Does Traditional College Debate Reinforce White Privilege?
But other teams who have prepared for a traditional policy debate are frustrated when they encounter a meta-debate, or an alternative stylistic approach in competition. These teams say that the pedagogical goals of policy debate are not being met—and are even being undermined. Aaron Hardy, who coaches debate at Northwestern University, is concerned about where the field is headed. “We end up … with a large percentage of debates being devoted to arguing about the rules, rather than anything substantive,” he wrote on a CEDA message board last fall.
Indeed, to prevail using the new approach, students don’t necessarily have to develop high-level research skills or marshal evidence from published scholarship. They also might not need to have the intellectual acuity required for arguing both sides of a resolution. These skills—together with a non-confrontational presentation style—are considered crucial for success in fields like law and business.
I agree much with Aaron Hardy. The classic structure of a formal debate is neither arbitrary nor artificial: it is designed to train future leaders in the tools they need to craft policy, argue for it persuasively, and enact it. Appeals to emotion and personal anecdotes make for bad and thus ineffective policy; that’s why the focus must be on research and analytics, on precedent and history, not as class or race markers, but to distinguish what’s likely to work from what isn’t. Performance art may be dramatic, and it may make a point, but it doesn’t answer any questions. Meanwhile, arguing both sides, and the measured tones of formal debate force one to think along with the opposition, to understand their perspective, and take their concerns into account, rather than demonize them. It opens your mind to ways of thought not immediate to you, assists in compromise, and enhances the quality of solutions one can devise, solutions more likely to serve all interests, more or less. It forces one to be patient, to overcome one’s own passion and direct it into an orderly structure that can withstand critique and examination.
Objectivity or the lack thereof are not absolutes, and anyone who believes that, by following a process, they have obliterated the self in their reason is being themselves irrational, if not delusional. What process does is it helps us account for the personal in our perspective, acknowledge it, and minimize it. It’s a false dichotomy to say that, since an argument cannot be completely objective, that therefore objectivity is a mirage. It can be used as a buzz-word to ill effect, true, but it is something we must strive after as an ideal, an unreachable ideal, if we are to understand anything about the world beyond us.
These are tools necessary not just for white males, but for everybody, if they are to seek leadership roles in society. “Alernative-style” debate reinforces the exclusion of minorities from the institutions that by necessity govern our complex society, turning it into a self-fulfilling prophesy, at a time when access is increasingly essential and increasingly possible for minorities. The alternative vision is one of the minority trapped in perennial radical opposition to structure and systems, righteous in their rage and protest, but ultimately impotent to effect real, enduring, change.