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  • Debate can take you nearly anywhere. Places you never imagined you could go.
    Sometimes, places you wish you’d never found—places like media outlets dedicated to disseminating white supremacist ideologies.

     

    For the last year, my research interests, background in debate, and generally antagonistic personality have brought me deep into the world of “bloodsport debating,” a style of unstructured, polemic debate practiced by the white supremacist far-right. By arguing amongst themselves, the right has created the aesthetic of flourishing political discourse while never straying too far from their core belief that the composition of a nation must be carefully curated and maintained.

     

    A significant contingent of the left has rejected the political utility of debating those who hold such abhorrent views—a feeling I suspect is tied to an understanding of debate that is the most pedantic, elitist version possible. Such a case was recently made in an article by English feminist author Laurie Penny, who collapsed all forms of debate into “the way [she] was taught to do it at [her] posh school,” and “fundamentally an intellectual dick-smacking contest dressed up in institutional lingerie, and while there are plenty of women out there who can unzip their enormous brains and thwack them on the table with the best of them, the formula is catastrophically macho.” Yikes. That’s a link.

     

    Most of us recognize that form of debate, primarily practiced by very online avatars, but it’s far from the only kind that exists. Policy debate presents us with an argumentative training ground that isn’t just about logic, but about persuasion more broadly. In a recent piece in Current Affairs, Nathan Robinson explains that “‘debate’ is not strictly a contest of logical argumentation; it is a contest of persuasion, and the strict presentation of factual arguments and conclusions is only one of the ways in which this occurs.” The most valuable aspect of policy debate is its uncertainty and ability to accommodate diverse intellectual tactics, putting everything from the audience to the argument style to the very definition of winning and losing up for re/interpretation.

     

    Understanding debate holistically is critical for real-world advocacy. One significant reason white supremacists win the public relations war with the majority of civically-minded citizens is that they tend to the audience rather than beating someone over the head with the most correct and logical information. Any debater who has been caught with an unsympathetic judge in the back of the room knows that if your audience doesn’t have the intellectual tools or frame of mind to understand your argument, you may as well have never made it. White supremacists excel at speaking to the audience instead of the facts, tapping into the “common-sense” racism most Americans feel. Rather than allowing this to lead us to the conclusion debate is impossible, we should redouble our commitment to strategizing around the audience and truth, instead of hoping the truth will speak for itself.

     

    Some readers may now be wondering, “Why bother?” The answer is simple. At some point, you aren’t just refusing to debate—you’re also refusing to persuade. The hesitation around this kind of engagement, Robinson argues, has tangible consequences:

    “There’s something that sounds faintly dirty about encouraging people to think beyond purely rational forms of persuasion. But it’s that refusal to get one’s hands dirty with rhetoric that is the problem, not the willingness to use language rather than physical force as one’s chief political weapon. The choice is not necessarily between “trying to reason logically with the other side” and “engaging in violent struggle.” It could also be that for progressives, persuasion is usually best effected neither through violence nor formal deductive reasoning, but through effective messaging, telling people things that actually get them to support your politics. In other words, it’s not just what you say, but how you say it and who you are.”

     

    I have been met with my fair share of suspicion and horror for engaging white supremacists in their spaces but am no less convinced of its importance. It’s not true that, as the refrain goes, “There’s just no debating white supremacy” or “We can’t debate over people’s humanity.” Those debates are already occurring, with or without us, in well-funded spaces and highly publicized platforms all over the world. Of course, any engagement must be careful to avoid amplifying or strengthening white supremacy’s public platform, but the fight for liberation and justice requires walking into deeply immoral spaces and hijacking them with better arguments and the kind of credibility that you can only build through repeated exposure and thoughtful consideration of your audience.

     

    After all, white supremacy is not simply immoral in the abstract—it’s immoral because it’s a terrible argument whose backing falls apart with even the slightest application of scrutiny. Articulating those embarrassing gaps in white supremacy’s logic strengthens people’s convictions against it and empowers them to tackle those arguments in their daily life. Debate certainly can’t save us on its own (and we should not all run out to debate every random racist on the internet), but it is one important tool in the Big Box of Tactics because you lose 100% of the flows you drop.

     

    When persuading people to turn away from the alt-right, I rely on four main lessons from my time in policy debate. While other forms of debate are wonderful for teaching public speaking skills or introducing someone to a civil or traditional method of argumentation, there’s nothing quite like this activity.         

     

     

    Lesson 1: “Framework Makes the Game Work”
     

     
    Anyone who has debated in the Southeast in the last decade has heard Erik Mathis repeat this phrase, though I was far less appreciative of it as a competitor. The process of moving through a debate round teaches us that, no matter what you choose to do with your life, you will have far too little time to do it. The further you get into a career or a doctoral program, the more you have to make difficult choices about where to spend your time building depth at the exclusion of something else.

     

    Given these temporal constraints, framework provides an argument about what information the audience should dedicate their time to evaluating. In other words, framework controls the rubric for what it means to win.

    When it comes to debating white supremacists, the stakes can feel exceptionally high if “losing” means more people walk away believing in the elevated humanity of whiteness. Reworking a debate to be about something else—like the ethics of even allowing white supremacists to advocate for their position when it is not cogent enough to meet even a basic burden of proof—sets the bar higher and changes how people are approaching the question as they evaluate the arguments. 

     

     

    Lesson 2: Know Your Opponents Argument Better Than They Do

     

     

    If there’s one thing that sets policy debate apart from every other activity, it’s the depth of research. From deep, two-sided research emerges “round vision,” or the ability to predict an opponent’s available strategic options in their last speech before the debate even begins. Those new to debate will often get caught up in the logical minutia of something that can be easily conceded in favor of ten new, late-breaking examples that can’t all be adequately examined. A deep understanding of what your opponent believes is the single best predictor of how persuasively you can preempt their positions.

     

    For example, many on the right have begun to cite a recent academic “hoax” wherein people spent a year attempting (and mostly failing) to publish outrageous fake articles in feminist studies journals. There are a host of reasons why this hoax is not a sufficient indictment of entire academic departments, but anyone that invested in delegitimizing research that undermines power will quickly turn to hyperbolic examples about professors or graduate students that spoke too candidly about whiteness, or masculinity, or colonialism on Twitter. It’s far more powerful to indict evidence in the broader context of your opponent’s worldview—especially if you can explain their arguments and ridiculous examples before they do.

     

     

    Lesson 3: Truth and Tech Matter Differently

     

     

    Hillary Clinton may have won the flow in every presidential debate against Donald Trump, but a disproportionately powerful minority of people saw her as a loser. As she prattled off policy details and encouraged people to seek out live fact-checking websites, Trump accused her of starting ISIS and paraded in women who had accused her husband of sexual misconduct. The audience, with no idea how to compare those two things, defaulted to whoever and whatever they trusted before the debates began.

     

    Knowing your opposition’s content is important, but so is knowing their form. A bombastic persuasion style must be met with something equally invested in emotional connection while also seeking the upper hand in credibility. A highly technical, civility-minded opponent requires a more controlled style that tackles precision with more accessible, but still truthful, explanations. Advocates find ourselves faced with every kind of interlocuter, and nothing teaches you to adapt your explanations to the setting quite like approaching the same topic 50 different ways with different opponents and audiences each time.

     

     

    Lesson 4: Research, Test, Clash

     

     

    As Wisconsin’s own Assistant Director Jordan Foley always reminds me, “You can’t beat the game in one night.” Debate is an iterative process of persuasion that can’t be reduced to even the most impressively and thoroughly researched files. Creating a persuasive message requires taking research and testing it by clashing against those who hold other perspectives. Things that seem obviously persuasive in your own head or friend group may have no resonance whatsoever with those outside of it. There’s no better way to figure out what is convincing than to try to convince people, failing, and reworking your arguments until you break through.

     

    Clash also provides the opportunity to attack weak arguments—I truly cannot overstate the impact of the phrase “Can you point to a line in the study that says that?” in front an audience who has never seen their intellectual icons pushed to prove they are characterizing evidence fairly. 

     

     

     

    Debate will take you to places you never imagined, and to some you’ve surely been eyeing since you began your educational lives. No matter where you wind up, debate will have taught you a core set of lessons about how to persuade people, and what they can (and can’t) be persuaded of in any given context.

     

    By the end of your career, you will have spent years training yourself in a particular style of argumentation. You will take what you've learned out of the often-cruel world of competitive debate and into a much crueler world that you will find yourself desperate to change. Along the way, persuasion will be a critical part of asking for help, building a base, and making real forward movement.

     

    Growing into an advocate is a lifelong process of honing and sharpening and adjusting our tactics. As debaters, we have something necessary (but not sufficient) to spur change—good or bad. With those skills in mind, where will debate take you?

     

     

     

     

     

    CV is the Director of Debate at the University of Wisconsin--Madison and a doctoral candidate in the department of Communication Arts. They study institutional use of genetic data and human taxonomies in political discourse. 

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    11 hours ago, businessmonkey said:

    hey @ColinDwhen's the next article?  I've really enjoyed these!

    Forthcoming is the best word. We've all been bogged down with irl work, but @RobGlass has stuff in the hopper

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      View full article
    • By Mike Davis
      Institutions of higher learning all have mission statements and make public proclamations that espouse the value of developing critical thinking skills, creating engaged citizens, and building rigorous educational programming. Policy debate programs help universities meet these requirements like nothing else can. When done well full-service policy debate programs are more academically rigorous than any class students will take, and when combined with an extensive public debate program have the potential to engage the entire student body.
       
      Seven years ago, JMU Debate received a fairly large budget increase. It was in my 5th year as Director of Debate and interestingly it had only a slight connection to our competitive success as a team. We had grown very rapidly and it was due in large part to my inability to say no and belief that debate should be open to everyone (if you aren’t willing to embrace the big tent model of the debate that allows people at all levels to be involved you should probably stop reading right now). We were bursting at the seams, and our budget simply did not allow for me to recruit any more debaters. We had 12 fairly committed students returning and I  did not know how we could continue to recruit students in good faith that we could not afford to travel.
       
      Honestly, this is not a problem that would have led to our budget increase. The university would have been fine at the budget level we were at with us having a half dozen successful teams at the junior varsity and open levels. The thing they really cared about were our public debate and outreach efforts. The simple truth is that for really good public debates you need to have experienced students and if more and more of our debaters were sticking around it meant that we would have no new debaters to train for public debates in the future. I made the argument that if you want to have a robust public debate program in three years we need to recruit and train those students as first year students and that work could not be done without a budget increase.
       
      In my budget proposal I outlined all of our public debate and outreach efforts, the incredible students that we were recruiting and value that having debate students in class added to class discussions (complete with testimonials from professors from almost every college on campus). I explained that we had grown to our capacity and if the university wanted us to continue to do our good work they would have support us financially. I even threatened to dial back our efforts and only focus on competition if our budget stayed the same (I’m not sure what I would have done if they had called my bluff).
       
      I probably need to mention at this point that our competitive success mattered as well. If we had just had a vibrant public debate program then I doubt we would have been able to recruit the same students and, more importantly, our triumphs let me make the argument that we had superior debaters who had honed their skills against the best teams in the country. And we had the tournament success and national rankings to prove it.
       
      So, we were doing it all on a shoestring budget and the university was touting our successes as an example of what the engagement university should strive for. Only after we had done all of that work did we receive a budget that allowed us to compete at the level we were capable of (even though it was still well below the national average). Imagine if a football team had to show they could be competitive (plus do a ton of community service) in order to get their budget approved.
       
      So, the real question is why doesn’t every university in the country have a debate team, and why don’t those who do have them support them at the level that they support less academic endeavors? There are 774 college football teams in the United States, but there are significantly fewer college debate programs. Whose fault is that? Is it the universities that fail to support college debate programs or is it the fault of the debate programs themselves? The truth is both parties are to blame.
       
      The Failure in University Priorities
       
      Many universities’ priorities are way out of whack. This is not to say that the university cannot focus on athletics or great facilities or top-notch graduate programs. What I am saying is that when those things are done while undergraduate education is ignored then a university has to take a long hard look at what they place a value on.
       
      A debate budget is tiny when it comes to the general operating budget of a university. Yet debate budgets are often on the chopping block when departments or universities are looking for savings. This demonstrates that many universities are simply not willing to match their stated goals with their spending priorities. I was extremely lucky that at JMU our debate program was safe and, after pushing for a budget increase for years, well supported.
       
      That didn’t happen by accident though. It required a sustained and consistent effort to raise the profile of the debate program and ensure that individuals throughout the university understood the importance of supporting the debate program.
       
      The Failure of University Debate Programs
       
      There are very few college debate programs that are truly safe from budgetary issues. You can count on two hands the debate programs that are so well supported and so well-funded that they are guaranteed to exist long into the future. Additionally, there are only a small contingent of debate programs that can exist on the basis of competitive success alone. Most debate programs need to find ways to connect with broader university goals in order to justify their existence. Here is my advice based on what worked for us at JMU.
       
      First, connect the work your debate team does to the university mission and vision statements. This is low hanging fruit. An analysis of over 120 university mission statements from universities (thanks to Marie Eszenyi and Oliver Brass for their assistance with the coding) that have had policy debate programs in the past ten years indicate an emphasis on the following attributes that align directly with most debate programs:
       
      ·       Autonomy, Choice or Democratic Problem-Solving
      ·       Experiential Learning or Applied Research
      ·       Creativity
      ·       Critical Thinking, Debate, Advocacy or Communication
      ·       Diversity of People or Ideas
      ·       Empowerment
      ·       Responsible Civic Engagement
      ·       Holistic Personal Development
      ·       Leadership
      ·       Collaboration
      ·       Research
      ·       Academic Rigor
      ·       Service
       
      Every single university mission statement that was included contained at least three of these characteristics with some containing as many as nine. Interestingly, the results did not vary based on the type of institution. Community Colleges, regional public universities, small private universities and big national research universities all placed the emphasis on creating deep learning opportunities for undergraduate students.
       
      This analysis proves that universities already value what we are doing. The fact that they don’t realize how central debate is to their mission and vision is our fault. For too long we hid out on the weekends afraid that someone would find out that we are speaking fast or talking about topics that seem to the untrained observer as unrelated to the resolution. Thanks to Youtube that cat is out of the bag. Everyone can see what we are doing and it’s time for us to embrace it. It’s time for us to say that speaking quickly increases the research burden and the academic rigor of what we do and that just as performance studies or critical race studies or any other disruptive practices exist on our campus then also exist in debate (and give students often great access than they receive on their own campuses).
       
      As we defend debate we should do so in a way that confronts university administrators’ perceptions of debate by tying it directly to the official statements that universities make about what they value.
       
      At the same time, we need to add to our repertoire. We can no longer just compete and hope that is enough. We need to reach out and form partnerships across campus and into our local communities. We need to do big public debates so that others on campus can no longer say “I didn’t know we had a debate team.” Finding ways to showcase our students’ ability to research and capacity to teach our communities how to engage with difficult or complex ideas is the best path to making sure that debate survives for future generations. It is hard work, but if we find ways to embrace what our universities think matter (especially when we are already doing much of it) then we might just leave something for the next generation of debaters.
       
       
      - Dr. Mike Davis is the Executive Advisor to President Jonathan Alger of James Madison University. Before his he was the Director of Debate of James Madison University's debate team, and coached at the University of Georgia and the University of Rochester. He debated for Syracuse University, and is the namesake of the Michael K. Davis Award given annually by CEDA East.
    • By Anthony :3
      Okay so I am a little troll and wanna start a nice little discussion that isn't gonna cause any fighting... ? 
      Which states breeds the best debaters (College) go at it ?
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      All the debates I have fell in love with have those fresh memes and I swear to god that I passed by a room running to my third round and mid 1AC I hear someone say Yeet and I look inside and they dabbed xD. Have any of yall done memes in debate rounds if so plz share that story ❤️
    • By ColinD
      Decent read. Something to put in the face of administrators or parents who "don't get it."
       
      https://gradadmissions.mit.edu/blog/policy-debate-vs-research
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