The Politics of Cross-X Debate

Having spent so many years of my life involved in high school and college policy debate, I felt obliged to write something about Joe Miller's book Cross-X. This book has been on my reading list for a long time, and I wish I would have gotten to it sooner, as it really is an excellent piece of writing. Anyone who has spent any time in the activity should pick up a copy.

I was around during the years that Miller was shadowing/coaching the team at Kansas City Central. I debated at one of the private schools (though not named in the book) that the author is critical of. My senior year of high school was the same year that Ebony Rose shook up the national circuit with his case on racism in the game. I can willingly admit that I dreaded the prospect of debating against teams like Kansas City Central that were really pressuring teams on these issues.

One major problem, which Miller tends to obfuscate, is that the way debate is structured makes it extremely difficult to bring your personal beliefs in the round and expect to win. Because each team has to debate half of the time on the affirmative and the other half on the negative, and because they can't necessarily predict what their opponents will argue, they will inevitably be forced to defend positions that they fully disagree with. I stood up on many occasions and argued that Bush's tax cuts for the rich were the linchpin of the American economy, even though I personally cringed at the argument. Whether this teaches critical thinking and forces people to explore all sides of an argument or whether it numbs people to their own personal beliefs is a legitimate question, albeit a topic for another day.

When you bring personal beliefs into the activity, the game gets messy. Imagine being from a private school and being accused of racism by kids from an urban public school. You may be completely sympathetic to their position, but debate is a game in which there must be one winner and one loser. What do you do? You can't agree and concede that their argument is correct, else you lose. But you can't disagree, and argue that the game isn't racist or that the power structures are somehow good, or you'll probably lose too or get into a nasty yelling match if you win. Teams end up making the lame generic arguments that Miller hates in response to these positions because they're walking such a thin line and still trying to win.

Which leads to a bigger issue which Miller ignores almost completely. The extremely competitive nature of the game is what makes it appealing to many people and a turnoff to others; but losing debates to specific arguments also conditions people to rebuff those positions, because they have a strong negative experience attached to them. When one of Miller's team wins a debate, that doesn't mean that their opponent has "learned a lesson" or become enlightened to their position. In many instances, it's likely that the exact opposite occurs.


    On February 23, 2010 austin said...

    One of my biggest problems with the sort of thing Kansas City Central does is that it is basically admitting that black kids cannot actually compete with white kids when following the rules and instead have to modify some rap songs and whine about how racism and the Man are keeping them down. Yea, way to challenge stereotypes. What ends up happening is exactly what you write; black, urban debaters call white debaters racist because of the color of their skin and their participation in actual debate and the white debaters take it because they have been raised to feel ashamed of their skin color for past institutional racism. If they challenge the claims of the other team they are at a disadvantage for being perceived as racially insensitive by the sociology major judging them.

    If the system is racist, which is pretty laughable, then you challenge it by excelling in it, not quitting.