The Flaws of High School Debate

Modern debate has its fair share of issues, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

No debate team has ever been advertised as easy. Almost every debater will agree that their career’s successes were gained from afternoons of drills, evenings of prep, and nights of reading news articles and research studies on incredibly niche topics. Debate is, after all, a competitive activity in which people aim to hone their argumentative and public speaking skills. Unfortunately, those attempts at improvement can sometimes unintentionally escalate into something more aggressive.

Recently, I competed at an online Lincoln-Douglas debate tournament. After one round, a judge mentioned, “I don’t know how you stayed so calm when your opponent kept cutting you off.”

I responded truthfully, “I didn’t notice.”

Hostile opponents in the debate sphere have become as normalized as the ever-increasing workload of prep. The line between “assertive” and “rude” is blurred at times, making it difficult to tell if your opponent is criticizing your arguments or you as a debater. The opponent I encountered was just one example of this situation, in which I failed to recognize an impolite trait that would have been obvious in normal conversation.

This uncertain distinction becomes particularly clear when gender is taken into account in debate. Many female debaters have noted that their aggressiveness is perceived as “cattiness,” while their male counterparts are praised as confident and self-assured for similar behavior. Clear sexism and misogyny pervade other aspects of debate as well. Opponents and judges have historically objectified and demeaned females, making comments about their appearances, voices, and demeanors. Most horrifyingly of all, multiple female debaters have reported sexual harassment and assault by their male teammates, opponents, and judges.

Schools with smaller debate teams and debaters from low-income families face exclusion as well. Those with larger debate programs and more money have greater access to key resources, including prep, knowledge, and, of course, guidance through paid coaches and debate camps. Smaller teams from less affluent schools are often barred entry to certain tournaments due to exceptionally high entry fees.

So why do I, and so many others, continue debating? What is there to gain from an activity plagued by such issues?

Flaws don’t make something irredeemable. Though debate has its issues, it’s still an interesting and educational extracurricular for its participants. There’s nothing quite like dressing in a blazer and traveling for two hours by bus just to argue with another 16-year-old for 45 minutes straight (or, more accurately in our post-pandemic era, rolling out of bed and logging into a video-calling website 15 minutes before the round starts). Where else can teenagers learn about Hobbesian ethics and the Outer Space Treaty and get to argue about them?

Moreover, there is an extensive community that aims to resolve debate dilemmas. Older debaters, particularly those who have faced these problems firsthand, are often at the forefront of these efforts. Many initiatives intend to support marginalized groups and aid gender and racial minorities in particular. Others offer help to any debater who needs it, regardless of income or school size.

Debaters themselves make a difference, too. The discriminatory, exclusionist individuals are only a fraction of the greater debate community, a community that is largely dedicated to constantly learning and helping others. With each new generation of debaters, we can hope to make debate a safer and more inclusive extracurricular for everyone. Forming relationships with others, aiding those on your team, and standing up against injustices are all ways to foster such an environment.

And besides, the satisfaction of winning a round—especially one that involves an irritatingly aggressive opponent—is not something that I’m willing to give up. Ironically, my opponent’s unnecessary forcefulness ended up costing him the round. He misunderstood an important argument that I could have clarified if he had just let me speak.