A quick intro:
Ahana Sen and Allen Abbott have long been high on my list of favorite people. They are both tirelessly devoted to their own improvement as well as the improvement of this activity as a whole. (If you need elaboration, look up presmm on reddit, I think I’ve posted about them at least three times.)
One of the biggest regrets of my debate career was not being able to be in the room when Quarry Lane AS lost their octafinals round, but won the TOC . (Although you can be sure I was waiting outside with my ear to the door, ready to burst in the moment it was over to berate Allen and Ahana for making my bawl my eyes out on a good eyeliner day.)
While I can unfortunately not convince Allen to let me edit myself into the video (probably), I thought I would be remiss to end my debate career without publishing what I wish I could have said in the round.
In the words of a woman I admire endlessly and love wholeheartedly, “Alright, let’s talk.”
I was a sophomore when someone introduced me to the concept of GDS: Good Debater Syndrome, or the idea that if you are a good debater — and especially and almost exclusively if you are a good male debater — people are more likely to be attracted to you.
(Let’s be clear: it’s entirely possible and plausible that characteristics that make someone good at debate, such as being intelligent and articulate, ALSO make them an attractive person. It is also extremely likely that simply being good at ANYTHING at ALL makes you an attractive person. No one questions why the varsity football quarterback is inexplicably more attractive than the equally good looking benchwarmer.)
From there began a tumultuous relationship with the idea of “GDS.” Whether it was watching rounds early on in my PF career and becoming infatuated with successful debaters or refusing to speak out when those same debaters made demeaning comments about me because I was scared of alienating myself from the elite club I was trying to break into, the culture of infallibility that surrounds good debaters shrouded my ability to see the larger problem at hand.
To get to the point, here is the thesis of my argument:
There needs to be a fundamental shift in the way this community treats “good debaters.”
Recently someone my partner and I had previously hit messaged her, saying (among other things that offer more context to this statement), “Seeing teams like you and MSJ KM, La Salle CN, Quarry Lane AS and Altamont CZ is amazing and mesmerizing, but I became jealous and envious.” To the person who did write that, please don’t take this as an insult; we’re truly grateful for your kind message. However, it epitomizes the phenomenon of debate celebrity culture.
All the way up until my junior year, I imagined the upper echelons of debate the same way the Disney rendition of Hercules paints the Greek gods fraternizing on a big cloud on the sky, just watching all the mortals running around on the ground. Teams that were consistently making late out-rounds at big tournaments I only hoped to break at existed in an untouchable world of their own. As embarrassing as it is to admit now, I, like the person who sent the message, was in awe and amazement as I scrambled to watch them in elims or tentatively signed up for their office hours during camp.
Then, sitting in the auditorium writing a prepout for our octos round after winning our second bid round, one of the judges from our previous round approached his team — unaware that my partner and I were sitting nearby — and announced, “[Name Withheld] told me to pick up Presentation so he could get laid at the TOC.” There are a myriad of emotions you could imagine feeling after hearing this.
I felt one: fear.
In that moment, I bypassed any potential feelings of disrespect or betrayal and only felt a potent fear that if I spoke out in the slightest, that I would be blackballed from ever ascending to Olympus like Hercules and Meg do at the end of the movie. It’s entirely possible this was an isolated experience for me. (After all, to her credit, my partner’s immediate reaction was to message that debater on Facebook and demand an apology.) However, I’m inclined to believe it isn’t. (A quick note: this person quickly did apologize and recognize the damage that can be done by innocently intended jokes such as that. Their willingness to own up to mistakes and correct them in the future should be a model to others who find themselves in similar situations.)
When “good debaters” make mistakes, Reddit is flooded with comments about how one bad round doesn’t make for a bad person. However, debaters without the same reputation aren’t afforded the same amount of leeway. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating that one negative comment in a round or outside of one should be a career-ending event for anyone. However, the absolution this community provides to good debaters undermines its responsibility to call out wrongs in order for them to be righted in the future. As a community that reveres facts and truth, we ought to stick to it, whether it be recognizing the wrongs of the people we hold the highest or sticking up against the kind of petty but damaging gossip that Anna Waters wrote about not too long ago.
This often results in the celebration of hyper-masculinity in and out of rounds. When good male debaters win tournaments off bullying womxn in crossfire or ridiculing them in speeches, it positively reinforces that same behavior throughout all levels of debate. When there is no means for womxn to penetrate bro-y debate guy groupchats, there is no mechanism to end the extreme objectification and gossip of and surrounding femxle debaters that exists within them. When you’re never hitting the femxle first speaker, just her perceptually dominant male partner, it undermines her ownership of her success and the work that she put into getting herself to that round. (By the way, how come when we look to celebrate powerhouse femxle debaters it’s only ever the ones that speak second? Is it because we perceive her to somehow be working harder by fulfilling a position typically occupied by a male? Femxle first speakers contribute just as much — sometimes more — and deserve to be celebrated equally.)
Now to get to question people love to ask: “So, what the hell are we supposed to do about it?”
In my humble opinion, here’s a few suggestions:
- Ensure equality of opportunity. When top labs at camps are filled time and time again with majority men, we need to step back and ask ourselves why. Camps ought to make concerted efforts to not only showcase diversity through workshops and panels, but also to interweave it by making sure labs have equal gender representation and staff is likewise diverse. Schools should also take this into account when hiring coaching staff. This means perhaps forgoing someone of superior experience or achievement and taking a chance on a candidate who offers a new perspective. Although I know that can be a tough ask, it’s the only way we can start tackling issues of representation starting at the highest levels of the community.
- Share your opinion. I experience a GREAT deal of privilege within the debate community. I come from a school where my male teammates can’t be prioritized over me (because they don’t exist), I was coached by a kickass female coach, and I have a family that could afford to send me to all the tournaments I asked them to. I, despite all my experiences, have comparatively dipped a toe into the world of sexism in debate in relation to others with half as much entitlement as I have. Unfortunately, the opinions that circulate surrounding this topic are disproportionately the ones who had similar privileges that allowed them to do well so that people would listen to them. I invite everyone reading this to reach out to someone on their team not traditionally represented by the community — whether it be because of their gender, race, or sexual orientation— and ask them about their experiences. Listen to what they have to go through that you might not, and find ways to change that. And if you are that person, don’t let silencing silence you. There are so many mediums (haha, that’s a pun, because this is published on Medium) for you to share your view point. It may be scary. You may fear the same self-alienation that I did. However, the issue of representation not only in debate, but in the workforce, in elected office, and everywhere else will not be solved until we stop waiting for people to pave the road before us and instead take a cement truck and do it ourselves.
- Stay in the activity. There wasn’t a single year (including this year) that I didn’t have at least one moment where I stood outside the debate office and considered going in and announcing I was quitting because I couldn’t handle the stress of the activity anymore. However, less womxn in debate means less role models to empower femxle novices and foster safe spaces for them as well as less femxle coaches who know how to specifically coach femxle debaters. The same goes for people of underrepresented racial identities and sexual orientations. Somewhere out there there is someone who looks like you and needs you to stand by their side and make them realize they are not alone.
None of these things, even in combination, is by any means a panacea for the issues of discrimination and lack of access in debate. As previously disclosed, there are still elements of classism, sexism, racism, and ableism that I can’t offer solutions for simply because I don’t even know they exist. That’s exactly why it’s so important we start listening to the people around us. Share your voice, and if you’re lucky enough to not feel like you need to, use yours to elevate the stories of those who do. Have a conversation, and start there.
In case you were curious, here’s how I reacted to watching the round:
I sat on my couch in the comfiest outfit I could muster (including Northwestern sweatpants #GoCats) and opened up a document — this document — to spew my feelings as the discussion played out on my computer screen. My heart swelled when Ahana, without skipping a single beat, replied, “yes,” and when Allen asked, “Is Megan Munce here?” the heart-wrenching pain of not being able to witness this in person flooded back to me.
I titled the document: “#DebateToo: the Case Against ‘GDS’ and Debate Celebrity Culture.” Two minutes later into the discussion I retitled it “Alright, Let’s Talk,” not only to honor Ahana and Allen’s inception of this tidal wave of discussion, but also because I don’t want this post to feel like a statement of fact even if I believe it to be true. I invite you to disagree with me, because I would hate to be granted the same infallibility this article was meant to call out. The reason this is called “Let’s Talk” is because I hope this article can successfully encourage more people to share their opinions.
I loved debate for four years because it was a safe space for an awkward, uncoordinated freshman to blossom into an awkward, uncoordinated, but self-confident and self-assured senior. However, as I delved deeper into the activity, I found that that safe space unfortunately does not extend far outside of the broom closet that is the debate office at Pres. Not only do I feel like that does not need to be the case, that should not be the case. With Ahana and Allen’s round at the TOC and Pres’s very own Aarushi Sahejpal’s speech in Congress finals at NSDA Nats, this community has been irreversibly set on a trend towards increased accountability and inclusivity. It’s each of our personal responsibilities to keep it moving.
And finally, goodbye debate.