My high school years were defined by my participation in public forum debate. PF is a two-on-two debate format that encourages discussion on current controversies such as gun control, education reform and constitutionality. While I am extremely grateful for the critical forums of discourse provided through the activity, PF debate, from my experience, was a shitshow of sexism, classism, ableism and overall privilege that hid behind the feel-good notions of intellectual discourse and academic exploration. It was also an incubator for frustration against the exclusivity and elitism that runs rampant in this activity. Not only did the coaching fees, travel and hotel fees, and even attire actively exclude students not financially well-off, a multitude of damning biases and prejudices run under the radar. Debate, in my experience, was a breeding ground for disadvantages against women, the physically disabled, those not financially well-off and people of color.
First: It is no secret that sexism runs deep within the Public Forum Debate community.
More recently-generated literature has outed the debate community as a “boys’ club”. It becomes quite obvious, especially for female debaters who have had first-hand experience with sexism in and out of round, that many obstacles stand in the way of female success in the competitive activity. I cannot begin to express how many times judges have told me to “smile more” and have called me “intimidating” when I simply seek to counter an opponent’s argument (I mean, that’s what debate is, right?). Yet when men talk over me and yell in my face, they are praised for being assertive and dominating. Additionally, female debaters are constantly criticized for their outfits, tone of voice and presentation. Male debaters, on the other hand, are given feedback about their knowledge of the topic and logical reasoning. Even at a progressive debate camp, we were given “tips to succeed.” “Dress your hair in a ponytail, wear bright lipstick to attract attention to your mouth, don’t wear nail polish and never wear open-toed heels.”
No wonder why so many female debaters quit the activity once they enter high school. The appalling attrition rate of female debaters and the relationship of few successful female debaters at the national stage have a very dependent relationship. The fewer the females in the activity, the more who felt intimidated and quit. This feedback loop generates atrocious outcomes in debate. In the 2013 Tournament of Championships, no all-female team advanced in the tournament, no female debater was among the top half speakers, and only 30% of judges in outrounds were female. It is extremely likely that the prejudices against women are symptomatic of the gender discrimination in the real world. However, I am deeply disappointed that the PF community, a supposed forum aiming to foster open-mindedness and impartiality, can not only tolerate such prejudices but also perpetuate gender bias within the intellectual space.
Second: Debate is ableist and many people don’t even know it.
I never realized that people with disabilities were discriminated against in the debate community until towards the end of my debate career. At the state championship my junior year, I had convinced one of my best friends to be my debate partner. The tournament was held in two buildings very far from each other—one uphill, one downhill. Competitors were expected to walk from one build to the other on foot within a few minutes. The staff had never thought to ask if anyone needed accommodations, so there was no transportation or help to go from one place to the other. What never crossed people’s minds is that not everyone can physically participate under those circumstances. What never crossed people’s minds were people like my friend and debate partner who has muscular dystrophy. The coordinators never bothered to provide accommodations because people with physical disabilities were simply forgotten. Additionally, not only were we expected to go up and down a hill between rounds, our rounds were also located on the second and even third floor. There were no elevators. Because we needed additional time to get to the room, we almost had to forfeit a round because we were extremely late. I quickly realized that this kind of experience was not isolated to this type of campus or tournament. Almost all tournaments, especially popular ones like Harvard, Yale, NFLs, NCFLs, are located on large campuses where everyone is expected to be able to walk quickly between rounds. In the tournaments that I have participated in, staff members weren’t even considering people with physical disabilities as part of the pool of debaters.
Third: PF debate is an elite, expensive activity that is catered to the well-resourced
I could not afford a suit for the first few months of my freshman year. I alternated between my mom’s baggy button-down blouse and a black formal dress I scavenged at a thrift store. It was all I could afford until I convinced my mom I needed a suit to be taken even remotely seriously. I realized very quickly that PF has a presentation aspect that could not be sidestepped. Before judges hear your arguments, they see judge outfit. And what you can afford to wear ultimately biases the judge’s perception of not only you but your ability to debate. If you can’t afford multiple suits and dress shoes and a laptop to research on the go, what are you going to do? Get a job and earn enough money to be taken seriously? How much time would you have left after school, homework, and a job to research and actually practice for tournaments? And what tournaments could you even afford to go to? The exciting, competitive tournaments are scattered across various parts of the nation. Where are you going to get money for transportation, hotel fees, registration fees, judging fees, etc.? While well-resourced schools send dozens of debaters to every corner of the nation with eyes on first place, debaters from under-resourced schools, just as hungry to win, participate in a handful of tournaments hoping to even break.
I left the PF scene my senior year of high school unable to tolerate the realities of the debate community. From rich kids in expensive suits debating about poverty reform to top competitors arguing about racial discrimination with not a single person of color in the room (one of the MANY reasons why PF should allow kritiks, but I digress), many important conversations about reformation are lacking the voices of the subjects of such discussions. It is extremely disheartening when the debate community, a supposedly intellectual environment that should be pushing the margins of progressive thinking, is in reality unconcerned of the fact that the activity is failing many debaters. Overall, the Public Forum community needs to take a hard look at itself and ask how it can make the activity more inclusive and accessible to students no matter their class, race, gender, and (dis)abilities.