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A Love Letter to Debate: Pre-Fiat Positions and the Difficulties of Discussing Race and Privilege
It’s all love in the turn up, so this is for the judge that claims he will not vote for micropolitical positions, so we should’ve struck him from judging our two students who ran micropolitical positions at Harvard, but we jacked that up real bad, so there he was judging one of them in the bubble round. Our student had some choices to make, and I am proud of the choices he made: he went into the round and tried to change the judge's mind.
It didn’t work.
It’s all love in the turn up, so this is for Bump. Eric really likes philosophy, and he works really hard to understand complex ideas and then win debate rounds on the strength of that understanding and a direct handling of the resolution. So there he was in the bid round, against a debater who runs a micropolitical position about race and privilege. Eric didn’t want to spike out of the discussion, or go all in on theory in the 1AR, or take a ride on the wambulance in the 2. He had some choices to make, and I am proud of the choices he made: he put in work to write a new position that would engage the questions raised by his opponent in a substantive way.
It didn’t work.
It’s all love in the turn up, but we still sometimes need a bulletproof vest. More than one kid has been murdered where we live, and it makes us think that if we had just brought them with us to the tournament that weekend, or if we had kept them late at practice, then they wouldn’t have been murdered. But these kids weren’t on our team; it was too hard to get them through the door, too hard to keep them in the room, too hard to make them feel welcome.
We still sometimes need a bulletproof vest. We need a space and a way to speak about our own experiences and the experiences of others. We need more voices, more perspectives, more perspective.
This has to work.
We find ourselves in a unique position to speak to some issues surrounding pre-fiat positions that involve race and privilege. This weekend, one of our students running a pre-fiat position lost in an upsetting and challenging way; another of our students lost to a pre-fiat position in an upsetting and challenging way. We are working hard to reconcile and understand these two experiences, and we felt, in light of recent discussions about performance/project/pre-fiat positions, that others might find some of our thoughts interesting to read and remark upon.
We will identify what troubles us about some of the current discussion re:pre-fiat positions, and then share some thoughts of our own that we believe might move the current discussion, and maybe our community, forward.
We are troubled by the ascription of intentionality. No one can know what motivates another person to act; people have enough trouble knowing what motivates themselves to act.
This cuts both ways. Opponents of pre-fiat positions sometimes claim that pre-fiat debaters are disingenuous, or that they only run these positions to win. Pre-fiat debaters and coaches sometimes claim that objections to pre-fiat positions are motivated by racism or sexism, or that genuine attempts to engage with pre-fiat positions are just “playing the game.”
Our community is too smart to make generalizations about one person based on anecdotal experiences with some other person. In debate as in life, we must resist assuming that we know the heart and mind of the person before us; we must instead do the hard work of opening our own hearts and minds so that we may learn from the unique experiences and perspectives of each person we interact with.
We are troubled by the persistent hostility that surrounds, and sometimes originates from, pre-fiat positions and debaters. In rounds, pre-fiat debaters often encounter openly aggressive and sometimes ad-hominem attacks; this is more upsetting when the attacked debater is a student of color or female or transgendered or identifies with any other marginalized or oppressed group. This has the effect of perpetuating the very injustice that these positions seek to redress.
Of course, pre-fiat debaters themselves sometimes unfairly target their opponents or judges, ascribing intentionality or using past injustices to justify mistreatment or aggression. Pre-fiat debaters may rightly feel persecuted, upset, or vulnerable, but this cannot be license to bully or silence others. Trying to win a round need not silence or insult your opponent; we can identify structural violence or exclusion, and even examine how practices and people can be complicit in that violence or exclusion, in a humane and respectful way.
We are troubled by the seemingly singular scrutiny faced by pre-fiat positions, especially those that discuss structural exclusion, racism, sexism, etc. Some members of our community believe these arguments should ‘die out’; others refuse to vote for them; some even refuse to listen to them at all, going so far as to walk out of rounds rather than listen to a debate.
Why are these arguments treated so differently than other arguments? A judge can begin their paradigm by specifying any number of arguments that he will not vote for. He can say “I will not vote for arguments that endorse rape or genocide” or “I will not vote for debaters who physically threaten or verbally abuse their opponents”. Incidentally, we believe all paradigms should say this, but for now we are troubled that these ideas are not excluded, but a student arguing against structural oppression or suggesting that the structures of debate should change is silenced.
Why these arguments? Why these positions? One answer that seems true to us is that these arguments challenge the status quo, and so those who benefit from the status quo are (understandably, though maybe not justifiably) defensive. Another answer that seems true to us is that these arguments often require their audience to examine issues of privilege and race and gender. Running these positions requires that debaters and their support networks also examine these issues. These issues are incredibly difficult to discuss.
We understand these difficulties, but we do not shy from them. Our students who run these positions have experienced incredible educational gains over the course of this year; they see and approach and understand the world differently now. They have also experienced incredible emotional turmoil over the course of this year; wrestling with these ideas has changed our team dynamic, challenged friendships, and changed people. We have seen firsthand the value of these arguments and discussions, and we cannot fathom why other educators reject them out-of-hand.
We are troubled by the lack of engagement with pre-fiat positions. New positions, be they new in structure or content, are always met with theoretical objections at first, but eventually people begin thinking about the arguments and develop substantive responses. That does not seem to be the case with pre-fiat positions. Losses are rejected as hack-jobs, and most teams seem to be going back to the drawing board to beef up their pre-empts and spikes and theory blocks. The result is that important things don’t get talked about. Just like the people whose experiences populate positions that talk about oppression in debate and in society, they get pushed to the side, and the game takes center stage.
We are troubled by this lack of engagement because it suggests a lack of belief. We have come to believe, absolutely, that discrimination and the unequal distribution of power and privilege exist in our society and in the debate community. We believe, absolutely, that we have been and continue to be complicit in privilege and discrimination in many ways. We believe, absolutely, that many students suffer as a result of these issues, either because they have told us so or because we have witnessed it for ourselves. And we believe, absolutely, that silence and inaction are unacceptable in the face of these truths.
When our students lose to these positions, we work hard to understand why. Eric disagreed with some of the RFD’s he received in his outround, but he also understands that what that really means is that he would’ve written a different RFD, and other people may view the world, and debate, differently than he does. He, his teammates, and his coaches have all worked to see the merit in the judges’ decisions, even if they disagree with those decisions, because we have come to understand how social locations differ, how people think, feel, believe, and act differently about important issues, and how our own actions can either reinforce or resist oppression, discrimination, and unequal distribution of power and privilege.
Finally, we are troubled by the fatalism that accompanies many pre-fiat positions. We believe that this fatalism comes in two forms.
First, some opponents of pre-fiat positions argue that the problem is too big to fix, or that an in-round performance or the ballot cannot produce change. These people are not totally wrong: a debate performance, a ballot, or a critique cannot end racism in debate or society. But we are not so cynical as to dismiss the power of a single performance or ballot outright. A discussion of exclusionary norms in front of dozens of young students can absolutely raise awareness and even change minds; who knows which of those students will carry the message forward into future rounds, or back to their own team, or away into a future career. Perhaps it prevents a single micro-aggression directed at a student of color in the cafeteria; perhaps it results in a single student reconsidering the impact a joke might have on his teammates; perhaps it lowers the entry cost to this activity just a bit, and maybe that bit makes a world of difference for one young person.
Second, some pre-fiat debaters and their supporters argue that only those who suffer from discrimination or oppression can authentically argue for change; worse, in our opinion, some argue that progress is entirely impossible. These people, too, are not totally wrong: well-meaning allies may do inadvertent harm to the movement by speaking for others, crowding out first-person narratives, or capitalizing on these positions for personal gain. Still, we are troubled by the belief that privileged folks should remain entirely silent, or that they have nothing to contribute to a discussion of equity. Everyone experiences privilege and oppression differently. Those who benefit from such structures, and who recognize their injustice, should be encouraged to speak up and become advocates. They need feedback, and guidance, and support as they express their truth; not chastisement, or shaming, or rejection. All people have an important and unique role to play in confronting oppressive norms; all voices are welcome in the turn up.
This is all out of love. We don’t want to chastise, or shame, or reject anyone; we want to figure this thing out. Some of our students will continue to run these positions, continue to learn from their experiences, continue to interrogate their own ideas and positions, and continue to seek change through action. Some of our students will continue to run into these positions, continue to struggle with debates that challenge them, continue to try to reconcile their beliefs about the world with their beliefs about competition, and continue to try to engage in difficult discussions (courageous conversations) about race.
We believe the experience and education for both groups of students can be better, and here we will outline how we think that can happen. We humbly seek your feedback, your engagement, and your perspective.
We believe pre-fiat debaters should work harder to present realistic, attainable alternatives to the practices and ideologies that they criticize. When the alternative is just to vote for the pre-fiat position, or to reject structural violence, judges may view the position as a meaningless endorsement of platitudes. We believe robust alternatives are required; voting for these positions must lead to something better, and the positions have to sell that something better.
Our debaters, as an example, are working to reshape the practices of debate to be more inclusive. We do not want to abolish resolutional or topical debate, as we have been accused of, but we would like to see resolutions that more directly address students’ lives; instead of pre-fiat debate about a post-fiat resolution, we’d love to have post-fiat debate about a pre-fiat resolution (we are admittedly not sure if that makes sense, but we hope that you get the gist).
We do not want to eliminate evidence written by dead white men, as we have been accused of, but we would like to see the inclusion of different types of evidence in rounds. Personal narrative, organic intellectual discourse, artistic performance, and other forms of knowing and knowledge production are, we believe, as valuable as traditional, peer-reviewed academic writing, and we believe more debaters, coaches, and judges should be engaging with these forms.
We do not want to punish debaters for debating the topic, as we have been accused of, but we would like to see debaters held accountable for their approach to the topic. If debaters seek to avoid important issues or refuse to engage in discussions, then those choices should be interrogated; there are ways to engage in debates over the role of the ballot and the presence of privilege in debate without seeking to silence or exclude advocates.
All of these goals are debatable, and we welcome that debate; to have it, though, we must make these goals explicit. They will differ for each pre-fiat debater and position, but what is important is that we can begin to have a substantive discussion about where the activity/community is heading and how we might get there.
Speaking of getting there...
We believe judges must recognize and deal responsibly with their power in rounds. Judges and their ballots absolutely influence in-round practice and norms. Theory didn’t decide half of all LD rounds 15 years ago; judges had to start rewarding that position with the ballot. The same is true of spreading and every other common argumentative practice. We are saddened when judges refuse to endorse positions that view personal experience as legitimate knowledge or poetry as a persuasive method of delivery; we are saddened because, well, poetry, but also because this closes down spaces for different types of discourse. The round and ballot undoubtedly plays a role in maintaining and changing the current state of debate.
Judges and their ballots also influence how debaters respond to positions that raise questions of privilege or oppression. When judges tell students who attempt to engage these positions that they cannot do so because they aren’t familiar enough with the literature, or because they haven’t run positions about oppression in previous rounds, or because they themselves are privileged, this encourages debaters to avoid engaging; it puts them on the defensive and suggests that they should just run theory or “wrong forum” or other equally unproductive arguments that seek to silence the conversation rather than enhance it. Judges who believe in the power of pre-fiat positions should be especially cognizant of these dangers; it is important that these positions and debaters are respected, and it may be beneficial for them to have competitive success, but it is counterproductive if their success engenders hostility and counterproductive responses. We want meaningful conversation. We know that silencing those who choose, perhaps for the first time, to engage in that conversation cannot be productive.
Beyond the ballot, judges are the nominal ‘adult in the room’. If judges are, as we believe, educators, then they should work harder to police uneducational practices. If judges are not educators, but simply referees, they should still work harder to police dangerous and abusive practices. Even referees in sports are empowered (and some would argue obligated) to stop unsportsmanlike or abusive behavior, especially in amateur competitions. We believe judges in debate rounds should do the same.
We believe people should be nicer, more patient, and more humble. These discussions are difficult and we cannot change that (nor would we want to). Still, they can be most productive if we listen and recognize the way privilege informs our perspectives, and they are probably least productive when we talk past or insult each other. We don’t have all the answers; we are delighted just to discover a worthwhile question; we are grateful when others have answers for our questions.
In rounds, in hallways, in buses and vans, in cafeterias, on message boards, in our kitchens, in classrooms, we all have infinite opportunities (which can become painfully finite overnight) to engage with these questions, these answers, these issues, each other.
We believe that people should be nicer, more patient, and more humble. Think before you speak, always. Acknowledge your social location. Acknowledge and empathize with the social location of others. Strive to make every interaction at every tournament one that you would be proud to tell others about, and one that everyone walks away from better than they were before.
We believe that we must acknowledge possibilities. We must embrace the possibility that we are wrong, that we might be doing harm, that we can improve. We must keep our minds and hearts open, so that we may change when change is necessary.
But we must also embrace the possibility that we are right, that we aren’t doing enough, that we can make a difference. We must keep our minds and hearts focused, so that we may persevere when perseverance is necessary.
It’s all love in the turn up, so this is for you. We invite you to engage in a difficult dialogue: with us, with others, and with yourself. We have identified what troubles us, and what we would change in our community; if you disagree, or agree, or anything at all, we want to hear from you.
We do not believe pre-fiat positions will “die out”, but we also do not believe they are the future of debate. We believe that they are a line of flight that might lead us to the future of debate. We know for certain that debate changes; it has changed, it is changing, it will change. We humbly hope to bend the arc of our community towards a more just, inclusive version of itself.
It’s all love in the turn up, and we hope to see you there.
The turn up is fiction and non-fiction, and it is all love. Jeff Hannan, Ben Berkman, Erik Baker, Charles Rutter, Aaron Clarke, Carlos Taylor, and Eric Weine contributed to this article. They are all associated with the Evanston Township High School debate team.
We may be leaving things out; if that is the case, please remind us, and we will include them next time.
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Editor Note: The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Victory Briefs.
Editor Note 2: The title of this article has been changed at the request of the authors.