“Nobody Knows the Trouble I See” (And In National Circuit Lincoln-Douglas Debate, Does Anyone Really Care?)

Nobody Knows the Trouble I See

(And In National Circuit Lincoln-Douglas Debate, Does Anyone Really Care?)

By: Jonathan Alston and Aaron Timmons 

 To be white in America means not having to think about it.”

 Allan G. Johnson quotes James Baldwins words from the 1960s in Privilege, Power, and Difference (22). He discusses  the issue of race and privilege in America, and his view on those that self-identify or gain privilege from being identified as white. Fast forward to contemporary national circuit Lincoln-Douglas debate, and we can see that Baldwins eloquent words can easily be applied to the way many students, judges, and coaches view arguments dealing with issues of race, gender, and privilege. For many students, issues of racism, discrimination, and structural violence are not part of their daily existence: they never have to think about it, so they dont understand the hostile, hateful implications of arguments they make. On the other hand, many students of color and women leave debate because they experience a demeaning hatred that reinforces the active structural violence they experience in society. When a young woman is told by a judge that moral philosophies that dont preclude rape are acceptable, a hostile atmosphere has been created. When an African-American student is told by a judge that he lost a round because, Blacks are simply more prone to criminality, a hostile atmosphere has been created. Our students have come to us wanting to quitand some of them have quitbecause they did not feel safe or were tired of fighting in an environment that tells them it is okay for society to rape and kill them and people who look like them. 

In response to this hateful and hostile environment, some students have sought to introduce new arguments into debates that demand their opponents engage different perspectives, different social locations, and different sides of the library. These positions force debaters to not just take responsibility for their arguments, but the way they make their arguments and the implications of their words on social justice.

Because these issues may not be part of the daily lives of students who grow up privileged, many of the students hearing these arguments have a difficult time responding. We believe this has led many to argue that these advocacies in academic high school debate create hostile conversations. More recently, a tactic has been to say that these arguments have no warrants and should slowly die away.

In a recent article entitled Prefiat in LD: A Defense of Kritikal Engagement, author James McElwain dispels many of these claims. We applaud his efforts and feel strongly that, if argued correctly, discussions of race, privilege, and oppression open up a literature base and expose positions that heretofore were never discussed in Lincoln Douglas debate. Below is Part I of a discussion that our community must have. We may not knowand will not pretend to knowwhat the best debate pedagogy is, but we do know what it is not. We hope this essay adds clarity and urgency to the discussion.

Part I

Despicable You: How Lincoln-Douglas Debate is Teaching a Generation of Students to be Racist, Sexist, and Homophobic (And Nobody Sees the Irony)

“Slavery was bad, but it was worth it. It is the way we were able to get the wonderful society that we have today.”

As I white man, I felt compelled to vote for the more racist opponent.

I wanted to vote for you, I just didnt see the impact to racism.

His moral philosophy does not take a stand on the possibility of you being lynched. Im not saying that lynching you would be a moral action; Im just saying that his moral philosophy doesnt condemn it, and thats perfectly okay. We need to have the freedom to argue those positions in high school debate.

Above are statements that we and our students have heard from judges. There are many other equally offensive statements that can be shared. It seems like the statements above, and similar comments, have become more frequent. Recently the National Symposium on Debate featured a strategy article by Emily Massey, Geoffrey Kristoff and Grant Reiter that inadvertentlyI do not believe that they fully understand the implication of their wordsperpetuates the hateful and hostile atmosphere that exists in high school Lincoln-Douglas debate. Hundreds of students around the country are coached to say that oppression, rape, genocide, and lynching are not inherently bad. You have to explain why theyre bad, say many respected leaders in the community. Instead of engaging in a debate about the best methods to prevent, reduce, mitigate, eradicate oppression, too many adults, coaches, and judges in high school Lincoln-Douglas debate believe a more strategic conversation is to talk about the philosophy that justifies why such things are bad. But doesnt having to prove rape is bad open up the possibility that it is not?

The writers of the article seem deeply offended and or confused by an argument that many students around the country have recently found it necessary to make. Students pushing back against the idea that they have to prove that rape or genocide is bad have taken to routinely using the works of Dr. Shanara Reid Brinkley, Tim Wise, Henry Giroux, Tommy Curry, Chris Vincent, (former CEDA and NDT Champion), Elijah Smith and others to warrant the benefit to making arguments that challenge structural oppression. Though debate is a game, it is a game about issues that have real consequences. We teach future generations how to deal with issues of freedom and oppression. Often the evidence shows that debaters go on to become leaders and impact policy in the real world. This means that it is appropriate for the judge’s role to be an educator responsible for training future generations. Justifications of moral frameworks that dont preclude rape, slavery and genocide are dangerous because rights are only important so long as a critical mass of society believes that they should exist.

To better understand the significance of the aforementioned article, the young authors are heroes to many younger high school Lincoln-Douglas debaters. All of them qualified to the high school Tournament of Champions and reached late elimination rounds at multiple national tournaments. They graduated from high school just recently enough to be legends in the minds of those currently competing. Fourteen through seventeen year olds look up to them; they want to be like them. The authors of this article respect the accomplishments of Kristof, Massey, and Reiter, and we understand that there are many hundreds of coaches and  judges who think the way that they do. However, the adults in the debate community, who have made education a lifelong commitment, have an obligation to call out harms to young people. However well-intentioned the authors of that article are, they are contributing to an environment that hurts young people.

A few things about the article make us question the fitness of these writers to guide the moral and intellectual development of high school students

I. They argue that oppression is bad is an unwarranted claim, and instruct high school students that they must prove why things like rape, genocide, and lynchings are bad.  

II. They slur students who care about racism, sexism, and homophobia in the debate space. They call them pre-fiat debaters, and hope that judges will just vote against them so that those students and their ideas will  go away.

III. They believe that words dont matter. Their view is that judges are obligated to look at arguments as merely lines across a flow without context and without humanity.    

I. Oppression is bad is an Unwarranted Claim

Of course, the pre-fiat debater needs to do much more than win that oppression is bad. They must win that (a) it is bad, (b) it is the only thing that is bad, and (c) the particular conception of oppression with which they operate (usually one that denies the relevance of the intent/foresight distinction) is the right one. Pre-fiat arguments typically assert all of these claims, and an opponent could contest every one of them. Kristof, Massey, and Reiter

There is a direct connection between the logic of the above quote and the racist, sexist, ugly statements said by tournament judges to high schools students, and by other high school students to each other. Sexual violence is bad. We dont think we should have to go any further. But according to the above logic, we just made an unwarranted claim about sexual violence. According to their logic, high school students should not assume that sexual violence is bad so that we can focus on how to keep people safe from it. We need to just delve into the question of why.  

Inserting particular forms of oppression into the above quote reveals even more how reprehensible it is:

Of course, the pre-fiat debater needs to do much more than win that [sexual violence] is bad. They must win that (a) [sexual violence] is bad, (b) [sexual violence] is the only thing that is bad, and (c) the particular conception of [sexual violence] with which they operate (usually one that denies the relevance of the intent/foresight distinction) is the right one. Pre-fiat arguments typically assert all of these claims, and an opponent could contest every one of them (Kristof et al). 

Inserting the words lynching and genocide have a similar effect.

The last line of the paragraph further exposes its repugnance. The horrible nature of sexual violence, lynching and genocide, according to Kristof et al, could be contested. Why is sexual violence bad? Why is lynching bad? Why is genocide bad? And couldnt we contest anyone saying that these things are bad? This logic is what encouraged a Florida debater to argue that the only moral recourse for a woman to avoid imminent sexual assault is suicide. This logic encouraged the judges to support that position against a horrified teenage girl.

Massy et als article is akin to a four year old repeatedly asking why and, when told by their parent that their line of questions isnt relevant, loudly proclaiming victory. Their common refrain has been that the arguments based on the belief that sexual assault is bad are based only on intuition. This ignores hundreds of years of social movements and cultural debates and bloodshed that created a culture where we understand the implication of those statements. The word genocide was created to capture the horror of the experiences of World War II. Emmett Tills death was a horror that spoke to the countless horrors of lynchings that plagued the United States since the inception of slavery. Social movements were responsible for defining these atrocities.

Moreover, all arguments are based on assumptions, prior knowledge that we believe to be true. Given the history of oppression, why not adopt these premises rather indifference towards suffering. 

Communitarian philosophers like Michael Sandel would take exception to rape, lynching and genocide being bad only through intuition, as would critical race theorists like Maria Matsuda, Patricia Williams, and Derrick Bell. Philosopher George Yancy would criticize such theories as views from nowhere that assume white privilege to be the universal norm. Rather than accepting the conclusion that a debater has to prove why sexual violence is bad before a meaningful conversation can be had, we would suggest expanding the library. Being expected to prove why slavery is bad is not a meaningful conversation; it is a highly offensive and insulting conversation precisely because it ignores history, culture and the hard fought experiences of students whose reality has never been safe. When a judge lectures an Afro-Dominican student that it is okay for a moral framework to not preclude his lynching, that judge has amplified the students isolation in a community where he had always perceived his membership to be tenuous. When students push back against structural violence in their homes and their communities, oppression isnt hypothetical. The verbal and rhetorical attacks against Blacks and women become attacks against the students themselves. When Rutgers College debater Chris Randall declared war against the University of Kentucky, students of color from around the United States filled his in-box and his Facebook page with love because he articulated a resistance to the constant psychic attacks of a privileged, inhumane community actively hostile to their existence. 

There are many theorists who understand that moral decisions are not made by isolated uses of rationality, intuition, empiricism, and emotivism. Expanding our library is important. The hateful arguments defended by Kristof, Massey, and Reiter represent only a small, warped part of a much larger world.

II. The Prefiat Debater Should be Drummed Out of the Activity Because Arguments About Racism, Sexism, and Homophobia Are Dependent on Stupid Arguments and Bad Judges

We arent really trying to convince anyone to stop running pre-fiat argumentswe understand that as long as they keep winning, people will keep running them. But our hope is that with smarter responses from opponents and better decisions by judges, these arguments will eventually stop winning and die out naturally. – Kristof et al

The people these authors label as prefiat debaters are people who believe that racism, sexism and homophobia are bad for society, and are also bad for the high school debate space. When a debater runs theory or topicality, they are making prefiat arguments. Those are arguments that are not about the hypothetical benefits and harms of the resolutional conflict, but about the implications of the in-round performances of the debaters. (That is why we often refer to that strategy as performance debatebecause it questions both the debaters arguments and their performance.)

Theory arguments criticize the performances of debaters for being uneducational or unfair. The prefiat debater does the same thing only the prefiat debater rethinks what we consider educational and fair.  Are racism, sexism, and homophobia in the debate space fair? And if those types of arguments are fair,” shouldnt we question what is meant by fairness, or fairness for whom? If someones performance is racist or sexist, then wouldnt that debater have violated rules of fairness at least as important as the rule no necessary but insufficient burdens?

Kristof et al reject the debaters they label prefiat because they do not believe that arguments about the debate space should address issues of social justice or structural violence. They do not believe a debate space that is hostile to people of color and women should be addressed and remedied on the theoretical level of the debate. To the writers of the article, arguments that say racism, sexual violence, and genocide are bad are merely unwarranted claims that should be contested. 

How we make an argument is intimately connected to what we argue. If someone has a plan text but refers to the people affected by the plan as savages, the way the plan is conceived, perceived, and implemented are connected. Form and substance are connected. The role of the judge when looking at arguments that address the structural violence both inside and outside of the round must include being an educator of high school children.

III. Words Matter: The Role of the Judge, the Coach, and Adults when Training High School Students

The most insidious effect of Kristof et als article is that it teaches an entire generation of high school students, future judges, and future coaches (and unfortunately current coaches) that the role of the judge is absolutely unrelated to any question of social justice. The writers of this article become accessories to the structural violence that plagues society in general and high school debate in particular.    

When debaters argue and win arguments that say that their moral philosophy does not preclude rape, lynching or genocide or that the only moral recourse for a woman to avoid sexual violence is her own death, then we believe it necessary to examine the ways in which our acceptance and promotion of in-round discourse encourages and even promotes structural violence.

Kristof et al intimate that the role of the judge is solely to make a decision in any given debate and to vote for the better debater.” If a debater says that they are going to kill millions of Africans for Malthusian justifications, the authors would believe that the role of the judge is simply to vote for the better debater. If utilitarianism is the standard, they would have no problem voting for killing millions of Africans: these arguments are just lines across the flow.

Kristof et al write: Judges have no jurisdiction to vote to make the world or the debate community a better place. Do judges need to do the Macarena if debaters say they should? No, and for the same reason, they dont need to act as some kind of critical educator even if debaters say they should. In fact, they cant use the ballot to do so, since that runs counter to its instructions.

They compare an obligation for judges to care about the perpetuation of structural violence with doing the Macarena. The writers of the article are so deeply rooted in their own privilege that they cannot imagine the destruction they cause to the people caught in their considerable wake. A person of color who is told by judges that it is okay if people who look like them are slaughtered isnt listening to the conclusions of a hypothetical debate. People who look like them have been slaughtered in various forms in various ways for over four hundred years. Being white means not ever having to think about it.

The suggested role of the judge according to Kristof, Massey, and Reiter is to care nothing about the safety of the environment and the people in the room. Kill Africans, rape women, dont let people of color vote. While the role of the judge is to vote for the better debater, we feel strongly that the judge in any given debate must adopt both the role of a decision-maker and educator. Evaluating the better debater must be considered as a matter of both performance and substance.

Most scholars agree that the judges role is twofold. Richardson writes:

A judge describes what occurs in the round while a critic/educator prescribes what should have occurred in the round. However, the prevailing opinion is that judges have the obligation to serve beyond the role of descriptor, and they are indeed capable of performing two types of evaluations simultaneously that of a judge and that of a critic (Patterson and Zarefsky). In fact, debate is first and foremost an educational activity (Decker and Morello). If indeed the purpose of debate is to teach, judges must also serve as educators (Rowland, Ganer).

Debate, while a competitive game, is an educational gamean extension of the classroom. The idea that regardless of what is done in a debate, the judge has no jurisdiction or obligation to act as a critical educator seems short sighted at best, and sociopathic in our current environment. In a world of just vote for the better debater, judges would be under no obligation to give a reason for decision in either a written, or oral form. The concept of just vote for the better debater absolves the judge of any real responsibility to give constructive feedback to students, either good or bad. In a worst case scenario a student could use language that was racist, sexist or homophobic, and if they won the substance of the debate, the language and behavior would be ignored. In fact, if things became physical between the students, and the aggressor won the debate, using a literal interpretation of the position of Kristof et al, the judge would be under no obligation to act.

Morris and Herbeck elucidate:

Such judge passivity is responsible for the often dramatic decline in the quality of debate arguments and the promotion of shallow practice nearly devoid of educational utility. Ganer (1987) has observed: Many of the problems in contemporary debate can be traced to those who persist in divorcing debate from general academic concerns of argumentation and viewing debate as nothing more than a “game,” in the antitheoretical rather than theoretical sense, to be played under the sponsorship of an academic institution. (p. 387)

Muir adds in a discussion of Ehninger:

“Questioning the power of such a perspective (the gaming model of debate), Ehninger offers several concerns about the game metaphor. Pedagogically, Ehninger cautions that viewing debate as a game violates a balance of technique and subject matter, fragmenting the  instruction of the whole. The emphasis on technique reduces the real world applicability of debate skills; a specialized terminology, coupled with a focused perspective on how the game is played, renders debate increasingly esoteric and irrelevant. Morally, the game metaphor is questionable because if debate is just a game, then it is very easy to cheat and distort the truth. Even if ‘the game’ is played ethically, Ehninger argues, it is separated and isolated and makes ‘little or no direct contribution to the solving of mankind’s present and future problems.'”

Muir furthers his characterization of Ehninger’s argument, “Fostering the idea of debate as a game renders a discussion of contemporary predicaments and their solutions a mere pastime, rather than a way of learning how to participate democratically in such solutions. Debate, Ehninger concludes, cannot afford to be ethically neutral- it must be a positive force for good.”

Morris and Herbeck impact our position by stating: 


We insist that coaches, competitors, and judges stop treating debate as a game. If debate is merely a game, it may be appropriate for judges to act as referees assigning points to the participants. By contrast, debate should be an educational exercise designed to serve as a “laboratory for teaching argumentation skills”. (McBath, 1974; Thomas, 1980). Forensic educators must intervene as necessary to redress some of the “irrational practices currently emphasized in academic debate” (Rowland & Deatherage, 1986, p. 246).

What makes the Kristof et al article so despicable is that they want judges to beat students down who implore those judges to resist privilege and stand for something more. We are not calling for judges to randomly intervene against racist, sexist and homophobic arguments. In our current climate, that is too much to ask, and we are not that optimistic. The adults in the Lincoln-Douglas community have consistently failed to do anything to protect young people and have actively encouraged the sociopathic pseudo pedagogy embodied in the Kristof, Massey, and Reiter article. We cant help but think that the role of the judge demonstrated by too many adults strongly resembles the actions of bystanders who watched as Kitty Genovese was murdered in the streets of New York. 

But when students understand that the debate space is hostile to women and people of color and try to do something about it, dont join the attacker. Dont murder them. Dont wish they go away. Be constructive. Be educational. Be humane.

We must prove why genocide is bad? They should be ashamed, and we should be ashamed for accepting it. Being white in America means never having to think about it. But they should think about it. People who face structural oppression have to think about it. We are assaulted without warning and dismissed with smiles and politeness or barbs and arrows. The debate community by deliberate aggression or privileged non-consideration declared war on students of color long before Chris Randalls rallying cry.

Being white in America means never having to think about it. Never thinking about it makes for ignorant, destructive, careless people without any clue how they relate to the rest of the planet. They believe that they live in a hostile world without any understanding that they are the source of the hostility. They want people who call out their privilege to just go away.

The good news about our community is that a critical mass of students have decided to not go away. It is up to the adults in our community to make space for them. 

We cannot know how this conflict will end. But in the process, adults must not remain silent and watch structural violence replicated and reinforced. In our community, we must encourage people to expand their libraries, read new literature, and enter new search terms in Google in order to understand and engage these positions. The conversations and debates will often be hard, but they already are. We believe our role as educators is to welcome hard conversations that question and deconstruct privilege, not reinforce it. There is no neutral ground.

 Cutbirth, C. W. (1983, April). When bias becomes duty: Debate as an educational activity.

Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Central States Speech Association, Lincoln, NE.

Cox, S.E., Honse T.L. (1991) Inexperienced and Experienced Debate Judges: Beyond Name Calling Contemporary Argumentation and Debate, Vol. 12,

Ganer, P. M. (1987). The emperor phenomenon: The necessity of critic responsibility. In J. Wenzel (Ed.), Argument and critical practices: Proceedings of the fifth SCA/AFA conference on argumentation. Annandale, VA: Speech Communication Association.

Hollihan, T. A., Baaske, K. T., & Riley, P. (1987, Spring). Debaters as storytellers: The narrative perspective in academic debate. Journal of the American Forensic Association, 23, 184-193.

Charles E. Morris III (Prof of Communication at Syracuse), and Dale A. Herbeck (PhD, U of Iowa, 1988), Lincoln-Douglas Debate: An Educational Exercise, National Forensic Journal, Fall 1996

Morris, C. III, Herbeck, D , (Fall 1996) Lincoln Douglas Debate: An Educational Exercise.

Muir S. (1993), A Defense of The Ethics of Contemporary Debate, Philosophy and Rhetoric, Vole 26, No 4

Patterson, JW, Zarefsky, David, (1983) Contemporary Debate,

Rowland, R. C. (1984, Fall). Tabula rasa: The relevance of debate to argumentation theory. Journal of the American Forensic Association, 21, 76-88.


Jonathan Alston is the Head debate coach at Science Park High School (Newark Science) in Newark, New Jersey.

Aaron Timmons is the Head coach at Greenhill School in Addison Texas.  

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