What Was the NSDA LD Wording Committee Thinking?



To be clear, I have no idea what actually happens at the NSDA’s topic meetings. I’ve never been invited. After over a decade of actively coaching and judging the activity, I suspect I wasn’t nearly detached and aloof enough to start making league-wide policy. That kind of prestige seems to be reserved for career coaches who haven’t actually coached in years.


Nor do I know who serves on the wording committee. The NSDA website apparently doesn’t publish that information, preferring to model its membership on the Illuminati rather than a politically accountable institution.


So I can only guess what goes on at these meetings, and the only evidence from which I can make inferences is the collection of topics themselves.


Based on those topics, I’ve reached the entirely speculative conclusion that NSDA wording committee meetings are akin to some kind of modern medieval festival, replete with an awe-inspiring array of barbiturates, methamphetamine and copious supplies of marijuana. There may be various combinations of strippers and cocaine involved, perhaps even some drunken jousting on horseback for good measure.


If these seem like outlandish conclusions, you probably haven’t read this season’s list of topics.


They will make you believe.


Again, in the interest of avoiding lawsuit, these assumptions are entirely baseless and without any evidence whatsoever. But without a transparent glimpse into the inner workings of this secret society, the imagination runs wild.


All we have is that list of topics, a list that screams, “What were they thinking?”


A list that quietly suggests they weren’t.


For an institution that revels in the notion of “value debate,” there’s a conspicuous absence of value found among these topics. The only saving grace for the 2014-2015 list is that it doesn’t include the current September-October clunker—which may in fact be a bigger waste of time than the wording committee meetings themselves.


After trolling one coach on Facebook with the irrefutable claim that this topic was a, “Waste. Of. Time.,” I was quickly reminded that some of us actually know people who are waiting for organs.


Unfortunately, of course, the unforgivably boring debates destined to happen on this topic won’t translate into anyone getting those organs. And more to the point, the provincial suggestion that the “sick are among us!” is precisely the problem. Lincoln-Douglas debate has been hijacked by pet causes and first-world problems. The kind of policies and, ya know, relevant issues that should be deciding elections and informing public opinion are virtually nowhere to be found.


My argument against these topics occurs against a backdrop, which I term: “Things that actually matter.”


The Arab Spring had radically redefined the Middle East. United States policy with respect to Syria and Iraq (and other flash points) will remain a pivotal plot point for years to come. Surveillance flights in international air space near China (and other territorial disputes) threaten to spark significant superpower unrest. Russia is instigating conflict in Ukraine just a few short years after invading Georgia. West Africa is being torn apart by a deadly virus spreading at an unprecedented rate. The “Islamic State” (ISIL) is beheading, crucifying, raping, pillaging, enslaving and forcing the dislocation of 100s of thousands. Vital nuclear negotiations with Iran continue even as the Iranians ostensibly support the West’s position against Sunni-based extremism.


And those are just a few of the really important things going on internationally.


Nevertheless, the lone foreign policy topic on this season’s list somehow manages to avoid all of those developments, instead posing a conflict between the United States’ economic interests and women’s rights.


To quote Ron Burgundy, “I’m not even mad—that’s amazing.”


It takes a remarkable knack for nonsense to literally ignore everything happening around the world.


“But Babb,” says the stubbornly incoherent defender of horrible topics. “This is VALUE debate, and we don’t want to betray our roots by getting too sidetracked by policy.”


All policy questions also involve value questions. This is neither controversial nor confusing. The failure to specify and engage more concrete policy domains is principally due to a lack of imagination, awareness and pedagogical responsibility. If you’re an educator and care about educating, do your damn job. If we can’t find ways to incorporate a robust discussion of values whilst investigating germane policy areas, that says more about our intellectual creativity than our potential topics.


Even if you insist on making this about domestic policy, we should probably still focus on important things. The NSA is snooping at an alarming rate, and some have leaked important revelations thereabout. Or we could talk about immigration reform, regulation of financial institutions, climate change policy, corporate tax loopholes, the militarization of the police force, the sustainability of social safety nets in the face of an aging populace, etc. Almost anything would be more topical than the topics on this season’s list.


I’d learn more from a debate about the Ice Bucket Challenge than I will about whether, “Historic preservation is a legitimate constraint on property rights.”


That’s not even a first-world problem. It’s a history-buff problem. How a topic like that lands on a top-10 list of any sort is thoroughly mind-boggling—although it’s making a strong case for my top-10 list of things I couldn’t possibly care less about.


And yet it’s getting competition from another 2014-15 topic: “Sin taxes are just.”


Please. This is the most pressing issue affecting tax policy?


If irrelevance isn’t your thing, perhaps vacuous ambiguity is. If so, sink your teeth into this one: “Inaction in the face of injustice makes individuals morally culpable.”


Who needs context? When a topic is so hopelessly vague that the only appropriate response is “it totally, 100% depends,” you know the wording committee has done its job. Why encourage meaty, clash-inspiring debates when you can settle for a meaningless philosophical platitude?


The only two reasonably decent topics on the list are straight-up sabotaged by the rhetorical usage of “just governments”: “Just governments ought to ensure food security for their citizens,” and, “Just governments ought to require that employers pay a living wage.”


Use of the phrase is further proof that no one on the wording committee has judged a national circuit debate in at least 10 years. But even without robust judging experience, that nagging voice called common sense should perhaps raise a red flag.


There are no just governments. And as annoying as arguments to that effect (in all their skeptical grandeur) may be, they’re perfectly understandable given the absolutely head-scratching wording of these topics.


“But Babb,” says the last bastion of these topics’ defense. “Shouldn’t we explore some topic areas that may be on the margins of public discourse?”


I’m sensitive to that claim, but it hardly defends the actual topics at hand. Excepting a topic about reparations, it’s not as though this list is born of progressive politics. There’s a difference between unearthing silenced perspectives and just being randomly irrelevant.


Moreover, our discourse—especially in the context of debate—is something of a zero-sum game. We spend two months at a time investing research, writing and tournaments into the topic at hand. It becomes extremely time-consuming and quite obviously trades off with limited opportunities to discuss other—more important—things. There’s absolutely no compelling pedagogical argument for spending two months talking about “sin taxes” given the litany of more pressing concerns.


To some degree, we should let the market be our guide here. We should read the news and craft our topics accordingly. Lincoln-Douglas debates are too valuable for an out-of-touch cabal to waste our time with its uninspired attempts at creativity.


Who knows what actually goes on beyond those closed doors? Perhaps the process is too democratized. Perhaps its standard operating procedure is corrupted by misguided first principles. Perhaps those to whom we entrust authority just don’t know what they’re doing.


But the consequences are unequivocal. We’re wasting time, money and a rare educational opportunity. We’re squandering the chance to prepare students for interrogating and understanding the first-order issues with which they’ll be confronted now and in the future.


I’d love to hear a defense of these topics from someone on the committee, mostly for its entertainment value. There’s little doubt a debate about these topics would be more productive than any of the topics themselves.