Fast talking, racism and the faux moon

A YouTube video of a college debate coach mooning debaters in the midst of an obscenity-laden argument with a debate judge has opened up a debate about what’s happened to debate.

Mark Oppenheimer writes in the Wall Street Journal:

It used to be that high-school and college debates mirrored, in a salutary way, political debates. In school, young men and women learned to research topics and then debate their rivals, using all the tools of oratory, including sound reasoning and witty flourishes. But scholastic debate today is very different, and its sorry state has consequences for the health of the republic.

Oratory has been replaced by a fast-talking, point-scoring debate style. That’s now being challenged by “postmodern debate,” reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. “Postmodern” seems to mean complaining that debate is racist rather than arguing about the topic. In the debate caught on YouTube,  Bill Shanahan, coach of Fort Hayes State, who’s white, was furious when a Towson debater accused him of racism for using his challenge to knock out Shanara Rose Reid-Brinkley, the only black judge.  Towson went on to win the debate by arguing about racism, rather than the official topic, agricultural tariffs. When the video got out, Fort Hays State fired Shanahan and suspended its successful debate program.

The Chronicle describes a Towson-NYU debate, which also strayed from agricultural tariffs.

Elaine Zhou, a senior at New York University, spewed arguments about why the United States should end tariffs on ethanol from Brazil. Doing so would improve U.S.-Brazilian relations, keep Brazil from becoming a failed state that would seek nuclear weapons, reduce U.S. reliance on fossil fuels, and thus help save the planet. The team had clearly done its homework, and Ms. Zhou gave citations for each argument.

Towson’s Valarea Jones, a student at Towson University asked Zhou, “Do you think that debate is multicultural?” Zhou noted that neither team included a white debater.

Jones’ rebuttal “began with an account of the trading of African slaves in the early years of the United States.”

Ms. Jones, who is African-American, then read from her own diary, focusing on an entry she had written while attending a debate tournament this summer. “We had our first full round today and I want to go the [expletive] home. You should have seen the looks I got from these people. I even asked this one [expletive] what the [expletive] she was staring at,” she said. “In the debate world, people look at me and what I have to say as if I’m less than [expletive] human, and this is some serious [expletive].”

She accused her opponents of furthering “white supremacy” by playing by the traditional norms of debate. She urged the judges to make a statement against such oppressive forces by ruling in her favor in the debate round.

Towson won the debate unanimously.

There’s some push back, Oppenheimer writes.

The National Forensic League recently introduced an event at its tournaments in which debaters can be penalized for fast-talking and jargon, and it was instantly popular. The New England boarding schools practice parliamentary debate, with the Brits’ more oratorical style as a model. The Ivy League tries to practice parliamentary debate, too, although many of its competitors have bad policy-debate habits picked up in high school.

Debate officials are working on rules of civility and professionalism. (Rule One: Keep your pants on.) Perhaps they need a stick-to-the-topic rule.

About Joanne


  1. Debate in the 21st century. Topic: should water be fluoridated?

    Jane: “My opponent is a worthless honkey whose great-great-great grandfather knew someone who had owned slaves! He belonged to a fascist organization called the Cub Scouts for two weeks and four days when he was eight. His mom looks like Sarah Palin, except for her short blonde hair and weighing 215 lbs!”

    Jack: “Oh, yeah? Well, I come from a proletarian background–my dad is a construction worker and my mom is a maid. We don’t even have a big screen! My opponent, on the other hand, lives in a McMansion in the ‘burbs, and her daddy is a pedophile–I mean, pediatrician, or so he says. He sure does seem to like little kids in a weird way, if you get my drift.”

  2. I was a debater back in the golden days, before everything fell apart.

    I recall occasional “squirrelly” interpretations of the debate topic. When these were presented, the opposing team would argue, often successfully, that the interpretation was off-topic.

    The topic is given. If a team cannot successfully argue that something is off-topic they should not be awarded a victory in the debate.

  3. Eric Kendall says:

    I debated in high school in the early 1980s in Texas, and the “fast-talking, point-scoring debate style” was an issue at both the college and high school level even back then. But it was otherwise certainly a more reasonable time–a time when “non-topical” or “extra-topical” arguments actually counted against you. It’s absolutely outrageous that Towson University’s squad is winning debates with this “traditional norms of debate as white supremacy” non-sense. I would like to think that part of the problem here may be what we called “bus-driver judges” back in the day. That’s a turn of phrase we used to describe judges who had absolutely no familiarity whatsoever with formal competitive debate–its rules, conventions, and practices. Sometimes, tournament organizers would be so desperate to find warm bodies to fill judging positions that they’d grab literally anybody–even the school bus drivers who drove in the visiting squads. That definitely resulted in some odd judging decisions on occassion. On the other hand, if Towson’s wins are being awarded by judges who are actually versed in debate, then the situation is doubly outrageous.

  4. superdestroyer says:

    The claim your opponent is a racist style of debate was created by debate coaches at urban high schools. There is not way that a single debate team stand a good chance against the white, suburban high schools that pool research and practice against each other.

    Being able to deliver the same, “You are a raicst” speech in a stiring oratory manner benefits urban blacks raised in the black church and really hurts the nerdy white guys who would love to talk about policy.

  5. And, it’s also a very thrifty approach to business of debate obviating the need for all that tedious research as well as the need to develop a grasp of the facts. That leaves more time to spy out all the myriad forms of racism which lurk in every dusty corner and under every pile of dirty laundry.

  6. superdestroyer says:

    The linked articles stated that there were no rules to debate. In my experiences, that is not correct. There were many requirements of the affirmative and the requirements that the negative defeat one of the requirements.

    If anything, the change in debates sound like what happens when women gain control. No more research, no more meeting the requirements, no more need for citations. Let’s just talk about our feelings.

  7. Miller T. Smith says:

    When the white students of my school were hit with this “racist” debate tactics, they stopped the debate and left the room and went home. This year they have refused to debate anyone who uses the racist non-argument and have stayed home half the time now.

    Let the racists debate themselves and do not step foot anywhere near them.

  8. Miller, I can understand why your students would refuse to debate after being called racists, but why not debate the premise?

    Why not prove that racism isn’t relevant to the debate topic or why the accusation is scurrilous? I would start out with quoting W.E.B. Dubois. Perhaps debate,and it’s rules, isn’t an invention of “white domination”? Perhaps it is a universal activity, engaged in by cultures all over the world. Perhaps not in the same format but in a similar, but less formal structure. Think Native Americans having a pow-wow. Think of the tribal decision making structure in Arab countries.

    These racism Elmer Gantry’s need to be challenged, not just walked away from. White folks, and asians, are so afraid to challenge African Americans on this charge, but until some do, we’ll never progress in all other debates. We’re stuck in a rut that we can’t move forward from until we decide to not let this charge care such weight.

  9. Have a bunch of debates where the topic is ‘Do the traditional norms of debate further “white supremacy”?’, and assign the Towson students the negative side.

    Or, knowing post-mdoernists, have a debate where the topic is “Does debating whether “the traditional norms of debate further white supremacy” further white supremacy?

  10. I’d love to see how this would work with a robotics club or an engineering contest of any sort. I know into which clubs I’m more likely to steer my children. I wonder how you choose a winner from among debaters all using the racism argument.

  11. superdestroyer says:

    In doing a little research, the type of debate where you scream racism or argue post modernism is called “Performance Debate” and is used by smaller schools to compete with larger schools.

    Doing performance debate means that the black debaters from Towson are always on the affirmative. they know what they are doing to say and if start arguing about the racist nature of debate, all the affirmative team does is surrender the affirmative position and put themselves on the negative.

    However, I do believe that the spread form of debate (speed talking) is/was encouraged by many coaches who could use it to make anyone a competent debater whether they knew anything or not. The coaches would casually link to a claimed benefit that the affirmative was making than then speed read through a canned response. Only the most experiences judges can judge such a debate. I was never particularly good at it and found it boring.

  12. Margo/Mom says:

    I know nothing about the evolution of high school or college debate since the early 1970s when I was involved. But this sounds like the McCain/Palin style of debate to me. No matter the question, call your opponent a radical terrorist and go home.

  13. Brandyjane says:

    A couple of years ago I asked why our private school does not have a debate team. We do very well in mock trial, and I thought debate would also be a natural fit. The mock trial coach just laughed and said that they tried having a debate team for a while, but that none of the other schools we competed against actually engaged in real debate, so our school decided it was a waste of time and resources. Our students do learn how to debate, they just do it in class.

  14. Stacy, you misconstrue the purpose of the affirmative action debaters.

    They aren’t there to engage in a scholastic competition but to politicize the event for the purpose of raising the consciousness of oppressed peoples of color who’ve suffered under the heel of the white power structure, blah, blah, blah.

    If this were a baseball game one team would be there to hit the ball with the bat and the other team would be there to hit the other team with the bat. There’s not a whole lot of room there to find a middle ground.

    Success for practitioners of “post modern” debating tactics comes in the form of disrupting the proceedings. Depriving them of that success by refusing to allow them to compete would be met with a storm of angry protest but it would be the right thing to do.

    They would gain some hollering points but since their success hinges on shutting down the debates refusing to allow them access to the debate for that purpose puts the ball back in their court. That sends them off to the courts, the media, direct, physical confrontation and a boycott.

    The first three are a given and don’t require the support of less interested, less supportive schools. The boycott however is crucial because without it the promoters of the post-modern debate technique’s assumption of widespread support, and thus the moral high ground, is undercut and their political agenda laid bare. Those unsupportive schools would then have to choose between forgoing the advantages of competition to support a political agenda which promises them nothing of value or rejecting that agenda.

    Over time I believe pragmatism would win out since the glue that traditionally bound these schools together, widespread legal and social racism, is quite clearly dissolving.

  15. Miller Smith says:

    Hi Stacy. Sorry, but no. We refuse to show up for one agreed event and have it turned into another that accuses these young students of vile things. Let the pigs that walk on two legs talki to themselves and we will deal with others like ourselves. We have no use for such filth.

    Plus we are in a strange situation as of now since one of my parents threatened the super with a lawyer for allowing racial intimidation of her daughter to occur at an officially sanctioned school event. The parent wants to put the teachers of the other school on the docket. The parent demands that all events be video taped with 911 to be dialed the moment anything racist occurs. The super can’t promise such a thing and so we are in limbo with no right to debate any other school.

  16. I was very active in my high school’s forensic competitions, back in the dark ages of the 1970s. I didn’t debate, but instead did Extemporaneous speech. Imagine my surprise when my son’s high school debate team came up against this sort of nonsense–performance art or street theatre masquerading as debate.

    Using your own diary as a source is ridiculous. Wait til this generation of debaters decide to try law school or journalism.

    And how sad that black schools think this is their big winning tactic.

  17. Andy Freeman says:

    > Miller, I can understand why your students would refuse to debate after being called racists, but why not debate the premise?

    Because there’s no point in doing so.

    They’re white so they’re racists if a black student says so, and racists deserve to lose.

    We’re starting to see folks withdraw from any forum where race is brought up. If that bothers you (generic), you’re going to have to fix the toxic atmosphere. The folks who are withdrawing are under no obligation to help.

  18. Judge Crater says:

    Performance Debate is disturbingly anti-knowledge. It is yet another technique to shut off actual discourse.

  19. I did high school debate in Canada in the 1970s. There were people who showed up with lists of “points” and people who won, the idea being to know what you were talking about well enough to attack the structure of the opposing argument, and turn “points” into irrelevancies.

    Later, while in grad school in the U.S., one weekend I overheard debates being held in the university’s classrooms, part of a high school competition. People were shouting and talking as fast as they possibly could, yelling “Point!” when they felt they’d made a point to make sure the judges didn’t miss it.

    I could only guess that judging was done by some variety of checklist, that the competitors and their coaches were trying to maximize their scores. Complete bloody waste of time, but not racist so far as I could tell.

  20. This looks like one more Gramscian effort to turn Western culture into so much useless nonsense, in order to make it easier to sweep it away.

    The disgusting part is, it appears to be succeeding.  In any sane system, Towson’s debaters would be ruled off-topic as soon as they veered and ejected from the event if they made scurrilous accusations.  What’s going on is clearly not sane, or fair.  Towson’s tactics might even meet the legal definition of slander.

    How long until the first suits against Towson?  Can we hope?

  21. Engineer – I doubt, if ever, there will be any legala ction against Towson and any schools who follow their example. The same baseless accusations are made every day by members of our celebrity elite and political class without any disapproval… in fact, they are usually applauded for their “bravery.”
    Nowadays students are brought up in school and through the mass media to believe that we share the blame for slavery and other acts that occured before our grandparents were even born, and that the only way to lessen the hurt we caused is by letting them do whatever the heck they want without any consequences.


  1. […] In school, young men and women learned to research topics and then debate their rivals, using all the tools of oratory, including sound reasoning and witty flourishes. But scholastic debate today is very different, and its sorry state …Original post by Joanne Jacobs […]