Re-Conceptualizing our Performances: Accountability in Lincoln Douglas Debate

Re-Conceptualizing our Performances: Accountability in Lincoln Douglas Debate

Christopher J. Vincent


It is becoming increasingly more apparent in Lincoln Douglas debate that students of color are being held to a higher threshold of proving why racism is bad, than white students are in being forced to justify their actions and in round discourse. The abstractness of philosophical texts being used in LD and the willingness of judges and coaches alike to endorse that abstractness has fostered a climate in which students are allowed to be divorced from the discourse they are producing.  Debate should first and foremost be viewed as a performance.  Every action taken, every word said, and every speech given reflects a performance of the body. Yet in an age where debate is about how many arguments a student can get on the flow, white students’ performances are consistently allowed to be detached from their bodies, performance by the body, while students of color must always embody their discourse.  As a result universal theories are allowed to be viewed as detached from any meaning outside of being just an argument. My argument is three-fold.  First, debaters have adopted a “universal principle,” which has allowed them to be detached from the practical implications of what they said.  Second, is that we must re-conceptualize the role of speech and the speech act to account for the in round performances of the body.  The final part is that judges must begin to view their roles as educators and must be accountable for the discourse they endorse with their ballot.

In his chapter on “Non Cartesian Sums,” in Blackness Visible, Charles Mills argues that “white experience is embedded as normative, and the embedding is so deep that its normativity is not even identified as such.” Historically, universal theories never intended to include black bodies into the cannon. Mills argues that in philosophy:

“A reconceptualization is necessary because the structuring logic is different.  The peculiar features of the African American experience—racial slavery, which linked biological phenotype to social subordination, and which is chronologically located in the modern epoch, ironically coincident with the emergence of liberalism’s proclamation of universal human equality—are not part of the experience represented in the abstractions of European and Euro-American philosophers.”

We generate universal theories and assume they can be applied to anyone.  These abstractions assume a conception of universality that never intended to account for the African American experience.  This drowns out the perspectives of students of color that are historically excluded from the conversation.  Normativity becomes a privilege that historically students of color do not get to access because of the way we discuss things.  These same philosophical texts have served as a cornerstone in Lincoln Douglas and in turn have been used to justify exclusion.  That is why it is easy for a white student to make claims that we do not know whether racism is bad, or even question whether oppression is bad, since after all it is just another argument on the flow.  They never have to deal with the practical implications of their discourse.  These become manifestations of privilege in the debate space because for many students of color, who have to go back to their communities, they still have to deal with the daily acts of racism and violence inflicted upon their homes, communities, and cultures. To question or even make a starting point question for the debate to be about justifying why racism is bad ignores the reality of the bodies present in the room.  Our justification of western philosophy has allowed us to remain disconnected from reality.  Philosophy, as Mills argues, justifies particular way of knowing under free and rational thought, through a universal way of knowing, believing, and discussing.  We have embedded white ways of knowing as normative without ever challenging how it replicates oppressive structures.

The question then becomes how does our discourse justify what we believe? For many debaters it is the gaming aspect of debate that allows us to assume that our speech can be disconnected from the speech act. The speech can be defined as the arguments that are placed on the flow, and is evaluated in the context of what is the most logical and rational argument to win the round. The critical distinction is the speech act, which is the performance of that discourse. It’s not what you say, but what you justify. Understanding the speech act requires critically assessing the ramifications of the debaters discourse. Debate is in and of itself a performance. To claim that it is not is to be divorced from the reality of what we do. We must evaluate what a debaters performance does and justifies.  For white debaters it is easy to view the discourse as detached from the body. For those with privilege in debate, they are never forced to have their performance attached to them but instead their arguments are viewed as words on paper. They are taught to separate themselves from any ideologies and beliefs, and feel that there is no consequence to what they say. It becomes the way in which they justify what is deemed as “rational” and “logical” thought. The argument sounds like it will be competitive so it is read but it is deemed as just an argument. Judges evaluate this as just a speech. This becomes what I deem as a performance by the body, rather than a performance of the body. 

Performances by the body allow debaters to not be held accountable to the words they say. Words are seen as divorced from any meaning outside of the flow, versus the performance of the body where the words are attached to the body itself. Debaters often insert the performance by the body, when they make arguments that they claim that they do not believe, but think it is the best strategy for the round. This is a false assumption, since for black debaters meaning is always connected to their bodies. The best strategy should never be one that at the same time justifies acts of racism.

Charles Mills argues that “the moral concerns of African Americans have centered on the assertion of their personhood, a personhood that could generally be taken for granted by whites, so that blacks have had to see these theories from a location outside their purview.” For example, I witnessed a round at a tournament this season where a debater ran a utilitarianism disadvantage. His opponent argued that this discourse was racist because it ignores the way in which a utilitarian calculus has distorted communities of color by ignoring the wars and violence already occurring in those communities.  In the next speech, the debater stood up, conceded it was racist, and argued that it was the reason he was not going for it and moved on, and still won the debate.  This is problematic because it demonstrates exactly what Mill’s argument is. For the black debater this argument is a question of his or her personhood within the debate space and the white debater was not held accountable for the words that are said.  Again for debaters of color, their performance is always attached to their body which is why it is important that the performance be viewed in relation to the speech act. Whites are allowed to take for granted the impact their words have on the bodies in the space. They take for granted this notion of personhood and ignore the concerns of those who do not matter divorced from the flow. It is never a question of “should we make arguments divorced from our ideologies,” it is a question of is it even possible. It is my argument that our performances, regardless of what justification we provide, are always a reflection of the ideologies we hold. Why should a black debater have to use a utilitarian calculus just to win a round, when that same discourse justifies violence in the community they go back home to? Our performances and our decisions in the round, reflect the beliefs that we hold when we go back to our communities. 

As a community we must re-conceptualize this distinction the performance by the body and of the body by re-evaluating the role of the speech and the speech act. It is no longer enough for judges to vote off of the flow anymore. Students of color are being held to a higher threshold to better articulate why racism is bad, which is the problem in a space that we deem to be educational. It is here where I shift my focus to a solution. 

Debaters must be held accountable for the words they say in the round. We should no longer evaluate the speech. Instead we must begin to evaluate the speech act itself. Debaters must be held accountable for more than winning the debate. They must be held accountable for the implications of that speech. As educators and adjudicators in the debate space we also have an ethical obligation to foster an atmosphere of education. It is not enough for judges to offer predispositions suggesting that they do not endorse racist, sexist, homophobic discourse, or justify why they do not hold that belief, and still offer a rational reason why they voted for it.  Judges have become complacent in voting on the discourse, if the other debater does not provide a clear enough role of the ballot framing, or does not articulate well enough why the racist discourse should be rejected. Judges must be willing to foster a learning atmosphere by holding debaters accountable for what they say in the round. They must be willing to vote against a debater if they endorse racist discourse. They must be willing to disrupt the process of the flow for the purpose of embracing that teachable moment. The speech must be connected to the speech act. We must view the entire debate as a performance of the body, instead of the argument solely on the flow.

Likewise, judges must be held accountable for what they vote for in the debate space. If a judge is comfortable enough to vote for discourse that is racist, sexist, or homophobic, they must also be prepared to defend their actions. We as a community do not live in a vacuum and do not live isolated from the larger society. That means that judges must defend their actions to the debaters, their coaches, and to the other judges in the room if it is a panel. Students of color should not have the burden of articulating why racist discourse must be rejected, but should have the assurance that the educator with the ballot will protect them in those moments.

Until we re-conceptualize the speech and the speech act, and until judges are comfortable enough to vote down debaters for a performance that perpetuates violence in the debate space, debaters and coaches alike will remain complacent in their privilege. As educators we must begin to shift the paradigm and be comfortable doing this. As a community we should stop looking at ourselves as isolated in a vacuum and recognize that the discourse and knowledge we produce in debate has real implications for how we think when we leave this space. Our performances must be viewed as of the body instead of just by it. As long as we continue to operate in a world where our performances are merely by bodies, we will continue to foster a climate of hostility and violence towards students of color, and in turn destroy the transformative potential this community could have.



Mills, Charles W. Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1998. Print.


Ed. Note: Christopher Vincent is currently the Graduate Assistant for the University of Louisville Debate Team and Director of Debate at the James Graham Brown School in Louisville, KY.  He debated at the University of Louisville, reaching the double-octafinals of both the National Debate Tournament and Cross-Examination Debate Tournament. He has also been coaching high school Lincoln Douglas debate for the past five years, with debaters reaching elims at tournaments such as Harvard, Emory, Newark, and others.