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Decline of Debate: The Sequel

Apr 28, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 31 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Last week the website for the Atlantic ran a highly instructive report about the extent to which the progressive worldview now dominates the university. The most recent conquest: college debate competitions.


Collegiate debate—the organized, full-contact version, not the dorm-room bull session—has long been the domain of earnest apple-polishers. The kind of strait-laced students who color inside the lines, do all their homework, and look down on the unwashed masses with their A-minus averages. But in recent years, this white-bread subculture has been embracing “diversity,” with predictable results.

At the Cross Examination Debate Association Championships in March, the final match featured two pairs of African-American debaters. Progress! The debate centered around a resolution asking whether or not the president’s war powers should be restricted. The contest was won by the duo from Towson State University, Ameena Ruffin and Korey Johnson, who chose to argue the side of .  .  . well .  .  . it’s hard to say. Here’s the Atlantic’s formulation: “Rather than address the resolution straight on, Ruffin and Johnson, along with other teams of African-Americans, attacked its premise. The more pressing issue, they argued, is how the U.S. government is at war with poor black communities.”

This may sound outré, but Ruffin and Johnson were the traditionalist debate team. Their opponents, Rashid Campbell and George Lee from the University of Oklahoma, were more au courant. Again, here’s the Atlantic:

Over four hours, the two teams engaged in a heated discussion of concepts like “nigga authenticity” and performed hip-hop and spoken-word poetry in the traditional timed format. At one point during Lee’s rebuttal, the clock ran out but he refused to yield the floor. “F— the time!” he yelled. His partner Campbell, who won the top speaker award at the National Debate Tournament two weeks later, had been unfairly targeted by the police at the debate venue just days before, and cited this personal trauma as evidence for his case against the government’s treatment of poor African-Americans.

This evolution in debate isn’t brand new. Last year The Scrapbook noted how Emporia State University’s African-American debate tandem had won the National Debate Tournament by ignoring the motion—“Resolved: The United States Federal Government should substantially reduce restrictions on and/or substantially increase financial incentives for energy production in the United States.” Instead, they rapped about the musical The Wiz and made an explicit appeal to the judges to award them victory as a statement in favor of diversity and against white privilege.

What is new, however, is the attempted pushback from the more traditional debate powers. The debate coach at Northwestern, Aaron Hardy, dared to suggest that this Newspeak debate tactic might be problematic and that there ought to be a place in college debate for teams which, for instance, engaged the resolution, argued facts and data, and abided by rules on time and format. His suggestion was to carve out a little area for what he called “policy only” debates.

Hardy’s suggestion was not well received. According to the Atlantic, 14 teams signed up for the “policy only” tournament. But those teams had the misfortune to come from elite schools and were predominately white students. The “policy only” debate was deemed racist and canceled.

At the risk of being puckish, you can understand the objection: Why have separate but equal debates? And while one has some sympathy for Hardy and the other traditional debate do-gooders, they seem to be pining for a format, and a world, that has already passed. Have a look at Twitter. Or MSNBC. Or the New York Times. Or Attorney General Eric Holder. Or any of the rest of the grievance-mongering chattering class for whom the unbeatable trump card these days is discerning “racism” in their opponents. Debate isn’t what it used to be. The college kids might as well learn this brute fact sooner rather than later.

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