Modern Lunacy In Postmodern Debate

Many of us are unfamiliar with the postmodern debating style on college campuses, but here’s how it works. A topic is picked. The skilled postmodern debater ignores the topic and instead talks about race, gender and personal feelings. This “freewheeling aspect is what makes debate so exciting and challenging,” says the Chronicle of Higher Education.

At a Cross Examination Debate Association event last month, Elaine Zhou of New York University made the strategic mistake of addressing the assigned topic—agricultural tariffs. In response, Valerea Jones, an African-American student at Towson University, climbed up on a table, announced that racism is inherent in the subject of tariffs and accused her debate opponents of fostering white supremacy. She talked about the trading of African slaves in early America, read from her diary and angrily tossed around assorted expletives. Jones said: “in the debate world, people look at me and what I have to say as if I’m less than——-human and this is some serious—-.”

Jones’s team won the debate. One judge, Samantha Godbey, said that the NYU team had not convinced her that a debate on tariffs was the wrong forum to discuss racism.

Last March the Towson team involved itself in a disastrous debate with Fort Hays State that featured an obscenity-laced shouting match between a debate coach and a judge. The Fort Hays coach, William Shanahan III, a pioneer in pushing the postmodern style, traded screaming insults with judge Shanara Rose Reid-Brinkley of the University of Pittsburgh. During the argument, the exceptionally hirsute Shanahan dropped his pants briefly to moon Ms. Reid-Brinkley (see here). Later his college fired him. If readers know of other colorful adventures in postmodern college debate, please let us know.

John Leo

John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

2 thoughts on “Modern Lunacy In Postmodern Debate

  1. This nonsense trickles down to high school debate as well. There are 2 rulesets/philosophies that are ruining cross-examination, or policy debate (as opposed to Lincoln-Douglas debate and Parliamentary debate, both of which have their own problems):
    1. “Tabula Rasa” judging. This popular judging style among college students then filters into the high school debate world as well. In this judging philosophy, there are no rules or set decisionmaking methods; the judge lets the debaters argue over the very rules of the game. What this means in practice is that the team that spews more on an argument wins; logic and meaningful argument doesn’t win the day, but being able to spew at 500 words per minute does.
    2. The “Kritik”, the type of argument that Ms. Jones made in the article you’re referring to. This is an increasingly popular form of argument used on the negative side of the debate, where the negative team decides that arguing over some other critical social issue is more important than the actual topic.
    A different problem plagues parliamentary debate–it’s entirely a game where idiot students judge idiot students. All judges in parliamentary debate are students, and there’s no place for evidence, so the game becomes a popularity contest.
    In high school Lincoln Douglas debate, which is supposed to be a primarily moral debate, the typical high school debater never actually learns enough basic philosophy to argue in intelligent moral terms, so you get such silliness as every debater starting with “My core value is Justice”, which means absolutely nothing.
    The root cause of all the problems is simple–in the modern academy, logic and Western philosophy are deemed unimportant relative to feelings and victim groups. So, no one actually knows how to argue in a logical manner; judges don’t know how to hold debaters to a logical standard, and silliness reigns.
    At Princeton, I judged a high school policy debate tournament, and watched in horror as the Affirmative team proceeded to argue that drift net fishing was a weapon of mass destruction (the topic was about U.S. foreign policy on WMDs), and the teams proceeded to tell me I shouldn’t vote on topicality (the policy debate catch-phrase for whether a plan is part of the assigned topic.) The cross-examination devolved into a travesty when the students started arguing over whether trees were sentient. I gave the Affirmative team a low point loss, noting on the ballot, “When the judge is laughing, try something else.” The result?
    A. I was the only judge over the entire tournament who gave that team a loss.
    B. I was pulled from the judging pool for being overly harsh to the debaters.

  2. I’m a former intercollegiate debater (1970’s) and coach (1990’s). I was invited to judge intercollegiate debates again two years ago, and I’m sorry I accepted. While I thought the activity was degrading rapidly while I was participating it, I found that it has now become totally farcical. It used to be a great activity for students preparing for careers in law and politics, but that’s no longer the case. It’s very sad, really.
    John Marlin
    Professor of English
    The College of Saint Elizabeth
    Morristown, New Jersey USA

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