Developing Our Environment: Planting the Seeds for the Activist Model

Despite popular opinion, I think you should be rooted in the topic no matter what your politics, performance, or method of engagement is. Having a conversation about military force, animal rights, or economic sanctions provides unique moments for conversation that leads us to unearth scholarship buried in libraries and catalogues that inspire us each and every year. A lot of arguments on the January/February topic seem to be about avoiding or being able to initiate topicality debates to preserve the value in these conversations. What is seldom done in this search for the perfectly balanced conversation at the Tournament of Champions, unfortunately, is to question what do T debates mean outside of wins and losses? Even if a given topic is great, what does it mean for the individual competitors that might not share your subject position?  What does a conversation mean and who is it for if it’s not accessible for the most disadvantaged students who find the time to compete? The conversations I’ve heard include people making bold statements about not footnoting structural violence who then destroy the names of non-Western countries and authors and amalgamate “Africa” as a country instead of a continent full of unique and diverse nations and identities.

A development topic should be one of the best opportunities to learn about difference, but if debaters are going to continue to reduce both the topic and the debate space to a comfortable Western discussion of people who don’t have our geographic or national privilege, without including their voices or concerns on both sides of the topic, that should be up for discussion as well. No matter how wonderful your team’s interpretation of the topic is it doesn’t preclude linking that to the currents state of debate to shed light on the issues of power, privilege, and identity. They are already part of the conversation so we should both allow and encourage students to confront the apparatuses of power as they reveal themselves by engaging in radical speech acts that can expand our conception of what an argument even is. It is easy to get caught in the mold of debate, to be seduced by the wins, and to aim to reproduce arguments that are in “vogue”, however that isn’t a model of engagement that has changed anyone’s heart or mind. Debate has become so insular that when we say advocacy skills and education we forget that those are just buzz words absent a willingness to turn politics into action.

Proponents of accessible debate invested in critical education should start to think of their politics as a question of praxis. Debate’s static notions of what it means to be topical (or even political for that matter) will fail students unless they can be allowed to grapple with those issues that are literally right in front of them.  When I say “Activist model” I really mean that we should make room for students to practice the skills needed to activate their politics in the real world. Assumptions, performances, and discourses should be voting issue whether they indict the topic, an opponent, or even the debate community itself. Advocates who practice by allowing their contemporaries to garble the names of African nations, trade their stories and bodies like poker chips, and marginalize their voices in the process aren’t individuals I ever want advocating on my behalf.   Portable skills start with how the activist chooses to engage in topical discussion or discussions of the topic, but their vision of a more accessible debate space itself. When competitors get settled into a room and ask me what I want to see for the next 45 minutes I tell them that it’s not my job to tell them. I don’t really care if they sit, stand, backflip, recite poems, or spread cards in and between every speech because LD isn’t my activity anymore, it’s theirs. My only job is to render a decision and remain invested and responsible for what norms I endorse for debate.

A major requirement for making room for the activist model in LD is changing the way judges situate themselves. First and foremost, realize high school debate isn’t about you. Sucks to grow up, huh? As an adult you aren’t just some cool “first year out” or a point fairy but an adult and role model that coaches have left responsible for the care of their students until they can get back to their chaperone. That puts you in a unique position to support or break down someone in the middle of a tournament they hope to do well at or the end of their career. This is especially important in a world where students are trying to broaden the scope of the conversation and bring marginalized students into the space. If you are about to give an RFD to one of the few black or Latino students in the activity, think about what your words sound like in the context of a student who probably thought you were going to vote against them because of the subject matter of their arguments regardless of the substance of the debate.

Additionally, we’ve got to continue to ease off the gas on the blip-spread debate. I think that there has been overall improvement but we can do better in the case of students who are advocating positions because of the value of that advocacy in and of itself. Sometimes truth outweighs tech, a dropped argument just isn’t true, and big framing moments should be used to determine if the line by line is even relevant. Finally, if you are part of a dominant group (white/male/ heterosexual/cisgender/abled/ etc.) students shouldn’t care that your sensibilities are offended– that’s kind of the point. Since oppression exists, and I assure you it does, they might have something to say that you have never had to even think about because of what your subject position spares you from confronting. Unless their argument is “X group’s oppression good then you have to embrace your discomfort and listen as the responsible adult in the back of the room. Calling out White Supremacy, Capitalism, or Patriarchy isn’t a call for you to die during the back of a debate round. At best, 17 year old students are doing analysis that theorists spend their life on. Getting the argument right is hard enough without having to worry about your feelings during a 3 minute speech e.g.  talking about black oppression does not mean Jews never were/ aren’t in conflict with larger society . If someone defends a theoretical framework that says that the Holocaust was good or even ok deserves to be ejected from the tournament and their team, however you will be hard pressed to point to a mass of students who that defend identity based politics in this way.

As a minority educator, my job isn’t to be nice or smile in your face; it’s to keep my foot in the door long enough to let more students who were never supposed to even know what debate was in the cracks.  Debates may get heated, they get personal, and they can make us think about things we wished we could lock away (i.e., the domestic violence fiasco of Jan/ Feb’12) but we have a pedagogical obligation to make sure these very same conversations have a point beyond talking fast and winning shiny trophies students won’t care about after the first party during move-in week their Freshman year of college.  Maintaining this environment, developing a space that prioritizes disadvantaged students, and sowing the seeds for activism, are comparatively more important.  Supplementing the current model will have a lasting impact on not only LD debate for future generations but the students better prepared to advocate on behalf of those who cannot advocate for themselves.

Ed. Note: Elijah Smith competed in Lincoln-Douglas debate at University High School in Newark, New Jersey before attending Emporia State University. In 2013, Elijah helped “unite the crown” by winning both of collegiate policy debate’s national championships: the National Debate Tournament (NDT) and CEDA Nationals. He currently attends and debates for Rutgers University.


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