Accepting Our Differences by Jonathan Wei


How many times have you heard so-called TOC Debaters and coaches describe traditional debate as “talking pretty”, “saying nonsense”, or “adapting to the judge”? Flip it around.  How many times have you heard so-called traditional debaters and coaches criticize LD TOC Debate by saying, “LD isn’t policy”, “spreading is used to confuse your opponent”, or “counterplans don’t belong in LD”.

They both happen far too often.

When I was a debater, I competed on the TOC, NFL, TFA, and UIL circuits.  For readers outside of Texas, the TFA and UIL circuits (at least in Houston) were what most would refer to as Texas traditional debate.  It wasn’t unusual for me to be competing one weekend at a practice UIL debate tournament and the next weekend at an octos bid to the Tournament of Champions.  If you want the major complaints about each style of debate, I’ve heard them all, alternating back in forth among students, judges, and coaches who huddle in their friend groups to gossip about the atrocities occurring anywhere else that is not indicative of their own style of tournament.  In fact, I often felt like the biggest hypocrite there was, spewing trash about the stuck-up national debaters one weekend, and making fun of those who only have one affirmative and one negative case the next.

But why do we have to be labeled as traditional or TOC debaters?  Why can’t we all just be…debaters?  Because we all have egos.  It doesn’t matter what circuit you debate on, who your coach is, or how much success you’ve actually had.  Students, judges, and debaters alike have egos, and they love to show them off.

The Problem:

Example A:  Judges and Coaches

As a second-year out in college, I judge regularly at LD TOC qualifying debate tournaments both in and out of Texas.  I don’t do it for the money; I do it because I love the activity and the people who make it up.  I call them my friends.  Occasionally, however, I venture down to Houston to judge at a local debate tournament close to home.  A few weekends ago was one of those cases, where I awarded a student in a prelim a “28.5” as a speaker point value.  Upon handing my ballot into the coach’s table, I was startled to have been patronized at this action.  “Really? Point fives? Do you know how hard it is to put in point fives in the system?  Just another stupid circuit judge”.  Shocked and in utter disbelief, I managed a few words:  “With all due respect, I’ve never heard of point fives being an issue.  I apologize; I will do whole numbers from now on.  I was just unaware”.

The response from the coach?  “This isn’t a TOC tournament, and I don’t want respect from a crappy first-year out who only wants to judge at Harvard”.  

Aside from assuming much more than I was implying (and getting my age wrong), this coach of a local area high school stated a much larger implication in just a few words.

  1. We have preconceived notions.  People who are not exposed to each type of debate often make unreasonable claims about the style that they do not associate with.  Did I give point fives solely due to my experiences in judging at TOC tournaments?  Probably not.  Yet the community is so divided and unaccepting of different methods of debate that it seems nothing we say can save us from the inevitable criticism.
  2. As students, judges, and coaches, we have egos.  It’s never acceptable to assume, but it seems fairly clear given the coach’s choice of words that I was not as knowledgeable as her in the activity, as I am merely a “crappy first year out”, and not a long-time instructor like herself.  While it might be fair to say that she has more experience in the activity and is thus more respected overall, I don’t believe that is a reason to disregard those who have been in the community for a shorter period of time.  This is true because each person has a different viewpoint and conception of debate, which this article attempts to highlight.

Example B: Students  

A few weeks ago, I was judging LD rounds at TOC bid qualifying tournament. I distinctly remember judging a prelim round that featured two students: one debater who I knew had clearly been debating on the circuit for multiple years, and one debater whom I had never met before.  The latter competitor apologized in advance for the performance they were about to give, stating that their team didn’t travel a lot nationally, and that they were used to less progressive forms of debate.  I saw this one coming before the 1AC had even begun.  The debater with more national circuit experience read multiple off case positions ranging from dense, critical material to a bi-directional theory shell that went 100% conceded by the other debater.  As terrible as this sounds, it wasn’t the bad part of the debate.  That came in the rudeness during each CX period, the laughter the winning debater shared with their friends watching the round, and the jokes that were made at the other debater in rebuttals that made me feel uncomfortable.  What happened after the round?  The debater who was less exposed to TOC debate didn’t want to participate anymore.  They wanted to go back to what they knew better, and rightfully so.

Example C:  Judges and Students 

Last year, as a first-year out at a competitive TOC bid tournament, I was on top of a 2-1 decision that featured two exceptionally-skilled debaters, both who eventually qualified to the TOC.  For myself and the judge who voted with me, the decision was a reasonably clear win on theory.  The third judge, however, voted the opposite way on substance.  Instead of respecting the RFD of the judge who sat out and embracing the win with class, the victorious debater, their coaching staff, and various members of the audience were seen laughing at the “dumbass, gossiping about the “shittiness” of his judging abilities, and joking about the absurdness of the dissenting opinion.  Only later on did we find out that the judge in question was actually the most successful former debater on the panel.  They had qualified and done remarkably well at the TOC just under a decade prior, when theoretical violations were much more unheard of in LD, likely explaining the difference in the RFDs.  Does that mean he’s an incompetent judge?  No.  It means he sees debate differently, and there is nothing wrong with that.  

But how is that different from many other debaters?  How many times have you heard a debater lose on a 2-1 decision, only to say, “The panel f**d me over?”   Flip it.  Maybe the debater won the round on a 2-1, exclaiming proudly that “The third judge was a moron”, as if winning on a 2-1 is an embarrassment and not good enough.

Many of us have the privilege of having Mutually Preferred Judges at various TOC bid tournaments across the nation.  This is done privately for a reason.  If you think a judge isn’t up to your “standards”, strike them.  Give them a four.  Don’t gossip about them like they’re the newest iPhone just because you don’t agree with their philosophy.

Example D: Coaches, Judges, and Students

About students: 

“He sucks at the K debate!”

“He only understands util!”

“He can’t answer theory!”

“Just read skep…he won’t answer it!”

About judges: 

“He’s just a K hack!”

“He’s a util judge!”

“He can’t evaluate theory!”

“He intervenes!”

About coaches:

“He’s an idiot!”

“He sucked as a debater so he sucks as a coach!”

“He’s just part of the (XYZ enter your disliked camp here) cult!”

We’ve all heard these comments from someone before.  Maybe it’s because they have had an abundance of success in debate, and they feel that their comments are thus justified.  Maybe it’s because we’re all too stubborn to realize that different debaters read different arguments.  They go to different camps.  They hire different coaches.  And is that a bad thing?  Would you want to debate in a space where everyone read the same kritiks, the same plans, or the same theory shells?  What if Texas mirrored New York and Florida looked like California?  This diversity makes the community special.  Stop bashing someone for being different than you.

It’s worth noting that there is a distinction between classifying debaters, judges, and coaches in a respectful way for strategic purposes rather than conveying the information in a way that highlights one’s superiority over the other.  For example, consider the following two sentences from a debater to his or her coach:

“The student I am about to debate reads a lot of theory, and the judge we have votes on theory a lot”.

“This kid sucks at everything except theory, but just our luck, we have “enter judge name here” who hacks like an idiot for any shell read in round”.

On the surface, the two sentences convey, for the most part, the same information.  The difference, as highlighted by the article, is rooted in the amount of respect we have for one another.  When we adopt practices such as the latter example, it makes us appear as if we believe that we are superior to others in the community.

What this all means: 

I see this breaking down into two main issues:

  1. The issue between the lack for mutual acceptance and respect for traditional and TOC-style debate. (Examples A and B) 
  2. The issue of mutual lack of respect between debaters, judges, and coaches, even in their own “circuit”.  (Examples C and D)  

The Solution:

Here’s a crazy idea.  As TOC debaters, coaches, and judges, we don’t have to think that traditional debate is the best thing since sliced bread.  Flip it.  As traditional debaters, we don’t have to agree with the spreading, plans, and kritiks that are accustom with national circuit debate.  But if we keep being uptight, if we keep finding every reason to bash one another, if we keep pushing out those who want to come in, then we’ll continue to be divided and stuck up in our own little world.  The same is true for problems within the circuits that we love.  As debaters who love policymaking and the Woller 97 card, we don’t have to delve in and start reading dense philosophy every day after school.  As the debater who answers theory with the K, we don’t have to read bidirectional shells no matter what our opponent reads.

But we have to be respectful.  We have to keep our ego in check and realize that others have opinions too.  It’s necessary for the health of the community and the acceptance of that one debater who wants to try out a different style of debate, but like so many, is simply afraid of the foreign.

We don’t have to be TOC debaters.  We don’t have to be traditional debaters.  We don’t have to be util debaters, K debaters, theory debaters.  We can all just be… debaters.