[eDebate] Josh Gunn's Blog Post on "Shanahara Gate"
Paul Mabrey III
Sun Aug 24 11:17:27 CDT 2008
I saw this Sunday morning on Gunn's blog. If you have not before, I would encourage interested folks to regularly check out his blog. I find his blogging is always an interesting and insightful read.
This week has curiously been one in which I?ve revisited high school memories: I was not only a teenage clubkid,
but I was a teenage debater too. A policy debater, in fact, and unless
you?ve been away from the world?s screens in the past week, policy
debate has hit the national screen. Why? Because one of the University
of Texas? sons of controversy, Bill Shanahan, was fired from his job at
Fort Hayes University yesterday for ?violating the university?s faculty
code of ethics.? I think the stated reasons for his firing were wrong
and the consequence of misunderstanding on two counts: (1) there is a
widespread, false perception of what debate is and should be; and (2)
there lurks an ideology of publicity that the debate world has been
arguing about for over twenty years: ?perception is key.?
Shanahan?s firing was a direct consequence of a YouTube
video that was posted some weeks ago, prompting embarrassment and
apologias from many in the debate community and outrage from those ?not
in the know? (like this fool). The video actually shows a post-debate
discussion among judges and coaches about a debate that just concluded
between Towson State of Maryland, and Fort Hayes State of Kansas, where
Bill coaches. Because this national controversy hits close to
home?debate is seated in my home discipline of Communication Studies; I
came to this field through debate; our program has a very successful
Speech team; and so on?-I have a lot of opinions about this. Perhaps
the most overarching and interesting issue is how the viral circulation
of the video foregrounds the ideology of publicity and the logics of
representation in postmodernity.
CIRCULATION AND APPETITE: THE CONDITIONS OF YOUTUBE JOURNALISM
In an insightful essay by John Hartley titled ?The Frequencies of Public Writing? (excerpt here),
Hartley argues that various forms of public writing have different
frequencies, which impacts their ?wavelengths? of consumption. Low
frequency writing, such as inscriptions on monuments, are designed to
have a very long wavelength of consumption, whereas very high frequency
forms of writing, such as newspaper stories, have very short
wavelengths of consumption. The advent of YouTube is a very curious
form of public writing because it challenges Hartley?s handy
distinction at the level of desiring publics: while computer servers
and other forms of electronic storage presumably do not exist as long
as monuments, they nevertheless create an archive that can
significantly extend a wavelength of consumption. And yet YouTube is
also a very high frequency form of public writing (in light and sound,
as it were). The hyperlink, in other words, seems to extend public
writing for decades, yet electronic, Internet-based public writing is
published at dizzying frequency. Wavelength for YouTube video
consumption, consequently, is determined by solely by the roving
appetites of publics/counterpublics of consumption.
As anyone who has seen the ?news? today, what gets reported is more
often the titillating or ?shock? story rather than, say, world events.
Surveillance and hidden video stories are increasingly the norm. Think:
how many times have you watched the network news, CNN, FOX, or MSNBC
and seen a YouTube video?
So why are YouTube videos being reported as ?news?? One answer, of
course, is technological. I?ll leave my media ecology friends to
discuss that part of the answer, because I want to look at motive.
Francis Bacon is helpful at this juncture. Writing about rhetoric
(Hartley?s ?public writing?) in the seventeenth century, Bacon argued
it was important to distinguish reason and affections. Because reason
and affections often compete for attention, Bacon argued rhetoric was
necessary. Consider this remarkable passage from The Advancement of Learning:
. . . if the affections in themselves were pliant and obedient to
reason, it were true there should be no great use of persuasions and
insinuations to the will, more than of naked propositions and proofs .
. . . the affections themselves carry ever an appetite to good, as
reason doth; the difference is, that the affection beholdeth merely the present; reason beholdeth the future and sum of time;
and therefore the present filling the imagination more, reason is
commonly vanquished; but after that force of eloquence and persuasion
hath made things future and remote appear present, then the revolt of
the imagination of the reason prevaileth.
Consequently, Bacon defined rhetoric as the application of ?Reason to
Imagination for the better moving of the will.? The affections or
passions are about instant gratification and ?now,? while reason crafts
lively images to ?shew? our wills toward the future. Rhetoric for Bacon
was fundamentally an ethical enterprise.
High frequency, low-wavelength media like YouTube amplify the
truth-effects of the (moving)image while simultaneously vanquishing
reason in Bacon?s sense of the faculty. The consequence is the
evaporation of the ethical character of rhetoric as an art in our
times. And I think we might say the same is true of the art of
journalism, when what is much more important are the titillating facts
and less so the issues these bring to fore (thus far, the only news
program that strives to maintain the old, ethical art of journalism is
the Lehrer News Hour). What has become more important for
circulatory purposes is present gratification, and this over highly
emotional content. Media wavelengths are dominated, in other words, by
the affections. Leavis would have condemned contemporary journalism as
catering to primal passions, of course, and Adorno would most certainly
weigh with something more acerbic. In short: YouTube is the final
death-knell of Old Rhetoric. What new rhetoric has replaced it? The
Amoral Rhetoric of Affect. The activity of debate is its newest victim.
CONTEXT: THIS IS NOT A DEBATE
With a better understanding of YouTube as a news source, we can now
turn to Dr. Edward H. Hammond?s decision to fire Dr. Shanahan and
suspend the debate team based on a YouTube video. There are unstated reasons
that inform this decision, of course, but the official party line is
that ?seeing is believing.? I?ll discuss Bill?s controversial behavior
below, but for the moment let?s underscore the more significant
ideological move: Hammond didn?t just remove Shanahan, but he also
suspended the debate team. In the press release
crafted and distributed yesterday by Fort Hayes? publicity folks, the
president held up Shanahan as a symptom of debate in our times:
I was a college debater . . . . I place high value on college debate as
an exceptional learning opportunity. However, I had no idea that
college debate had degenerated into the kind of displays that we
witnessed when we watched CEDA events on the Internet. College debate
has changed greatly. The lack of decorum and the lack of civility are
not compatible with the educational standards at FHSU, and I doubt they
are compatible with the educational standards at most universities. . .
. If anyone doubts my conclusion, that person should view the entire
debate, which was laced with four-letter words, a lack of personal
respect and a lack of civil discourse.
It is not clear what Hammond means by ?the entire debate.? I did
what Hammond asked me to do, and watched (well, listened to) the actual
debate, which you can find here.
It?s an hour and a half long. The debate is between undergraduate
students from Towson and Fort Hayes, not the others in the room. I
didn?t notice anything close to a lack of civility. What I saw was an
interesting and engaged discussion of racism (about which more below).
I can only conclude Hammond was referring to the video in which
Shanahan and a the coach from the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. Shanara
Reid, are arguing about the debate.
This blog does not have a long reach and is not read far beyond the
confines of readers associated with the academic field of Communication
Studies, but in the off chance someone not associated with debate or my
field reads this, let?s be clear: This video, the heated exchange between Shanahan and Reid, is not a debate.
Hammond?s suggestion that this exchange is emblematic of contemporary
debate is misleading and grossly misinformed, and from a perspective
sympathetic to the activity, irresponsible.
The uptake of the ?angry professors? debate?lets call it Shanahara
Gate?is motivated by the appetite that has been cultivated among mass
media outlets for ever more sensational, provocative, ?in the moment,?
news. It is not ironic, but rather a sad truth, that Bacon?s
observations about the ability of affections to trample reason are
clearly observable in Hammond?s remarks. Not even the president of a
state university took the time to click his way to the actual debate.
He chose, instead, instead to recognize truth in an eight-minute,
decontextualized exchange between two debate coaches who are passionate
about the activity. Had he actually sought out the debate between
Towson and Fort Hayes, and had MSM reporters followed suit, they might
have discovered the passion behind Reid and Shanahan?s heated remarks
goes to the heart of what debate is thought to be?its values?as well as
a very deep problem in the United States: racism.
IT?S (THE) RACE, STUPID
So our cultivated affections have led us to focus on the palpable
agonism of two (seemingly) pissed off debate coaches instead of the
cause of their tension. As a consequence, a debate team has been
suspended from engaging another team on the topic of race relations in
our country. To add insult to injury, the Cross Examination Debate
Association (CEDA) buckled: ?we respect the decision made by Fort Hays
State University and their President Dr. Edward H. Hammond to dismiss
Dr. Bill Shanahan,? CEDA said in a statement.
?The organization has expressed its deep and profound disappointment by
the incident immediately after the quarterfinal debate between Fort
Hays State University and Towson University at the 2008 CEDA national
tournament.? Um, ok. With an opening statement like this, the country?s
governing debate organization condones Hammond?s irresponsible
conflation of the YouTube video with the actual debate.
However unwittingly, Hammond?s decision to suspend the debate team and
CEDA?s response is a form of silencing, and while not direct, I cannot
help thinking such move is motivated by Whiteness, and the way in which
Whiteness cannot tolerate challenges to the unmarked. Towson?s argument
in the actual debate round?that policy debate protects and is an
expression of Whiteness?still wins the round! Let me explain.
One cannot tell what Reid and Shanahan are arguing about;
in the video you see Shanahan acting wildly, professing to embrace his
assholism, but in general the viewer has no idea what the topic is. I
asked a friend and one of our many debate coaches, Sean Tiffee, to
explain what the argument between Shanahan and Reid was really about.
Here?s what he said, with my clarifications in brackets:
I wasn?t personally at the tournament, and I didn?t see the
altercation, but here?s the story as I understand it: it?s
quarterfinals at CEDA Nationals. The way judges are done for out rounds
is via strike card, which is where five judges are placed on a card
before the round and each team gets to take one off [?strike a judge?],
leaving a three person panel. Towson strikes Brent Saidon because he
used to debate for Fort Hays and is close with Bill. Fort Hays strikes
Shanara Reid because she had judged them earlier in the tournament they
didn?t think that she had liked their arguments (some of the evidence
they cited was that she had given them 27s for points [which seemed to
them punitive; good debaters tend to get higher points]).
Towson is affirmative [the first to offer an argument that will be
debated for a round] and runs a black aesthetic affirmative that argues
that [policy] debate is indicative of white supremacy and that there
needs to be a black aesthetic; the team that most consistently does
this should win. Part of their argument in the 1AC [the first speech of
the debate] is that Fort Hays struck the only African-American judge on
the card, which is reflective of the white supremacy in debate [in
general]. Fort Hays runs this complicated ?doubling? argument where
they become the mirror image of the [the first speech] and force the
affirmative to confront their doppelganger. However, this doubling
argument doesn?t really deal with the fact that they struck Shanara
from the [judging panel], so this becomes the point of separation
between the two sides.
Towson questions why Fort Hays struck Shanara, and Fort Hays
responds that the question shouldn?t be a point of discussion . . .
because [the issue of striking judges is] ?pre-round? or ?pre-text.?
Fort Hayes argues the round should be determined on what happens in the
round, not outside. There is also some discussion, I think, about
whether the strike card should be public or private knowledge.
Clearly, this is an over-simplification of the argumentation that
took place in the round, and it may even be a misrepresentation because
I didn?t see it, but this is how I?ve heard it described from multiple
people. It?s a 2-1 for Towson [they win the round]. During the
post-round oral critique [after debates, the judges discuss the
arguments and explain why they voted], one of the judges said the issue
of striking judges is pre-text and he can?t vote on the fact that Fort
Hays struck Shanara from the card; another judge votes for Towson and
says striking judges is part of the round. The two judges disagree and
talk about it with one another during the post-round oral critique, and
the one who had voted for Fort Hays leaves.
The [?angry professors?] video starts very soon after he leaves and is
preceded by Reid disagreeing with some of the nonverbals that Shanahan
is displaying during the post-round discussion. I may be wrong about
that, however, and it may have been Bill who first spoke; again, I
wasn?t there and I?m not entirely sure what happened in the moments
immediately preceding the video clip.
Note Tiffee stresses the importance of context for understanding the
discussion taking place in the video. Nevertheless, to paraphrase: Towson?s actual argument in the debate is that debate
protects Whiteness, and that only a ?black aesthetic? approach to
debate can correct the problem.
Fort Hayes responds by agreeing, and advances an
argument that forces the Towson team to confront their own ?white
supremacist? assumptions (if I understand this correctly; it?s not
clear to me from watching the video either).
Towson responds that however much For Hayes agrees or
mirrors their position, the fact remains that they struck an African
American judge, and that fact is quantifiably more harmful than their
selection of judges.
Fort Hayes responds that the striking of judges is
external to the argumentation in the debate, and therefore, should not
be considered. In a two-to-one decision, Towson is declared the
winner of the debate. The decision rule is whether or not the striking
of judges is internal or external to the debate round. Two judges
believe that it is, one judge argues that it is not.
The proverbial elephant in the room directly addressed by the Towson
team is racism: is policy debate, as an activity, ?white? and
exclusionary? The ?aesthetic? of debate, they suggest, is a white thing
that perpetuates social discrimination. Now, I wasn?t in the debate
round and don?t want to spend an hour and a half flowing the arguments,
but it seems to me a ?black aesthetic? falls prey to the same critique
of hegemony. Regardless, the issue is RACE.
It is in this context that we must confront the YouTube video
featuring the interaction between Reid and Shanahan. The unspoken
subtext is that Reid is suggesting that Shanahan and his team?s
arguments are racist. That this is truly the issue being
discussed/screamed about is made even more apparent by Dr. Sandoz?s
passionate impromptu about ?building bridges.? The bridge is across
Although I do not condone either Reid or Shanahan?s behavior (which,
frankly, most debaters would tell you was not a surprise), their
supposed ?anger? makes much more sense when you read it as an
expression, not of individual motives or a failure of control, but of a
larger social tension between ?white people? and African-Americans, and
a long and bloody history of violence and oppression. Sandoz?s
passionate speech about the activity of debate as a way to work-through
this tension and history both directly addresses the ?elephant in the
room? and helps to contextualize why Shanahan keeps saying he cares
about he activity. From a sympathetic perspective, the activity of
debate provides a forum, in a sort of ?game? environment, for debaters
to confront the most pressing social issues without fear of reprisal or
violence. Debate is, in Burke?s words, ad bellum purificandum,
a way to duke it out without risking violence or harm. Occasionally
feelings ?bubble over? (admirably, not from the actual debaters!)
because this is a forum which gives those feelings an appropriate and
?safe? avenue of expression. Shanahan is reacting to the suggestion he
is racist; Reid is venting feelings that the activity of debate?if not
Shanahan?is racist. What many policy debaters would tell you is that no
one in that room expected there to be fisticuffs or violence. While
certainly heated, the folks in the room knew it was ?safe.?
Hammond?s decision to suspend the debate squad because debate has
?degenerated? is a form of silencing and another blow to academic
freedom. The comparison may be crude, but the publicity motive behind
this gesture is no different than the many attempts to silence Kanye
West when he said what many of us thought to be true: George Bush don?t care about black people.
Although the activity of debate is unquestionably modeled on a white
aesthetic (which Fort Hayes responded to they only way they could: by
agreeing), I think Towson?s argument extends to the way in which this
controversy was handled itself: note how no one is discussing the actual content of the debate.
Instead of using the opportunity of this controversy to address the
difficult but extremely important issue of race relations?the very
reason Reid is angry and Shanahan is passionately flailing about?is
submerged, affect is detached from its source, and resignified as the
ravings of an individual crazy.
Let?s be honest about the affect/effect of the YouTube video: it?s
about racism. As the Towson team argued, racism is systemic. Racism
inheres in structures, like the practice of policy debate, or
FEMA, or educational institutions like, for example, Fort Hayes State.
Racism is an ideology that works through us in a systemic way. Shanahan
and Reid?s emotions are a reflection of the frustration many of us feel
about the systemic nature of racism: it is no one person?s
responsibility, but our mutual, structural burden to work-through and
on. We wince when we see Shanahan bounce about because we recognize
ourselves in the bouncing: what white person who is against racism
hasn?t felt similarly frustrated when called to account for possible
racist beliefs? It?s frustrating, and perhaps all the more because
there?s an element of truth in having it pointed out? Sandoz?s
chair-standing speech about debate should be read as an attempt to make
debate a place where such confrontations can happen (preferably without
acting-out), to feature it as an opportunity to reckon with systemic
ills in a safe place and space; it was an attempt to recontextualize
the exchange that just happened between these two coaches as an
exception but nevertheless demonstrative of the issues the activity
seeks to engage.
HUSTLE AND FLOW: CONTENT AND KRITIK
If there is an irony to be observed in this controversy, it?s the
undeniable fact that the debate that took place over the inherent
racism of the activity was made possible by none other than [drum roll
please] Bill Shanahan. Until Shanahan began to make his substantial
influence in the debate world, the activity was a fairly staid and
formal affair about certain ?stock issues? in respect to some social,
cultural, or political controversy. I learned to debate in the late 80s
in high school in respect to stock issues, which I won?t go into except
to say that the debate format was fairly rigid.
While here working on his doctorate at the University of Texas at
Austin in the late 1980s, Shanahan began coaching his teams to run Kritiks or ?critiques.?
Critiques were arguments made in a debate round that either challenged
the assumptions or premises of the resolution being debated, or the
rules, formats, performances, and so on, of debating itself. Shanahan
was an avid reader of critical theory and continental philosophy, and
he brought critical thinking into the arena of debate. Kritiks broke
new ground in the debate world and transformed the debate round from an
activity that was little more than a verbal chess match, returning it
to a concern with civic engagement, the very thing upon which debate in
college was originally about. In other words, Kritik?s returned debate
to debate. The exchange between Towson and Fort Hayes over racism is,
consequently, something that Shanahan helped to make possible.
Another significant reason why Kritik?s are important is that they
opened up competitive debate to more participants. As the HBO
documentary Synopsis/Resolved demonstrates in an insightful manner, academic debate is not
what people think it is: it has become a very fast, rapid-fire game of
?spewing.? Spewing refers to speaking so fast that one?s opponent
cannot write down every point one is making. Writing down arguments is
called ?flowing.? If one cannot flow a spew, irrelevant of his or her
reasoning abilities, the round could be easily lost by ?dropping? some
very quickly spoken argument. The kritik tends to have the effect of
slowing down the round?or at least it used to. It is a kind of
meta-move that shifts the debate from spew-mode to critical/reflective
mode. If a judge or a series of judges accepts kritiks, the debate may
slow down considerably and real, in-room issues can be discussed. This
is particularly helpful for students who cannot flow quickly nor ?spew?
The president of Fort Hayes State was correct to assert that debate
has changed since he was a debater. It?s gotten much, much faster. His
assumption that Shanahan represents that change is, in some sense, also
correct. It is a shame, however, that Shanahan?s personal shenanigans
have eclipsed the transformation of the activity he helped to effect:
policy debate now engages the real-world by directly confronting
ideologies directly in play in the actual debate round, and because of
the kritik, has allowed more students to ?play.?
ENCOMIUM FOR BILL
If you?ve read this far, you?ve probably figured out I?m fond of
Bill Shanahan. Like all failed human beings, Bill has his issues (and
stories about his time here at UT are legendary). Everyone in the debate community knows this, and even expects
Bill to act-out at tournaments. He?s thought of affectionately by some
as ?our family crazy.? Others are not so crazy about Bill. He?s
certainly a polarizing figure, and if you don?t understand the
performance of affect, you?re not going to get him.
I have been away from the debate world now for about twelve years,
and much has changed (CEDA developed to challenge the problem of
spewing, then sped up itself and absorbed the NDT, etc.). No doubt
there are more stories about Bill, some negative, and I probably should
learn more about his behavior since I left debate before I come out to
praise him. He had a tremendous effect on my life, however, so I at
least owe him this:
As a geeky, effeminate, and ?weird? kid in high school, I didn?t
discover my niche until my sophomore year. That was ?goth/punk? and
clubbing. That was drugs. And that was debate. Debate changed how I
thought about the world and what was possible for me. You see, prior to
learning about debate the life plan was to finish high school, go to
community college, find someone to settle-down with and have babies.
That?s what a small town boy did.
We had this crazy debate coach hired at my high school who recruited
me and my friends for debate. I didn?t know jack shit about the
activity. Nor did the coach, really. But what he did was raise money
and send us to the Northwestern Debate Camp (I was a cherub). Spending
the summer at NWU, I discovered I didn?t have to go to community
college, but could actually leave Georgia. I was introduced to the
field formerly known as Speech Communication. And as our little South
Gwinnett High School squad got better, we started to travel the country
debating. My world was exploded, as I began to see academics as a way
to find a place?a home?for my difference.
Prior to my final year debating in high school, I was sent to Ken
Strange?s Dartmouth Debate Institute. We all had to debate the second
day of camp, and based on our abilities, we were assigned to labs. My
debate partner and I were good debaters, but we were not fast. I could
spew, but I couldn?t flow. My partner could flow, but couldn?t spew.
Bill Shanahan?s lab was for those debaters who were not ?fast,? and I
was assigned to it.
On the first day of lab Bill gave a wild lecture on Nietzsche?it has
nothing to do with debate. I was blown away (checked out some Nietzsche
books the next day). Here?s this long haired hippie with no shoes
insisting that I think for myself. In the lab, Bill didn?t focus on
getting us to cut cards or to write briefs. Instead, he focused on
getting us to think. It was there that we were introduced to the Kritik
(here?s a recent demonstration
of a Kritik and discussion at the institute that I attended). The
Kritik opened up for me (and my partner) new possibilities we had never
considered; it allowed us creative but ?slower? folks to debate
competitively on the national level. At that time, kritiks were not as
accepted as they are today, and so we probably lost as many rounds as
we won. Even so, Bill taught me how to ?stay in the game.?
One thing I remember vividly, though, was his personal attention and
care about us kids. At that camp, I was the poorest kid?or at least
next to it. I was among only a handful of kids from a public school;
most of the kids there were from private schools and wealthy families.
At the end of camp, one could buy a commemorative t-shirt for $12. I
couldn?t afford one. At some point Bill overheard me discussing this.
There was an exit interview with Ken Strange for each of the debaters.
In that interview Strange gave me a t-shirt. Bill obviously said
something to him.
Shanahan changed how I thought about the world as a young high
school student. Combined with my acid-eating, meeting him influenced me
to be where I am today. He was a hero for me at that age. In some sense
he still is.
Aside from reckoning with the fact that love is not enough,
perhaps the biggest disappointment of adulthood is learning that adults
are nothing more than kids with experience. I do wish Bill didn?t ?go
off? as he did in the video, but nothing will change my recognition
that he showed me love, kindness, and guidance as a young person.
Finally: CEDA should gets some gonads and stick up for the activity
and a long-time, dedicated servant. Throwing Bill under the bus was not
the right way to go here. If the activity of competitive debate is to
survive, much more savvy, rhetorically crafted messages to the MSM are
needed to combat the de-contextualizing effects and potentially
devastating impact of YouTube.
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