The First Rule of Debate Club

We’ve held debates here, most notably between two of our former Fault Lines debating rivals, Chris Seaton and Mario Machado. And the rules are pretty much there are no rules. They agree upon a proposition and then one takes the affirmative and the other gets stuck with the negative, whether they are personally for or against the resolution. Why? Because debating is about debating, about coming up with the most persuasive argument possible to make your case.

What happens here, apparently, stays here, or at least isn’t happening on the national high school debate tournaments. Sure, they have rules because schools love rules, but they also have judges who adore debate except when an argument is made that conflicts with their beliefs or failings. And they make no secret of their “paradigm.”

First, some background. Imagine a high school sophomore on the debate team. She’s been given her topic about a month in advance, but she won’t know who her judge is until hours before her debate round. During that time squeeze—perhaps she’ll pace the halls as I did at the 2012 national tournament in Indianapolis—she’ll scroll on her phone to look up her judge’s name on Tabroom, a public database maintained by the NSDA. That’s where judges post “paradigms,” which explain what they look for during a debate. If a judge prefers competitors not “spread”—speak a mile a minute—debaters will moderate their pace. If a judge emphasizes “impacts”—the reasons why an argument matters—debaters adjust accordingly.

Wise of debaters to become aware of, and then adjust to, any idiosyncratic views of their judges. After all, the faster you talk, the more words you get to say. But if you lose the judge by fast-talking, then more words isn’t the best tactic. Useful info, right?

But let’s say when the high school sophomore clicks Tabroom she sees that her judge is Lila Lavender, the 2019 national debate champion, whose paradigm reads, “Before anything else, including being a debate judge, I am a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist. . . . I cannot check the revolutionary proletarian science at the door when I’m judging. . . . I will no longer evaluate and thus never vote for rightest capitalist-imperialist positions/arguments. . . . Examples of arguments of this nature are as follows: fascism good, capitalism good, imperialist war good, neoliberalism good, defenses of US or otherwise bourgeois nationalism, Zionism or normalizing Israel, colonialism good, US white fascist policing good, etc.”

How, you might ask, is it possible that a judge of national high school debates could have a “paradigm” that states, without any hint of shame for being facially prejudiced against any argument that fails to align with her “Marxist-Leninist-Maoist” ideology? Unfortunately, part of the answer is that it isn’t “a judge,” but “judges.”

In the past few years, however, judges with paradigms tainted by politics and ideology are becoming common. Debate judge Shubham Gupta’s paradigm reads, “If you are discussing immigrants in a round and describe the person as ‘illegal,’ I will immediately stop the round, give you the loss with low speaks”—low speaker points—“give you a stern lecture, and then talk to your coach. . . . I will not have you making the debate space unsafe.”

And she’s not the only judge who says so.

Debate Judge Kriti Sharma concurs: under her list of “Things That Will Cause You To Automatically Lose,” number three is “Referring to immigrants as ‘illegal.’ ”

Of course, there are, as a matter of fact and law, such a thing as “illegal immigrants,” even if it’s become popular to use euphemisms so as not to smear all undocumented immigrants, or “aliens” as the law calls them. But what about those aliens who are illegal according to statute? More to the point, why would the use of a descriptor that might be both accurate and correct in the context of an argument receive a judges “stern lecture” for “making the debate space unsafe”? Unsafe for what, thought?

The National Speech & Debate Association (NSDA) has rules that purport to preclude judges from judging based on their personal ideological likes and dislikes, or bias as some might call it.

On paper, the NSDA rejects what Lavender, Gupta, and Sharma are doing. Its rules state, “Judges should decide the round as it is debated, not based on their personal beliefs.” Founded in 1925, the NSDA chooses the debate topics and facilitates hundreds of tournaments, including the annual national tournament, starting June 11 in Arizona, where six thousand students from across the country will compete.

But then, why does that not disqualify these judges who announce in their “paradigm” that any debater who defies their open bias loses? There are judges who eschew personal bias and invite rigorous debate, as both the rules purportedly require and which is consistent with the nature of debate.

A random scroll through Tabroom reveals there are still sane judges out there. “I have been a trial lawyer for 25 years,” reads Amanda Marshall’s paradigm. “I like clash, quality evidence from qualified sources, comparative analysis, and crystallization in last rebuttals. Don’t take anything for granted. You have to explain your arguments, why your evidence is compelling, and how the arguments weigh in the round. It’s your job to persuade me and communicate your positions in a way that is effective—that is how you will win my ballot. I don’t like whining, personal attacks, dominance, aggression, and disrespect. I do appreciate professionalism, kindness, and integrity.”

Even this might appear a bit crimped, given that there can be times when “kindness” isn’t the appropriate response to certain arguments when they lapse into fallaciousness or assert non-existent facts such as the earth being flat. But at least the paradigm focuses on the nature of argumentation rather than the substance of an argument that offended a judge’s sensibilities.

But these judges are becoming the dinosaurs of debating, as the NSDA, which says debates should be judged not on personal beliefs but on debate, nonetheless embraces the opposite.

In the past year, Lindsey Shrodek has judged over 120 students at tournaments in Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey. The NSDA has certified her with its “Cultural Competency” badge, which indicates she has completed a brief online training module in evaluating students with consideration for their identity and cultural background. Until last month, Shrodek’s paradigm told debaters, “[I]f you are white, don’t run arguments with impacts that primarily affect POC [people of color]. These arguments should belong to the communities they affect.”

In response, the NSDA argues that its rule, noted above, remains the rule, and if schools with knowledge of the judges’ peccadilloes choose to hire debate judges with paradigms in conflict with those rules, that’s on the schools and not the NSDA, which offers a “cultural competency badge” for its judges. As the nation’s best high school debaters move forward in their lives, some to law school and ultimately to courtroom trenches, the lesson learned isn’t to make the best possible argument, but to make no argument that offends.



12 thoughts on “The First Rule of Debate Club

  1. Paleo

    Progressives seem to have a mental disease that detaches their observations from reality. Does Levander really ever come across someone arguing that fascism is good? I doubt it. The problem here is that her definition of fascism is ridiculous. And all the while she adheres to a political/economic philosophy that has generated more human misery than any other in history.

    If I can’t call them illegal aliens, what can I call them? Economic tourists? Squatters? The w-word?

    These people are just using their petty and tiny power to bend people that are subordinate to them to their will. In most circumstances isn’t that identified as oppression? If you pointed out that they are the oppressors here, the wouldn’t be capable of understanding.

    And if the outcome of a competition is basically pre-ordained, why bother to have the competition at all?

  2. Turk

    On the other hand, it teaches students to read the audience/jury and to tailor their arguments accordingly when they detect bias.

    1. SHG Post author

      Is that “on the other hand,” or the point of paradigms whether they reflect a fair or biased judge?

      1. Turk

        Admittedly, it’s hard to take the other hand when there are biased people sitting there.

    2. Rwlesq

      This is my thought. The first judge sounds like she may be judging in the her prior belief about the subject. The later two are just laying out things that they will or won’t find convincing. It’s like finding out your judge has written a lot on the problems with originalist interpretations of the constitution- you probably want to find an argument that supports your side that isn’t just origjnalism.

  3. B. McLeod

    The nature of totalitarians is such that no space can be off-limits to their hat and pole. Their version of Gleichshaltung must be achieved, at any cost, so of course they must extend this to punishing students who speak heretical words, even in the context of a debate tournament.

  4. Mark Bennett

    “given that there can be times when ‘kindness’ isn’t the appropriate response to certain arguments when they lapse into fallaciousness”

    Bless your heart.

  5. Richard Parker

    Fascism, historically, is an economic theory that can be separated from Hitler and Mussolini.

    A fascies (sp), which is on the back of your Roosevelt dime, is a long ax strengthen by a bundle of sticks. They ‘co-operate’ to make a stronger tool. Fascist economic theory proposes that councils of opposing interests can co-operate to build a more just society.

    It’s just a theory. Whether any of it is true or not is a different question.

  6. Eliot J Clingman

    They should change the name from Debate Club to Agree Club in the interest of transparency.

  7. CLS

    If I had this Tabroom crap back in my day my debate partners and I would’ve sat out of these shit activist debate judges’ rounds and taken our grievances up with the school organizers of the tournament.

    This crap tarnishes the ideals parli, policy and LD debates try to instill in participants.

    The NSDA needs to be ashamed of themselves for letting this get so out of control.

    And to those saying this is good to get kids used to arguing in a way that appeals to the judges–this kneecaps the kids that must take unpopular positions and use language that may offend. It might not be popular but sometimes to win an argument that’s what must happen.

    But heavens forbid we offend Maoist debate judges who can’t stand the word “illegal.”

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