By Sean Wallace
Content Warning: This article discusses structural violence, specifically concerning queer bodies, and brief mentions of sex trafficking and gender dysphoria.
A new PF season is upon us, and with it comes a new Septober topic: “Resolved: The United States Federal Government should enact the Medicare-For-All Act of 2019.” With this topic, throughout the camps, we’ve seen the emergence of a new “meta,” as team after team has experimented with structural violence framing and arguments concerning marginalized groups in the country. This is incontestably a good trend – the discourse we have in our rounds does inspire critical thought outside of rounds. Before the April topic, I personally had not heard about the prostitution and sex trafficking that takes place around US military bases. Arguments concerning marginalized groups can also be a force for good, i.e the donation drive for Uyghur Muslims in China after the BRI topic.
It also raises somewhat troubling questions about the tokenization of marginalized groups. When a cishet person reads an argument about queer healthcare, is that commodification? Are they trading queer suffering like currency for the ballot? Does it contribute to the fungibility of queer bodies in the debate space? What should we, as debaters, do to confront and ameliorate our own privilege before we read these arguments?
However, it encourages us to return to the oft debated topic of the role of content warnings in debate. A really good article that discusses this is “2 More Cents on Content Warnings,” by Yukiho Semimoto. I think that more needs to be added in the context of arguments concerning structural violence.
Switch Side Debate
We debate in a format where we have to argue for both sides of an issue. This has a lot of educational benefits – through learning the counter arguments to our own personal opinions, we both get a sense of the thoughts of those who disagree with us, and become better at defending our own positions. However, switch side debate also has a lot of issues, especially when it comes to structural violence.
Structural violence framing almost always relies on the same premise: Structural violence is ignored by policy makers, so the violence against marginalized groups will never be solved unless you affirm. The idea that violence against these groups is ignored comes from a few assumptions, but the main warrant is that policy makers simply do not care about oppressed bodies; that in the eyes of the state, oppressed bodies are objects, fungible in the entirety, without humanity.
As a queer debater, the first time that I read Edelman and his theories about the lack of queer futurity, the idea that because queer people cannot reproduce, they are dead in the eyes of the state, I genuinely cried. These kinds of arguments take a huge emotional toll on marginalized debaters. Shocker: it’s tough hearing that the state doesn’t care about you.
However, reading structural violence arguments about your own identity is oddly cathartic. It’s almost as if it puts the power back in our hands. Being able to stand up and talk about your own community for four minutes, in a space where everyone has to shut up and listen to you, is an incredible feeling. For a lot of debaters, debate is the only place where this can happen.
Unfortunately, when these arguments become “meta,” as they have on the Medicare topic, it can get tough for the oppressed people being discussed. This is because, as great as it feels is for us to read these arguments, it is incredibly difficult to debate against an argument discussing our identity. No queer debater wants to spend 4 minutes explaining to a judge why their own community doesn’t deserve healthcare. It’s different from arguing against your own opinion: we are now forced to argue against our own humanity.
The role of content warnings(CW)
The rise of these arguments means that we need to have a new discussion about content warnings, as they can play a large part in addressing this problem. If a minority team is warned that their opponents’ case concerns their own community, then they should be able to opt out of arguing against that case. PF teams have had a tendency in the past to, if they even read a content warning, read the absolute bare minimum. I think there are a few norms that need to be set about content warnings:
If you are reading an argument about a marginalized group, that needs to be in the CW.
There needs to be a way for your opponents and the judge to anonymously opt out
This can be done through having people text you or through an anonymous Google Form
You should give them ample time to opt out – 5 minutes feels like a lot in the moment, but it’s better to give too much time than not enough time.
Don’t be skimpy with your content warning – if you are wondering if something should be in there, just put it in to be safe.
Content warnings are incredibly important – here’s a personal anecdote that demonstrates this importance.
I was competing in an online tournament hosted by one of my good friends. It wasn’t going well. I had been misgendered over and over again, it was getting delayed, and I had just lost because I dropped my impact defense to dedev. I go to my round 5. They flip aff. They say: “CW: suicide.” I told them that they needed to implement a way to anonymously opt out. They did. Nobody opted out. They then proceeded to read a case that concerned gender dysphoria, lack of access to healthcare for trans folks, and the debilitating effects this has on trans folks’ mental health. When I opened the speech doc, as a genderqueer debater, my heart dropped. In addition to gratuitous descriptions of dysphoria being incredibly triggering, I did not want to debate against my own humanity yet again.
I read theory in a paragraph format, saying that if debaters read arguments about marginalized groups, that needs to be in their CW. They dropped it in rebuttal. I pointed that out. Then, in summary, they proceeded to victim blame, saying that I should have asked them if I actually cared, and that I was excluding them from the debate space by reading theory. I pointed out that they were victim blaming. At that point, I was so exhausted that I conceded the round, dropped from the tournament and logged off my computer.
Those kids weren’t bad kids. They weren’t actively trying to hurt me. However, all of the emotional damage of that round could have been avoided if there was more education in PF about the importance of content warnings.
The role of theory
There needs to be a way to hold debaters accountable for their actions. In the end, it’s impact over intent – even if you’re a nice kid and you weren’t trying to hurt someone, if you have caused emotional damage to someone, you should be held accountable.
Many communities, especially the gender queer community, have been trying to make the rest of the community conscientious of our concerns for years. We have been telling y’all to read content warnings and stop misgendering us for years – it hasn’t worked. I genuinely, at this point, don’t know how to address this issue without theory.
Additionally, the community needs to worry less about losing ballots and think more of the impacts of their actions. If you’re mad about losing to content warning theory, maybe you should think about what you could have done better so that the theory wasn’t read on you in the first place.
The debate community is not inclusive. A lot of this is because of structural factors – resource inequities, school and tournament administrators, etc. Those factors are harder to affect with individual action. However, content warnings are something we can all do, and they are a super easy way to make the debate space more inclusive.
Sean is in their fourth year debating for Sidwell Friends High School in Washington, DC. They are going into their second year of PF. You can contact them on Facebook or Instagram.
Note: The Beyond Resolved blog reflects the ideas of individual authors and not necessarily of the organization as a whole.