[eDebate] Debate: the power to change the world

Ede Warner ewarner
Thu Nov 22 13:04:57 CST 2007

While I sent you a backchannel with some private thoughts, the more I try to avoid this public conversation, the more I realize that I'm skirting the important questions you ask.  Your choice to make this a public conversation is because you feel your beliefs are correct and I'm wrong.  My choice to try and avoid this conversation is my attempt to demonstrate that I care about you, believing that this is a private conversation that we should have, much in the same way that Michael Douglass, as the "American President" believed it inappropriate to discuss his dating habits publicly.  However, much like Douglass, eventually the public conversation must happen.  Why?  Because so many out there listening on this Thanksgiving day want to believe so badly, that your position will be support for their position, and will be then justified in hurting my position, usually through repeating your position in debates this spring against my students, as well as in future e-debate talks, and perhaps in voting for new resolutions calling for a change in CEDA/NDT debate.  We all know that in the end, there is only one rule on edebate, it is all about who speaks last.  If I don't engage, the assumption is that I lost, and others can use my unwillingness to engage as proof of me being wrong.  So I will engage, and I pray that I can do so in a way that is respectful of who you are Desmond, as well as who I am, a Black teacher, trying to inspire a Black student of who else you can become.
Let me start by recognizing my blessings.  It's Thanksgiving and I have a lot to be happy and thankful about.  A wonderful wife, two great kids, a new car and house, and a job that is unmatched in terms of the opportunities it has bestowed on me.  I have a great staff, and debaters who have seen the highest of highs and the lowest of lows working with me.  I have given 68 different students scholarship opportunities that they would likely have not received for debating, and 61 have been given to Black students, with a wide diversity of socio-economic backgrounds, including 37 women, 33 Black women, 1 Latina, 8 Black and Latina women who are single mothers, and at least 4 openly gay students.  I've truly been blessed and I have had more privileges and opportunities in this world than most.
I asked my wife about your argument that debate isn't stolen, she immediately sided with you (nothing uncommon in my household). When I tried to explain my position, what I really meant is white schools gave HCBUs and Malcolm the privilege of debating them in public forums, with substantial media attention in Malcolm's case, but through the advent of tournament debating, took the privilege back.  We both immediately said, "that's Indian giving".  Why?  Because that is what our cultural heritage shamefully taught us: a heritage of America, but worse yet, a heritage of Black America.  We immediately concluded that term was morally wrong and offensive, so we looked for the right term.  We came up with reneged or renounced.  So I concede that the language of "stolen" isn't technically accurate, and this one example isn't comparable to the plight of Native Americans in America.  Blacks were given the opportunity to use debate in a way that met our collective purpose during segregation and when we became successful at using it in that way, whites had the privilege of changing the terms and conditions of the game again, without our ability to protest.  I pray that my children learn the appropriate term for renege, and never, ever learn the inappropriate one.
The example reminds me of Louisville's attempt to "Take it to the Streets", asking opponents to substitute the privilege of a mutually preferred critic for a lay judge with no knowledge of the debate about debate.  We would have a different type of topic debate, an objective debate in front of the "people" who were not tied to previously conceived notions about "topicality, counterplans, impact assessments, policy versus performances, or kritiks"  It was the ultimate test of whose ideology transferred best to the public:  debaters with mountains of information processing and research or debaters looking for a balance between those things and an emphasis on persuasion, called ironically in our community "performance".  And much like the HCBU's and Malcolm, eventually we won hands down.  Then the community, after the premature boisterous prognostications like my friend Ross, that contemporary debate practices would win in front of any judge, reneged, instead going back to saying "no" to our invitation, and having debates about "lay judges" being inferior to those trained in debate.  Yes, for me the parallel is identical.  And at first, my intention was like the HCBU's, simply give up and walk away.  But something in me decided to stay and fight.  Not something, I remember exactly what moved me.  My former student Tonia Green saying to me, "God brought you too far to walk away now."  Although not a very religious man, her words made sense to me.  Tiffany Dillard's beliefs that we were not near the end of our work also inspired me.  So I stayed, even when my wife thought it time to get out.  We had sacrificed enough she felt and their was nothing left to gain.  But I stayed.
Desmond, you have overcome hurdles thrown at you in debate, the same way that Black slaves overcame the institution of slavery; the same way that Black Montgomery bus riders overcome segregated buses, the same way that Thurgood Marshall overcame perceptions by both whites and Blacks, that Blacks couldn't become judges--and certainly not JUSTICES, and the same way that Rashad Evans overcame any difficulties the game of debate put in front of him to become one of the best debaters ever (notice no Black in front of that).  And Desmond, every victory for Black folks is an important one in the fight for Black humanization and I thank you for willfully fighting for your victories.  It is appreciated.
However, I can't compare you to Malcolm or Shirley quite yet.  For you still fail to see the biggest difference standing between you and them.  For Malcolm, he saw the problem quite clearly.  While you have accepted that you have the intestinal fortitude to overcome the legacy of institutional and overt racism that still exists in America, you choose to accept it as the norm and your herculean efforts to fight to overcome them as the norm too.  But that SHOULD NOT BE the norm, and Malcolm understood that.  He understood that America shouldn't create different hurdles for some more than others, and that the legacy of mandatory segregation was just another unfair hurdle, following those of slavery.  The hurdles Louisville challenges in debate, even if as small as minority debate impacts being evaluated differently than traditional policy ones, is still a legacy of disparity that you Desmond, shouldn't have to overcome.  In fact, debate done right for Blacks as for all minorities, should allow them to equalize the playing field and engage whites or any majority, on close to equal grounds (as close as we got anywhere), to discuss and confront the evidence on racial disparities and what needed to be done to overcome those disparities.  And that's what Rosie and Ebony do in every round they participate in, and they are losing more of those battles than they are winning.
But Desmond, most Blacks are losing most of those battles, even you.  When you identified yourself, you said, "a likely unknown debater from UMKC".  And the question I ask is, why is that?  Is it that you lack the capacity to be a prebid?  Is it that you aren't afforded the same opportunties of other debaters?  Why is it Desmond, that over a decade since the advent of UDLs, have there been so few Rashad success stories?  Where are the UDL students getting prebids, tournament victories, and not just speaker awards?  If the opportunity is equal to that of everyone else, why do public schools not win in proportion to private schools?  Why have 18 of the last 20 NDT championships been of private pedigree?  Why was that not the case before tournament debating and speed?  
It's because those students have to overcome insurmountable obstacles.  They have to overcome the obstacles of their social location starting points.  Then debate, instead of being an equal playing field where everyone starts with the same advantages and disadvantages, instead of an equal place to voice different concerns related to the topic, no debate places a few more hurdles, no matter how small or how large, it's still not equal, nor is it fair.
Had Malcolm been involved with the HCBU's or that Howard program that went to the first NDT instead of learning debate in prison, I doubt that tournament debating would have evolved the way it did.  Why, because Malcolm has a quality that I think is missing in almost every current participant in debate today, but a quality I found in Corey Knox, Liz Jones, and Tonia Green, as well as many other "outsiders" to the game.  A quality that I was taught by my colleague Rick Jones and by Motriyo "Tria" Warner.  
Agency, or the power to change.  For all the talk by contemporary debate folks that they believe debate teaches them how to change the world when needed or strategically convienent, few if any really, truly believe in debate's power.  You see Malcolm had that believe.  His believe grew out of struggle.  His belief grew out of him figuring out how to use debate for his purposes, much like the early d.j's figured out how to use old turntables and pass me down records to make new music.  You see, one of the greatest legacies that you and I share, Desmond, is that we are descendants of a people who knew and understood the value of struggle.  And Malcolm, through his personal struggle, figured out a way to use debate not just to play a game, not just to compete and overcome personal triumphs.  He used the game to transform the world.  And I too, believe that debate can turn the tide on the rampant problems we have in society, barreling us head first into a doomsday scenario like the one's debaters have predicted literally thousands, perhaps millions of times.  But the ones that deep down, none of them think debate can avert.  But I do.  In fact, I think that policy debate done right, is the ONLY salvation we have.  Malcolm understood the power of debate and he got more out of debate than anyone in the history of the activity.  He transformed things, starting with his self.
That transformation included have Black prisoners watch debates to improve their self-esteem.  That transformation included having debates against Black civil rights organizations fighting for integration solutions, when Malcolm knew it wouldn't work because know one wanted to address the disparities of the legacy of white race conscious decision making for centuries, which would produce an inferiority complex for Blacks unparalleled in history, and only entrench a white superiority complex that allows folks of all colors to believe "whites can save blacks" through assimilative practices in debate.  And Malcolm knew that he had figured out how to confront whites about what they were doing in debates, and that confrontation to lead to personal transformation.  Had Malcolm been a part of the HCBUs when they started having interracial debates, I suspect he would have fought the move to tournament debating substantially, and likely would have won.  Would he have stopped tournament debating altogether, I suspect not.  Would he have won a fight to keep the important aspects of debate for him as a minority voice, like preserving the value of an audience, or debating in styles accessible to that audience?  He would have fought that evolution to the bitter end.  And he would have won.
I see the same possibility for debate today that Malcolm saw, and I choose to fight.  I recognize that few, very few, stand with me, and likely none of those live outside of Davidson 101, on my campus.  But about those who don't stand with me, does that make them a sellout?
About as much as stolen means reneged...No one is a sell out because they choose to accept the lot in life they are dealt with or because they fail to see the same promise of an activity that they participate in with someone else.  But the choice to accept the world the way it is and not advocate changing it, when clear inequities exist does make that person, a conservative.  Conservatives are comfortable with the way things are today.  They choose to not rock the boat or attempt to fight for change because they believe that fight is not productive.  For example, protesting too much about the rules and norms of a game that Blacks don't owe, could create fear in some Blacks that those privileges might be revoked.  Just as the UDLs cometh, they could leave.  And Desmond, much of your willingness to engage me publicly is grounded in that fear: that the good natured folks who dedicate a substantial portion of their lives and time to creating the opportunity of debate in urban areas, might leave.  And if they do, where does that leave me and those like me?  A very understandable and justified concern.
Part of my prayer is that they won't leave.  Part of my prayer is that they too see my call for change, perhaps even revolutionary change, is not an act against them, but I'm here to help.  In the same way that Malcolm's call was to help.  Now that said, what about Shirley Chisholm, how does she fit into all of this?  Well, Shirley's political struggles occurred more inside the system, because that was where she was.  She had to figure out ways to challenge things she believed to be a problem all the while, participating in that system.  The more I study Blacks who chose to support integrationist efforts like Martin and Shirley, the more I recognize that their efforts were more similar to Malcolm than I imagined.  They recognized the same problems with integration that Malcolm saw: they just never saw the alternatives that Malcolm saw.  Shirley didn't use public debate after her college days in the ways Malcolm did, probably because she saw less utility or purpose in doing so.  I don't know.
But what I do know is that Martin, Shirley and Thurgood used their debate training to change the system from within.  There where far from conservatives.  Any study of their lives saw that they constantly fought for smaller changes of fairness an equality that did challenge the system.  So together the two teams: Malcolm working outside the system, challenging it's overalll fairness and legitimacy; and Shirley and Thurgood, working within the system fighting for internal changes as they saw the opportunity, created the foundation for the changes of the sixties.  I'd be remiss to say one side was more important than the other.
So I guess I say to you: be Shirley and Thurgood and work inside the system to create changes that make the system more equal, whatever you presume those changes to be.  I'll continue along my Malcolm path towards fighting for system overhaul, because that's what God has trained me to do, and I believe I have the power to make that change a reality.  All I ask is that you recognize the need for change, and challenge anyone who says stay the course, but find ways to support change that work for you.  Because not supporting change means things stay the way they are.  And given the problems of the world, the problems of America, and the problems of debate, I'm sure of one thing: conservative is not where anyone should be.
I'm going to send this note.  When I sit down to celebrate my blessings, I'm going to pray for change until we have equality, and my agency believes for me that starts with intercollegiate debate.  I will pray for everyone in our activity, especially you Desmond, for having the willingness and the courage to engage me publicly.  I will pray that I can help inspire others towards a path understanding the need for change, and began a dialogue of what that change should look like. I will pray that my experiences in the struggle can find benefits for all of us, as Black folks, as a debate community, as Americans, and as world citizens.  That struggle has learned experiences that can benefit us all, if we are open to the possibilities and use our critical thinking energies to make those possibilities a reality.  That's what I will pray for.
Then after dinner, I'm going to watch football, while working on a final document entitled, "LOUISVILLE MPOWER TREATISE for DEBATE".  I put Louisville in because what we've done is attached to the institution where we did it, and the institution deserves respect for us doing it there, even in spite of the fact that sometimes we did it, in spite of their support.  A year ago, our squad decided we were a social movement, we named it M.P.O.W.E.R. which stands for the Multi-cultural Policy Organizing with Emancipatory Rhetoric Movement.  Finally, I call it a treatise for policy debate because my goal is to identify the source of the recurring nature of debate and divide organizations, in an attempt to provide a direction and some stability to what we all do, whatever the organization calls their debate.  On Monday, I will release the MPOWER Treatise to all debate communities, to jumpstart the dialogue.
Why do all this?  Because I must acknowledge and confront the blessings and privileges, especially in debate, that I've been given.  I first, must acknowledge that I have gifts that others don't.  Then I must figure out how to use my gifts to the betterment of other.  And so I do what I do.  Not to hurt anyone else, but rather, because I believe this is what God wants me to do.  
Have a wonderful holiday Desmond and take care,
Ede Warner, Jr.
Director of Debate Society/Associate Professor of Communication
University of Louisville
308E Strickler Hall
e0warn01 at gwise.louisville.edu 
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: http://www.ndtceda.com/pipermail/edebate/attachments/20071122/866a9fe6/attachment.htm 

More information about the Mailman mailing list