by Sara Abbasi
As debaters, we are taught to reject an argument unless it has a clear and quantifiable impact. While this may be a useful unit of measure in a round, real life often isn’t as cut and dry. That’s why it’s essential that we redefine the idea of “success” in the debate community- because it isn’t just about who gets the most TOC bids or who finals at the most tournaments. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that losing is preferable to winning. I’m just saying that there is so much more to debate than just being a “winner” or a “loser,” and it took me a long time to figure that out.
When I started debate, I was shy, lacked confidence, and terrified of failing. When the seniors on my team broke at tournaments or gave us lectures on new topics, I was in awe of how amazing they seemed. I idolized their success. At the time, I thought they were just naturally that good. However, today I realize just how much work actually went into getting them to that point.
As a female debater, my voice has been rejected not only in rounds, but even on my own team. The situation has since been resolved, but the problem still exists that girls are often walked over, even by people who don’t mean it. It took me a long time to realize that the way my partner and I were being treated was wrong and that we had a right to be treated respectfully, but when we called attention to the issue, it made all the difference. Debate has taught me to stand up for myself and respectfully make myself heard.
I learned that even though I can be wrong sometimes, I still have the right to speak my mind and share my opinions or ask for help. I also learned that similarly, sometimes you lose and other people can be more successful than you. But, success is only temporary. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. While being wrong and losing can seem intimidating, it is the only way that we learn and get better. We need to learn to embrace failure because it gives us a new and fundamental perspective on winning and learning for the future. Without experiencing these situations, it becomes difficult to remain humble and reach true success. Debating in a way that makes us proud, not in a way that makes us win, is what should truly matter.
While there are things that you can control in order to get better, it’s also important to remember that there are factors you can’t control that go into success. You can’t pick your judge or your opponents. You are forced to work with the resources you have, no matter how lacking they are. Sometimes, unfortunately, you are judged based on your appearance or the sound of your voice. When we look at people who are successful, we need to understand the privileges they have that have enabled them to reach the level they are at.
Even though it may be difficult and uncomfortable, debaters in positions of power need to learn to use the privilege they have to help those around them. They need to reach out to those who are struggling and see what they can do to help. They need to support the people on their team who need it and help them find their voices. They need to learn to take a step back and give others who really deserve it a chance to shine.
Finally, it’s important to remember that no matter how you do at tournaments, you always deserve respect and acknowledgement for your hard work and dedication. It can be easy for people to dismiss each other based on who has more success than others. However, winning the most rounds, while it is important, is never indicative of who is correct. The point of debate is that nearly every idea can be defended, and so nobody has the one right answer. Because it can be so easy to favor people with the best record and contribute to the “god culture” that plagues the circuit, we need to go out of our way to listen to people who wouldn’t otherwise be heard. It can be difficult to hear other ideas, especially when they contradict your own, but it is always better to hear them and have a new perspective than not.
When you debate, you learn about current events in the world, how to argue persuasively, and most importantly, qualities you never knew about yourself and lessons that shape your understanding of the world. But at the end of the day, the arguments don’t matter and it doesn’t matter how successful your record is. We all just read evidence and we all have different records for each tournament. It is finding your confidence and being proud of your speaking skills that is truly valuable. What matters is what you take away from the activity; I think women may get more out of it than males because we may have bad experiences, but they make us better people and teach us to stand up for what matters. We need to learn not to internalize comments and problems that others around us don’t have to deal with. As long as we learn to compare ourselves to who we used to be, and we learn to move forward despite the obstacles in our way, I would say that’s the most success anyone can receive from this activity.