Safe Spaces in Debate: The Importance of Their Continued Development

Above all else, I like to think of debate as a space with immense liberatory potential. Give me, or any other teenager, for that matter, another space wherein they have the opportunity to discuss and debate personally meaningful issues – a space where we have the opportunity to learn from each other, so we can train and constantly challenge ourselves and others to be the best that we can be. In a world where violence and inequality exists and can be witnessed all around us, it would be inappropriate to rob the future generation of advocates, policymakers, lawyers, movers and shakers, and cultural changers and influencers of an opportunity as valuable as the one presented in debate. Perhaps there are, indeed, other forums just as effective – but does that really mean that this one should be abandoned as a site of empowerment? Unfortunately, many in the debate community seem to think so. However, I believe that this is an irresponsible mindset, and instead, judges, coaches, and authority figures in the debate community should work to create safe spaces where educational discourses can take place, and in turn benefit students.

The first question, then, is: what exactly is a safe space? Debate Matters has done work to create a literal safe space in which students shouldn’t be scared for their physical safety. There is a distinction, however, between physical safety and emotional or psychological safety, both of which are no doubt important and create an environment in which a student can grow and reach their potential. Instances of dangers to physical safety are oftentimes more easily identifiable and more generally denounced as unacceptable, and are therefore more simply eliminated. The making of a truly safe space, however, includes the psychological or emotional aspects of a positive tournament atmosphere, where students are given an environment in which they can grow and flourish – both in and out of round.

In round, I believe that it is essential that judges are encouraged and reassured that they can, in fact, take a more active role in the creation of this type of space – that they do have the power to, in a way, demilitarize the round. Nobody deserves to be triggered or told that oppression – be it their own, or that of another group – is unimportant, or even more horrifyingly, good. Put simply, a student in a debate round should never feel as though they need to constantly be looking out for themselves. Instead, students should be taught that their voices carry power and the potential for positive change. The converse of this is, then, also true – every aspect of students’ speech is important, be it positive or negative – everything that we say does have an impact on those around us. It is up to us as a community to encourage, or in this case, discourage, certain types of argumentation. One possible proposition is then that a judge’s decision should reflect whichever debater’s discourse was the best, which wouldn’t exclude, but would instead encompass “traditional” styles of argumentation while simultaneously being more inclusive for those which “nonstandard”, as well as allowing for the condemnation of offensive, and ultimately harmful, arguments. For instance, if a debater is winning their standard, then that would just mean that any offense linking back to it would be the “best” discourse in the round. Cool – maybe you thought it would be strategically beneficial to pull out your ‘Rape Good’ or ‘Racism Good’ file (which I’m not really sure why you wrote or even had in the first place). And I think it would be beneficial for you to lose the round and be talked to about why your decisions were bad rather than having a judge begrudgingly give you a W20.

This then leads to the second part of the creation of a safe space – the out of round atmosphere of tournaments. A phenomenon which seems to be unique to debate is that students are never held accountable for the things that they say or do at tournaments. Things that would normally be condemned in other, more supervised, high school activities appear to be more readily permissible at debate tournaments, for some reason. While I think that much more work obviously needs to be done to explore potential solutions to this problem, a few things are clear. First, tournaments need to openly let it be known that any form of harassment and speech/actions that contribute to the destruction of a safe, open learning environment will not be tolerated. Students should be informed that they not only have the opportunity, but also be encouraged, to report instances of such behavior so that the student’s school can be made aware of the problem. Second, school administration should be more directly involved in debate programs and make sure that when a coach is informed about disruptive, antisocial behavior, they are also notified, which would ensure that some form of punishment would occur, and that the imaginary distinction between the debate-world and the real-world would begin to be eroded.

This article is not meant to contain any ultimate conclusion regarding the development of debate as a safer, more educationally valuable space. All I do is draw upon my own experiences in debate to identify the issue and propose a few possible solutions. We are long overdue for the creation of safe spaces in debate – the fact that we even need somebody to write about this is a booming wakeup call, and I only hope that this article and my voice can play a small part in eliminating broader complacency in the community so we can move forward, using this as a starting point for further investigation and discussion.

Ed. Note: Emma is a junior at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa.

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