Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Reader Defends Racist, Black Towson State University Debate Cheaters


Towson State University cheaters, 2014 version: Ameena Ruffin and Korey Johnson

Re: “College Debate, RIP: Racist, Black Towson State University Cheaters Beat Racist, Black OU Cheaters.”

Actually, what the Towson debaters did was not unusual. It has been standard practice for years. The affirmative team chooses a topic that they would rather debate than the assigned topic, and then they prepare a rationalization for why
their invented topic actually conforms to the assigned topic. (This rationalization is called the “topicality argument.”) I recall that the last year I debated in high school, 38 years ago, the topic was “Resolved, that the United States should guarantee a minimum annual income for each family unit.”

When arguing the negative side that year, my partner and I faced teams that advocated clean air legislation (a minimum annual income of clean air), elimination of the military draft (income consisting not only of money but of leisure and of life to enjoy money and leisure), nuclear energy (minimum annual income of electricity), clean-up of lead paint (minimum annual income of safe living space), prayer in the schools (minimum annual income of community bonding and free religious practice, or some such thing), and on and on. My law school roommate won many debate awards, and whenever he was on the affirmative, he argued against abortion, every year for his entire four-year college career, regardless of the assigned topic.

This practice is absurd, but not unfair. Every team has to argue an equal number of times on the affirmative and negative sides. They know that they will get to choose their own topic when they are the affirmative team and that they need to be prepared to argue a huge number of topics when they are on the negative. Teams scout their likely opponents to find out what topics they are likely to argue. (This is possible because almost every team prepares their affirmative case before the season and uses it all year long, in order to spend their practice/research time during the season preparing their negative cases.)

Even the particular topic that the Towson debaters decided to argue is not entirely unheard-of. It is an aggressive twist on what is called (or at least was called in my day) the “meta-debate” strategy. I used the meta-debate strategy on the NEGATIVE side every year that I debated - whenever I was not prepared for the particular case that the affirmative team was arguing, I would attack the other team’s topicality and argue that the practice of inventing an affirmative case unrelated to the year’s assigned topic was contrary to the spirit and intention of debate. This argument only won about a third of the time, but otherwise I would have lost virtually 100% of the time against teams that had spent hundreds and hundreds of hours preparing affirmative cases that I was not prepared to oppose.

In the world of debate, I imagine that Towson’s case was probably considered quite clever, because it forced the negative team to tiptoe very carefully around innumerable land mines. Forty years ago, the team that was arguing for prayer in the schools was pretty mediocre, but they scored upset wins against some top-notch programs when their opponent fell into one of their traps. I am embarrassed to say that I was one of the suckers who lost to them. They quoted Jesus saying “the poor will always be with you,” and instead of saying that “our opponents are deliberately taking Jesus’ words out of context,” I said the fatal words, “what Jesus said is completely irrelevant.” The other team jumped on me for anti-Christian bias (which pulled one judge, who was an evangelical, to vote in their favor) and racism (they quoted statistics showing that blacks are more religious than whites). These days, of course, anti-Christian bias pervades college life so I imagine a pro-Christian affirmative case would probably lose a college debate just about every time.

Another thing that makes Towson’s case so clever is that it can be used both ways. Whether they are arguing the affirmative or the negative, they can always argue that all debate rests on invalid premises.

And one last point - no matter how cleverly you choose your topic, you’ve still got to be smart, smooth-talking and quick on your feet to win. At the top levels, the opposing teams are incredibly good, and they’ve spent all year preparing to beat your case.

N.S.: My reader works very hard defending a position that I consider indefensible, so we’re just going to have to agree to disagree. And while I have not seen tapes of the 2014 Towson team in action, I did watch the tape of the 2008 team, and its partners did not impress me as being “smart, smooth-talking and quick on [their] feet,” while their University of Kansas opponents made just such an impression on me.

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