William Biersach ’22
April 8, 2021
Debate is its own world. For many debaters, the debate community is a welcoming place that feels more like home than anywhere else. It is only logical, then, that many would find solace in debate in such a challenging time, yet the debate community faces many of the same challenges of COVID-19 and of equity as the entire world does. “Debate is the real world through a strictly competitive lens; it is driven by wins and losses, even earning respect is highly-competitive,” said Stacey Kang, a junior at Durham Academy who competes in public forum debate. Debate magnifies the issues of the world because of its inherent competitiveness.
The debate world, despite being in its own universe, was affected by the pandemic in much the same way that schools and sports programs were. Debate tournaments are no longer in person but online instead. Debate on Zoom is just like school online: frequently tiring and more distant. However, while being present at a debate tournament is certainly better than appearing online, most debaters are just happy to be able to compete. In fact, one silver lining of being forced online is that debaters now have access to tournaments all over without the costs of traveling.
In addition to the challenges of the pandemic, the debate community grapples with a larger problem of inequity, just like the rest of the world. Women in debate face a power dynamic that places male competitors at the top of the hierarchy. There are only four women out of the forty people in the National Symposium for Debate ranking, and there is not a single top-ranked team with two female debaters. Many women express they struggle to navigate the “double-bind” of femininity, as Anna Brent-Levenestein puts it in her essay “Stuck in a Broken Elevator.” Women are often criticized for being too dramatic or involved in the argument but equally judged as quiet and shy.
Inequity poisons the debate experience for many, often through prep groups. Prep groups empower their members by aiding preparations for tournaments and, less obviously, by conferring clout. Anna Brent-Levenstein, in her article titled “Stuck in a Broken Elevator,” highlights this system of inequality in debate. “Unfortunately, [debate] has a lot less to do with how good you are and much more to do with your financial status, resources and connections. Elite prep groups full of mostly White and Asian males dominate the community.” Very few women are invited into these exclusive prep groups, and the prep groups are a big part of the “elevator to success” in debate. That cachet is an integral part of being a good debater makes the issue of inequality all the more pressing yet subtle.
Debate, like the world, is often more about perceptions than skill. Both Stacey Kang and Anna Brent-Levenstein expressed frustration about the paradox of perception for women in debate: being perceived as dramatic and obsessed or weak and shy. Men, however, are more often perceived as powerful when articulating arguments with passion. The debate community fails to recognize that women are powerful and that femininity does not equal weakness. As Stacey said, “when guys in debate yell, they are perceived as passionate for their arguments. When women yell, they are perceived as histrionic.” Debate, then, becomes a game of balance for many women; they are either overly-involved or in the background. To be perceived as powerful while maintaining femininity is nearly impossible. “When judges make comments at the end of the debate, we are often told that our male opponents are more emotive, and that we are too apathetic. You have to find the line between apathetic and dramatic,” said Stacey Kang.
Debate is more often than not a positive experience. Durham Academy debate is an organization that provides a supportive network for many students. “DA is really lucky to have so many coaches and areas of debate that no one ever falls through the cracks. There is always help. It is easy to reach out to the coaches, who are all extremely experienced and talented,” said Faith Hanson, a sophomore who began debate this year. While national debate is largely unjust, DA’s debate team is welcoming, and the coaches are caring. Debate must change; our debate team can spur that change.
Debate is about perceptions. However, it is less about perceptions when judges are more technical. Debate in the world outside of debate tournaments is not technical at all. Debate in the ‘real’ world is far more about power, reputation, and perception not argumentative skills. Competitive debate can address the issue of inequity through focusing on technical skill, unlike the rest of the world.
Debate can be fixed. Individuals like Stacey Kang and Anna Brent-Levenstein fight to make debate more inclusive for women. In her essay, Anna Brent-Levenstein says, “I am still here for the freshman girls, because while I will most likely never win the TOC, they might.” Debate is a microcosm of our world; just like our world, the pandemic and inequality pose great obstacles. Much-needed reform in debate will ideally prompt the rest of the world to follow by example.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coronavirus. Image file, 2019. Chowdhury, Niaz. Debate Logo. Image file, 11 Jan. 2008.