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The Need to Create Online Community Norms in Contemporary Lincoln-Douglas Debate
“Close the doors!” Richard Sodikow would bellow across the auditorium at the top of his lungs. His voice rang through the enormous room and his order was immediately followed. The doors would be closed and the hundreds of high school students who attended the prestigious fall debate tournament at the Bronx High School of Science would be locked in, together. The fire alarm would sound, but we would not leave. We did not have to. We were already protected. The alarm was for the people outside of Richard’s purview. The children around him—high school students who came from across the United States to compete in academic debate—did not have to worry. The race, class, or gender of the debaters did not matter. We were all inside, together. Protected by the adult who took responsibility for our care.
That type of care, that type of concern for all children is missing from contemporary Lincoln-Douglas debate. Our community stands idly by while certain children, coaches, judges and programs are blatantly bullied online by institutions the debate community actively supports. While the research on the bystander effect is over 50 years old, the internet and social media has exacerbated the extent, and the impact, of inaction on online mediums. Professor Vincent Hendricks explains the 21st century bystander effect when he elucidated:
The bystander effect occurs because people observe each other before assisting. And the more people observing each other the stronger the signal that help is neither required nor appropriate. Once you take such public signals to social media in terms of, say, aggregated likes, you may just reinforce bystander behavior even more.
In the case of cyberbullying, by innocently “liking” you may be part of movement to establish a strong public signal about what the correct collective response is. You register your “like” with no obligation to actually intervene and non-intervention may just become the norm. (Hendricks)
High school debate, a uniquely educational and academic activity fostering the promotion of civil discourse, ought to reflect the basic principle that children — of all races, classes, genders, sexual orientations — are sacrosanct, and that their participation should be encouraged. The circuit Lincoln-Douglas virtual community, however, has proven that despite our focus on philosophy and morality in debate rounds, we are willing to watch some children be slaughtered online.
In this note we highlight the importance of a fully inclusive debate space, warning that the community’s reluctance to create virtual norms and its refusal to speak out against often racist, always destructive online bullying endangers not only the few students and programs who are publicly sacrificed, but that this unchallenged online behavior threatens the legitimacy of our activity as a whole. One or more of the authors were directly involved in many of the incidents described in this essay.
I: The Sacrifices: Instances of Online Bullying Promoted by Popular Debate Websites
Consider the following incidents. They are, unfortunately, not hypothetical and have been written and/or verified by the student victims described.
An appeal is made to the tournament directors to include a team in the playoffs (Tournament of Champions) based on the claims that there were improprieties in how the qualifying tournaments and results were potentially corrupt or at least, not executed according to basic guidelines of appropriateness and had impacted that student’s ability to do as well as possible. Other students, judges and even coaches suggest that: 1) the student and his coaches are wrong to question such improprieties and that 2) the coaches are abusing their power by making such an appeal.
Subsequent online discussion by other coaches, potential judges and student competitors demonstrated little concern for either the accuracy of their claims or the psychological trauma caused to the student under discussion. When one debate website took down a conversation because of potential concerns of defamation/legal concerns, other popular debate websites re-posted the entire conversation and continued the defamatory online hostility.
In addition, this sixteen-year-old student’s confidential application to the Tournament of Champions was leaked to the discussion boards for further bullying. The anonymous (unauthorized) person who leaked the application, in a shocking display of dishonesty, also edited it to remove information that was favorable to the application, such as the list of several TOC qualified people defeated by the harassed student.
The student at the center of this flame war recently wrote about his experience:
There was nothing I could ever do to gain the respect of the community no matter how many rounds I won, what judges I picked up, what methods I used in round, my technical abilities or who I beat. Whenever I won rounds my senior year, people in the community widely shared their racist belief that, ‘The only way he wins rounds is because he’s black.’
However, what always upset me even more was that I felt that I never had any support or protection from adults in the community when I was being bullied and threatened online. Coaches were more worried about online debates and the technicalities of the TOC decision than my feelings. Despite the fact that I was being told I wasn’t deserving and despite the fact I was sent inappropriate messages about my participation from judges in the TOC pool, coaches on other teams, summer camp instructors and competitors weeks before the TOC, no one cared. To this very day I think and ask why, outside of my circle of coaches and grandfather, were other coaches too afraid or unwilling to intervene?
It is important to note that the TOC Director had, based on their professional judgment, granted exceptions to allow students to apply or compete without the requisite number of bids based on extenuating circumstances. In the past couple of years students have competed, or asked to compete, at the TOC with situations that violated the “letter of the law” (in our opinion) as it applies to participation at the TOC. We didn’t see online vitriol. In fact, there was overwhelming support for allowing them to compete from some of the same folks protesting the above situation. While surprising to some, the inconsistency is not at all surprising to us.
A student wins the prestigious Bronx High School of Science New York City Invitational in a highly competitive final round. Some of the judges and friends of competitors go online to a popular, respected debate website to disparage the student’s multiple identities and assert that her victory was strictly due to cheating. She writes of the experience:
The day after I won my first major, I was elated. I had deactivated Facebook for the year to concentrate on schoolwork and debate, so I checked my phone instead, expecting to see messages of congratulations from my friends and former instructors. Instead, I received a barrage of questions: “Have you been on NSD Update? Have you seen what they (coaches, students AND judges) are writing about you?
With a growing sense of dread, I logged on to NSD Update. I read through post after post written by debaters and coaches- adults, people I thought I could trust and respect- accusing me of cheating to win. At first, I felt confused. Of course I hadn’t cheated- I’d worked so hard to win. Why would anyone say that about me? Then I got angry, then embarrassed, and humiliated. It felt devastating. It felt awful.
Most of all, it felt unfair. I had worked so hard over the summer and in the few months leading up to the tournament. I spent every free period at school in the debate office drilling or writing cases. At home, I researched for hours until well past midnight. When I won, I felt like all of that work had been validated. But instead of celebrating my efforts, a large part of the community wanted to call me a cheater instead.
The day after I won my first major, I should have been overwhelmed with joy. Instead, I locked myself in my room and cried.
Perhaps the worst part of becoming the target of an online flame war was that the community turned against me. I used to love the debate community. Like many other young debaters, I considered it a place of refuge, a place where I could be myself. Now that I was ‘that girl who cheated,’ I couldn’t walk down a hallway at a tournament without receiving stares ranging from curious to hostile. Every so often I’d stumble across people talking about me in hushed tones, who invariably fell silent when I approached. I was made to feel awkward and uncomfortable almost everywhere I went, and that stigma stayed with me until I graduated.
There are other stories — too many other stories which we have personally witnessed. A judge in an elimination round of the Texas Forensic Association State Tournament last year was vilified online for his decision and accused of cheating. This judge was so concerned about the students he judged being humiliated by a respected debate website that he conflicted himself from judging them at subsequent tournaments. He did not want to risk a vote for them causing further humiliation and vilification.
The current use of LD debate discussion forums as a tool to attack students and their coaches is so violent and hostile that it is perhaps most accurate to say that students who put certain camps’ stickers on their laptops and bags are unwittingly flashing “gang signs of protection.” The saying “you can ride with us or you can collide with us,” has become a devastating reality for many.
Judges and coaches are human beings. When a judge knows that a vote against a particular student could make himself, his students or her program subject to online vilification and community attack, there is a perverse incentive to make a decision that does not reflect who he or she believes did the better debating. Even if that coach or judge is strong enough to resist the urge for self-preservation, the existence of such negative incentives is enough to destroy the integrity of debates.
A website responsible for the training of high school athletes would never be supported if it attacked players, referees and coaches. That many coaches feel that this state of affairs in debate is acceptable — as long as it benefits their “gang” — means that too many have lost sight of our primary duty to provide safe educational spaces for children.
II. Online Gangsters: The Dangerous Online Culture of National-Circuit Lincoln Douglas Debate and How this Online Culture Led to the Tournament of Champions’ Explosion of Entitlement 2014 (They Blew Up Round 7!)
Students feel safe in participating in harassment, judges feel safe in encouraging it, and coaches of influence feel safe in letting it happen.
Many of the people involved in this online vitriol would scream that our portrayal of them is unfair. They would say that they are the victims protecting the community from the corrupt abuse of power of long-term, entrenched coaches. In their view they are simply breaking down the barriers placed against them.
In their view, the “flame wars” they spark bring light to perceived wrongs in our community. If they don’t like the result of a decision in a final round, publically accusing the judges, coaches and students of cheating is the only way to right the perceived injustice. Pushing for “likes” to comments represents their equivalent of an online petition of support. Regardless of the lies they tell themselves, the truth remains: they do this because they feel a deep sense of entitlement which includes the “right” to debate wins, regardless of what happens in round.
To clarify, these flame wars must not be confused with official complaints to tournaments, genuine methods designed to promote reform, or scholarship which educates people about the art of debate. Instead, these online forums are used to gather a mob who can then share speculation and collectively “gear up” to initiate an online war against persons of color, women, and other marginalized populations.
If this online mob was actually genuine about caring about equality, fairness, and real competition, debaters and their coaches would focus their energy on being better at debate by reading more literature and improving their technique. But instead, they have focused their time and efforts on methods of intimidation to “defend their turf.”
As a result of such turf wars, the predominately Black, Hispanic, female or queer/quare victims of online flame wars have been placed in an impossible position. When someone posts something negative about her or him online it is the equivalent of an “online drive-by.” Their responses will not be interpreted or analyzed honestly because they are already judged as guilty before they have had the chance to respond. Even when the cascade of online accusations and threats end, other students and coaches permanently treat them with disdain and disrespect. In other words, online circuit LD debate forums have become the modern day version of “kangaroo courts,” in which even a (metaphorical) finding of innocence carries the same punishment as a conviction: victims suffer shunning, evil looks by competitors and judges and hostile treatment in-person at tournaments.
Much of what is occurring can be explained in literature rooted in social psychology on group dynamics.
One factor in spreading poison online is the ability to post comments anonymously. Arthur Schoepenhauer, over 160 years ago, created a phrase that could be applied to the “internet gangsters” of the 21st century when he stated: “Anonymity is the refuge for all literary and journalistic rascality” (Schoepenhauer). It has become a culture of “drive – by anonymity” (Lanier) where individuals can functionally create their vision of history that the reader, without context, may very well believe.
The behavior of the anonymous poster before the TOC who leaked a student’s confidential at large application is just one example of Schoepenhauer and Lanier’s point—hiding behind anonymity allowed that person to avoid any social or legal consequences for their despicable behavior.
Other factors in these online mob attacks include deindividualization and groupthink tendencies, which make fair and open discussion impossible. Deindividualization is what psychologists define as a process which alters individual behavior: “when belonging to a crowd, a person will be ‘able to indulge in forms of behavior in which, when alone, they would not indulge’” (Festinger et al). In other words, there is a diffusion of responsibility, a depersonalization that results in at best, groupthink and at worst, a “mob mentality” (Bogdan). “Groupthink, a term coined by social psychologist Irving Janis (1972), occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment”. A group is especially vulnerable to groupthink when its members are similar in background, when the group is insulated from outside opinions, and when there are no clear rules for decision-making” (McCallum).
Irving Janis (1972) has documented eight symptoms of groupthink; for the purpose of this article we will focus on five symptoms that we think are particularly relevant to those who engage in online attacks on debate websites. These symptoms include:
- Belief in inherent morality – Members believes in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.
- Stereotyped views of out-groups – Negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary.
- Direct pressure on dissenters – Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views.
- Self-censorship – Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.
- Self-appointed ‘mindguards’ – Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions.
One may wonder why groups of highly intelligent debaters would be subject to the dynamics of groupthink. Presumably people trained in logical argumentation would be capable of recognizing and correcting such biases. Unfortunately, these biases can and do overwhelm otherwise intelligent people’s ability to think, argue and interpret clearly and honestly based on facts. As a result, we see circuit LDers deliberately choosing to rely on gossip, biased suspicions, and outright lies whenever it suits them.
We are creating a generation of students who believe that hostility, unsubstantiated claims and dishonest attacks are best practices for effective communication.
Racles Bogdan, explains this process as he elucidates how emotions interact with the meaning and knowledge making process:
Trust is based in both emotion and reason, where we make meaning from how we feel and also the knowledge we hold. When you put the two together, you make meaning, in all its fullness where emotions and reason merge. This meaning is made from two parts of your brain: the part that processes information and is logical and analytical; and the part of your brain that protects you from danger and ignites the fight or flight response (i.e. your “lizard brain”).
If one’s emotional response toward a person (or organization) is already predisposed to be negative – because of perceived threat, lack of understanding, values conflict, or their membership in a marginalized group – then one’s reasoning apparatus will align with those negative feelings.
It will never matter what new facts and arguments the stigmatized students, teams, or coaches present in their defense; they will always be condemned as suspicious, guilty, and unworthy of being treated as equal human beings.
One way to understand the genesis of these online mob attacks is as a series of sad attempts stemmed from a warped need for acceptance and validation. These attacks are desperate expressions of some students’/coaches’ worst fear: that they will lose to those queer/quare, black, brown or female bodies who they deem less worthy or deserving.
Bogdan elaborates that an environment of animosity, aggression and incivility amplifies the risks explained above, given fight-or-flight responses which make rational discourse impossible:
In a situation where emotions are triggered, physiological responses take place and blood recedes from thinking part of the brain, rushes to reptilian brain, triggering fight or flight and rendering new information useless and impossible. Your reaction to run away or strike back has its uses in situations of danger, but it also means we take this instinct into situations where it can increase our challenges, where there are better ways to respond. We fail to distinguish between situations that endanger us and those that make us uncomfortable and this stops our learning, understanding and growing and takes all of us away from the opportunity to create something new and better (Emphasis added).
Some argue that circuit Lincoln Douglas debaters have comported themselves appropriately online and have rationally and fairly participated in “educational” discourse which has given marginalized people and others a fair hearing in which they have been able to provide a vigorous defense. They may further assert that such online discussions have only been in response to what they interpret as unfair practices by tournament administrators; however, this position is not reflected in the evidence that exists.
When victims of online attacks have presented their defenses in the same format–assuming that there was a chance they could persuade the online mobs to view them dispassionately — circuit LDers have consistently used the following psychopathic and maladaptive responses, which function as case studies for the psychological theories we have cited so far:
- Those who we think look or act different from the norm should be attacked.
- Those who are attacked ought not be defended vigorously by people in authority.
- Those with a duty of care toward attacked students have an obligation not to strongly condemn, oppose or deter such bullying from continuing or else– “they are fighting fire with fire.”
- Those who are attacking should be left alone and/or encouraged to keep going.
- Those who are attacked “had it coming” (i.e. “they should stay in their place”).
- Those who are attacked (and marginalized) should to go to another place designed for them (such as the Urban Debate Leagues), but the initial attack ought not be critiqued.
- Debate should not be a safe space for minority/marginalized participants and we don’t care if it isn’t, our sole role is to choose who did the better job of debating, we are not educators.
- The students in question are merely collateral damage whose sacrifices are needed to promote “education” and “discussion” on key issues affecting the community.
These despicable arguments are not straw men; they have actually been and continue to be used in the online bullying which takes place in our community. Unfortunately, innocence, rational argument, diplomacy, “turning the other cheek” and/or adult authority/professionalism will not protect anyone from online abuse.
In the current climate where the debate-centered websites serve as both places to educate and attack students, judges, and coaches, these attacks are impossible to escape. Because these sites are popular within the community and attached to widely supported summer institutes and online educational support, attacks serve to galvanize the community to exile and shun any student, judge or coach that the internet gangsters do not believe should be in the auditorium.
Lanier argues: “I worry about the next generation of young people around the world growing up with internet-based technology that emphasizes crowd aggregation… will they be more likely to succumb to pack dynamics when they come of age?” The utopian tendency is to believe that social media pluralizes and diversifies opinion; most of the evidence suggests that it is just as likely, when combined with anonymity, to reinforce groupthink and extremism (Lanier).
All of these factors: anonymity, groupthink, a pre-disposition of negative bias against out-groups (i.e. minorities/marginalized groups) and group polarization all combine into the explosive situation in which we find circuit LD, and ironically, where “Circuit LD” found itself in round 7 at the National Tournament of Champions:
In round 7 of Lincoln-Douglas debate at the 2014 Tournament of Champions an explosion occurred. All of the above theory about online behavior erupted in person as scores of students, coaches and judges refused to go to their rounds because of a perceived injustice. We call this the “TOC Explosion of Entitlement of 2014.” An African-American coach (one of the authors of this article) brought an ethics violation to the tournament directors. His student was given a loss in spite of the winning student admitting in-round that he carded the straw man of an article and passed it off as the author’s advocacy, only clarifying when pressed in cross-examination. The tournament directors found that the ethics violation was substantial and serious enough to merit a double-loss since the judge’s decision on the round had already been made. It is worth noting that the tabroom directors intentionally did NOT tell the tournament directors what schools were involved before a decision was made. In the view of the protesters, quoting a straw person did not rise to the level of an ethical violation since it was admitted in cross examination that the author concluded the other way. The protesters also said things like, “This happens all the time/is standard practice/philosophers do it all the time.” The question no one has asked is if the question wasn’t asked, would all involved have known the true intent of the author as it was being used to verify a claim.
“Outrage” spread throughout the tournament. A mob organized a spontaneous “sit-out”. Over 40 coaches, students, and judges went outside of the lobby of the building that was the center of the LD Tournament and refused to go to round 7. They “struck a blow for justice.” In their view, they never denied that the misuse of evidence was real; they were instead more concerned that a particular Black coach was using his “undue influence” on the tournament officials. In this case, the mob’s inherent suspicion and fear of “Black control” overwhelmed any sense of restraint, sportsmanship and professionalism. It is possible that it is purely coincidental that the recipients of the online vitriol — and in this case in person hostility — were either persons of color, women or gay, but we believe that this issue is too important for our community to not seriously examine the intent of such objectively dangerous destructive behavior.
As evidence for the hostile and dangerous environment these students and coaches created, when the Black coach’s debater walked down the steps to go to his next round, a person from the mob pointed in his direction and shouted:
“There he is!!!”
The student turned around in shock. Another coach saw this situation and felt the need to escort him to his round to ensure his physical safety. “Don’t go anywhere without an escort,” this coach told the frightened student. ALL individuals in the protest are culpable for creating the culture that lead several students and coaches to be concerned about their safety, EVEN IF they believed they were engaged in legitimate protests.
In response to the “sit-out,” the tournament officials tried on multiple occasions to explain their actions to an angry, yelling mob of students and coaches, but these efforts were to no avail. The round was delayed, pairings were redone, and judges were replaced. Our “heroes” thought that they were striking a blow for justice. They only succeeded in terrorizing more students. The online world of virtual bullying had stepped into the real world.
It is worth noting that another protest by another school was filed earlier in the tournament (against a student who happened to be of color), reevaluated after being originally denied by the tab room, and then granted, which caused the pairings to be redone. Was there any protest regarding the new pairings? (It is also worth noting that the judge involved denied that the offense being protested even occurred). Did the ruling inflame or incite more protests? It did not.
III. Haven’t Disagreements within Our Community Happened Before?
Richard Sodikow was not always a beloved figure. Throughout his career there were serious heated disagreements with other coaches. Like many extremely successful coaches, he was accused of cheating, being hostile, arrogant, and mean-spirited. But coaches largely dealt with this by talking to, arguing with, and yelling at each other. It was usually not in front of students. We understood that we were educators and the problems within our community come from the adults in our community. Our students need to be shielded from the adult controversies of administration. It is up to the coaches to fight and work it out behind closed doors. Fourteen and fifteen year olds need to concentrate on getting better at the activity we love. When the alarms go off the confusion should be on the outside, not in the realm of our students. The impacts of these new controversies are far worse given that the comments stay online forever, and can be Googled or searched on the internet, at a later date. The impact on victims for college admissions, internships, and even future employment is undeniable and intolerable.
IV. This has NOTHING to do with issues of Race: Quit “Race-Baiting,” “Playing the Race Card,” “Being All Al Sharpton-Like”
As the authors of this article are all African American men, it would be fair to say that we find many of the targets of online vitriol to be either racial minorities, or women (many who self-identify as “persons of color”). The online attacks on students and coaches of color are too significant to ignore if one is being truly objective. In the 1970’s, psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce, MD, developed the concept and study of “racial micro aggressions” in the interactions between those of majority culture and self-identified racial minorities. Derald Wing Sue, PhD, (Teachers College, Columbia University psychologist) defined micro aggressions as one of the “everyday insults, indignities and demeaning messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being sent to them,” (DeAngelis). Sue attempts to define distinctions in micro aggressions by labeling them as follows:
Microassaults: Conscious and intentional actions or slurs, such as using racial epithets, displaying swastikas or deliberately serving a white person before a person of color in a restaurant.
Microinsults: Verbal and nonverbal communications that subtly convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person’s racial heritage or identity. An example is an employee who asks a colleague of color how she got her job, implying she may have landed it through an affirmative action or quota system.
Microinvalidations: Communications that subtly exclude, negate or nullify the thoughts, feelings or experiential reality of a person of color. For instance, white people often ask Asian-Americans where they were born, conveying the message that they are perpetual foreigners in their own land. (Sue)
We will, as did Sue, focus on microinsults and invalidations as they are perhaps more prevalent in our activity. It IS worth noting that in circuit LD and some summer institutes over the past two years, students and coaches have been consistent victims of microinsults. For example, in the past couple of years, one student’s framework was referred to publically as the “nigger framework” in a camp environment. Other examples include publically declared attacks at minority students such as the following: “She/he should talk about the topic (a juvenile justice and broader criminal justice resolution we might add) instead of running that race crap” or, “It is obvious why she/he was chosen for that round robin #affirmativeactionsucks.”
Even professional credentials and pedagogical success cannot protect minority coaches from such racially charged condemnation. We have been told that people are “threatened” when we watch our own students debate and that our presence creates “an uncomfortable atmosphere” for them. This unfounded racially charged concern has gone so far that at one season ending invitational that there was serious discussion of banning some black coaches from watching their own kids debate—a right that was explicitly given to all coaching staffs. The idea that some coaches felt that it was acceptable to interpret black coaches’ bodies as threats (and to functionally, demand that they are denied rights which apply to all other white coaches at the tournament) is not only fundamentally racist but also disproves the idea that we live in a post-racial circuit LD world.
To be clear, last time we checked, no real-life gangsters or “thugs” spend their time as full or part time debate coaches. The only possible exception is the “thug life” that many who launch rhetorical Molotov cocktails from the safety of their respective domiciles/computers in virtual anonymity embrace.
Interestingly, some are so bold/emboldened by privilege in many cases, that they don’t mind putting their names online because they feel they have instant “credibility”, because of who they are. They also know that few will respond for fear of the backlash.
Despite the overwhelming evidence, many readers may still exclaim that these actions have “NOTHING to do with Race”, or possibly “just because people disagree with you does not mean we are racist.”
While a fair retort, writer Tori DeAngelis explains the reasoning behind such a response:
“It’s a monumental task to get white people to realize that they are delivering microaggressions, because it’s scary to them,” he contends. “It assails their self-image of being good, moral, decent human beings to realize that maybe at an unconscious level they have biased thoughts, attitudes and feelings that harm people of color.
Before those reading retreat into appeals to colorblindness, or worse yet a refusal to listen to those of us who are “canaries in the mine”, perhaps heeding the words of Pulitzer Prize winning author Nicholas Kristof is in order when he recently opined that:
A starting point is for those of us in white America to wipe away any self-satisfaction about racial progress. Yes, the progress is real, but so are the challenges. The gaps demand a wrenching, soul-searching excavation of our national soul, and the first step is to acknowledge that the central race challenge in America today is not the suffering of whites.
We suggest that a more mature and ethical response is to actually listen to, and reflect on the examples and experiences we present here. A truly inclusive community would not metaphorically stick their heads in the sand to wish away these experiences, they would instead empathize and take action.
V. We Must Act: Protecting Your Own Students is Not Enough
If a teacher witnessed someone terrorizing a child in another classroom, he would be morally and legally obligated to act. If he tried to excuse his silence by saying that he is only responsible for those in his own classroom, he would appropriately lose his job and face legal sanction. We are ethically, and legally, responsible to take care of all the students in our collective auditorium.
Many may believe that only students, judges and coaches of color (or other marginalized groups) are affected by the scenarios we describe. Witnesses to these online mob attacks would be well served to remember the analogy of the miner’s canary. Historically, coal miners carried canaries with them as a warning signal against the invisible, deadly fumes within. If the canary died, the miners knew to get out before it was too late. We believe that this analogy fits the situation of the online mob attacks in LD. Those who foolishly assume that the students we have described earlier are the only ones who have been under threat are making a dangerous error in judgment. Like the TOC Explosion of Entitlement of 2014, the mine will eventually explode.
A famous poem that began circulation in the 1950s describes the dangers of intellectuals avoiding conflict and refusing to take action in Germany during WWII:
First they came for … and I did not speak out – because I was not …
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.
The hesitance of the majority of members of the debate community to speak out, either because they do not perceive hostile messages unless personally directed or because they fear reprisal, leads to a world where civil discourse is replaced with hate speech. If we believe in the power of speech, we cannot afford to allow some to be silenced by the antipathy of others.
Maybe no one ever comes. Maybe a coach’s team excels to the highest levels of success on the National Circuit. The question remains, at what cost? Some may see our analogies and examples as hyperbolic. We disagree.
Many of the online mob attacks are arguably illegal in nature. But the real crime here is that these mobs continue to be empowered by both the silence of bystanders and the pitchforks held by those coaches and camp instructors who spearhead (or tolerate) the abuse. As a community we cannot claim to care about education while we allow children and other educators to be under siege at tournaments and in online forums.
VI. Acting on Our Obligation to Protect All of the Children in the Auditorium
Coaches must be proactive and stop being cowards–they ought to make protecting all of the children in the auditorium top priority because they have the pedagogical and moral duty to stamp out online bullying. Here are a few places to start:
1. Stop Supporting Institutions that Allow/Encourage Rhetorical Violence that Hurts Children
Adult educators must stop supporting institutions that tolerate attacks on minors, judges and coaches. While pedagogical disagreements are acceptable, continued support of environments which show disregard for student, judge, and coach welfare should face financial consequences. Refusing to intervene is morally callous and indicates tacit acceptance of the abuse/bullying of children. Child welfare should determine where coaches and students allocate their resources. If not, we are insincere hypocrites in our claims to want debate to be a safe space for all children.
Students, judges and coaches who knowingly attend a summer institute, buy educational services from, or participate (even innocently) in the online forums of companies that host websites that allow such attacks share responsibility for the destruction of safe educational debate spaces. In this light, posting a sticker of offending institutes on a laptop or bag has become the debate equivalent of flashing a gang sign. The sticker serves a dual purpose: 1) as an implicit threat to any judge who does not want to end up on the target end of a flame war, and 2) a defense against being the next target.
Recently a highly respected, highly successful coach spoke to us of a fear of telling students that they could not attend a certain institute affiliated with a website that allows anonymous attacks on students, coaches, and programs. There was concern about what would happen to the program if it got back to the people who ran the summer institute. This coach had a well-grounded fear that his/her respected program and its students would be targeted for online abuse. The fear of reprisal was so intense that the calculation of “while online attacks are bad and harm children, I cannot risk the chance that my students are attacked.” We feel strongly that is sentiment is felt by many who choose to stay silent.
These gangster methods of intimidation have no place in our activity. Stop funding them.
2. Online Discussion Boards Must Institute and Consistently Enforce Policies to Regulate Future Conduct
Offending online debate websites must immediately institute and enforce policies that will not allow their sites to poison the debate space including, but not limited to, specifically disallowing negative comments about students, judges, and coaches on their sites. Allowing these comments at best teaches bad sportsmanship. At worst, allowing those comments is a deliberate attempt to intimidate, harass, and bully students and judges.
Some websites’ administrators may respond that they are objective “news” organizations or free forums for educational discussion. But the owners of these sites have clear financial interests tied to outcomes of debates; they advertise that if you come to their camp, they will teach you how to become champions. This claim is meaningless unless the people who attend their institutes win. These sites do not acknowledge their blatant conflict of interest. Their allowance of bullying is not in the interest of free speech. These sites are tolerating the abuse of minors and the judges and coaches who care about them in order for their clients to win more rounds. Additionally, these same websites receive advertising money for each additional, controversy-induced hit. (In the spirit of disclosure the authors either run or have taught at institutes in the past, but do not host or run debate blogs or websites.)
Others may claim that the individual’s right to free speech should trump the claims we make here. We believe that this position is off the mark. Consideration of the appropriateness of the time, place, and manner of disagreement is in order in any conversation about free speech. Discussing the specifics of a student’s at-large application in a public forum is not the appropriate place. Challenges to a student’s evidence ethics should occur in tab rooms, not online blogs for a public flogging. And at no point should racist or sexist insults be included when discussing philosophical disagreements. Those who use the “free speech” excuse to permit the bullying we described here ought to adopt a student-centered perspective which balances freedom of expression with student welfare and safety.
Some circuit LD sites may argue that these policies have already been in place. However, even as recently as the 2013-2014 season the abusive behaviors described earlier have NOT been consistently and rigorously opposed by site administrators, especially when the targets of such abuse have been students and/or coaches of color who do not share their camp affiliation.
While in theory such policies have been in place, in practice a “hands off” approach has been adopted instead.
Sites that want to make money off of teaching and promoting circuit LD debate must stop threatening and poisoning the community.
3. Educators Must Strongly Condemn the Racist, Sexist Attitudes That Are Often the Basis of These Attacks
Sadly, much of the bullying and intimidation we describe here stems from an anti-educational and anti-intellectual attitude toward those students (with particular targeting of students of color and women) who wish to expand the range of scholarship they learn through Lincoln-Douglas debate.
Amazingly, some coaches and camp institute instructors have suggested that scholarship which speaks to the particular experiences and perspectives of marginalized populations (such as women, Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, LGBTQQ groups, etc.) is on-face “morally bankrupt” and unsuitable for debate. We believe this type of attitude is misinformed.
If LD debaters genuinely believe in the “marketplace of ideas,” and that the debate space is for debaters, then the exclusion or elitist dismissal of literature speaking to experiences/issues of difference is indefensible.
To be clear, what we call for requires genuine respect and honest consideration of alternative ideas and scholarship—mere tolerance through having a handful of summer camp sessions on “Critical Race Theory” or “Feminism” is not, by itself, evidence of substantial and authentic consideration. Constructive engagement regarding the serious academic study of differences (and corresponding acceptance of people from different backgrounds) is required, all year round: online AND offline.
4. Close the Doors!: The National Speech and Debate Association, The National Debate Coaches Association, and the National Tournament of Champions Should Develop an Online Code of Conduct and Require Adherence as a Prerequisite for Participation
Academic debate is dependent on honesty and fair conduct. Participation in online bullying, attacking students, coaches and judges should be enough to be disinvited from all of these prestigious tournaments. People responsible for sites that allow this poor sportsmanship to occur should also be disinvited. Making online statements about students or coaches already means that you would not be able to fairly judge that student or a student from that coach’s school. The commenter is a participant in making the tournament hostile toward the targeted students. No student or coach or judge or team should walk into a tournament feeling under siege.
These tournaments must make a decision as to whether the poisonous world of online bullying has a place at their tournament. These tournaments, and national tournaments in general, can no longer pretend that they do not see or recognize the problem of online bullying and how their silence makes them complicit in these attacks against children.
Too often this year we have spoken to coaches who have said that they did not know what was happening and that they did not know that students (mostly minors) were treated so badly. Coaches have a duty to be more aware of what is going online given that such forums are the vehicle by which many debate people communicate. Some have said, “I didn’t know that was an issue. I didn’t read that stuff,” or “I just thought it was a camp war.”
Now, everyone knows. It’s time to make decisions. It is time for these prestigious tournaments specifically, and national tournaments in general, to protect every student who walks into their auditoriums. An enforced code of conduct is a minimal standard that we must take to stop the predatory, profit-driven adults from abusing the children in our midst.
When listening to the statements of the affected students at the beginning of this essay, we must ask ourselves how any responsible adult could ever, ever allow that to happen to another young person. It is now time to choose. Neutrality is an abdication of our deepest professional and human responsibility.
Over time Richard Sodikow was forgiven for the many conflicts he had with adults because it was clear to everyone in his path that he was an educator who loved to teach and train all of the children in our community. He positively impacted programs beyond Bronx Science and considered his support of other programs—especially programs where students are Black, Brown, and from different economic classes—as essential to the integrity of our community. Right now in our community, the judging and decisions all lack integrity, and every coach (full or part time), every judge, and every educator is responsible for showing leadership in changing the norms that exist in circuit LD.
It is now our turn to gather all of our children into the auditorium, walk on stage and yell at the top of our collective voices, “Close the doors!” And then we must ring the alarms that will push the hatred and danger away.
Jonathan Alston – Director of Debate at Science Park High School
Anthony Berryhill – Ph.D. Candidate in Political Theory at Yale
Aaron Timmons – Director of Debate at Greenhill School
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