A Note From David About Competitive Decorum

At Tournament Three at DePaul, we were made aware of at least a couple of debates where students had hostile exchanges. In prelims, a debate between Hyde Park JK and Woodlawn IV saw a young woman in her first tournament walk out of the debate during a particularly combative cross-examination. In semifinals between Woodlawn IV and Evanston JO, all three judges remarked to me that the cross-examinations featured two Woodlawn debaters talking over their opponent, taking evidence out of the hands of their opponent, and being aggressive to the point of trying to intimidate the other team. The students from Woodlawn I talked to after the semifinals were chastened and had already received some stern advice from their excellent coaches, based on the feedback from the three judges in that debate. They’re very intelligent young men whom I expect to grow and learn well and be even stronger debaters next tournament. This isn’t just about them, though – I think each of us could think of one or two intense students on our own team whom you’re reminded of by this post and I hope you’ll be able to be able to have a conversation about how to channel their energy without losing their drive.

There was also apparently a near-physical confrontation following a personal insult during a debate between Whitney Young PS and Taft GM at the Bustamante Memorial Classic at Thomas Kelly – this absolutely cannot happen again and is being investigated seriously now by the league.

Let me be clear – this is nothing new and not about one team or a few students and is a good teachable moment for what debate is (and is not) and what it offers to students. Competition is good, being aggressive is key to success in debate (or life), but like any sport, this needs to be tempered by respect for your opponent and good sportsmanship. Debate is a fundamentally subjective activity, your job is to persuade the judge that you have the more reasonable, true position in the debate – this is why it’s great preparation for college and for careers in fields like law and business that require the ability to successfully communicate with different people from different walks of life in different situations. The only way to do that is to be able to view how you might be perceived by others and to understand how others might see things differently than you do – quite simply, listening is probably as important a skill (and rarer) than anything debate teaches about reading, writing, and public speaking. It’s why debate is fundamentally democratic, meaning there are multiple styles and personalities in the ongoing year-long conversation about public policy, but also meaning that one fundamental assumption is respect for the opponent and their right to express themselves fully and share their ideas in a spirit of open dialogue and exchange.

Debate is not about being louder and trying to intimidate your opponent into silent defeat. While it may seem like this is a strategy-of-sorts against JV debaters who are nervous or new to public speaking, judges – like those who talked to me this weekend about these debates – are not impressed by hostility or sarcasm in cross-examination or speeches. In fact, these judges also told me that debaters would have been much more persuasive and had far better ethos if they’d just stuck to the arguments and allowed their logic and intelligence to predominate the presentation. Intimidation isn’t a reliable way to influence anyone – we certainly are having this debate about our foreign policy all year – and becomes less and less effective as students become more confident in their ideas and arguments. Confidence based in knowledge ultimately wins out over bluster and posturing.

All of our students, including those who are developing their first academic and intellectual worldview, are capable of this kind of respectful dialogue while maintaining the high level of competition that makes the Chicago Debate League unique. There are great rivalries and teams that prepare very hard to beat their opponents, but that hard work is (and must be) based out of respect and not out of personal dislike toward the individuals on the other side of the win or loss. This hasn’t always been the case – I can think of one particularly intense rivalry last year between a couple of our best schools that on occasion seemed to go beyond competition to personal distrust. This happens in every debate circuit, but is unnecessary and counterproductive to the academic goals and life lessons students take away.

We have students from many different backgrounds who come into debate with many different styles of communication – some of my best debaters had to learn how to change their style to become more successful. Some needed to become more aggressive, some needed to manage their excitement in rounds in order to avoid alienating judges and opponents. I myself had a debate once at a State tournament I attended as a younger debater where a respected, older coach from downstate Illinois voted against me in a debate I was sure I’d won convincingly – complete with thumping my tub and shouting “this debate is over!” in the 2AR. She gave me 1 speaker point – yes, 1 whole speaker point – out of 30 and told my coach she thought I was being a jerk. At the time, I probably wasn’t mature enough to understand how she could take away such a negative reaction when I felt I had much stronger arguments, but in retrospect, she was completely right in thinking that my desire to compete aggressively had made it so that she hadn’t come away impressed with my competitive spirit or intelligence. Thankfully, I had few moments like this as a debater, but I had to learn from that debate to think about how I wasn’t the only person in that room – the way I debated reflected upon my partner (who also took a loss), my coach, my entire team. I also realized I was responsible to my opponents and the judge, without whom I could not have the chance to compete and learn. Did I want to win that debate? Yes. But it means more to win without having to tear down your opponent and humiliate them in the course of trying to win. More often than not, trying to embarrass your opponent works against you and makes them seem more reasonable. Some (not all) of the best debaters I ever faced were the most polite and collegial of any debaters in-round, in part because they were so confident in their skills and knowledge of the topic. A high school teammate of mine who was a national champion and went on to be a star college debater would always treat his debates with good humor and generosity, especially against younger and less experienced opponents – he didn’t feel the need to show off or “run up the score” at the expense of other students, his accomplishment and intellectual growth from being a debater was enough to make him feel good about being a part of the debate community. Not everyone in debate will be a champion, but everyone in debate will learn and grow as a student and person, some more than the superstars ever do.

I am forever impressed by the countless stories of good sportsmanship and generosity in our league at each tournament, such as brand-new students who have misplaced a part of their Core Files having their opponent’s coaches share a case negative in order to help them have a debate. That sense of community and respect is the background against which we have the most competitive, most intensely challenging and rewarding urban debate league in America.

But let’s be clear: all students are at tournaments to learn and are doing something, every month, that most students never have the curiosity and confidence to attempt. This deserves respect. We don’t allow bullying, we don’t allow physical intimidation, we don’t allow verbally demeaning language or disrespect toward an opponent – judges should know this and feel free to maintain this standard in the debates they judge.

Finally, as I’ve said many times in student seminars, debaters often think they come in to debate to become better speakers. They often find, at least initially, that being outgoing and confident translates to early success. But to have continued success in debate, what’s most important for any young debater to learn is to be as prepared as possible in your own arguments and to listen, understand, and respond to your opponent’s argument. Debaters who give their opponents and their arguments no credit (“This round is over! They have no thoughts whatsoever, they only said nonsense…”) seem unreasonable and even irrational to judges. The way to win close debates against the best opponents is to beat the strength of your opponent’s argument, to explain why what might be true about their best claims isn’t as good as your best argument when compared to each other. This is also true of competition: like in any sport, it means more to beat your opponent at their best, to have a fair contest of ideas and strategy. Trying to throw them off their game by getting personal or disrespectful doesn’t work, doesn’t reflect well upon your performance in the debate, alienates judges, and isn’t the way to build respect.

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