To most people, debate is either an exclusive activity where hundreds of spectators watch well-dressed debaters on stage or the dramatized political debates during the presidential election. People imagine eloquent speakers speaking at a podium discussing polarizing issues like gun rights, abortion, and the economy. Younger generations of students will associate the debate team as a checkbox into an elite college, and a showing of academic prowess. Yet, although all of these assumptions are vaguely correct, they barely scratch the surface of what debate is truly like and about.
As a nationally ranked debater from Boston Latin and a friend of several national champions, I’m here to say that most preconceptions aren’t true. For one, most debate rounds only have one spectator, the judge. Two teams go head to head in high school classrooms or library rooms, places that aren’t accessible to hundreds of people. It often isn’t until the final round of the tournament, that there will be dozens of spectators not hundreds. However, the more disturbing and frightful aspect of this ignorance is that people view debate through an oversimplified lens — one that is often a divine realm of respectful discussion and critical thinking. There is far more to this story.
When I started becoming serious about debate in 8th grade, I was exposed to a loving and nurturing team who fostered a competitive environment that filled my ambitious desires. I was also privileged enough to participate in an intense and free debate camp that summer that slingshotted my career forward. However, as grateful as I am for my beginnings in debate, I gradually started to notice hidden and pernicious aspects of the activity.
Debate is always put on a pedestal with its educational value and prestige. However, the outsiders of the activity will never grasp the internal issues that plague the activity. For instance, debate is plagued by socioeconomic issues and disadvantages between gender and ethnic minority groups.
A study found that teams composed of female-female partners had an 18.1% lower chance of winning against male-male teams than their male counterparts (Wang and Terveen). This disparity only represents a subset of the inequities and challenges the debate community face, and while female-identifying and minority debaters have discussed these issues for years, little change has happened.
Moreover, winning and successful teams often come from elite public or private schools that can finance the expensive costs of buying a plane ticket, staying at a hotel, providing food, tournament entry fees, and transportation. Debate camps can cost thousands of dollars, pushing small and low-income urban schools out of the activity systematically. We deify the best debaters: admire them, research them, we try to be them. We treat them as celebrities and not humans. And to the less successful, they are “nothing” without competitive success. In this activity, no one is safe from competition.
Beyond the unequal distribution of opportunities, the competitive nature of debate has also caused some serious problems for the debaters in the activity. It is sad and frightening to see top nationally ranked teams quit the activity or cry over debate rounds. But this is the reality we have to face, and a reality people do not see.
Debate rounds make you enraged from the opponent’s persistent aggression and ignorance or discouraged from constant losses. I’ve spoken to debaters who have placed consistently in the top 50 nationwide, and an overwhelming majority have expressed their discontent with the activity and have thought about quitting.
I have also experienced these sentiments. Stopping at preliminary rounds at six different tournaments and failing to qualify to an important national tournament has certainly made a dent on my confidence and love for the activity. I’ve spent hundreds of hours preparing for debate tournaments only for my online record to show losses. Debate is blunt. My record tells me “I’m not good enough.” This feeling never escapes either. The ironic aspect of debate is that no matter how many awards you get, the cut throat aspect of debate means you will always want more. My personal story is only a microcosm of all the complex and different situations debaters go through.
Worst of all, virtually all of these issues, and many more, are invisible to the world outside of debate. Debate needs to be taken seriously beyond its value in society and for the sophisticated issues that it raises questions about. How do we create change within a community if most people are focused on winning? How does society balance caring and competing? How do we catalyze long-term changes for equity and fairness?
Truthfully, I would not be here and continue to debate if I thought the activity brought more harm than good. Yes, debate is not perfect but there is hope. Public Forum, a competitive popular high school debate event that I participate in, has undergone dramatic changes over the last years, from research papers surrounding inequality in debate, critiques of racism and entrenched classism, to open equity discussions during camps. Similar speech and debate events have gone through a similar process of reconciliation.
This direction is the right one. Debate has unequivocally changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people across the globe — no other activity prepares you to research, learn, and cooperate with people like debate does. I firmly believe that debate is the most valuable activity in all of high school, maybe even college.
Society is not wrong that this activity should be revered but the best way to respect debate is to truly understand it. Debate has become trivialized in TV shows and the media because society is drawn to controversial topics and heated speeches. Yet, representations of competitive debate do not even begin to address the questions of equity and competition but instead divert attention to “speed reading” and elite debaters. There are unknown and untouched aspects of this activity that, if tapped into, could enrich our understanding of debate and, more broadly, society itself. Shining a light on these external and internal problems won’t magically solve any issue but the least outsiders can do is start to view debate as more nuanced than simply eloquent speakers on a stage.
I continue to debate because the debate community can do better, and we as a society can do better. To the debaters that read this, think about the problems we can fix together. But more importantly, try your very best to love and care for each other. I know this activity is tough and cutthroat but there is so much more value in the community you build than the achievements you accomplish. Instead of competing, let’s start caring.
To the community outside of debate, recognize how distanced your reality of debate is from the media. I’m not expecting you to learn everything possible about competitive debate, but I’m asking for the respect debate deserves. The topics debaters discuss range from the United States’ foreign and domestic policy to questions of equity and morality. In no other high school or college club can you talk about the intersections of identity in competitive success, nuclear war and monetary policy, or learn about the postmodern theories of Baudrillard. That is what makes it so unique and special.
With a little more love and understanding, we can together make something already great, something more inclusive, equitable, widespread and truly extraordinary.