I’ve always felt like I could sniff out another debater from anywhere. There’s something about the demeanor and rhetoric of a high school (or college) debater that is simply unrepeatable. And my debater radar couldn’t contain itself while watching the vice presidential debate this past Wednesday. Those eyebrow raises when her opponent made a false claim, the soft smiles as she wrote down her responses, Kamala Harris is one of us, through and through. She was pulling from our debater handbook, and there’s no denying it. But there was one distinct part of her debating style that resonated so deeply with me that it stung. “I am speaking.”
A George Washington University study finds that men interrupt 33% more when speaking to women than to other men. In a debate environment, this is exacerbated significantly, as any woman who takes a political stage could corroborate. In the first of the 2016 presidential debates, President Trump interrupted Hillary Clinton a record breaking 51 times. In comparison, Pence’s 16 interruptions of Senator Harris seem graceful.
The “manterruptions” and “mansplaining” don’t cease at the high school competitive level. When I was a freshman in high school, in a novice round, I pressed my opponent in a follow up on a question he did not clearly answer. He responded, “Let me dumb this down for you, sweetheart.” A previous debater on my team had hit this same opponent in an earlier round, and when I mentioned I would be hitting him, she looked at me and said “good luck.” She had not been able to ask one question successfully in cross examination. On my ballot, I was discouraged from being as aggressive as I was, and to my horror, there was not one comment on his aggression, but rather praise for his “confidence and command on the topic.” Almost every female debater I know has multiple of these “nightmare stories,” but even more concerning are all the times we have been spoken over by opponents who were not outright disrespectful.
Being interrupted has larger implications than not being able to finish a sentence. When you are interrupted, repeatedly, the message is that your words, what you have to say, do not matter. This message is uniquely harmful when applied in a space where your success is determined by what you have to say. At Barkley Forum debate camp, a female coach taught us how she handles interruption at the national level by repeatedly and sarcastically starting, then dramatically cutting off at the same word until her opponent has no choice but to let her speak. I personally am loyal to the “I’m sorry, did you want an answer to that question or would you like to keep speaking?” But neither her strategy, nor mine is not a one size fits all. Judges are human, and so are our opponents. We all have implicit biases. I, along with so many other debaters, have been trying to find the correct formula for my whole debate career. When female debaters call out the interruptions, we are seen as unprofessional or mean. When we accept it politely, we are either dismissed or appreciated at the expense of a competitive disadvantage. When we interrupt back, we are crucified far beyond our male counterparts.
The truth is, there is no winning. No one response will satisfy every judge or extinguish every interrupting opponent. The way that we move forward, is we return the favor to Kamala Harris and we take a page from her playbook. The lesson we take from her is to believe in our words. Because the only way that we can advance into a debate space that fosters equal thought and more positive competition, a space with better more intellectual debates, is if strong-willed womxn (like us BR girls) come together and tirelessly demand more from this community. Move over, boys, we’re speaking.
Amy Ajay debates at Denmark High School, where she is a junior, and has experience in PF and LD.
Note: The Beyond Resolved blog reflects the ideas of individual authors and not necessarily of the organization as a whole.