An Open Letter to the LD Community: Are We Putting Our Pedagogical Money Where Our Mouth Is?

By Sean Fahey, November 2016

LD Debaters, Coaches, and Judges of the National Circuit,

Over the decade or so, the sound of a national circuit LD round has changed immensely. The rounds have gotten faster; the arguments have become more esoteric; the jargon has gotten, somehow, more codified and obscure. Basically, LD took way of Policy with the baggage of its philosophical foundations. What’s left is a community of very ‘woke’ students who thrive on a set of, honestly, quite bizarre community norms framed by espousals of a community ethic of academic progressivism. As we’ve started speaking faster and spending more time with our faces buried in academic literature studying the root conditions of social inequity, I think we’ve lost sight of the intersection between the now ever-present discussions of the oppressed in rounds and the real marginalized students who aren’t given the opportunity to speak in the debate space that we’ve carved out around their social image. Debate, with the apparent tenure of role of the ballot-style arguments, is evolving into it’s potential as a micropolitical space that would be incredibly valuable for oppressed voices who are all too often placed in educational settings that, fatally, do not give them the skills to question their own situations. We must go forth with unwavering self-critique of our tendency to fall into internalist tunnel vision if we are to reclaim authenticity in an increasingly obfuscated debate climate.

I debated locally on the New Orleans, Louisiana LD circuit for Benjamin Franklin High School all four years of high school. My sophomore year I became cognizant of the national (or TOC) circuit of debate and knew I wanted to be part of it. I looked up to the national circuit debaters I watched, they seamlessly could control a round and think fast on their feet. But those debaters generally came from big programs with funding for coaches and travel, which made their presence on the national circuit of little controversy. I never felt the same comfort. Coming from a small charter school in education budget-stripped Louisiana, my school was unable to monetarily assist me in the, frankly, enormous costs to travel nationally and could only give me the ability to use the school name. My family isn’t rich, but we get by, and I was lucky enough to have a father invested enough in debate to travel with me to tournaments across the country out of our pocket. I traveled nationally my junior and senior years and qualified to the Tournament of Champions both years and saw, first hand, the ways that debate excludes those who need it most.

During my time debating, one thing always tore at my connection to the activity: the hands-on disparities I felt as an independent (or “lone wolf”) debater and, much larger than my own struggle, the unspoken truth of the barrier to entry faced by countless racially and economically disenfranchised students across the country. The national circuit rests on a set of paradoxes: we speak rapidly in an intense lexicon of jargon indecipherable by those outside of our nerd commune, but read cases that tout frameworks about establishing social conditions for participatory and moral inclusion; tournament directors homogenize independent debaters as anarchic forces that threaten the stability of established program hegemony, but if a debater defends any long-standing institution of power they are likely to be critiqued as a degenerate peddling the ideology of absolute evil; programs would rather hire a new coach to turn debaters into perfect social justice allies for ballots, instead of dedicating funds to scholarships to allow low-income students in middle school debate leagues to access the established, well-funded programs that win rounds off of recycled images of these students very real social position. Sadly, the inconsistencies go on and, upon examination of this quiet hypocrisy, our supposed devotion to the radical restructuring of powerful systems in favor of the oppressed looks more like soft-boiled, self-moralizing liberalism. It seems to be the case that it’s time to put our intellectual money where are mouths are and for the prevailing in-and-out of round discussion to shift from, ‘What can debate do for the marginalized?’ to ‘How can we incorporate the marginalized into high levels of debate?’

Talking to local circuit debaters coming from a background in national circuit debate was always incredibly humbling because I had no greater claim to my ability to travel than the less privileged debaters I spoke to. They would speak longingly about the ability to travel and see the regional spectrums of the national circuit, be privy to experienced judges, and have the ground to read new philosophy. These students often dealt with various combinations of undedicated and/or inexperienced coaches, lack of school funding, and personally unstable financial situations. These students have all the passion and curiosity (if not more) of the greatest national circuit debaters and the barrier they face is unacceptable in a community that espouses mass, unabashed openness. Some tournaments and debate camps have begun to feature open table discussions about community issues of exclusion surrounding race, gender, sexuality, etc. These discussions are incredibly valuable and I have been a part of many of them, but they are ultimately not encompassing of those who have no voice in those discussions at all. They are part of a privileged form of liberalism that has proliferated national circuit debate. It hails anyone’s inclusion into discursive spaces…as long as you can pay for your plane tickets to the Glenbrooks. We must understand discrimination in debate as multi-leveled. The type of discrimination we are generally concerned about is the institutional disparities between social groups within debate. This is only the surface and it overlooks the web of structural violence and exclusion that keeps debate, and many sites of political discourse, defined by class lines and prejudice. It is the lived reality of these forgotten, yet never introduced students that show us exactly whom debate’s “critical pedagogy” is not made for.

“Critical pedagogy” is a term often thrown around in debate rounds without much inquiry as to what it constitutes, it has just become another assumption in our jargon and a buzzword. Paulo Freire, one of the first to write extensively on the subject, explains these forgotten, yet defining features of critical pedagogy in Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

“Authentic education is not carried on by “A” for “B” or by “A” about “B,” but rather by “A” with “B,” mediated by the world—a world which impresses and challenges both parties, giving rise to views or opinions about it. These views, impregnated with anxieties, doubts, hopes, or hopelessness, imply significant themes on the basis of which the program content of education can be built. In its desire to create an ideal model of the “good [human],” a naively conceived humanism often overlooks the concrete, existential, present situation of real people. … For the truly humanist educator and the authentic revolutionary, the object of action is the reality to be transformed by them together with other people—not other men and women themselves… The revolutionary’s role is to liberate, and be liberated, with the people—not to win them over.”

Critical arguments and identity politics attempt to create a model of good human conduct towards the Other, but currently do very little materially to include many of those that they claim to liberate with their words. Critical pedagogy is defined by the egalitarian academic relationship between the marginalized student, educators, and academic spheres, such that they can come together to draft authentic liberatory strategies for the historically marginalized. These arguments may exist as cathartic and crucial academic avenues for traditionally societally marginalized students who are fortunately allowed to debate, but the proliferation of these arguments has not lead to the proliferation of attempts to bridge the socially deprived and the national circuit – these arguments can only benefit those who have already been integrated, which seems odd from a community that treats Wynter and Leighton like one of the 10 Commandments. Impersonal appeals to roles of ballots and judges are ultimately what Freire characterizes as revolutionary’s appealing to the marginalized in an attempt to ‘win them over.’ This is problematic because it imagines the marginalized solely as an object of suffering and not as a concrete, political subject with potential for creating positive, material change. Debate heroism drains the marginalized of agency through false representation and, like any self-serving palliative in the economy of white supremacy, tells us that our dues have been paid to the marginalized without having to actually interact with them. Sure, the education that current debaters gain now is important, but are well-off students the ones who are really lacking an academic source of the critical thinking skills that debate fosters in comparison to students whose classroom setting are cyclically underfunded and present a façade of learning. Freire’s model of critical pedagogy critiqued the “banking model” of teaching that runs supreme in these destitute classrooms. Banking is characterized by the teaching of  ‘objective’ facts to be memorized and repeated, but never critically examined – this is the demand of a society that mixes quality of academia and capital. The crucial issue with this model of education is that marginalized students never learn how to question the terms and conditions of their social location from this system because their social position is taught to them as fact to be internalized for regurgitation. Absent an educational site for marginalized students to relate their quotidian experiences with oppression to larger systems of social division’s historical construction, authentic and informed social and policy changes will never come because the voice of the marginalized is not its foundation. National circuit debate often only produces the privileged conjecture of what world the oppressed must desire if they think like the rest of us, and that approach disguises itself as a humanist gesture from elites to cover up their conscious use of narratives of real suffering to fulfill self-interested ends, which constitutes the total commodification of the suffering of the Other. Which is to say, the suffering of the Other is used as a strong persuasive tool to breed fear-based politics around a narrative of moral absolution to Western liberalism. In a society structured heavily by class lines, we continually consume images of the suffering to relieve deep-seated anxieties about our own social locations through displacement. This is why people watch mindless reality television and shows like Narcos or Orange is the New Black, which serve as disaster porn for an increasingly numbed audience. When heteronormative, sexist, and racist violence is what average people watch before they go to bed, how do we actually process impacts of structural violence and social death against groups of people who are largely not even present? In The Illusion of the End, sociologist Jean Baudrillard examines this frenzied devouring of suffering:

“We have long denounced the capitalistic, economic exploitation of the poverty of the ‘other half of the world’ [[‘autre monde]. We must today denounce the moral and sentimental exploitation of that poverty – charity cannibalism being worse than oppressive violence. The extraction and humanitarian reprocessing of a destitution, which has become the equivalent of oil deposits and gold mines. The extortion of the spectacle of poverty and, at the same time, of our charitable condescension: a worldwide appreciated surplus of fine sentiments and bad conscience. […] material exploitation is only there to extract that spiritual raw material that is the misery of peoples, which serves as psychological nourishment for the rich countries and media nourishment for our daily lives.”

Without an authentic attempt to place the exploited in the center of our discussions, we commodify their real, lived experiences to moralistic ballot appeals that quarantine potentially liberatory discussion to a 45-minute discursive proxy wars where the only real goal is the accumulation of communal prestige. Fiat fuels our politics of exaggeration by establishing an undue assumption of reality behind the advocacies of debaters. This allows debaters to make claims like voting aff is a “try-or-die” situation for the marginalized people the aff speaks about, but after the round the aff doesn’t happen, no one is saved and those people may still ‘or-die’, but the judge and debater leave and feel like they’re done the ‘right’ thing. Here we see exactly why the subjectivities of the marginalized are absolutely essential when deconstructing historical lines of oppression. The marginalized are the sole interlocutor between perspectives defined by survival and subversion against prevailing paradigms of total antagonism, and the revolutionary energy stored within the silenced for reclamation of a stolen humanity. It is critical education that allows the marginalized to synthesize these two conditions into real change that defies our scheduled demands for suffering. An example familiar to a fair amount of debaters who have, inadvertently or not, read this argument is Damien Schnyder, UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow, when he writes about the importance of including ‘black thought’ in light of it’s historic exclusion by virtue of it’s ability to imagine alternatives to our major systems of economy. It is this hegemonic fear of possibility that explains both the debate community’s flocking to Blackness studies as the new, cool outlook, and it’s simultaneous disavowal of personal narrativity through a culture that worships academic evidence:

“Black bodies, through their collective experiences of subjugated Blackness, become a threat to the very function of civil society. Blackness has to be contained and managed in order to protect white supremacy. […] It is at this moment – when Blackness becomes identified as antithetical to the notions of work –that white supremacy is able to unleash it’s fury upon the Black body. For it is within this space that the Black body can have anything and everything done to protect the order of civil society.46 Thus in order to contain the threat of Blackness, the Herculean managers of the hydra-like attack upon society are teachers (Linebaugh & Rediker, 2000).47 Within the development of civil society, the function of teachers is to both categorize states of being and enclose Blackness. […] Students are prevented from interjecting alternative versions of economic systems within the framework of the discussion. Students must perform the perfunctory duty of work (basic memorization and recitation skills) not to only to be awarded with a passing grade, but not to be penalized. The result is a silencing of Black voices whose life experiences are in direct contradiction with hegemonic constructions of economy (i.e. supply and demand) that was taught by Mr. Keynes. There was no space to analyze the racial structure that frames economic modes of relation, nor was there opportunity to engage in dialogue with regards to the economics of why many of the students had to work to support their families.”

If we are to create true critical pedagogy, centrally interested in the marginalized student’s liberation, the community must devote itself to actually doing the ‘right’ thing after these rounds and confirming that direction with those we intend to recover full humanity with. If we legitimately care about the community principle of fighting structural violence, we must start with those who understand that violence as quotidian.  Hegemonic systems privilege established factions because the marginalized have very purposefully never been given an active voice in social construction. We are beginning to face a challenge to the extent of our progressivism and it increasingly seems like we’re only willing to draw attention to the marginalized when it posits us as discursive Robin Hoods and fills our ego with ballots. This orientation risks inculcating bad dispositions towards life and political agency outside of debate. When judges aren’t there to drool over social justice parlor tricks, debaters have no incentive to do anything more than change their Facebook profile pictures in line with social events to get the same self-moralism through ‘likes’ and validation. Therefore, if we are to earnestly reverse this trend, the role of the debate community is to give marginalized students a new and encompassing means by which they can speak in the supposed ‘space of inclusion’ we’ve built, otherwise debate’s tragic irony can only be described as an ivory tower made to host elephants.

I can only think of the countless impoverished students that we implicitly refer to when we make structural violence arguments, and their deeply ironic absence as we claim to do something novel. The faces behind our impacts cannot afford to be in the room to know they’ve been saved. Some may characterize this as fatalistic and an unfair evaluation of the state of debate activism, but I view it more as a realistic platform for looking forward. We have done well to create such an open-minded space amongst mostly privileged actors, we simply need to redirect that energy to real programs instead of ballots that do nothing for the social groups that they are directed at. Urban debate leagues do good work in exposing marginalized students to forums of critical exchange, but few do well in bridging the gap to the national circuit. Teams like Newark Science Park in Newark and Success Academy in New York City constitute only a small section of the national circuit, but give us a good vision for how independent actors should work to empower traditionally excluded schools and communities. It should be noted that these schools are able to have such progressive programs due to the crucial coaching work of ex-debaters who are willing to give back to those who need debate most. Ex-debaters with national circuit experience should give serious thought to devoting some time to helping those who otherwise cannot experience what they did. Revolutionary education is only valuable if we spread it to those who have a significant stake in its vision and national circuit does give us a conceptually great framework for the marginalized to imagine change. However, as an ex-independent and as someone who coaches a few independent debaters now, arbitrary exclusion of independents is rampant. This stigma derives from the belief by a group of prominent coaches that independents homogenously are not held accountable for school rules, do not provide judges, and are somehow betraying their schools. When I debated nationally, I, and my current independent students, followed all tournament and school rules, provided judges consistently, and had approval from the school. These facts did not allow me to register for anti-independent tournaments (which include massive bid tournaments) and did not stop tournament directors from making registration harder than necessary. My, and many other aspiring debaters, situation is not the fault of students; it’s the fault of nationally poorly funded public education programs. We effectively victim blame students for going to public schools in the status quo of debate, so, before we hail ourselves for being progressive leftists, we ought to examine our own practices, prejudices, and norms. If we can address these barriers to entry, we can imagine a vision of debate as true critical pedagogy.

It is of my belief that it is the duty of historically well-funded debate programs to come together and start a fund for aspiring, marginalized students to have access to the national circuit. These teams benefit from a diverse, prospering debate community and should be devoting funds back to the framework that they thrive within. Likewise, popular debate camps should go out of their way to draw in, and award scholarships to, marginalized students who show talent. It’s in the interest of the camps to bring talent to their student bodies, especially when those students offer radical perspectives that we have historically been bad at fostering. This should not be taken as a communist ideal superimposed on debate, it is clear to me that we will never fully integrate national circuit debate – existing cost barriers are addressable, but, probably, not entirely solvable. This is why the Public Debate Initiative aims to set up a debate format based in critical pedagogy in the schools of marginalized students and why other debate formats/organizations can help close the educative gap without full national circuit inclusion. No matter the debate format, the way we construct our framework should accommodate for the critical inclusion of the marginalized or we become locked in a cycle of lethargic moralism and internal contradiction.

As the national circuit has become increasingly more codified in jargon and complex philosophy, it simultaneously claims to be a site of “critical pedagogy” and liberal inclusion. These qualities were attractive to me when I first aspired to debate nationally. However, upon examination, the national circuit does relatively little to materially incorporate marginalized students proportional to how much it hails egalitarianism and pluralism. This disparity reflects a general lack of understanding of the subjectivist view that Freire’s foundation of critical pedagogy is based off of and the reduction of concrete suffering to ballot appeals. Debaters construct an image of the marginalized in debate rounds, exchange truth claims about their lived realities and both debaters are given a voice in the discussion, but the issue is that everyone but the marginalized are given a place in these discussions. This communicative paternalism teaches us an insipid narrative of how the oppressed are situated and, ultimately, abandons the possibility of debate being a drawing board for liberatory change. It’s time we stop asking, ‘What can debate do for us?’ We already know debate has great academic potential and is similar to nothing else. We need to face the harder follow-up question, ‘Who can debate do things for? And, how can we keep real people from falling through the cracks?’