by Jude Gadingan
Anyone that’s done debate can certainly agree with me when I say that it’s both a wonderful activity while simultaneously being one of the worst, most mentally draining extracurriculars we can do. We throw ourselves into the activity constantly, reading up on the latest news and cutting out pieces of evidence to weaponize against our future opponents in order to win the ballot of those sitting at the back of any given classroom. But, like any competitive activity, there must be those that win, and those who go home without a victory. We all enter debate for different reasons. Whether you’re finding yourself through the activity, or seeking that egotistical feeling of superiority, or to simply fluff up one’s student CV, a common feeling that all of us share is the rush we experience when we find ourselves in a debate round. And looking back at my high school debate years has allowed me to realize that we may all be at fault for how the activity’s turned out today.
I used to connect my personal identity as a minority debater into my Kritiks, weaving it into my policy cases, and performing it whenever I was able to within Lincoln-Douglas rounds. And I look back at those years in earnest, since it helped shape me into the person I am today. But something never sat right with me when I stepped into each air-conditioned classroom every other weekend, my cases downloaded securely on my laptop and water bottle in tow, was that when I happened to mention orientalism or queer theory in my cases, my opponent would pull up a pre-prepared response that referenced anti-blackness, or ableism, or other forms of identity-based responses in the hopes that it would “outweigh” on magnitude, or probability, or significance. For the most part, these debaters are very rarely part of any of the groups that they so casually named, whose chilling stories of violence they had just referenced without a glance. Looking back at those situations as an older, wiser, and far more mature college student, I realize now why it puts me off whenever things like those would happen. It was because both sides of the debate, from me to my opponent, were wrong in assuming that we could ever “weigh” identities against each other, as if they were commodities to weaponize.
And yes, I am fully aware that similar arguments already exist (I’m looking at you, Images of Suffering K and Perm: Do Both). But the mere implication that we ultimately gave up on questioning the motives behind why we tried to put two forms of oppression against each other in order to secure the judge’s ballot is and always will be problematic.
As I stated at the beginning, I don’t mean to make the argument that there shouldn’t be any clash in what clearly always will be a competitive activity. I wrote this article just to reflect on my experience competing in policy and Lincoln-Douglas debate as an identity debater, and my own problematic mistakes back then. But when we look at identity cases subjectively, there’s typically three ways in which I’ve seen and experienced firsthand how they’re handled:
1. “Why not do both?”: The affirmative has the right to perm, so they use it in the hopes of perming under the guise of intersectionality.
2. “This isn’t relevant to the debate round/This is not within the bounds of the resolution”: The opponent runs a Theory argument to dismiss the case, usually referencing Topicality.
Or, if the opponent is feeling a bit competitive:
3. “My identity’s impacts outweigh on magnitude and probability despite the fact that our impacts are realistically incomparable in real life”: The opponent runs a counter-Kritik and argues that their case’s impacts outweigh.
All of these arguments have one thing in common: A lack of real-world application. The judge at the back of the room either understands both sides or they don’t, and they don’t really care enough to listen to the cases, submitting a ballot since they’re obligated to. In reality, we would be discussing why both sides are affected. We can’t just Topicality our way out of a difficult conversation, or do “impact calculus” on heteronormativity and anti-blackness, two distinct forms of oppression that affect minority groups in starkly different ways. And like many technical debaters know, “perming” isn’t applicable to real life since you can’t just “fiat”, or disregard the method in which we find a solution to a problem. We should not be using and treating the experiences of minority groups as if they were playing cards in a poker game, and many debaters tend to forget that when building cases. There is no “first-step to enacting real change” when you’re a white debater reading out the experience of Indigenous people against an Indigenous opponent to a white judge. Stop speaking on the experience of marginalized groups that you are not a part of in any way, shape, or form “in the name of activism”. You will never experience anti-blackness as a non-Black person. You won’t ever feel the negative effects of dysphoria as a definitively cisgendered individual. So stop pretending as if you care about the groups whose suffering you so easily let slip out of your lips to win a ballot.
But I know what you may be thinking: Aren’t we already aware that the debate space isn’t real? That it’s just some distant, far-off location where policies and resolutions pass immediately and we only debate the consequences of such things? Am I advocating to introduce debate as an activity where we nitpick every single, complicated layer of government or morality, adding further intricacy to an already complex activity? My answer to each question accordingly is yes, I agree, and absolutely not.
However, I wish to take a moment in this article to reflect on the state of debate and how it treats identity-based cases as weapons in war, where the bigger stick beats out the smaller, less significant one, despite there being no reason for the two to clash in the first place. We research, we cut cards, we pull the ones we need. We research, we cut cards, we pull the ones we need. But never do we stop to consider that these are real, tangible, events because we’re so far disconnected from the identities we discuss in debate, because so many teams end up running antiblackness despite never having never experienced anything like it, because there are so many similar instances of minorities’ identities and struggles being inserted into the debate round by those who will never, or have never experienced how they felt. All to secure a ballot. Does that really make debate an activity where minority groups can feel heard, or do we as debaters just further perpetuate the problematic narrative that others’ identities and struggles are something that should be weaponized for our personal gain?
I hope that all of you reading this keep these things in mind as you continue to devote yourself to an activity that demands this level of self-reflection.