Featured Illustration: Stephan Schmitz
You’ve seen the Twitter headers, the punchy slogan at the end of Instagram Infographics™. Human Rights Aren’t Debatable. And the immediate response is obviously a well no shit, who thinks they are? But the definition of debating human rights isn’t always a politician met with controversy after endorsing airstrikes, or a back and forth about the urgency of Flint’s water crisis. In fact, the most avoidably problematic discourses over human rights are the ones that happen for the mere sake of arguing, for the pleasures of playing devil’s advocate and winning. And ironically enough, the place I’ve seen it happen most often is in the thorny world of high school debate.
Certainly, the students that rise in the ranks of national high school debate have the minimal competence to defend arguments that they don’t necessarily believe in. That’s how they got where they are, by forming equally sound arguments for drastically different sides of an issue. By playing into the notion that the approach to any political, economic, or human rights crisis lies not on a spectrum, but on a binary. Right and wrong, or more accurately: win or loss. But to debate the merits of economic policy, disagreeing over fund allocation is one thing. To justify human rights abuses, validate the crimes of fascist politicians, defend the use of violence against civilians is wholly another.
And I’m baffled at how utterly normal it seemed when I was in the thick of it. Barely-bloomed teenagers, drowning in baggy sport coats and wielding scrappy legal pads, packing in decades worth of nuanced political history into a four-minute speech before the alarm rings on the phone of some poor befuddled parent judge that’s been roped into declaring a winner. But it’s so humiliatingly patent now, regardless of how firmly you advocate for your personal beliefs, insistent that there are some stances you’ll never backtrack on, the minute those beliefs are put at stake for a trophy and the satisfaction of outarguing an opponent, you fold. You assure yourself that this is the way debate works, you need to be able to argue anything because after all, it’s not like you really believe in it. But the issue isn’t that we start subconsciously believing the wildly oversimplified arguments we make — it’s the mindset that the more forcefully, powerfully we assert them, the more “valid” they become. And even for the ones best at compartmentalizing, of drawing thick, solid lines between their in-round and out-round selves — the messaging lingers, that anything can be defended if argued eloquently enough.
Which is why it saddens me to think about the sheer number of ex- high school debaters who cannot differentiate between discourse for the sake of progress and mutual growth and debating for the sake of winning. In a world of Ben Shapiros and Tucker Carlsons, we need to teach our kids that speaking with eloquence and assertion is not the mark of a valid argument and that one does not always need to have the last word, doesn’t need to render their opponent at a loss for words to be the best debater in the room. Moreover, I find it most difficult to dismantle the idea that even out of the debate space, I need to be well-informed enough to provide my take on every political happening or global crisis. Hence another chronic side effect of putting human rights up for debate under the guise of a high school tournament: the complete and utter loss of nuance. With our framing of complex political resolutions as a simple affirmative or negation, we teach our students that sometimes we must accept some sacrifices For The Greater Good, that every political decision comes with its tradeoffs.
But at 17, are we really in the position to determine what sacrifices are ethical to make? And when these conversations are being held with a shiny, gold prize on the line — what really, is our end goal?
Now more than ever, it is critical to recall that the debate space is an inherently unbalanced one. The winning party more often than not comes down to who shut the opponent down with their unmasked condescension and their caught you in a trap cross-examination smirks, who would have advanced to the next round had this been a CNN correspondent screen test, who drowned out every other voice with their own. It is the white, male debater that walks in with the cards stacked in his favor. Despite being the least likely to bring with them lived experience with the themes of systematic oppression, cultural genocide, poverty, targeted violence, it is these participants that we now have to redirect our focus to out-talking. There is something so mortifying, yet ironic in all the women of color, the children of immigrants, the refugees, the victims of food and housing insecurity who sit down at a table with these private-school trust fund students and have their own lived experience taught to them as if they were an exceptionally slow child. Here is where it becomes frustratingly impossible to say, you don’t have a clue what you’re talking about, you’ve just practiced how to twist your words.
Debaters, especially high-school ones, can rarely control what they have or haven’t been through in their brief lives. But they can control the nuance with which they address potentially traumatic experiences that their peers have undergone. And that means de-emphasizing the part of debate that translates into real-world political conversation — the gotcha traps, the cunning questions designed to embarrass, the bombarding of jargon with the intent of confusing someone to the point where they can hardly comprehend you, let alone offer a response.
At the end of the day, change can only be made by those of us in such positions of privilege where we have the option of turning off a switch when we leave a debate. Those of us with the knowledge that our rights, our experiences, the validity and worth of our existences will never be subject to scrutinized examination and argued about for a trophy and some college application embellishment.