It’s going to be a different kind of post today, because I spent most of it judging an NYC Middle School Public Forum debate tournament. It was incredibly fun. The kids are super impressive. The coaches and teachers unbelievably dedicated to making this opportunity possible for their students. They’ve truly created something special.
I was a fairly serious policy debater in high school, and, like many policy kids will tell you, believe it was a far more important part of my intellectual and social development than any other parts of high school, including classes and other extra circulars. No matter what event you participate in, speech and debate exposes students to new people and ideas, teaches them how to express themselves, and most importantly, provides a controlled environment where it’s okay and even encouraged to bend, and sometimes break, the rules.
Every speech event has its rule-benders, from performative debaters to evidence-based original orators to drama and humor competitors who blur the line between interpretation and creation. Sometimes they get away with it, and sometimes they don’t, but it doesn’t matter. Speech teaches you — either via your own exploration or frustration at competitors who flaunt the rules and succeed — to question the system itself rather than accept it as given.
Debate, particularly policy debate, is especially prone to this kind of exploration because of its complete lack of universal judging criteria. Rather than instruct judges on how to decide debate rounds, most tournaments leave judging criteria completely up to the judge. It’s not total chaos: a handful of common judging styles have emerged in this vacuum. But to be successful, competitors must learn to adapt both their delivery style and method of argumentation to whomever is sitting “in the back of the room.”
For me, the most interesting debates were the ones where judges took a “tabula rasa” approach. That is, they were open to hearing arguments not just about the topic of the debate, but the rules, and sometimes even purpose, of debate itself. Sometimes, those arguments became too heady; I never loved rounds that were decided on these arguments, which debaters call “theory,” alone. But there is a certain intellectual satisfaction that comes with reaching the meta level of the theory debate, where you argue that you should win because, according to your successfully-argued framework of how debate should be judged, your arguments are better. As a tabula rasa judge, a great theory debate makes deciding a round much easier, and more predictable for competitors, because you don’t have to build the judging scaffolding on your own. Instead, competitors tell you that they won, how they won, how to evaluate the way they won, why they won the debate over how to evaluate the way they won, and in some cases, why it’s important that they won beyond the imagined world of the debate itself.
I didn’t expect middle schoolers to get to that level of debate. And I was judging Public Forum, which is meant to be a more accessible and less technical event. They didn’t quite make it to theory, but in one particularly impressive moment, a team came awfully close, making what I thought was an incredibly cheeky meta-argument in the best tradition of theory debates.
The topic of the round was that the United States should implement compulsory voting for all citizens over the age of 18. In a fairly risky move, the Con team, arguing against the resolution, conceded the point that higher turnout of a more informed populace would lead to a better society. Their argument was that compulsory voting would actually lead to a less informed voting population, and thus worse leaders and policy outcomes.
During the “Crossfire,” a round of back-and-forth questioning, the Pro team saw an opportunity to use the concession to their advantage. They asked Con if there were any other ways they could think of to achieve the mutually desired outcomes of higher informed turnout other than compulsory voting. To which Con replied that they could not answer the question because it is against the rules of Public Forum debate to extend or speculate on alternatives to the resolution itself.
Is it? I have no idea, though I suspect not, if for no other reason than they themselves argued for multiple different ways of achieving the desired outcome during the round, such as stronger voting rights protections. They might have been referring to the (debatable!) philosophical concept of the burden of proof, which typically falls on the Pro side, which is, after all, advocating for changes to the status quo. They might have been referring to general guidance from their coaches and interpreting it as a rule. Or they might have been trying it out as a gambit, taking advantage of the fact that most judges (me included!) don’t know the rules well enough to know whether that rule is real or not. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. It’s up to the debaters to convince the judge.
In this case, the tactic worked. The Pro team was, I think, fairly surprised, and dropped the issue entirely rather than either arguing the rules point or using it to their advantage, by, for example claiming the non-response as evidence that the Con team could not provide a viable alternative. In the end, the Con team very narrowly won by my vote (the only one that counts), in part because of their argument that there are more democratic ways to increase the turnout rates of informed citizens than making voting compulsory.
It was a pretty awesome, and shrewd, tactic to witness at any debate, much less one featuring four pre-teens. I’ll fail to avoid the cliché and just say: I’m entering into the weekend seriously impressed, and not a little more hopeful about the future than at the start of this week. Anyone know a West Virginia Senator who might want to judge a round on this topic next? Asking for…all of us.