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The Things About Insanity in Debate That Are Hard To Grasp Absent Spending Time in It
It's less the explicit and dramatic incidents and more the general atmosphere
Two brief notes before I begin the heart of the article: First, I do not think that debate should be defunded. It has made my life tremendously better, and the same is true of almost everyone who seriously does it. It fosters unparalleled research skills and writing ability, making school and success in life far easier. Debate has real problems with ideological bias, but it is nonetheless, on the whole, quite good, and anyone who uses my complaints about debate to advocate its defunding is farther from my views about debate than the insane ideologues I critique here. Second, these problems primarily affect policy debate—they are much less extensive in other types of debate.
If people want background on my experience with debate, and other stories about debate more broadly, see below.
James Fishback has a new article out describing the insanity in debate. The article describes particularly egregious instances of ideological bias—judges flatly refusing to vote for arguments and threatening to automatically vote against teams and publicly berate them if they use the term illegal immigrant—a term that is, as he notes, “not only ubiquitous in media and politics, but accurate.” And I think that this article is right, and it makes an important point about how biased judges are in debate, but I think it doesn’t fully adequately diagnose the problem. It describes the explicit instances of judge bias, but I think the problem is far deeper—the problem is often hard to distill into particular, concrete examples of bias.
Bentham famously described—and advocated for—the Panopticon, wherein prisons would contain a center made of glass, from which one could see out but not in. The prisoners would be constantly watched, and as a result, they’d regulate their own behavior. They’d know that when they acted up, they’d be punished, so after some time, they’d stop acting up. Eventually, the Panopticon could be vacant and it wouldn’t matter—what matters is not that people are watched but that they feel watched. No watchman is needed for people to feel watched and for social interactions to be shaped as if people were being watched constantly.
If you asked someone in the prison how the Panopticon affected things, it would be hard for them to point to concrete examples of this. Because it’s not so much that there are concrete, dramatic actions, but that there is a general atmosphere, a universal surveillance, the ubiquitous knowledge that one is always being seen and that there are some things that they just can’t do.
This is sort of how I feel about the crazy ideological bias in debate.
It wasn’t so much that dramatic, explicit actions—judges voting against teams for saying things mildly to the left of Mao—occurred frequently. It was much more the culture, the attitudes had by debaters, the ways debaters interacted that were ubiquitous and universal.
Here is something that I cannot prove with rigorous data but am almost 100% sure is true: Almost every debater in high-level policy debate, at both the high school level and college level is significantly left of center. When you talk to debaters about political issues, they’re all left-wing. Hell, I’m pretty left of center, and I was about as far right as debaters get.
And in debate, the culture of irony is strong. DeBoer describes it well here with his near-unparalleled ability to distill concepts (particularly when the concept is some type of person that he’s mad at).
And what online socialist culture teaches young leftists is that you do socialism by telling jokes on Twitter and treating all political questions as so obvious that anyone who professes to struggle with them deserves contempt. It also promulgates the flatly incorrect notion that things have never been worse and there were some halcyon days of yore when things were better, that there was some vague “before times” where life was easier. There wasn’t, and it’s terribly misleading for leftists to believe as if there were.
I remember one round when I was against a team that didn’t argue for the topic that we were supposed to argue about. In policy debate, one is supposed to propose a specific plan, to advocate for a specific policy. They didn’t do this. Instead, they just sort of generically railed against broken windows policing—it wasn’t quite on topic because they didn’t give a proposal, but it wasn’t unrelated to the topic, which was about criminal justice reform.
In response, we argued that broken-windows policing was good. It turns out that there are a lot of people arguing for that, and while I think they’re wrong, the view that more policing of petty crimes reduces criminal activity, makes communities safer, and results in less crime isn’t obviously wrong—especially given the drop in crime in the 90s (though I think that’s best explained by the decrease in lead).
And the other team—and this was not a bad team—just had basically no response. Their entire case was arguing against broken-windows policing, and it seemed like they hadn’t taken five minutes to consider why the actual real-world people who support broken-windows policing think it’s good. Because they just expected that no one would argue for broken-windows policing, because it’s seen as sort of right-wing.
When one reads a proposal for an entire year, they generally become super knowledgeable about the proposal. I could run circles around those who opposed most of the policies I argued for in debate. And it just seemed like this team couldn’t—like if they appeared on CNN arguing against some police chief who favored broken windows policing, they’d get their asses handed to them. Because they hadn’t treated it as a serious question; the left-wing view about broken windows policing was such unquestionable dogma, such a self-evident truth, that it seemed like they had not spent five minutes considering if it was right, despite their entire case being about advocating for it. In debate, the emperor has no clothes.
Lots of debaters are socialists or communists. Now, I have lots of friends who are socialists and some who are communists—one friend who is an actual communist said she really liked my articles condemning debate and that debaters seemed crazy; but the ones who are my friends, unlike the debaters, are really willing to put in the work. When I say to my socialist friends that it seems that socialism has a bad track record, they’ll have substantive responses, such as arguing, like Bruenig does, that the Nordic countries are actually much more socialist than Venezuela, for example, and that the reason that we think that socialist countries fail is that the socialist success stories don’t get counted as socialist. This is a point that can be disputed—people can go back and forth on it.
But when you raise the objection to debaters that socialism and communism seem to fail consistently, their response is, almost always, “Venezuela Iphone.” For those who don’t know, “Venezuela Iphone” is a sort of political bingo, a way one can sneeringly dismiss actual criticisms, wherein when someone makes a point, rather than actually addressing it, you can just dismiss it on the grounds that it’s something you’ve heard conservatives say. The “Venezuela” in the infamous phrase is the idea that people will often point to Venezuela—and haha, isn’t that funny. They actually said something that I’ve heard on Fox News. Guess I don’t have to engage with the substance of their criticism, I can just fill out the bingo card. The Iphone part is an actually dumb criticism that people sometimes make, that socialists use Iphones which were developed by capitalists.
So through this veneer of irony and this dismissive attitude toward criticisms, they have a way to dismiss anything that might challenge their worldview. If you point out that socialism and communism fail with alarming consistency when people try to implement them, and it seems like one of the metrics that determines if some way of organizing society is desirable is whether it, you know, fails consistently and kills millions of people in bone-chillingly horrible ways, such that many of the most vile and evil regimes have come to power when people have tried to organize society that way, they will dismiss it—they have a fully general reply which involves being ironic. By memeifying it and grouping it with an actually dumb argument, they have avoided the need to seriously grapple with challenges to their views. No need to engage with the criticism or dispute the historical claim or dispute the logical claim that we should not implement ways of organizing society that fail every time and turn otherwise prosperous countries into starving dictatorships—you can just say Venezuela Iphone and dismiss the criticism. Apparently the piles of millions of skulls that have accompanied the putative rise of socialism are such a hilarious punchline of a joke, that one does not seriously have to grapple with the implications of the things they argue for. The senseless deaths of millions of starving children has been turned into a bingo card and thus dismissed.
This works really well as a response when you’re surrounded by drooling leftist lackeys, but it does not work in the real world. If you say this when conservatives seriously propose the objection, the odds that you’ll convince them is zero percent. And this seems like a pretty common takeaway—it seems like maybe half of policy debaters are in favor of socialism or communism just because it’s popular; they’ve spent zero hours thinking about the economic calculation problem or problems of incentives or any other problem. They’ve just drank the cool-aid.
When you treat politics as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world, as if the criticisms raised by Nobel prize winners can be dismissed by irony or saying “A STUDY SAYS THE OPPOSITE”—one that you haven’t read beyond the abstract—it sets you up for abject failure in the real world. Even if you think communism is a great idea, you should still be opposed to the insane leftism in debate. Because when everything is left, people never learn how to advocate for their ideas or defend them. Even if you are the most extreme communist in the world, and think that the only value of debate comes from it training people to be loyal, dedicated communists, you should still oppose the current left-wing cultural hegemony. No one becomes better at defending their left-wing views when in debate, they’re treated as sacred cows that cannot be challenged on pain of death. No one learns how to defend their views, even if they’re communists, when judges say this
“Before anything else, including being a debate judge, I am a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist. . . . I cannot check the revolutionary proletarian science at the door when I’m judging. . . . I will no longer evaluate and thus never vote for rightest capitalist-imperialist positions/arguments. . . . Examples of arguments of this nature are as follows: fascism good, capitalism good, imperialist war good, neoliberalism good, defenses of US or otherwise bourgeois nationalism, Zionism or normalizing Israel, colonialism good, US white fascist policing good, etc.”
If you are really a staunch critic of Israel, you should want people to argue about Israeli policy. The only reason to be terrified about high school students so much as discussing Israel is if you think your position is so untenable that a bit of research by high school students will cause it to come tumbling down. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.
I find views according to which factory farming is permissible to be utterly despicable. But it is exactly and precisely for this reason that I would love for high schoolers to debate a topic about regulating factory farms, because they would learn about the horrors that go on in the factory farms, the torture and mutilation of untold numbers of animals.
In debate, nearly all people are far left. And most don’t think that it’s a problem. As if a community where the political views are more homogenous than at the annual meetings of Marxist Lenninists will be an unbiased adjudicator of arguments that they fervently universally oppose and mock publicly. Of course, if all the judges were right-wing, everyone would object to that—but when people like the homogenous political views, somehow the complete and total lack of ideological diversity stops being a problem.
Sometimes, judges are explicitly biased. Sometimes judges categorically refuse to vote for particular arguments. When the other team dredged up an out-of-context screenshot from a private discord chat, arguing that the judge should vote against me because I was such a horrible person that it would be immoral to vote for me, and that we should discuss my alleged foibles instead of the topic, I had a judge flatly refuse to accept the arguments as to why what I said, while it sounded bad, was not, in fact, objectionable.
But more common than explicit refusal to accept arguments is sneering derision and dogma that goes unquestioned. In debate, teams will very often argue for utilitarianism. One of the most common replies is to describe this as being all lives mater logic. That all lives matter is bad is treated as a basic axiom—everyone knows it. Comparing something to the all lives matter movement—a movement popular with the right but not the left—is seen as a near-fatal objection to it. If one instead claimed that something was black lives matter logic, no judge would consider that an argument and lots of judges would vote against them instantly.
If you’re a conservative, who is broadly sympathetic to all lives matter, it’s no wonder that debate makes you feel unwelcome. When a political movement to which you are sympathetic is treated as so obviously terrible that it need not be argued against, and if you argue for it you’re treated as a racist and will lose instantly, it’s not hard to see why conservatives have been all but expunged from debate—why they are a severely endangered, if not totally extinct, species.
I once almost lost a round because, even though I denounced all lives matter, I didn’t do it fervently or zealously enough. We argued for utilitarianism, and the other team argued that this was all lives matter logic. In response, I said something like “the problem with all lives matter isn’t the slogan—obviously all lives do matter, the alternative is some lives not mattering—it’s the specific harmful policies that they push.” I had to denounce all lives matter, of course, if I said anything even remotely sympathetic to it, most judges would regard that with skepticism. But in this round, the judge almost voted against me, because they said that, though I explicitly condemned all lives matter as a movement, I agreed with the slogan, which is such a reprehensible crime that it resulted in the judge severely docking my speaker points. Speaker points are how judges rate how well you did in the round apart from who won—in that round, I got below 28 speaker points. I never get below 28 speaker points, aside from this round, with a left-wing ideologue so extreme that they think that one who utters the words all lives matter, even if they explicitly condemn the movement, is effectively Hitler. And things like this are common.
In debate, teams will very often not argue for the topic. Though there’s a topic that is supposed to be argued about, debaters will instead argue for some insane far-left view, and claim that they shouldn’t have to argue about the topic. Arguing about the topic is racist, they often claim—instead, they should just have to present poetry or tell about their experience as a black person or immigrant. This stuff is ubiquitous, as I’ve demonstrated.
Now, you might wonder what people argue in response. The second most common response is what’s known as the cap K—wherein people would argue against capitalism, and claim that the radical left-wing affirmative case wasn’t radical enough, and that it somehow bolstered capitalism. Because in debate you can’t beat teams by being to the right of your opponent, no matter how left they are—judges won’t accept it. So instead, debaters try desperately to move farther left than their opponents, arguing that the opponents’ poetry about their experience as black people subtly reinforced capitalism. Why else would the second most common response to far-left lunacy be to argue for literal communism?
The most common thing to argue in response to jettisoning a discussion of the topic is what you might expect, namely that when there’s a topic to debate about, people should debate about, you know, the topic, rather than random other irrelevant thoughts they have, or whether their poetry is good (it usually isn’t). But even here, there is bias; left-wing assumptions go unquestioned.
For example, when arguing that people shouldn’t have to defend the topic, people will often claim that arguing about the topic causes people to grow up to be people like Carl Rove or Ted Cruz—both of whom did debate. No one ever argues why Carl Rove or Ted Cruz are bad (and believe me, there are plenty of reasons). The response is always “they say debate teaches us to be bad people like Carl Rove or Ted Cruz, but it also teaches us to be good people like Neil Katyal or Ketanji Brown Jackson.” That the right-wing political figures are bad and the left-wing ones are good is just known—you don’t even have to argue for it, it’s accepted as so self-evident it need not be argued for. In one round, which was I think at the most competitive national tournament, a team claimed that debating the topic made us like Karl Rove. In response, I asked them why Karl Rove was bad—and they couldn’t give a reason. It became very clear that they had literally no idea who Karl Rove was, and were frantically typing into Google “Reasons Karl Rove sucks,” as we spoke.
One other thing that is ubiquitous in debate is the frequent ascription of psychic violence. What is psychic violence, you might ask, if you’re a normal person? The short answer is that it’s a way debaters describe their feelings being hurt in a grandiose way. When debaters don’t want to have to argue about the topic, they say that forcing them to argue about the topic is basically violence. I rolled my eyes when I first heard the phrase, especially when people are equating judges voting against them because they don’t debate the topic in a round of debate, which they voluntarily participated in, with literal violence. No doubt domestic abuse survivors who are subject to real violence love having their experience compared to being gently asked to argue for the topic when one voluntarily signs up to do debate. But in debate, no one rolls their eyes anymore. Once you hear absurd things that only ridiculous social justice warriors believe over and over again, eventually, they stop sounding ridiculous. So no one bats their eyes at claims that arguing that people should talk about the topic is akin to violence. But if you argue that there is such thing as racism against white people—and saying white people should be shot into space because of how bad they are is a textbook example of it—a huge portion of debate judges would cringe. Arguments that offend the sensibilities of the most unhinged communist are seen as too offensive to be utterable.
Now, you might think that if people say that they’ll quit debate unless they can avoid talking about the topic, the rational response would be: fine, leave! If one doesn’t want to play chess or any other game by the rules, they do not just get to jettison the rules; the suggestion one would give is that they either stop playing or play fairly. But no one ever says this in debate—there’s basically a universal consensus that saying that those who refuse to argue for the topic should lose rounds, and if this makes debate not enjoyable for them they should quit, is “psychically violent.” It’s only novices who say people should if they refuse to discuss the topic—everyone else tiptoes around those who flagrantly refuse to discuss the issue that they were called to discuss and that the other team prepared for and that the judges prepared to judge.
In debate, people often read Kritiks (of course they don’t spell it the normal way—debaters love their dogma). The idea of these arguments is that, rather than talking about the topic, people will critique the foundational assumptions of the other teams or the topic. But no one ever reads conservative critiques. You can argue that the topic is secretly capitalist or antiblack—but you can’t argue that it’s secretly a pernicious form of critical race theory, for example, or that it is part of some objectionable left-wing ideology.
Ask debaters what they think of the conservative kritiks—they’ll all say that they’re a bad idea. No one ever makes these arguments, and if you suggest making them, debaters will cringe. Because people have been molded by the social customs to regard conservative critiques as a disgusting monstrosity, something to be embarrassed by and sneer at. On a topic about criminal justice reform, people would argue against reform because it falls short of complete abolition of the criminal justice system, but they’d never argue against the ideology of reform itself. And this is not because no conservatives ever have argued against reform: being against radical reform is literally in the name conservative. Instead, it’s that in debate, some things just can’t be said. The rot goes very deep.
And so for this reason, it’s easy for debaters to gaslight people into thinking that this stuff isn’t a big problem. Because it’s often subtle and reinforced through social attitudes, rather than explicit actions. But everything about debate—at least policy debate—sends a clear message: if you’re a conservative, you’re an idiot, a racist, and you’re not welcome. And if you challenge the hegemony, then you’re a deplorable, someone who should never be allowed to debate, and if you quit, that’s vital moral progress.