Forget Aristotle’s distinction between dialectic and rhetoric. The devolution of formal debate means that it doesn’t even rise to the level of rhetoric any longer.
It used to be that if you went to a college-level debate tournament, the students you’d see would be bookish future lawyers from elite universities, most of them white. In matching navy blazers, they’d recite academic arguments for and against various government policies. It was tame, predictable, and, frankly, boring.
These days, an increasingly diverse group of participants has transformed debate competitions, mounting challenges to traditional form and content by incorporating personal experience, performance, and radical politics. These “alternative-style” debaters have achieved success, too, taking top honors at national collegiate tournaments over the past few years.
But this transformation has also sparked a difficult, often painful controversy for a community that prides itself on handling volatile topics.
On March 24, 2014 at the Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA) Championships at Indiana University, two Towson University students, Ameena Ruffin and Korey Johnson, became the first African-American women to win a national college debate tournament, for which the resolution asked whether the U.S. president’s war powers should be restricted. 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 personal trauma as evidence for his case against the government’s treatment of poor African-Americans.
Further evidence in support of my time-to-civilization hypothesis. At this point, the debate competitions may as well bring in gorillas from the zoo and distribute the “debate” awards on the basis of which primate was able to throw the most fecal matter. That “alternative-style” of debate is no less dialectically legitimate than hip-hop, spoken-word poetry, and appeals to “nigga authenticity”.
If I were a college student these days, I would show up for a debate wearing a dress and smeared red lipstick, and no matter what the resolution was, start rapping very passionately about how the more pressing issue was how the U.S. government refused to let me marry a silverback gorilla. Then I’d turn it over to my partner, Baraka from the National Zoo, who would take a massive dump on the stage before chucking large handfuls of it at the other competitors, hooting and howling all the while.
If logic is white privilege, so too is civilization. I suppose we can look forward to this alternative style of debate percolating into the legal system:
“Y’ownah, I object that my client ain’t guilty and shit!”
“You can’t object to that.”
“Shut yo mouth, you ain’t no AUTHENTICATED nigga. Uncah Tom!”
“FREE MAH PEOPLE! NO JUSTISS NO PEACE!”
From sign language to the foundation of science fiction to formal debate, it’s all inexplicable magic to the half-savages. They can see the forms, they can even mimic them to a certain extent, but they simply do not understand the core functions and rationales underlying the observable actions. And they don’t have any chance whatsoever of sustaining a modern technological society. None.
This may be distasteful news to you. But no matter what they say, A is A. A will ALWAYS be A. A is NEVER Not-A. It never will be.