Newsline , Society

How Wokism Conquered High School Debate

Posted on Thursday, June 1, 2023
by Daniel Berman

AMAC Exclusive - By Daniel Roman

high school

Last week, competitive high school debating unexpectedly entered mainstream political discourse.

In a Twitter thread, James Fishback, who has worked for years in professional high school debate, described the manner in which “woke ideology” has “overtaken” both much of the activity and the organizing body for the United States, the National Speech and Debate Association. His story was quickly picked up by other outlets including Fox News, as well as by Senator Ted Cruz and presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, both former competitive debaters.

Two particularly sensationalist examples have dominated coverage.

The first is a judging “paradigm,” or explanation of what a judge will be looking for in a debate, posted to (an online platform used for running high school and college competitions in North America) by Lila Lavender, a 2019 debate champion and current judge.

Lavender, a trans debater, announces that she will not accept arguments stating “fascism good, capitalism good, imperialist war good, neoliberalism good, defenses of US or otherwise bourgeois nationalism, Zionism or normalizing Israel, colonialism good, US white fascist policing good, etc.”

The second anecdote making the rounds is a paradigm by Shubham Gupta, another debate judge, which warns competitors, “If you are discussing immigrants in a round and describe the person as ‘illegal,’ I will immediately stop the round, give you the loss with low speaks, give you a stern lecture, and then talk to your coach.”

Some context is required for these stories. Paradigms are a particularly American phenomenon in organized debate, and a uniquely American solution to the problem afflicting judging of any sort of subjective activity, namely that of political bias. All individuals have biases, whether political, regional, or just based on personal experiences. While rules can be imposed requiring judges to check their biases at the door, this requires both the near impossible task of defining what precisely “biases” are, especially on contentious issues, and then enforcing such a neutral position.

American and international debating, both of which I have been involved in for almost two decades, have chosen opposite approaches to the problem of political bias.

International debating has chosen an approach of moral relativism, where judges are urged to recognize they may be evaluating teams from a multitude of different cultures. In a competitive space in which the 2018 final featured China and India, and the 2022 final featured China and Hong Kong, suggestions that not only the Western liberal position on issues, but a particular woke position rejected by many Americans, must dominate above all would involve imposing values the vast majority of competitors do not share.

The consequence has been American, European, and Asian conservatives and moderates banding together to establish debating rules in which judges were reminded on the very first day of the World Championship that nearly half of Americans voted for Donald Trump, Indians voted for Narendra Modi, and Israelis for Benjamin Netanyahu, and arguments which presume without substantiation that any of those figures are “bad” should be rejected on face.

The irony is that the struggle, far from complete or successful, against “woke” biases in international debating has been led largely by non-Western countries, and opposed vigorously by American debate, with the NSDA as its official representative.

Equally, it has often been left to representatives of Muslim nations to argue that religious groups, including Christians, should be entitled to the same respect under “equity” codes of conduct as other groups delineated by race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. Meanwhile, faculty at nominally Christian private schools have argued religion has been historically oppressive.

It befuddled Pakistani debaters, for instance, to see the representatives of the United States angrily protest suggestions that arguments in favor of Donald Trump be considered admissible, or that Trans issues not be considered settled questions. But it should hardly be surprising given what Fishback has been discussing. American debate has long since abandoned the premise of political impartiality in favor of activism.

Part of this is a natural outgrowth of a wider cultural shift within the educational establishment, where teachers’ unions envision education as about creating “responsible citizens” by instilling a specific set of liberal values in students. For students to be conservative, or not to recognize the structural racism revealed by the death of George Floyd, is considered a failure.

The NSDA confronted the issue of bias not through trying to enforce any sort of neutral standards but by making biases transparent.

Judges were encouraged to write up “paradigms” in which they outlined their approaches to evaluating debates. The original purpose of this system was actually a clever one. Ideological bias is hardly the only type. Some judges value different things in debate. Some are amused by jokes, others punish obscene language harshly. Some take a very strict interpretation of the topic, others encourage teams to think big and be creative in their arguments. More than a few cannot stand to hear philosophy courses cited, and I was among those who warned debaters that discussing Immanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative” was a good way to lose my interest.

When introduced, public judging paradigms were an innovation that allowed teams to avoid offending judges, and only learning after the fact that they had done so. Without these written statements, fear that some judges might be offended ensured teams never tried to be funny, avoided innovation, and largely ran the same material.

The problem arose when politics invaded and then took-over the paradigm. The original purpose was to indicate certain types of arguments which judges would be unreceptive to, not topics judges would be unwilling to evaluate entirely. The accepted etiquette was for judges to recuse themselves if they felt unable to fairly judge teams, and the initial inclusion of politics in paradigms was intended to allow teams to veto judges from their debates when they felt those judges would be unable to judge them fairly.

The system was broken in the early 2000s by a battle over “Kritiks,” a term which referred to a tactic in which teams chose not to argue the topic, but instead to urge the judges to make a decision on another basis.

Originally, this could have involved complaining about the conduct of the debate or unsportsmanlike behavior. But increasingly, “Kritiks” became about whether debate itself, the rules, or any rules, were inherently racist.

This began with a populist angle, with African American teams arguing that technical debate was exclusionary, and therefore that judges should give them wins for not participating in arms races over speed and research. As much as this fight was later cited by conservatives, this was not an inherently “woke” stand, but rather a populist one. Anyone who has witnessed American policy debate has been struck by its incoherence. Teams do not even deliver intelligible speeches, but rather hand over printed scripts to judges and opponents before the round with their speeches merely used to check that they covered the contents. The sheer volume of citations required competitive schools to pay up to hundreds of thousands of dollars for professional coaching staff on how to write cases, and students from poor schools, black, white, or from any other background, were justified in calling out this trend.

These “Kritiks” were then appropriated by rich, white, debaters, who used the same superior financial and other resources to sideline the poorer debaters they were intended to help, with the result that debate became dominated by rich white kids reading scripts prepared by $90,000 a year coaches declaring the United States a “racist, settler colonialist, white supremacist project” and that therefore to actually engage on the merits of arguments was “white privilege.”

Here the paradigm system collapsed. A number of judges put down on paradigms that they would either not accept “Kritiks” or, in some cases, not accept them from teams which were not in fact underprivileged; i.e. they would look poorly on students who chartered a private jet to attend a competition suggesting capitalism was akin to genocide.

Charges followed that any judges who did not accept Kritiks were racist, and then even judges who said they would only accept racism “kritiks” from African American teams found themselves purged as reactionaries.

A similar fate befell teams which tried to object to judges who expressed ideological positions. While teams theoretically had this right, any such effort would trigger charges of racism, not just against the individuals but their coaches and institutions, with the result that coaches would force their debaters to withdraw such requests, or ban them from attending competitions altogether.

This was the most ruthless element of the woke takeover of the debate world. Rather than purging debaters themselves, the NSDA and the College leagues ( CEDA and the NDT) forced coaches and institutions to purge themselves.

When a number of colleges tried to host a tournament that would prohibit “Kritiks,” require teams to debate the actual topics, and exclude arguments about race or queer theory, they were charged with racism and white supremacy. All such efforts were abandoned by 2019, long before the events of the summer of 2020 made such suggestions a one-way trip to retirement for even tenured faculty at U.S. institutions.

Under this new system, U.S. debate has entered a dystopian world where the literal silencing of debate looks normal. The statement by the NSDA responding to the recent news coverage shows a stunning lack of awareness of what the problem is.

“Schools and other organizations that use to hire judges are free to evaluate those paradigms before engaging their services,” the statement notes, blaming the schools for a failure to do so, while turning the lack of diversity into a strength of adaptability. “Judging paradigms allow students to adapt to a wide diversity of ideological viewpoints from thousands of volunteer judges across the world.”

The problem is that this diversity is curtailed, as the response goes on to note:

“Each competition venue at the National Tournament will have a dedicated Belonging and Inclusion Station, which serves as a resource for individuals who feel an instance of harassment and/or discrimination has occurred, such as perceived discriminatory practice on the basis of (but not limited to) race/color, religion, ethnicity, national origin, gender, gender identity/expression, age, disability, sexual orientation, and/or veteran or military status; or perceived retaliation, harassment, or intimidation due to an individual’s filing of a complaint or participating in a complaint’s intake.”

These definitions stand in striking contrast to the wording in the NSDA’s own briefing for American debaters who wish to debate abroad, where standards are quite the opposite: “For the evaluation of the content, it is irrelevant whether or not or to which extent the judge agrees with the argument. Adjudicators should not impose their advanced expert knowledge in the debate and should judge the debate only on the matters which are presented.” In another slide, it states of judges, “their own opinion, no matter how strong it is, is put aside during the debate.”

There is an irony here about the 21st century. The United States defines itself in opposition to its rivals, especially China, as promoting the virtues of free speech, the free flow of ideas, and the term diversity, which is at the center of the Biden administration’s rhetoric. But when it comes to debating, the American face that foreign students — who will go on to influence the policy of their nations — first see is one which is arguably much more repressive than the Chinese National High School league, overseen by aging union bureaucrats with a thrill for the abuse of arbitrary power against teenagers.

It is one where American debate is defined as hostile to political dissent, to religious differences, and obsessed with race and gender. When Christian debaters will be lectured by American bureaucrats that they are wrong about their own faith in front of international students, how can the United States credibly claim to stand for religious freedom or freedom at all?

The story the media should be covering is not whether American debate is filled with unhinged Marxist-Leninist Maoists. Of course, it is, as is almost any U.S. high school or university. The more interesting story is how it came to be dominated by them, with everyone else either driven out or intimidated into silence.

Daniel Roman is the pen-name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.

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