Debating the Clash of Civilizations- Activism in Debate

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Today I'm going to focus on Activism in debate. Two more well known and used articles offer arguments in favor of and against. Alan Coverstone's "An inward glance: A response to Mitchell's outward activist turn" and Gordon Mitchel's "Pedagogical possibilities for argumentative agency in debate" were popular for many years and used in debates I was in, as well as judged. Let me say one thing off the bat: this might be a false dichotomy or split that I'm creating. As many already know, Gordon Mitchell wrote a "retraction" of his call for an activist turn on the college policy debate list serve "edebate" awhile ago. However, many people agree with Mitchell's original argument and, admittedly, it's hard to find another article that provides the depth and support that Mitchell does.

Alan Coverstone's "An inward glance: A response to Mitchell's outward activist turn" (published in the Debater's Research Guide, a handbook published by Wake Forest University, and available at, is a direct response to Mitchell's call for activism in debate. Coverstone's basic argument is that debate is an "insular" space where students can test ideas and information. Debaters learn how to "make and defend their own decisions." The isolated laboratory of debate trains students to "participate actively and directly in the political process." Coverstone feels that the turn to activism eliminates the time for training and "oasis" that is debate. His impact is perhaps the most well known argument from this article, the elite infiltration of debate. "It makes our oasis a target, and it threatens to politicize the training process." Even performance debaters, often considered left of left, acknowledge this risk (in particular, I remember a friend of mine argued that we shouldn't make our tactics/strategies public because we never know who and where our enemies are). I even thought of how terrible it could be if George Bush would have created a national debate league or made debate mandatory in schools. There is a long history of infiltration of leftist groups and movements that continues today- especially after the Patriot Act. However, there might also be a bit of narcissism involved in the thought that the government would spend time to monitor or track debate students at tournaments. Covestone's final reaction to Mitchell is the replacement of elite control with a new, elite debate control. "An outward turn, organized along the lines of mass action, threatens to homogenize the individual members of the debate community...At worst, it will coerce people to participate before making their own decisions."

Gordon Mitchell's "Pedagogical possibilities for argumentative agency in debate" (Argumentation & Advocacy, Fall 1998, Iss. 35) is a peer reviewed and published elaboration of his call for an activist turn in debate (which is also available in the same edition of the Debater's Research Guide as Coverstone's article: I read this article while I was debating in college and immediately fell in love with it. The most well known argument "spectatorship." "The notion of the academic debate tournament as a sterile laboratory carries with it some disturbing implications...the barriers demarcating such a space from other spheres of deliberation beyond the school grow taller and less permeable. When such barriers reach insurmountable dimensions, argumentation in the academic setting unfolds on a purely simulated plane, with students practicing critical thinking and advocacy skills in strictly hypothetical thought-spaces...students witness argumentation beyond the walls of the academy as spectators, with little or no recourse to directly participate or alter the course of events." (P. 43) The larger problem, in my mind at least, is his impact that as a result of our "alienation" and "detachment", we "cheer news of human suffering or misfortune." This is something that I am guilty of- getting too excited when i find a sweet impact card to realize that the tragedy was happening in the real world, not the game of debate. There are many other examples- the prevalence of genocide, racist, sexist, or homophobic jokes when around other debaters; debate's obsession with the magnitude of potential impacts is another example. Mitchell's call for argumentative agency includes doing more primary research, including contact the authors used as evidence; public debates, often hosted by debate teams that try to integrate the public and wider audiences; outreach, or working with other debaters, particularly those affected by discrimination, which the Urban Debate League is an example; and finally, public advocacy, including "newspaper articles, speeches and public appearances."

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