[eDebate] topic self determination part 1

Andy Ellis andy.edebate
Sun Jan 14 03:56:39 CST 2007

topic self determination

I am writing to explain some of the arguments behind my thoughts on why and
how people can take the power that a debate topic has and use it to frame
their own political discourse. This is not a disclosure for any towson teams
and I will use the prison resolution as one particular example.a

Let me start  by reminding everybody that we exist in a debate world at
least 5 or 6 years on in the most recent "performaive" or "alternative turn"
in which many affirmatives either don't affirm the resolution or affirm it
as something, but doesn't defend any predictable understanding of what that
is. Mutual preference judging has allowed more and more teams to simply
avoid debating not only the topic but any particular topic. Project
affirmatives have started to use framework debates on the aff to make the
debate about something other than the topic. to borrow a phrase This genie
is not going back in he bottle.

The world defended by many traditional debate defenders has not existed in
this community on a wide spread basis at least since the turn of the
millennium and probably longer than that. There is a debate to be had each
round, but as long as there are people who like debating the topic as a
starting point and judges who made and continue to make there careers as
topic outlaws then the vision of a pure traditional debate community where
the topic is the supreme law of the land will be an unattainable goal.

While I admire the current efforts to transform debate into a libratory
space and a space for multi cultural democracy, and I am excited to see them
develop. I think most of these efforts come up short both on goals and
strategies to achieve them. Focusing the debate through the lens of the
offial topic, even if its to be in opposition to it, forces those working
for real world change through debate to channel their discussion toward
whatever it is that the dominant debate system they oppose thinks should be
the topic for the year. This at best constrains the possibility for true
liberation to the terms set by the status quo upholding system and at worst
strips liberation of any true political goals and makes it simply a per
formative nod to liberation.

The question then becomes how can a political framework be provided under
the current debate structure which allows students and coaches who refuse
the topic to channel the effective political work they do in debates toward
the goals they wish to achieve while at the same time using the values the
community has such as intense research, idea testing, clash, and expert
judging to name a few but not all certainly.

A brief moment for a metaphor?

In many ways the topic committee takes the role of the state, setting up the
structure in which debate occurs making policy and focus decision that
channel  the attention of the public on the particular issues of the time.
The topic is the law. It sets the norms and practices that regulate the
debate for the course of the season. It draws very clear boundaries about
what is and is not permissible. Debaters and citizens and police. Citizens
can break the law with one another if they choose to not to be the police,
but once one party declares the other illegal they take the issue before a
judge and the judge decides if the case presented for illegality is correct
within his or her understanding of the topic/law  and then decides a
penalty. Now of course these are simplifications. But then again that's what
we do. The policy process that we mimic within debate is also a

So if we think about the topic and the community this way, the notion of
self determination can take on some historical context. When a democracy
imposes something on a political minority that subjects the minority to what
they consider oppression while also denying the services they feel they need
for their survival and liberation, then the oppressed community needs to
provide not only the services needed for its people but also a notion of
self determination that allows people to chart their own course to
liberation. You might have heard the term all power to the people? Its not
just a slogan but a powerful political argument in the face of  a democratic
system hat neglects and structures assimilation and oppression into its

Here is how it translates into the debate community, remember the rumsfeld
quote which says that the most powerful person in America is the person who
sets the high school debate topic, because that person frames the research
and discussion of the community of Americas smartest youth. This is easily
transferable to the college community and especially true within the
community. That person (or committee) has over the past several years
imposed a style of topic which because of its hyper specific micro political
means of accessing major societal issues has funneled topical research
through a very specific literature base which deals exclusively with changes
in supreme court cases or legislative reform. Topics have become or are
highly technical and aim to use terms of art in order to specify actions and
decrease the power of debaters to interpret important words and ideas.
Political space is limited to very specific notions of working in the
system. Policy has overtaken politics, and only very specific polices fall
within the law. Unfortunately the democratic process has not accounted for
the demands of many in the community which say that this type of education
is exclusionary and reinforcing of a system which targets poor people and
people of color.

Let me be clear, I think it is important to debate hyper specific polices
because learning about the system is indeed good. But I don't think that
every body should have to debate them in every debate. Broader topics that
allow people the power to interpret actions and political concepts are also
important debates and allow many more people to be included while less are

Simply put there are some people who see debate as path toward their
liberation and toward self determination in their lives, and only being able
to speak about gendered violence through the mechanism of the supreme court
is similar to telling someone that they cannot set up a breakfast program
and a police program in their community without going through the courts.
Even if the courts are not providing redress.

So here is my solution

Those that are looking to use debate as a place for testing political ideas
and strategies should do so. If the official topic does not provide the
forum for such discussion. You should take the power the topic committee has
and provide that service to yourself and your community. Frame a topic that
articulates a political goal you would like to achieve and then write an
affirmative that suggests how to get there.

Defend why the topic you have chosen make for good debate and choose a topic
that would make for good debate, but free yourself to use debate to create
the space you want to theorize and practice the political ideas that you
would like to see implemented and do not let the current law of the land
limit you. Seize for yourself the power to make your own reality and teach
others to do so.

I think people should disclose their topic and their plans because I think
if the debate community truly is the place to test these ideas it requires a
responsibility to let others know what you are debating and then debate it

Ultimately this is not an argument why people cannot argue outside of this
framework nor is it an attempt to assimilate those that are on the margins
of the debate communities normal practice, but is an attempt to allow many
of those people fighting the current structure of debate to have a political
framework from which to articulate their points of view and important ideas.
I think self determination means you self determine how the debate is framed
in the best way for you, but if we can come together in support this
particular notion we can begin to expose the ideological components of the
current topic process and either begin to change the way topics are choose
or if not that change the topics we debate.

If you find the resolutions chosen by the topic committee to not provide you
a framework for the goals you wish to achieve through debate then, break
free from the law, chart your own course, identify what you need to change,
and how to change it and begin going about it.
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