On the Importance of Inclusivity in Debate

By Marist Alumni ‘16

*** The goal of this post isn’t to blame, call out, or “cancel” any particular individuals from our debate experience. Instead, it’s reflecting on our own debate high school and/or coaching careers, explaining our failures to promote inclusion, and highlighting why teams and the overall activity can and must do better ***

It’s been four years since any of us have debated on the high school circuit. In the interim, some of us have remained involved with the debate world in some way, while others haven’t been involved since our last tournaments. Some of us debated all throughout high school, while others chose to end our involvement earlier. Despite the variations in our levels of involvement-- both then and now-- debate was an incredibly formative experience for all of us, playing out in both positive and negative ways. But looking back, we’ve realized the ways in which debate culture can create a deeply exclusionary environment, from which no one is exempt.

Much of what we say might be obvious to readers of this blog-- many of whom are current debaters yourselves. We’re incredibly proud to see the way debaters who’ve come after us have pushed this community to grow, and we’re humbled by the work that so many of you are doing. While it’s been several years since we debated, it’s essential for us all to push the debate world to be better, and to take action when racism, misogyny, classism, homophobia, and ableism prevent debate from being a positive experience for all students. Current and future students deserve to debate in a safe and equitable environment. We’re offering some of our reflections on our experiences with the hope of supporting the work that so many of you are doing everyday.

When we started debating, none of us realized just how formative of an experience debate would be. It was just an extracurricular we signed up for, a practice we attended one day to see what it was like. We each joined debate with different motivations in mind: to gain public speaking skills, hone our research abilities, develop our opinions, or make friends. But for most of us, this simple choice came to define our high school experiences, shaping who we spent time with and how we spent our weekends.. However, when this positive foundation, at a formative time in young people’s lives, is corrupted by racism, misogyny, homophobia, ableism, classism, and other harmful attitudes, the impact can be devastating.

These harmful attitudes are important to acknowledge in order to validate the experiences of past and current debaters who’ve felt excluded, especially non-white, non-cishet, and differently abled debaters, and to reflect on how we can minimize future harm in the debate space. We can start by identifying patterns which contribute to harmful behaviors. To start with, debate practices and tournaments are incredibly high-stress, competitive environments. In these intense settings, any interpersonal harm which occurs can be particularly triggering and traumatizing. But in the midst of a debate round or practice, it can be easy to forget the potentially volatile nature of this environment, focusing instead on winning the debate at hand.

Looking back, we’ve also realized how crucial it is to take the opportunity to understand the magnitude of debate topics -- weighty, real-world political matters -- seriously. Competition and fixation on winning rounds can stunt recognition of the real issues behind each debate topic. As we reflect on our time in debate, we realize that the way we discussed and were encouraged to approach topics both in and out of rounds was often stripped of its real-world context. It was easy for some of us to lose sight of the real lives and deaths behind the statistics and stories of each debate argument. For example, each of us remembers debating on a topic that dealt with the decision of whether to offer humanitarian aid in a war-torn region. To make our point, both sides would call upon disturbing realities, reading them out as just another bullet point in our case. However,when we fail to recognize that there are people behind the numbers and that our theoretical sparring is someone’s reality, we become desensitized to the violence and the humanity of these gruesome facts. A process of re-humanization requires inward reflection. A horrifying statistic about lives lost can win a round, but we should think hard about how we grapple with the gravity of those lives in our theoretical debate.

In order to re-humanize the experience of debating, we should actively approach research and fact-collecting from an embodied, situated perspective. We should also respect the dignity of our opponents in debates as well as our teammates. In the way that we interact with our coaches, mentors, teammates, and opponents, it’s important to use the time before, during, and after rounds to build each other up rather than tear each other down.

In many cases, debate is also a place for young people who haven’t felt accepted in other activities to find their voice and gain confidence. While this is an important and welcome characteristic, it can also facilitate a culture where, for those who may have felt or feel excluded themselves in other environments, there’s a pressure to go along with the flow, to hesitate to question the status quo for the sake of fitting in and being accepted. Above winning rounds and trophies, debate teams should challenge this harmful pattern, and instead prize inclusivity, honesty, integrity, and courage above all.

Debate is also often a deeply economically exclusive, classist activity. Students and teams who are more financially privileged can afford to travel to summer camps and national tournaments, which in turn largely determine which teams are taken seriously. Financial privilege also allows debaters to pay for briefs, prepackaged evidence, access to research, or even a full time coach to write cases. Especially for those of us who debate or have debated at elite, mostly white private prep schools who are prominent on the national circuit, our activity will likely reflect and exacerbate the white supremacy, toxic masculinity, misogyny, homophobia, elitism, classism, and ableism prevalent throughout the rest of the school. It’s incumbent on coaches and debaters to take efforts to ensure that debate can be as safe and encouraging a place possible for non-white students, LGBTQ+ students, young womxn, differently abled students, and students from all socioeconomic backgrounds to gain confidence and find their voice in an otherwise hostile environment. This message isn’t supposed to alienate those who do come from advantaged programs. All of us benefited from the economic privileges that came with our debate programs or those we assist with today. However, more privileged forensics programs need to join in the fight against inequity in the community proactively. There area plethora of ways for more privileged members to become involved – volunteering at low-income summer camps, offering free coaching and mentoring, coordinating with local programs for tournament transportation, and leveraging privilege for more resources/opportunities to underrepresented communities.

We must also remain mindful of the truly intersectional nature of everyone’s identities in debate. Those of us who are members of any marginalized groups are also capable of internalizing white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, ableism, and classism and reflecting these harms. In many ways, debate can be a traumatizing and alienating space for many young people, and it’s easy to focus on just the pain and exclusion that we alone are feeling. However, we must understand that while we ourselves may be hurting and suffering, it’s important to still be accountable for our actions and inactions, as we are likely also complicit in or causing someone else’s harm. And more importantly, as Black feminist thinkers and writers have pointed out for decades, the liberation of members of all marginalized groups -- our safety, peace, and joy -- are not at odds with each other, but rather are intimately connected and linked.

Therefore, when we are called out on any harms we may have caused to others in debate, it is up to us to continuously listen, reflect, be accountable, and apologize. Embrace growth and the commitment to change. While debaters are very bright and ambitious young people, they are still high school students, and have a lifetime before them to learn and change. A new debate culture should encourage something that is not often practiced in debate: admitting when we are wrong. In this ongoing practice, this new debate culture ought to constantly reflect on and ask questions about what communities and assumptions we have yet to address. For example, in practices, at tournaments, and in our argumentation, what assumptions do we make about able-bodiedness? How does that harm debaters and individuals living with disabilities? Which other communities’ experiences are we neglecting?

Additionally, it’s essential to avoid permanently cancelling individuals after they admit their faults. Holding someone’s past against them forever limits the number of people who engage with and are inspired to change. In the fight for inclusivity, everyone will make a mistake. Whether it’s misgendering someone at a tournament or promoting anti-blackness on a team, canceling an individual must be followed with education, forgiveness, and encouragement to create another more-informed ally. Of course, we understand the motivations behind canceling and moving on, and no one who experiences any violence should be expected to forgive. However, we want to stress that this process of growth eventually brings out the best in people and their desire to self-improve to make a difference. For example – our blog itself was the result of forgiveness between ex-teammates.

When we were in high school, we often felt that there was little change we could actually achieve. We viewed high school as a place to listen to teachers, coaches, and other authorities, and we viewed debate in part as a way to get into a good college. In the debate world, this feeling is exacerbated, as we were always following the instruction of our coaches and leaving the determination of our success in the hands of a panel of judges, all of whom were older than us. These dynamics left us intimidated and unsure of how we could enact change.

At its core, debate is supposed to be an environment centered around education--for students, coaches, and judges. Looking back, we wish we’d realized our own agency to fight against these actions and systems. When bigoted actions occur in debate, it creates an environment that is not conducive to learning. These actions cause both pain in the moment and scarring memories that can last years. When we fail to act in support of victims in these instances of hate we are complicit in the actions and further entrench discrimination in the activity. But though it may not feel this way given the structure of high schools, students have power, playing out in your written and spoken voice, your classroom conversations, and perhaps most importantly, in your numbers.

This blog and your work is testament to the fact that young people have the power to challenge so many parts of debate which were once seen as intrinsic to the activity. We can commit to an ongoing practice of inclusivity, honesty, courage, accountability, and growth. Debating with integrity requires recognizing the failings and faults of those we admire, including our coaches and role models, as well as our own failings and faults. It requires using our carefully-practiced power of speech to speak up when it counts most -- to act when our conscience tells us that something is not right. These crucial experiences, lessons, and practices will go much further in our adult lives and are the most important to learn, well beyond the trophies and the topics which change from month to month.

With all of this being said, it would be remiss for us to advocate for change without providing some tools to work toward that change. Rather than limiting the importance of diversity and inclusion to individual clubs or administrators, to whatever degree you can, please feel empowered to incorporate inclusivity into all aspects of student life. Continue to use sites like Beyond Resolved, social media platforms, ADL, #BlackLivesMatter and more to be an active participant in anti-hate culture and to continuously educate yourself and others on how to move toward an inclusivity-embracing society. Seek out mentors like trustworthy teachers, coaches, school administrators, older students, alumni or family members who can help provide tangible guidance on how to engage your community to create a positive impact. We also encourage readers to use their resources and look to Beyond Resolved’s mentorship program to find a mentor if they haven’t done so already. Those who are in a position to volunteer their time and expertise might also consider serving as a mentor for Beyond Resolved.

As leaders at our schools and in our communities, we all have the ability to create a lasting impact on people in their formative years. We should not take this responsibility lightly. When harm arises, address the needs of those who were harmed, take the steps to educate those who caused the harm, and be sure that all participants are embraced in a culture of fairness and inclusivity. Moreover, action is not limited to your team, school or neighborhood. We encourage all who are able to reach out to their local representatives to push for fair representation and publicly stand for what you believe in. Stay up-to-date on local, state-wide and national policies that are not just, and if you are able to, voice your opinion through your vote.

We would like to thank those who have created and continue to contribute to Beyond Resolved in fostering a more inclusive debate community for all. The work of your group and others like it help bring communities together in accessing a forum and other resources to make the change and foster inclusivity in the debate space.

Rather than talking about wanting change, we encourage readers to get involved in whatever way they can. As debaters, we know the power of knowledge and education. Being a well-informed member of your team or community can be one of the most effective ways to bring light to issues and solve problems that exist in debate, in education and in our country as a whole. There are an incredible number of educational resources that can help you serve as a more informed member of society. Your ability to bring light to the problems and encourage others to take action will lead the way towards a brighter and more inclusive future for everyone.

Bailey Hall, Marist ‘16, Tulane University ‘20

Hannah Koenraad, Marist ‘16, Georgia Institute of Technology ‘20

Ananya Malhotra, Marist ‘16, Princeton University ‘20

Noah Mengisteab, Marist ‘16, Rice University ‘20

Jake Pigott, Marist ‘16, University of California, Berkeley ‘20

Lauren Tolbert, Marist ‘16, University of Georgia ‘19


Note: The Beyond Resolved blog reflects the ideas of individual authors and not necessarily of the organization as a whole.

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