Debating “The System”

Five people standing behind podiums

I was one of “those” debate kids in high school whose weekends were spent at debate tournaments — and yes, I carried a ridiculous briefcase, spoke too fast, and owned a dress suit. In other words, I was livin’ the life.

So you can perhaps imagine my interest at a recent Radiolab episode that not only featured the story of a debate team, but of a debater who got his start in Kansas City, where I happen to live. This debate team performed a very unlikely act: in the final round of the national tournament, these underdogs reversed the customs of debate, and in so doing redefined what it means to engage not just in debate, but in persuasive discourse about their own and others’ identities.

While I’ll leave it to you to listen to the details of this fascinating story, the gist is that this team, comprised of two queer black debaters (who were attending a small, comparatively underresourced Kansas university), appeared to forego fulfilling one of the most basic rules of debate — topicality — which very simply means that a team has to speak about the right topic in order to have a chance at winning. Common practice dictates that debaters go back and forth over a pre-selected policy proposition (one debating for it, and the other against it, etc.). Yet this team questioned the very premise they were asked to debate by noting that the conditions under which they were participating were actually prone to determine the outcome. More specifically, they chose to draw attention to the racism that created the power structures of college debate tournaments — which are dominated by white participants funded by wealthy schools whose exemplary support made their success more likely — rather than debate about the topic that they considered merely epiphenomenal to that structure.

Whether this was an appropriate move is a topic of much controversy in the debate world, as Radiolab does a good job of highlighting. Regardless of how one feels about this strategy, though, I think it’s a marvelous example of interrogating this thing that we often call “the system.”

When I ask students why humans behave in a particular way, I not infrequently hear something about “the system” all but predetermining our responses to certain social situations. It’s the same reason why students tell me that they go to college to get degrees in things they may not much like, but which will make them some money: it’s the system, and they have little choice but to play along.

I am intrigued by this response because, like many people, college students are notoriously prone to see themselves as perfectly free, powerful agents, so acknowledging that there is a system at all amounts to a recognition that there are social forces that may determine the range of choices we have, or if such options are even on our mental radars.

I suspect that the discomfort experienced by many at the tactics used by this debate team was rooted in the sense that the duo acted in such an unpredictable way so as to derail the entire debate enterprise. But perhaps a more fundamental phenomenon was the discomfort at seeing the system at work, exposed. Complicity, after all, is unsettling, and particularly when virtually all of our cultural entanglements all but guarantee our involvement in such naturalized systems.

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