[eDebate] An open Letter to Dr Warner

Ede Warner ewarner
Tue May 29 07:25:14 CDT 2007

Dear Andy, Ken, Adam, and the debate community,
Got a lot of thoughts about all of us.  But more importantly, I suggest a simple approach.  Use the wonderful skills we've accrued through our participation in policy debate to create the changes you wish to see in the debate community.  Criticism is a starting point, but certainly not an end.  For me, the question isn't whether competition is good or bad, but whether it can be harnessed and directed to dualistically serve a societal purpose in addition to competition for it's own sake.  If it can't, then the game is futile.  But if it can, then the possibilities of reclaiming debate as having more educational value and more of a relevance to the world we live in and that is a worthy "lifelong" mission for me.
I won't for a second suggest how Andy or Ken should create the worlds of policy debate that they are looking for, but I am certainly willing to share my experiences in hopes that others can find a productive route towards the changes they are looking for.  
The process for finding solutions to a problem--whether finding a proper framework and structure in our activity for debating race or whether competitive practices are destroying the educational value of the activity-- is the same.  At the end of the day, our community must persuade one another to move in a particular direction.  While we can find competitive success by persuading a smaller percentage of folks on an idea, the types of structural changes being called for by both Andy and Ken and others, requires persuasion of the majority that a particular course of action will lead to the most effective outcomes for our community.  Absent that persuasion, we end up with schisms of difference and no clear sense of direction as a community, the status quo.  And I'll readily concede, our participation at Louisville has helped create this community division, so I have some sense of responsibility to address it.  The question remains: can something come out of our divisions which makes us as a community stronger?  Of course it can, but it won't occur without a social movement towards some particular educational endpoint.
For me, my process of discovery has taken over a decade.  And Adam is right, it can take a lifetime without ever finding the answer.  However, making debate as a game more relevant to the society in which it exists is important in finding the answers to many societal issues of the day.  Debate is a microcosm of society and an important one, given what the structure teaches us about policy making in a multi-cultural society is exactly the evolution from an "elite" game for a mono-cultural that the larger society we live in struggles with.  Over the last fifteen years at Louisville, I have used my personal and institutional agency to influence students to partake in an evolution of policy making to attempt to address what started with a very narrow goal of increasing "African American participation" but has become a much broader and politically more significant mission of "increasing effective policy making in a multi-cultural society".  I believe the goal is worthy whether or not anyone has found the "answer", nor will I "give up" because some else hasn't succeeded.  To me, those are short-sighted cop-outs of convenience which only serve to protect unjust and bad ideas under the guise of, "no one else has fixed it, so why try?"
Policy debate teaches me to research and investigate problems, understanding their history and origin, then look for potential solutions, act on them and finally assess whether they are actually solving the problem.  By attempting to be different, I embarked on a journey which required all of those skills to achieve a particular outcome.  The recent movie "Happy Feet" speaks so eloquently to many of the feelings I have about my personal journey to understand difference at first in debate, and now in all societal policy-making.
Prior to beginning of what the community calls, the Louisville Project, I re-entered debate because I wanted to coach and I wanted to give back opportunities to Black students in the hopes of using debate as a tool of empowerment and becoming competitive in intercollegiate debate.  After almost a decade of trying, my success with was limited.  I thought about quitting, never even considering the possibility of attempting something different.  I didn't think I had the power to try anything that others weren't already doing.  But after experimenting at CEDA nationals in spring 2000, I made a decision to try something different.  We found a new population of students (not trained in debate) and subscribed to a new set of conventions (not speed reading, talking about the topic as it related to race) as a different entry point for a group of African American students.  Some of our assumptions were right, some were wrong, but the data from judge's discussions, the student's perceptions, and yes, competitive success, drove our policy decisions as we moved forward.  We learned that my simplistic view of the problem (speed) was but a smaller part of a set of larger issues that dealt with cultural differences between how the game was played and the perceptions of what "good debate" was for outsiders.  I believe this was phase one of our journey as we began to define and identify the problems of cultural difference in intercollegiate debate.
In phase 2, we spent most of our time criticizing the community for the problem.  We at points, abandoned debating the topic to highlight cultural differences in how debate was played relative to our student population.  Our mission was more direct than before, now calling for "increasing meaningful Black participation".  Again, while we did in fact, persuade a slice of the judging community to be influenced by our message, our actions were very polarizing and divisive.  Eventually, the competitive success waned, the backlash turned into adapation strategies to competitively defeat our strategy, and the "criticism alone" era came to an end for us, although many still hang on to this model of participation.
However, beginning last year, we took the criticisms of the community and in spite of the hostility it created internally on my squad, we went back to the drawing board, in an effort to reconstruct our purpose and the mission of the program.  Starting with what we believe to be the essence of effective debate in society, persuasion, we reinvented a new model grounded in "a mission of increasing effective policy-making in a multi-cultural society."  Again taking from earlier criticisms of our efforts, as well as identifying the constructive thoughts about what we do, we slowly evolved this third phase of debate, incorporating some of the old, infused with some different thoughts about inclusion and diversity.  We started with the topic again, relating our topic arguments to our concerns about the evaluation of stylistic and cultural differences in debate.  We stopped preferring judges in traditional ways, but aligned our preference system with a coalitional politics geared towards identifying others who understand difference as it relates to their lives in some ways, making an attempt at building persuasive bridges with other minority communities in debate.  We for the first time, identified ourselves as the MPOWER (Multi-cultural policy organizing with emancipatory rhetoric) movement, as opposed to labels of projects or performance which often mis-characterize our methods and goals.  For the first time, we are beginning to see positive responses from both ends of the debate ideological spectrum, in addition to a general excitement from our students about what we are doing.  In my mind, while we have yet to find an "answer", I see progress.  And that progress has been worth the tears, the struggles, and the mis-steps of the past in moving towards some final destination, as of yet to be determined.
Critical thinking when making policy decisions.  Investigating problems and finding effective solutions.  Then assessing those solutions and starting over again.  Persuading others that you have something worth following.  Isn't that what our activity is all about?  And if we can do, can not others as well?  But it starts with a commitment:  to a purpose and to a method of creating change.  And it requires some level of flexibility to the possibility that where you start won't necessarily be where you will end up.  I wish Andy, Ken, and Adam all the best on finding a journey that works for them.  We have the power to make debate whatever we want it to be, fix any problems that we see, and a better world if we start by believing we have the power to achieve change.  
With love and admiration for those who care about what we do,
Ede Warner, Jr.
Director of Debate Society/Associate Professor of Communication
University of Louisville
308E Strickler Hall
e0warn01 at gwise.louisville.edu 

>>> LACC Forensics <forensics at lacitycollege.edu> 5/27/2007 8:22 PM >>>
While I too am eager to hear Ede's suggestions for how to approach this
issue, I am also curious about how Andy thinks this problem can and/or
should be addressed. In fact, I am interested in suggestions from anyone in
our community who agrees that this is a significant problem in our activity.

For years, I have been banging my head against the proverbial brick wall of
the debate community trying to find a way to break down the barriers to
participation that clearly exist. But it seems that no matter which way I
turn, there is a significant portion of the debate community that stands
against me. 

I too am disgusted that once again, a topic that contained so much promise
for education as well as inclusion, was derailed by competitive practice.
Now, let me say upfront, that I largely disagree with Andy as to the reasons
this failure occurred. I do not accept for one moment that the structure of
the debate activity has anything to do with the missed opportunity of this
year's resolution. I do agree, however, with his argument that the topic was
colonized. However, I do not think it was colonized by the US legal system.
I think it was colonized by the overwhelming desire to win that drives
current debate practice.

This is where I get rebuffed on both sides. I receive public support from
those who, like me, support the structure of debate when I disagree with
people like Andy and Ede who support rejection of the structure of our
activity. But, I get attacked by those same people when I dare to say that
the problem lies in the ethics of those who participate in the activity.

I recently had a terrible experience at the Novice/JV national tournament at
WVU - not because of WVU, whose hosting was wonderful - but because of the
incorrect assumptions about my judging philosophy that I believe are caused
by the current polarization of our activity. As usual, I was not highly
preferred by those schools who identify as critical/performance in their
strategic approach to debate. I was, however, highly preferred by schools
who identify as "straight-up policy". The problem is that my definition of
"straight-up policy" is more theoretical than practical. I DO NOT think that
a negative strategy consisting of a 99% PIC with a politics net benefit is
straight-up policy. It is just another example of bad debate perpetuated by
bad coaching.  The current polarized distinction between policy and critical
debate is ridiculous and is simply making the quality of debates worse as
each year and topic passes.

We honestly have become no better than the archetypal definitions of
republicans and democrats within the larger society. The
critical/performance approach in debate has been co-opted by
programs/debaters who don't really care about social issues but simply want
to win and are going with what will enable them to do so. My debaters were
told repeatedly this year that they should switch to a performance strategy
because they would be more likely to win. By the end of the season the only
message they received from the debate community (specifically judges) was
that they (as racial minorities in the activity) are only likely to win if
they take the performance approach and abandon straight-up policy. I find it
interesting that the performance/policy dichotomy has reached such a point
of polarization that the only way to be black and win in debate is to adopt
a performance strategy.

I think it's time to reflect on our efforts at inclusion in recent years and
recognize that the experiment has largely failed. While certainly some teams
have found competitive success by trying to buck the system, it has
apparently created a new racial divide - one in which you are expected to
debate a certain way if you want to win and happen to belong to a
marginalized group within society based on the color of your skin. Now, I
know this was not Ede or Andy or Jon or anyone else's intent when the
performance turn began in our activity. But it is the result.

So, my question is, what do we do now? How do we achieve true inclusion in
the activity without pigeon-holing students and telling them that they must
debate a certain way to win if they belong to a certain demographic? 

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