have to make proactive efforts to be the agents of change that ensure this space and the knowledge produced here is accessible to all that need it.

And so on. We thought this was sophomoric to say the least, but then we read the 11-page decision by Scott Harris, one of the judges who handed Emporia their 3-2 victory. It begins, “This ballot will make me no friends. This ballot is not intended to make friends. This ballot is about my experience judging a debate.” It goes on like that for 9,615 words—801 of which are first-person personal pronouns; the word “energy” isn’t mentioned once.

We can confidently describe it as one of the most solipsistic documents we’ve ever encountered, despite following national politics for decades. We were particularly intrigued by the rationalization: “This ballot recognizes that reality is socially constructed.” Despite what collegiate debate judges desperate for attention may say, we’re pretty sure that, say, thorium reactors are constructed with due deference to the laws of physics.

The Scrapbook knows collegiate debate is an insular and arcane world, but from the outside looking in, we’d say the apt cultural reference is not The Wiz—it’s Billy Madison, in which the principal rebukes Adam Sandler’s title character: “What you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.”

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