We believe that online discussions regarding differences in debate practices are good for the community. We welcome robust and vigorous disagreement. We have purposely avoided naming specific people in order to keep our essays focused on the larger community-wide issues.
In contrast to our specific approach, many online discussion boards have allowed people – without accurate information or fact checking — to attack specific children and coaches. The research presented in our original article outlines the psychology behind those responses. Respectful academic disagreement is a norm we believe our debate community must immediately adopt.
Some may assert that our original article targets particular individuals and schools despite the careful way we worded and edited our Part 1 essay. However, such a claim ignores recent history. Our essays are in response to a history of public harassment that has continued in various forms online, and manifested in the public protest at the Tournament of Champions (TOC 2014), whose discourse continued into the beginning of this debate season. The online posters and in-person protestors, through online public humiliation and their actions during Round 7, have forced our involvement in a discussion that has directly and individually implicated our students and us.
The distinction between this discourse and ours is that we never forced anyone to be a part of our discussion. After the person in one of our narratives from Part I won the Bronx High School of Science tournament, she was talked about horribly online and inappropriately forced into being part of an online discussion that should have never taken place. We called out no one for in-round behavior or decisions or anything that is a regular part of our competition. The public protest before Round 7 was a very public act intended to initiate a very public discussion. Vocalizing why we believe that the protest was pedagogically irresponsible and, in our opinion (as well as others who have confided in us), potentially racist, isn’t an act of online bullying. Rather, it is criticizing the actual discussion of which we were forced to be a part. Despite the very nature of their discussion, we have been careful to not mention names in our essay and to have private conversations with our public critics. We sought to understand before we responded, and we kept our most pointed and tough critiques private.
During many of these offline discussions we have found that the most intense disagreements softened. Although we may never see eye to eye with our critics, the vitriol and hyperbolic language decreased. Many have sincerely concluded that some of their initial online behavior was inaccurate, in-artful, and required action from deleting their posts to publishing partial or complete retractions of earlier statements. This is why we believe that that the most heated conflicts we have in our community should be handled in private and offline. We believe heated offline dialogue is an approach far better suited to an educational environment whose first priority is to protect all the children in the auditorium.
Extending the framework: The disease of cyberbullying within Lincoln-Douglas Debate
We have received a range of responses to our article that reminds us of a song from the movie and hit stage play, Dreamgirls.
The assumptions behind many comments seem to be grounded in the notions of:
“What about what I need…
What about what’s best for me…
What about how I feel? What about me, what about me?”
Our response is in the same song…
“It’s more than you, it is more than me…
No matter what we are, we are a family…
This dream is for all of us, this one can be real, and you can’t stop us now because of how you feel…” (Ellipsis added)
In Part I, we described the cyberbullying in the Lincoln Douglas debate community. We further showed how this bullying extended into the “real world” during the hostile protest at the TOC 2014 which created an environment that compromised the safety of students competing in the tournament. While some may disagree with our characterization of the protest, the many offline discussions we had established that the protest had negative – albeit unintended – side effects that endangered and threatened children.
While we have received tremendous support for the article, some took issue with the points we raised and demanded clarification. We would like to follow up accordingly. But first, we would like to highlight three overarching considerations.
First, this is not a game. The problems that we identify happened to real people—children, in fact, who whatever their faults, did not deserve to be publicly harassed and bullied online. Despite our differences, we all share the experience of being touched by debate. It matters to each of us passionately and we want debate to improve the lives of our students like it improved our own. But for some students—real students who cared about debate more than anything else in their lives– debate became a place of vilification instead of a home. Some debaters and coaches became a mob of people who told these students they were nothing but objects deserving hate and scorn whose identities, scholarship, performances and overall presence were not welcome.
This sadness often starts online. As we explained in Part I, the internet has a de-individuation effect that brings out the worst in people, turning many people into cyberbullies. Danielle Citron in, The Offensive Internet: Speech, Privacy and Reputation explains that:
Social science research on group behavior suggests that the Internet will intensify the destructiveness of gender and race – based harassment. It identifies several factors exacerbating the dangerousness of groups. Groups with homogenous views tend to become more extreme when they deliberate. Their members gain confidence in their preconceived ideas as discussions tend to feature many arguments supporting them and few tilting the other way. Hearing agreement from others bolsters group members’ confidence, entrenching and radicalizing their views (Citron).
Second, heated public protest — specifically in a speech and debate event — is destructive. The actions of the protesters in Round 7 of the TOC 2014 threatened and endangered children in our collective auditorium. With a deep and sincere respect for the internal struggles of one of our public critics, that is “a circle that can’t be squared.”
Third – There is no morally neutral stance for debate educators or organizations regarding the issue of protecting the emotional and physical safety of all students in the speech and debate arena. Citron defines what neutrality justifies:
Cyber mobs also see victims as digital images that can be eviscerated without regret. Moreover, site operators who refuse to dismantle destructive posts, reinforce, and effectively encourage, negative behavior. Their refusal can stem from a libertarian “You Own your Own Words” philosophy or irresponsibility bred from the belief that they enjoy broad statutory immunity from liability for the postings of others. In turn, negative posts that remain online constitute calls to action that generate others in a snowball effect. In cyberspace, the accelerants of dangerous group behavior are pervasive, deepening the problem of today’s abusive cyber mobs.
Our essay was a direct challenge to the recent practice of using public forums to voice concerns about specific students, coaches or programs.
We will now highlight what we believe have been the most common concerns of Part I.
Concern 1: Previous Public Online Forums and the TOC Round 7 Protest Fought Against Injustice in the Debate Community. Why Aren’t You Concerned About Our Children?
Our Response: The flaw is that you are only concerned with your children. Check your differential empathy. Other children should not be collateral damage. There are other ways to seek redress that do not create a hostile environment for children.
In Part I we argued (through the examples we cited) that the willingness to support alleged victims of injustices in debate has not extended to students from marginalized backgrounds even when these students/coaches should have been – in principle – given strong and unwavering support.
As additional evidence, consider the following questions regarding the LD debate community and racism:
While there have been online protests against sexism and classism, why haven’t there been similar online protests and petitions against racism?
Why hasn’t the community taken an unequivocal stance against the day-to-day, tournament-to-tournament and camp institute racial attacks and micro insults that students of color consistently have to endure?
Why has it been OK for coaches to train their students to defend the non-existence of racism, or that racism doesn’t impact to the standard, or that racism doesn’t link into the meta-ethic?
Again, we ask those who believe in political movements within debate: Where have been the public denouncements of these abominations that occur in our collective auditoriums?
Given this context, we contend that the debate community must honestly evaluate its true feelings regarding which people are viewed as worthy of public support and attention.
Let us reconsider some of the recent public incidents in LD debate. If any of the authors in this essay were to attempt a sit-out against racism at the TOC, or appeal to tournament tabulation committee regarding injustices we feel have victimized our students, would the community also come to our aid? Put more directly, if the authors of this essay were to make a formal administrative protest (defined as a written protest given to the tab room describing the incident and the alleged violation) in round two of a tournament, have it denied, and then approach the tab room again after the final preliminary round had been paired and released for reconsideration, wouldn’t the community stage a sit-out against us for “abusing our power?”
These are not merely rhetorical questions. When we have gone to the TOC committee or tournament tabulation rooms to correct injustices that we feel have inappropriately hurt our students, our actions have never been interpreted as a political act or a justified way of “defending our students.” Instead, we (and our students) have been condemned as deserving public floggings through Facebook posts, anonymous online petitions, threatening e-mails, etc.
The inconsistency is not surprising to us.
What we are asking the reader to do is engage in a reflective moment to critique “activists’” choice to only include in their politics those who are already in their actual, or metaphorical camps.
To be clear, we have been very careful not to give a definitive explanation for the basis of the differential empathy we have seen in the Lincoln-Douglas community. However, anyone who interprets our essay as a simplistic “everyone is racist” rant is being intellectually dishonest and is encouraged to reread our essays carefully.
But even if we were to assume that people in the debate community used public protest to protect all students in the auditorium, they ought to adopt a different approach.
Some have defended the use of public forums on the basis that public protest in general is a good method and has been effective when traditional methods of promoting change have failed (i.e. with references to the Civil Rights Movement). However, even under the most optimistic examples, rhetorical and actual violence have often ensued in response. In addition, our argument is specific to the unique environment of high school debate and the duty of care we have as educators to those students who seek debate as a safe space. Given that recent public protests and flame wars have created environments that have caused many judges/coaches to fear retaliation and given that some students have felt that their physical safety has been at risk at tournaments taking place in the midst of such public opposition, we hold that the obligation to act responsibly requires that coaches and students adopt a different method.
It is important to note that since we published our original essay some concerned readers have reached out to us privately. We have also proactively initiated dialogue. We welcome robust and vigorous disagreement, but believe that such disagreement must be expressed in an appropriate time, place and manner. For this reason, we have purposely avoided naming specific individuals in order to focus on the larger community-wide issues. We have focused on understanding the opposition before we responded, and have kept our toughest critiques of specific individuals private—to be fair to them and to preserve their dignity. We have privately engaged those who most publicly disagreed with us.
In contrast to our careful approach, many online discussion boards have allowed people – who have not done their due diligence through fact checking – to attack and force the exile of specific children and coaches based on inaccurate and false information. Subsequently, the authors of this essay and our students have been individually implicated on a consistent basis even when it has been inappropriate and irrelevant to do so.
The debate is about whether this model of public protest is acceptable for speech and debate tournaments sanctioned by high schools. We argue that high school LD is the wrong forum. While we support the right of individuals to voice concerns about perceived wrongs, more acceptable and safer options exist which ought to be adopted, such as private adult conversations.
We understand that for many younger coaches – many of whom are not professionally trained teachers – posting explicit, personal debate controversies online may be more comfortable, but this behavior is absolutely irresponsible. Private conversations may be “awkward” for young assistant coaches to initiate towards professional teachers, but our duty of care, our obligation to students, vastly outweighs this awkwardness.
Concern 2: “It’s not my problem/I have nothing to do with it.” “I had nothing to do with any negative parts of the protest, so I am not responsible.”
Our Response: We all must be responsible for the unintended consequences of our public action. Anything else is moral cowardice.
People who have chosen to initiate public protests and online flame wars have moral and pedagogical culpability for the indirect (even if unintended) consequences of their actions.
Some have argued that the examples of physical harassment, (possible) racial harassment and psychological trauma from the TOC protests have “nothing to do with them” and that if these incidents did occur (noting that all accounts have been verified by students and adults), they have no responsibility.
This stance makes no logical or ethical sense. When we as coaches have publicly taken our own political stances, we have been consistently held responsible for the intended AND unintended consequences of our speech. That is why we have held that these public protests and public fights against specific coaches and students are bad. There are too many unintended consequences.
There is no neutral ground. Educators who refuse to comment or “get involved” do not escape condemnation as their silence and acquiescence directly empowers those who bully. Just as “I have nothing to do with it” is never an acceptable excuse for a teacher who witnesses an incident of bullying in a high school, it is not acceptable for debate coaches to say it either. The messages that we received from colleagues about the protest and DURING the protest speak volumes. While we appreciated those messages, and the myriad emails, Facebook messages and calls, the adage of, “it is easy to be an advocate, when it is easy to be an advocate” has never been more true. Fear of retaliation, the risk of social disapproval, and competitive success has too often superseded coaches’ responsibility to do what is right.
We repeat from our initial article:
“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.”
Some people have responded that we should instead be focused solely on the “model citizens” who have expressed their views responsibly in the public arena.
Let’s assume for a moment that’s true. It does not absolve online/in-person protesters from their choice to galvanize individuals who they know (or should reasonably foresee) will use and have used the opportunity to attack students of color, women, quare individuals, etc.
From Example 1 in the initial article (emphasis added):
“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.”
If protesters do not want to be grouped in the same category as those who physically, racially, sexually, harassed innocent students of previous public protests/flame wars, they ought to avoid methods which risk such actions.
Many educators have behaved responsibly online and in-person (i.e. at the TOC 2014 protests). Some disallowed their own students from participating as a precondition for staying in debate. However, many adult educators participated in or tolerated the most despicable acts that have publicly harmed students (especially students of color) over the past three years. We cannot blame students for their actions when there are adults around who ought to know better.
“It wasn’t me” is never an acceptable response for an educator who witnesses or participates in the inappropriate online and in-person practices we describe.
Concern 3: I can’t be held responsible for actions I don’t believe happened and/or did not personally witness.
Our Response: These actions occurred. Take responsibility.
We feel responses such as [this] “is the veriest nonsense (emphasis added)… Chilling as the story is, it didn’t happen,” or “They are liars!” are not only common when students of color (and other marginalized backgrounds) voice concerns about being victimized by public protests/flame wars but are also the embodiment of what’s wrong with this community.
It is unacceptable in any community or educational environment that an acceptable default response to an accusation of abuse or bullying be to assume on face that the alleged victim is a liar.
There have been too many recent nationally publicized incidents of student suicide, domestic violence, sexual assault and harassment for an educator to be so cavalier.
To default to denial is a demonstration of a complete abdication of the duty of an educator to care about all students in the auditorium. To be fair, one author who doubted that a student was directly targeted recanted. He spoke to people offline who were involved and then publicly pulled back from his original response and expressed a thoughtfulness that was truly appreciated. However his well intentioned (and sincerely appreciated), apology does not address the heart of the issue, which is the community’s default instinct to deny. We believe that this instinct comes from naïve optimism concerning the behavior of those who act out publicly. Debaters assume that all people who protest publicly and their followers behave in a targeted and careful manner. Unfortunately, recent history suggests otherwise.
The concepts we highlighted in Part 1—groupthink, belief in an inherent morality, stereotyping of out groups, the desire to be self-appointed mind guards, de-individualization and diffusion of responsibility—all took place at the TOC 2014 public protest and other online conflicts over the past three years.
In other words, group solidarity during public conflicts has often mutated into mob mentality.
Many commentators have said, “yes, we agree with a safe space for students BUT”… There should be no “BUT.” Maintaining a safe environment for students should be our primary concern, as no student invests their time in LD debate to be treated as collateral damage.
As a point of preemption, some may assert that exposure to literature which discusses issues of difference makes debate hostile because it makes some students or coaches uncomfortable. Being uncomfortable may be a part of addressing issues that are challenging. There is a clear distinction between being uncomfortable and being unsafe (fearing for ones physical safety).
Bogdan again, (emphasis added):
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).
As educators we should be teaching our students how to handle uncomfortable situations and difficult literature properly. On the other hand, we should not have to spend our time teaching students how to cope with online harassment and threats to their physical safety.
Concern 4: “Come on, the authors GO OFF on people who vote against their kids!”
Our Response: Improper comparison that does not excuse online or in-person bullying of minors. Best to talk personally with the coaches with whom you disagree.
Some have argued that as coaches we have had post round discussions with judges that have made some feel uncomfortable. There may be a reason to have a discussion about post-round decorum and community norms, but that isn’t a reason to say that online bullying is acceptable, or “blowing up” during Round 7 at the TOC is okay.
Further, we do believe that some bodies will seem more hostile than others. We find that for us, asking pointed questions is seen as hostile, where other bodies get far more leeway. In line with the essay, we would suggest that if anyone has a problem with a coach or how a coach behaves, talk to that coach. In one case someone criticized one of the authors online in relation to the essay, and — after a conversation with the author — deleted his negative comments. Sometimes perceptions can be wrong. But that really is a topic for a different discussion. We do not think that it is intellectually honest to dismiss the online and in-person bullying of minors because some have a problem with the adults delivering the message.
Concern 5: “What about the oppression of women and GLBTQ debaters? Why do you only focus on race?”
Our response: Our analysis and examples have already included all types of difference; reread Part 1.
Some have asserted that we have only addressed issues of racial difference at the exclusion of disability, gender and sexual orientation.
In our initial essay we were very clear that the examples we cited and the students affected served “canaries in the mine” which applied to ALL students in the auditorium.
In addition, we have personally seen many situations in circuit LD where students are targeted for their “multiple identities” (i.e. example 2) and then subsequently bullied, ostracized and terrorized. We are livid when we hear of students ridiculed because of their mental or physical disabilities. We are disgusted when we have witnessed women in the community being sexually harassed due to earlier “public protests” and flame wars. We are horrified by the names that quare/queer individuals are constantly called at camps and tournaments. These experiences motivate our strong public stance against treating these coaches and students as expendable.
Readers should avoid playing the “Oppression Olympics” when reading our article. We make no apologies for being explicitly anti-racist. But an anti-racist position works in conjunction with efforts to oppose victimization of other marginalized populations.
A time for moving forward
We recognize that to some in the community, it is uncomfortable and threatening to them to be told that behaving in the following ways will not be tolerated: calling well educated black coaches “thugs,” referring to students of color’s arguments as “nigger frameworks” or continuing to reference some LD students (and others) as “affirmative action babies.”
Again, we ask those who believe in political movements within debate: Where are the public denouncements of these abominations that occur in our collective auditoriums?
No educator who has a duty of care toward students could reasonably engage in public “sit outs” or start flame wars while deliberately ignoring the suffering of the innocents who they recklessly endanger in the process. We also contend that it is not our obligation to remain silent when we have had to take care of and rebuild children who have felt the brunt of such “activism” and the direct attacks of mobs created. Re-asserting “it wasn’t a mob!” does nothing to mitigate the actions which continue to harm innocent students.
We refer back to Richard Sodikow’s example. Would he ever endorse a protest in the debate auditorium over tab results/decisions, knowing that a student of color, a woman, a disabled person, a queer/quare individual or other child would feel that their world was ending and that they were hated by everyone? No. He would insist on handling such matters in a separate, private environment because the welfare of students outweighs short-term conflicts over debate tournament results that few will care about in a couple of years.
We would all be well served to follow the example of NSDA Hall of Fame and Legendary Bronx High School of Science coach, Richard Sodikow.
Or, suppose we don’t follow his example:
Imagine that it is April 2015 at the TOC. A group of 40 to 50 people (students and coaches) initiate a “sit out” protest against what they feel is an unjust, egregious, totally unfair decision that took away a debater’s win. The tab room tries to explain the rationale for the decision. Several coaches “grill” the tab room director, peppering him/her with questions, even to the point of raising their voice to a point that could be perceived as yelling. Some of this yelling has been recorded and distributed on an online video site. During the protests, a person (or persons) yells “There he is!!!” toward the white student who benefited from the ruling.
And, in this “sit out”, all of the participants are Black.
Will this also be perceived by the community as a just protest?
Will the level of intensity, volume and aggressiveness in the exchanges with the tournament director and tab room be interpreted the same way as the TOC 2014 protest?
If you are being truly honest with yourself, you already know the answers to these questions.
Nicholas Kristof helps to add some clarity to our position when he illustrates:
“The truth is that injustice is easy not to notice when it affects people different from ourselves; that helps explain the obliviousness of our own generation to inequity today. We need to wake up.”
Seemingly Uncontroversial Solutions
The good thing to note and emphasize about the responses to our original essay is that our suggested solutions did not seem controversial. In addition to an online petition, we suggested four specific things that coaches, online debate institutions, and National Championship tournaments must do to make the auditorium safer for all students:
Stop supporting online institutions and summer institutes that promote and encourage destructive online behavior. If online bullying occurs on a website, the national high school debate community must not support that site. If the bully-encouraging site is associated with a summer institute, the national high school debate community must not support that institute.
Demand that online discussion boards disallow negative comments about students, coaches, and programs. This is the source of online bullying. From our original essay: “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.”
Educators must loudly condemn the racist sexist attitudes that are often the basis of these attacks.
Require an Online Code of Conduct for Tournament participation:
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. In other words, coaches, judges, and students who bully online or support online bullying by publishing the harassing text should be excluded from participation in the National Championship tournaments.
Since our original essay the leadership of the National Speech and Debate Association, The National Debate Coaches Association and the Tournaments have agreed to endorse our pledge. Let us look again at our suggested solutions as we continue to move forward. Our community must no longer tolerate online bullying.
Jonathan Alston – Director of Debate at Science Park High School
Anthony Berryhill – Ph.D. Candidate in Political Theory at Yale University
Aaron Timmons – Director of Debate at Greenhill School
Bogdan, Racles, Hating the Herd, Our Unknown Enemy: Mob Mentality, October 14, 2012. http://bqsuvt.wordpress.com/2012/10/14/our-unknown-enemy-mob-mentality/
Brown, Roger, Social Psychology: The Second Edition (New York: Free Press, 1986
Citron (Danielle Keats). The Offensive Internet: Speech, Privacy, and Reputation, Civil Rights in Our Information Age, Edited by – Saul Levmore and Martha C. Nussbaum ¸ 2010
Janis, Irving L. (Scholar in Residence at UC Berkeley). Victims of Groupthink. New York: Houghton Mifflin. (1972) http://www.psysr.org/about/pubs_resources/groupthink%20overview.htm
Kristoff, Nicholas, When Whites Just Don’t Get It, Part 3, New York Times, October 11, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/12/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-when-whites-just-dont-get-it-part-3.html