Note: A lot of this post talks about behavior in the context of sexism because that is what I’ve personally experienced most in debate. However, the same lines of thinking apply to issues of ableism, racism, classism, homophobia, and transphobia. If you have anything to add to the list at the end, please reach out and I’ll add it.
This time last year, the Tournament of Champions represented a lot of progress being made in debate. Three girls were in finals, we had the first female top speaker, and many teams read arguments about gender-based exploitation that were received relatively well. Quarry Lane AS conceded their octofinal round to have a discussion about gender inequality within debate. (The discussion is on YouTube here if you haven’t seen it).
(Beyond Resolved was created soon after).
Broadly, a lot more people became afraid of being perceived as sexist. The key word there is perceived: no one wants to be associated with sexism— no one wants to seem regressive, behind the times, or even just “a jerk”. This doesn’t mean all these people are opposed to sexist action behavior or institutions, just that they don’t want it to make them look bad.
Despite this seemingly surface level care, or maybe because of it, I get asked by people, especially guys, what they can do to “be better”, in the context of sexist behavior. Whether or not they follow this advice, asking makes sense; about 90% of the posts on this site are complaining about how debate sucks. Are these valid perspectives? Yes. Do I believe these posts matter? Of course. While they are good for commiserating and inspiring certain people, these issues still exist.
Well, speaking from experience, I think that the problem isn’t that people don’t want to “do better”, it’s that not everyone knows what to do better. No one is born fully understanding the issues everyone else faces and how to address them, and they aren’t to blame if they haven’t done large amounts of research on the subject.
In this case, blog posts rehashing the same points about “problematic” judges or competitors don’t make a difference in how people behave. If anything, all this does is further the divide— people perceive this website as the same post over and over again without addressing nuance or criticism. In my opinion, they’re not entirely wrong. Even well-meaning attempts at education or awareness can come off as “having an agenda”, and end up dividing people more than helping them understand.
Callout culture, as much as we all love to participate in it (gotta get those Social Justice Brownie PointsTM), does nothing to influence other’s behavior. If all you do is call a fellow debater “problematic”, directly or especially indirectly, without leveling with them as people, you can’t expect them to change. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t acknowledge bad behavior when it happens, or that victims of this behavior should be entirely responsible for improving their situation. Calling someone out can be relieving and it is important to acknowledge things when they happen, that’s why we have the Hall of Shame and why our “advisory board” group chat sometimes feels more like a group therapy session than a space to discuss plans going forward. But there’s a distinction between calling out people and calling out behavior. The first can seem a lot more like a personal attack than a legitimate concern. It seems like your problem is only with the person, not with what they do.
If callout culture isn’t the solution, what is? I think we all need to take more personal responsibility for our actions. If you don’t think there’s a problem, I’m not going to sit here and convince you that discriminatory behavior is bad, because it’s probably a lost cause. But, if you think there’s a problem, you’re just not sure what to do, then here are some guidelines that I’ve thought a lot about, that will hopefully help make debate less terrible.
And, y’know, make “real life” better too because the same rules for not being a jerk still apply.
The first thing I want to talk about is the idea of checking your own actions. To some people, this seems like the most obvious thing to do, but often it’s one of the hardest, because sometimes, maybe even a lot of the time, you’ll be right. Or at least you feel that way very strongly. But before you reach that conclusion, please consider about whether she was really a bitch (and what sexist things define that), or was she just matching your level of aggression? Did the judge just vote for that girl-girl team to be “reverse sexist” or did you not adapt? Was that team from an underfunded school “disrespecting the event” because they didn’t have nice clothes and weren’t familiar with the jargon, or were they trying their best at the activity we all love? Did that team ask to read cards off prep to gain a competitive advantage, or did it just take them longer to process things and wanted to be on an even playing field?
Just because you might do any one of these things differently, doesn’t mean that someone doesn’t have their reasons.
Personally, I don’t think that making these initial assumptions makes you a bad person because so many of these biases are so far entrenched that we don’t even recognize them. If a politician wouldn’t behave like that, why should a high schooler get away with it? And shouldn’t we model the way we debate after how we see “professionals” debate?
Most people’s perceptions of “good debaters” are shaped by pundits, politicians, historical figures or business people, so many of whom are white, straight, neurotypical, wealthy, able-bodied and overall incredibly privileged guys. We scarcely see examples of people succeeding outside this mold (especially not in more than one metric), so we develop a set of expectations which we subconsciously apply to our peers. And those who do succeed outside of the mold often do so by emulating behavior that is traditionally “masculine” (for example) rather than being themselves.
While you can’t blame people existing in a flawed society, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold them accountable. What can make your actions bad is what you choose to do with this information. Are you going to challenge these stereotypes and biases, or are you going to remain part of and inadvertently perpetuate the system that allows it to keep holding talented and deserving people back from success?
The defense people have given for maintaining discriminatory institutions is that this is how “the real world” operates. That’s BS.
Your actions still matter. Discrimination is still bad. Not only is high school debate the “real world” to many of the teenage participants in the activity, but the notions of what persuasive speakers and good policies look like are constantly changing. But the only way we can change it for the better is if young people who are overwhelmingly civically engaged and politically active do something to acknowledge these biases. Participants in this activity are teenagers who are still forming their worldviews and learning a lot. Confronting these issues now makes it easier to do so in the future.
The second thing I want to talk about is the idea of stepping out of your comfort zone. So let’s say I convinced you that there is a problem, and now you want to do something about it. Well, you’re probably thinking that knowing you have the supposed moral high ground is enough, although maybe not in those terms. It isn’t.
For example, buying a “nasty woman” shirt doesn’t improve anything for victims of gender-based violence (in fact, it was probably made in a sweatshop that exploited the labor of young girls in the developing world). Caring without helping people is basically the same thing as not caring at all. But a lot of the time, the reason why people buy shirts instead of donating, for example, isn’t that they don’t want to do something to actually help people it’s that actually doing something is hard. Learning about others’ experience is hard, especially when you realize you’re part of the problem. Examining your own past behavior is really hard. It makes you feel guilty.
But recognizing that what you did before was bad is actually really good. Why? Because it’s the only way you can improve. Yeah, it sucks to find out you contributed to putting someone else down, but it should be just as rewarding knowing that you made the effort to help someone.
Along these lines, own up to your behavior and learn from your mistakes. Nobody is perfect. You might slip up and use the wrong pronouns, or use a word you didn’t know was harmful. Maybe you even knew that something was offensive but said it anyway out of habit. Maybe you thought something negative about your opponent even though you knew it was the result of internalized bigotry. Apologize to anyone who you hurt (beyond just a customary sorry), remember that the thing you did wasn’t great, and move on, and keep trying.
Finally, I think we need to fully recognize that a lot of debate fundamentally hurts people without certain privileges, and change those systems, instead of just trying to help people succeed under it. Of course, coaches and judges have biases, tournaments (especially “national circuit” ones which are considered to be the truest tests of skill) are really expensive. While it’s nice and everything to support people’s success, remember what allowed them to succeed, and what prevents others from doing so. Instead of opening tabroom and making assumptions and reacting when there’s a supposed “upset”, focus on supporting those you know and their own efforts and accomplishments. The outcome of a single round or tournament or even season doesn’t define someone’s success as a debater.
Success in debate isn’t something that comes naturally. Effort does matter, but it isn’t everything. If your school has a toxic, underfunded, or straight up non-existing team, it is substantially harder to attend tournaments, receive guidance, or keep up morale. If you can’t attend pricey summer camps, you fall behind your peers. If your behavior and actions are perceived as “normal”, it’s easier to make friendships and connections which make things like research, prepouts, practice rounds and advice far more accessible. While it is possible to “do well” despite this, it is substantially harder.
Even on this website, when we only recognize girls who break at “national circuit” tournaments, we ignore all those who lacked the opportunity — not the drive— to be there. That’s why even though this website claims to “connect, debate, and empower”, those at the forefront are overwhelmingly white (or fit the model of an “ideal debater” above in some other way) and able to afford coaching and travel to tournaments. This isn’t to say that they don’t deserve recognition, or face no challenges. However, it shouldn’t be controversial to say that they are not the only ones who deserve recognition.
I think it’s really hypocritical to say, on the one hand, that you promote equality, urging guys to “check their privilege”, then turn around and ignore issues affecting people marginalized in ways you aren’t. I don’t even think this is out of malicious intent. But the way integration in debate appears to be is that instead of actually making an inclusive space, more people are invited into “elite spaces”. There is a pattern of people shifting from criticizing discriminatory culture, to remaining silent as soon as they benefit from it.
There are small examples, like pretty much every underclassman on my team opposing seniority policies until they benefit from it their senior year. There are potentially worse ones, like complaining about “flex culture” until you do really well at a tournament and want to share, or actively criticizing a group of “problematic” people until they want to be friends (or romantically involved) with you. Then there are serious things, like criticizing downright awful practices of a certain school or camp until you’re hired to work there, despite having other options.
Why is this? Because we are told that all these things— going to tournaments, celebrating your hard work, or working at a prestigious institution with your friends— are an achievement reflecting hard work. And they do, to a certain degree. I certainly have done some of the things above, and things with similar reasoning. Validation, even when it’s from a flawed place, feels really good. That’s exactly what it’s meant to do.
That said, how do we create actually inclusive places? I feel like now is a good time to remind you that I’m only fifteen and not particularly bright, but I care about this a lot so I’ll try to provide some more specific ideas!
- Make an effort to use more gender-neutral language— especially in rounds. Not only does this deter some sexist assumptions (like my opponents referring to my partner and my case as “his” before he opens his mouth), it’s also a nifty way to avoid misgendering your opponents. Misgendering causes a lot of unnecessary stress, making the round unfair in an unintentional and unexpected way. (Here is a more in-depth explanation of misgendering and its negative consequences written by a person who is far more qualified than me). Referring to your opponents (unless you know their preferred pronouns— don’t assume them) with they/them/theirs pronouns is a fun, easy and grammatically correct way to make sure everyone is comfortable in and out of round. Obviously, it’s not the only way to support trans and nonbinary people (and people who just don’t conform to traditional gender roles) but it’s a good place to start. Also, “bad” lay judges don’t care (I pinky promise). At worst, you have two opponents and “they” covers both.
- Stand up when a peer makes an unacceptable comment. You determine what is socially acceptable just as much as anyone else. I know I covered this above but it’s super duper important. If you think they won’t change their mind, realize that they’re more willing to listen to you than some random 3,000-word rant. At worst, they won’t listen, but at best, they’ll help make things better for someone else. Also, the longer you wait, the harder it is to change people’s minds, so get on it!
- If you’re in a position to do so, give time or money to a debate related cause. You can help cover a school’s judging obligation, sponsor a local team going to a tournament, coach middle schoolers or novices, or straight up give cash to a cause that makes debate more accessible. Here is a link to the search term “debate” on gofundme.
- Make sure your tournaments accommodate people who experience sensory overload. My best friend/role model / the absolute best person you will ever meet, JJ, wrote more about the issue here. Turn down your music. Don’t host multiple rounds in the same room. If you won’t shut up, at least talk quietly when someone is making an announcement. Try not to crowd hallways. Ask before you turn on the lights. Designate “quiet rooms” at tournaments if you’re in a position to do so.
- When working with your team, make sure everyone is able and comfortable there. If you’re hanging out in a hotel room at a tournament where only certain genders are allowed (and only people who can afford travel costs can attend) or all at a close friend’s house where newer debaters might feel uncomfortable, it’s hard for others to feel included and get the same help. This goes for the formal and informal aspects of a team.
- Help your judges to be cognizant of these biases. For extra credit, work with your coach, other schools and tournament directors. Talk to them about how things like speech impediments/accents/pitch don’t make someone a worse speaker, less expensive or casual clothes don’t make them less professional, interruptions in cross (especially by male-presenting people) are not “dominant”— they’re rude, and people can be engaged without consistent eye contact. The point isn’t to teach these judges how to be “flow” enough for the Reddit memes to go away but to give teams a fair chance at this persuasion oriented (wow, I hate myself for saying that) activity.
If you made it this far I want to thank you for your time and if you have any questions, comments or criticisms please message me on Facebook.
Lots of love!
Thanks to Camilla Green, Dori Schurr, Divya Sarma, Riya Bindlish and Yukiho Semimoto for edits.