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How To Speak Gibberish & Win A National Debate Title

Good news from Towson University: Towson University Debate Team members Ameena Ruffin ‘15 and Korey Johnson ’16 made history at the Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA) national championship Monday night. “Ruffin and Johnson are the first African-American women’s team to win a national tournament,” said Mike Davis, president of the Cross Examination Debate Association. In a […]

Good news from Towson University:

Towson University Debate Team members Ameena Ruffin ‘15 and Korey Johnson ’16 made history at the Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA) national championship Monday night.

“Ruffin and Johnson are the first African-American women’s team to win a national tournament,” said Mike Davis, president of the Cross Examination Debate Association. In a sense, it’s a double record. “No [individual] African-American woman has ever won our tournament before,” Davis confirmed.

Congratulations, right? Wrong. This is a politically correct fraud. The winning round is in the video above. Fast forward to the 1:08 mark, and let it play. You won’t believe your eyes and ears. This Dada performance is what won a national college debate competition. Believe it or not, the teams were debating the War Powers Resolution. The Atlantic reports that the strategy of the Towson team was deliberate. Excerpt:

 Rather than address the resolution straight on, Ruffin and Johnson, along with other teams of African-Americans, attacked its premise. The more pressing issue, they argued, is how the U.S. government is at war with poor black communities.

In the final round, Ruffin and Johnson squared off against Rashid Campbell and George Lee from the University of Oklahoma, two highly accomplished African-American debaters with distinctive dreadlocks and dashikis. Over four hours, the two teams engaged in a heated discussion of concepts like “nigga authenticity” and performed hip-hop and spoken-word poetry in the traditional timed format. At one point during Lee’s rebuttal, the clock ran out but he refused to yield the floor. “Fuck the time!” he yelled. His partner Campbell, who won the top speaker award at the National Debate Tournament two weeks later, had been unfairly targeted by the police at the debate venue just days before, and cited this experience as evidence for his case against the government’s treatment of poor African-Americans.

This year wasn’t the first time this had happened. In the 2013 championship, two men from Emporia State University, Ryan Walsh and Elijah Smith, employed a similar style and became the first African-Americans to win two national debate tournaments. Many of their arguments, based on personal memoir and rap music, completely ignored the stated resolution, and instead asserted that the framework of collegiate debate has historically privileged straight, white, middle-class students.

In other words — and this is no exaggeration — we must privilege gibberish and racial harangue that has nothing to do with the question under debate, because facts and logic are — wait for it — racist.

If you want to see what, exactly, this insanity produces, watch that video from the 1:08 mark. You will see an adult woman appear to be having a psychotic break as she addresses the audience. You will wonder, “Why is no one helping her? She’s making a fool of herself.” It turns out that this was deliberate … and it helped her team win the national competition. It’s as if a team turned up at the Super Bowl, decided to play kickball instead of football, and won the game was awarded a victory.

So, what lesson does this send to aspiring college debaters? To withdraw from the organization that honors this madness, because it’s impossible to win. It’s like telling a baseball team that they should play against another team that doesn’t have to observe the rules of baseball, because they’re Special. That the rules of debate don’t have to be followed, that insult and abuse are legitimate forms of argument, and ultimately, that chaos wins, as long as it’s perpetrated by a minority claiming victim status. That’s actually a good strategy for succeeding in academia and community organizing, but not so much in the real world.

UPDATE: A reader in the comments suggests that these students should listen to MLK’s oratory and take a lesson. Absolutely. King was a master of rhetoric. That is the way to change minds. The teachers who are instructing these kids in this sort of thing are guilty of intellectual abuse, as are the CEDA officials who reward it.

UPDATE.2: A reader remarks:

Rod, this post needs a serious correction. While that debate was ridiculous, it is entirely typical of what college “cross examination” debating has been for decades. The trend has been for (mostly white) debaters to talk about nuclear war in a debate about education policy, the environment in a debate about military policy, post structuralism pretty much whenever they feel like it, etc. etc. It’s a ridiculous form of debate but it isn’t some weird black thing. The reason these black students are debating like this is that they are competing, in a league with teams from schools like Harvard and Yale, that rewards this style of debate.

A couple of you have pointed to Noah Millman’s lovely tribute to his recently deceased high school debate teacher. It startled me — well, it actually shocked me — to learn that the kind of thing the Towson students did is, yes, standard practice in forensics these days. Noah writes:

There’s been a lot of that kind of chatter lately about the decline of debate, at the high school and college level, into a combination of “meta” argumentation (debate about the rules of debate, rather than about the topic) and the abandonment of structured argument entirely in favor of “personal testimony” (see here for a good example of such chatter). I understand the laments – but I also understand the other side, inasmuch as I remember what debate was like in my day. Our vaunted technical rules were not designed to persuade, nor were they designed to force us to learn about the topic; rather, they honed our skills where we were already strongest, and were designed to make it easier to shift the ground from the official topic to what we would rather talk about – which was usually global thermonuclear war.

Don’t get me wrong: I learned an enormous amount from researching, and an enormous amount from practicing the art of argument. If I were running a program, as Richard did, I would tilt strongly in the direction of traditional practice, and against newfangled approaches that scant the development of those vital skills. But if I, as a debater, had ever lost to someone who, instead of arguing back, recited a poem, or testified about her personal experience, and had complained to Richard about the loss, I know what he would have said. The judge is always right. If I couldn’t convince the judge that my argument was more deserving than my opponent’s poem, then I had failed. And I deserved to lose. Because here’s the thing: out there in the real world, people will employ all sorts of rhetorical strategies to win, and you need to be prepared for all of them, not just the ones you enjoy the most or think are the most intellectually rewarding.

I had no idea that’s what forensics were about. This strikes me as a fairly nihilistic approach to debate, one that rewards power, not rational thought and argumentation. It’s as if we had two candidates in a political race, and one analyzed the issues and presented a logical argument for why his plans were the better, and why he was better qualified for the office, and the other said simply, “Like you, I am a big supporter of our local football team, and besides, I love America, and the other guy is a communist homo sapiens.” If the athletics-loving demagogue won that race, would we call that a victory for anything any of us would care to support? I think of the great film “12 Angry Men,” and how it demonstrates the power of dispassionate thought and cool logic to cut through the blinding fog of anger, and determine the truth from all the facts. Isn’t that what we should all be aiming for, and the model of public discourse that we ought to be training our minds to esteem? This current forensic model seems to me to be a case of decadent, irrational formalism. How many people who weren’t forensics judges would find that Towson team, or any team that followed its strategy, persuasive? Frankly, I would be afraid to live in a country whose leadership, when debating whether or not to go to war with another nation, turned it into a debate about motherhood and apple pie — and were rewarded for doing so.

UPDATE.3: To be perfectly clear, I concede that I was wrong to say that this team broke the rules of debate by refusing to address the topic, instead choosing to rant about racism, and to say that the woman who looked as if she were having a psychotic break (which she does, to the untrained eye) was doing anything wrong. I learned from readers that the Towson team’s bizarre display is actually well within the rules and the custom of competitive debate. So, congratulations to them, I guess. I learned something new today: Competitive debate is a completely insane phenomenon.