[eDebate] "Illegal debating" discussion

Sherry Hall shahall
Tue Nov 6 06:53:25 CST 2007


First, judges already have the "right" to render decisions on hostile environment claims whether we pass a policy to that effect or not, so any arguments about why it is wrong to suddenly allow judges to consider new arguments is not unique.  As far as I know there is no rule-book that prevents judges from considering those claims.  My goal in seeking a policy is for the community to express an opinion on the legitimacy of a judge's decision to evaluate a hostile environment claim.  I strongly support endorsing the idea that judges can and should evaluate whether or not a team's "performance" creates a hostile environment.  We are critics of arguments and argumentation styles.  We routinely reject people's arguments as logically unsound, delivered in an incomprehensible way even if they are logcially sound and supported by evidence, contradictory with other arguments in the round, etc.  If one team makes the argument that the other team's performance is disempowering and hostile, who better than the judge in the round to make that assessment?  It seems to me from your initial post that your position is that because it is illegal to create a hostile learning environment and the debate judge isn't a lawyer or a cop or is somehow unqualified to evaluate claims of illegal behavior, the team should not even be able to make this argument in the round.  This is why more than one person responded to your post by saying that your position is the one that explicitly silences speech.  Your original post was that the team from Cal Poly shouldn't even be able to make the argument.  My position is that not only should they be able to make this argument, if they feel strongly about it and they feel that your performance constitutes sexual harassment, then they should say so, and the judge should evaluate that and render a decision on it.  

I think that creating a sexually or racially hostile environment should be considered unethical.  The reason that I cited the example of the coaches discussing the strip club in front of female debaters in the last email was to demonstrate how a sexually hostile environment works to undermine this activity.  If a participant in this activity is made to feel that he or she is reduced to a mere sex object, it impacts his/her sense of confidence and self-esteem that are critical skills to succeed in this activity.  I nearly quit debate several times in college, and every time the "incident" that nearly made me leave was what I would now characterize as "sexual harassment."  I know of way too many people who have walked away because of sexual harassment.  I am willing to accept a little infringement on what people do and say if it prevents other people from being run out.  

You say that you cannot imagine a single college debate round where someone cannot make a hostile environment claim -- I guess we hear very different debates.  Your point about the difficulty of where and how to draw the line is well-taken.  I don't pretend to know the answer to that problem yet, and the difficulty in coming up with an acceptable line may well end up as the deal-killer.  I am currently researching the issue and working with Harvard's sexual harassment officer.  I would also invite anyone else out there who has knowledge of their university's policies or the policies of other organizations to please share with me any ideas of what works.  But to say that it will be difficult to draw a line we can all live with is not a reason to reject the effort of trying.  You really haven't given any justification for the right of your team to subject another team to a sexually hostile environment, other than it is hard to define and judges aren't qualified to make that assessment.  In the words of debaters -- you have no offense -- no reason why you should be able to sexually harass the other team.  Whether you like it or not, federal law and California state law are against you on this one, CEDA has a policy against you on this one, and I think the NDT should as well. 

As to your "amazement" that the community has judged your performance to be sexually hostile to women, I have a few comments.  First, you started this discussion with a post portraying your debaters as victims of a claim of illegal behavior without explaining what their behavior was.  I wrote back immediately after reading your post and asked what the context was.  You said that you didn't want to get into specifics.  It took nearly a week for me to find anyone who could tell me what happened in that round.  If you are so confident that your performance is not hostile to anyone, you could have put that out at the beginning.  While trying to learn what your performance was about I went to the Wiki case list.  You have several teams listed there but no information about your case except the words "Make it Hurt."  I received private communication about another round at another tournament where your debaters made an explicit threat of sexual violence against the other team that expressed a desire for it "to hurt" -- a fact that has not been denied.  So, forgive me if I "jumped" to the conclusion that your performance was hostile to women.  Second, the performance was hostile toward these women.  How would you know that?  They told you.  I don't think you realize how much courage it takes for debaters, especially a freshman, to express their feelings and ask that you not include the aspects of your performance that they find offensive.  The fact that your debaters did this in the prelim round, still made their arguments, the other team still engaged the arguments, demonstrates to me that the decision not to respect their feelings before the elim round was motivated by pure desire to win at any cost.  It also demonstrates that the parts of the performance that created the sexually hostile environment are not essential to your being able to make your argument.  Third, the performance does not have to denigrate women specifically to create a hostile environment.  Their claim, according to Wende's post was gender/sexual-orientation neutral -- it was the explicit sexuality in the round that made her feel uncomfortable.  That claim was expressed to you (or at least your debaters) before both debates.  

As to the argument that they never made the claim that this was sexual harassment and nothing in Wende's post indicates that they did, I can't speak to since I wasn't there.  I have emailed Wende to ask for more information on the specifics of what they said.  From her post, before the prelim round they said:
We debated this particular SFSU team in a prelim round where we were
the affirmative. Before the round, my partner and I explained to them
that she was uncomfortable with explicit representations of sexuality,
and asked that they not use their usual performance.

Before the semifinal round they said:
In the semifinal round the next morning, we debated the same team
again, so we were locked negative. Before the round, my partner once
again asked the SFSU team not to engage in their usual performance
because the explicit sexuality made her uncomfortable. She was told by
one of their coaches that their intent was to make her uncomfortable.
The affirmative, however, is supposed to create discomfort because of
its attack on heteronormativity, but ignores the notion that the
discomfort may come from the explicit nature of the performance not
the substance of what is being critiqued. In other words, the explicit
display is what made her uncomfortable, whether it was homo-, bi-,
trans-, or hetero-, normative.

It is true that Wende does not say that they used the words "sexual harassment" explicitly in these discussions with your team.  But, I think it should be clear to anyone from Wende's post that they expressed their feelings to you and your debaters that the explicit sexuality of the performance made them uncomfortable.  My reference to a SFSU coach admitting that the intent of the performance was to create a hostile environment comes from Wende's statement that a coach told her, in response to the argument that the performance made her uncomfortable, that that was its intent.

As to the right of your debaters to make the arguments that they want to make.  No one is disputing that they have the right to make arguments that challenge the notions of heteronormativity.  I have coached high school debaters on these arguments over the summer and it is a worthwhile area in which to engage.  Even the team from Cal Poly is not asserting that you shouldn't make the arguments.  Your team made the arguments without the aspects of the performance that created a hostile environment in the prelims, and the Cal Poly team engaged those arguments and debated them.  When you choose to supplement your argument with performative aspects -- like the showing of pornography or the simulation of sex acts -- you are potentially crossing a line.  The fact that this team told you that the performance would cross the line with them means that you had the choice to respect their feelings or ignore them.  In one round you chose to respect them and in the other you chose to ignore them.  If the result of my proposed policy is that you will think twice about ignoring their feelings next time, then I consider it a success.  I also find it hard to believe that the only way that you can get students interested in debate is to provide a forum for them to show pornography, simulate sex acts, and make sexual threats against other debaters.  I suspect that you are underselling their participation in this activity.


  ----- Original Message ----- 
  From: Shawn T Whalen 
  To: Sherry Hall 
  Cc: James E. Radford jr ; edebate at ndtceda.com 
  Sent: Monday, November 05, 2007 8:29 PM
  Subject: Re: [eDebate] "Illegal debating" discussion


  As read these last few posts, you support a policy that would provide judges the ability to render decisions on hostile environment claims and the passage below suggests that the only necessary proof of the allegation would be the feelings of those making the accusation.  Are you really comfortable with the effect that would have?

  Hostile environments can be created in a variety of ways and their is case law on race, religion, ethnicity etc. in addition to those resulting from sexual harassment.  I cannot imagine a single contemporary academic debate where someone could not make such a claim.  The effect of this logic seems devasting to me.

  On a completely seperate note, I am continually amazed at the speed to which people assert the hostility of our affirmative to women.  First and foremost, go see the damn thing before you make a judgement.  The Cal Poly debaters never made that assertion and nothing in Wende's post seemed to say that either, except that Wende and her partner happen to be women.  (It is also not accurate that any SF State coach said that the argument was designed to be hostile to women or anyone).  The reduction of sexual discussions and sexual behavior to biological sexual catagories of male and female are at the heart of heteronormativity.

  Also, let me ask you to consider the position of my students a bit more (and I am not referring to just the two debaters who run this argument).  If we should be concerned about the effect that arguments have on participation, we should consider my students as well.  In 10 years working with undergraduates at SF State, the most unifying similarity I've witnessed is a sentitivity to the effects of heteronormativity on their expressions of self.  The criticism in this performance is evident in most of the perfomances done by our individual events students as well.  If you outlaw these discussions (and the aesthetic choices necessary to leverage them) then you exclude them. 


  Sherry said:

  "I think the key here is whether or not the actions created a hostile environment.  I believe that Wende has indicated that her partner did perceive this to be hostile.  An environment that renders one so uncomfortable as to not be able to participate in the round seems pretty hostile to me...They are the ones that experienced it, and you are not really in any position to challenge their perceptions of how they felt.  If they felt they were harassed, if they felt the environment was hostile, then for them it was."=
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