Debate!

After being on the Princeton Debate Panel (PDP) for a month, I decided to attend my first debate tournament. All of the trips with PDP are free because it is loaded with cash. The Whig-Cliosophic Society even has two vans to allow PDP to travel. These kinds of resources always astound me at Princeton.

We left Princeton in the afternoon and arrived at Swarthmore College after an hour of driving. The team waited in a holding room for an hour before going to debate rounds. I believe that nearly 70 debate teams — which are composed of two people — were present. My debate partner for the weekend was a freshman from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

All debates follow the rules as outlined by the American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA). Generally, this is how a they go:

  • Teams prepare cases before tournaments. A case consists of a motion, such as, “This House believes that two party political systems are preferable to multi-party systems.” Preparation involves doing extensive research on the subject. Specific statistics are not allowed. Debates are supposed to be focused on moral, social, and economic issues that any average college student can talk about by using only theory. They cannot write a case about something that is objectively true like, “This House believes that the sky is blue.” Similarly, they also cannot write a case that requires very specific knowledge, such as, “This House believes that the existence of Weakly Interacting Massive Particles proves that the Higgs Boson does not exist.” The ideal goal, though, is to write cases that have very poor counterarguments. For example, my team wrote, “This House believes that the computer enhancement of models should be banned.” There are counterarguments to this motion, but they have moral grounds that are not appealing to most judges.
  • At the tournament, teams are paired up with other teams in five rounds. One team is the “government.” They propose a case to debate. The other team is the opposition and has to counter the case on the spot without any prior knowledge of it.
  • Once two teams are paired — we’ll say Princeton as government vs. Yale as opposition for this example — a debate occurs in the following format:
    • The Prime Minister (Princeton) proposes the case, and the opposition (Yale) can ask questions to specify its parameters (< 15 minutes).
    • The Prime Minister (Princeton) argues for the case (7 minutes).
    • The Leader of Opposition (Yale) rebuts the Prime Minister’s arguments and introduces counterarguments (8 minutes).
    • The Member of Government (Princeton) attacks the Leader of Opposition’s (Yale) counterarguments and can introduce one or two new arguments that support the Prime Minister’s (Princeton) case (8 minutes).
    • The Member of Opposition (Yale) attacks the Member of Government’s (Princeton) arguments and strengthens the Leader of Opposition’s (Yale) counterarguments (8 minutes).
    • The Leader of Opposition (Yale) argues against all attacks in a closing argument. No new arguments can be introduced (4 minutes).
    • The Prime Minister (Princeton) addresses counterarguments and makes a closing statement. No new arguments can be introduced (5 minutes).
    • The judge gives each speaker a score on a scale of 24-27 and ranks each speaker 1-4 for the round. He or she then tells the teams about the ruling and the reasons for it.

In short, debate is all about who can go on the best Alan Shore rant.

If a team does well in the preliminary rounds, then they “break,” meaning that they go onto the elimination rounds that end in the finals. Teams that do poorly can go into a “downward spiral.” This means that they lose rounds and get assigned worse judges who then score the team poorly. The effect compounds itself until a team is at the bottom of the tournament rankings, or they begin to win and receive better judges.

At the end of the year, speakers and teams with the most points are awarded the “Speaker of the Year” and “Team of the Year” awards. Ted Cruz was one of Princeton’s best debaters ever and has quite a history with APDA that included winning a few major awards: Article 1, Page 1, Article 2 (see #3), Article 3, Article 4 , Article 5, Article 6, Article 7 , Article 8

In a way, I feel that college debate is similar to lawyering. Students work on preparing cases for many hours prior to a tournament. When they show up, they are assigned to a judge and debate team for each round depending upon prior performance. Certain debaters have gained reputations on the circuit. Their names strike fear into the hearts of challengers. Some judges are known to be quite fair, while others are partial. Teams are allowed to strike off some of them from the potential pool of people who could be judging them. Decisions are very subjective based upon a judge’s preferences. APDA judges are known to be quite liberal.

From what I have gathered, Princeton has a unique reputation in the debate circuit. Most other teams perceive us to be a bunch of rich white men who wear expensive clothing and argue esoteric economic cases. I have heard that a few judges strongly dislike Princeton for this reason. One reputed debater from the University of Pennsylvania made quite a stir on the circuit when she proclaimed that Princeton doesn’t have any women on its team (gasp!). She was referring to the fact that all of Princeton’s recent championship winners were men, but she overlooked the many Princeton women debaters have been ranked highly at national and world tournaments. As a protest, one of PDP’s duo of two women named their team “Princeton has women?”

As soon as the team pairings were released, I was shocked. My partner and I were going to face a College of William and Mary-George Washington University joint team. The names of the debaters are well known among PDP: Jerusalem Demsas and Andrew Bowles. My first round of debate ever was against the top two debaters in the country. They completely destroyed us. It was a thrilling first round.

Here is how my first tournament went:

  1. Friday— We were the government and proposed the case, “This House believes that voluntourism is bad.” The William and Mary-George Washington team defeated us.
  2. A George Washington University team was the government and proposed, “This House believes that social media is good for the radical feminist movement.” We narrowly lost this. The fact that I am male didn’t really help in this round.
  3. A University of Virginia-City University of New York Team was the government and proposed, “This House believes that soldiers should not be treated as heroes.” They let us decide which side to argue, so I opted that we oppose the motion. The team got really passionate in their closing arguments, and we lost.

There was an Joe Biden-themed ice cream party on Friday night, but everyone PDP decided to leave. I don’t think Princeton socializes with the other schools very much. We stayed at a Holiday Inn near the Philadelphia airport before returning the next day.

  1. Saturday— We were the government against a Haverford team and proposed, “This House believes that models should not be photographically enhanced by computers.” We won.
  2. We were the government against a Johns Hopkins team and proposed, “This House believes that developing segregated economic zones for women.” We won.

My team did not break. As a result, I spent the afternoon talking to a CR classmate and walking around Swarthmore. It is a pretty college that has a spectacular front lawn. I enjoyed the amphitheater in the forest.

We left around 5:00 pm and ate dinner at an Asian restaurant in Princeton.

Debate is very different from the oratory competitions in which I competed in high school. Everything is made up on the spot and delivery has almost no value compared to argumentation when the judge determines a winner. At the end of the day, debate is just a bunch of uber-competitive and super ambitious political nerds who are going to law school. Still, I think that I will stick with it, schedule permitting, in the coming years.

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