The Corrosion of High School Debate—And How It Mirrors American Politics

Interesting viewpoint, in particular:

The problems plaguing high school debate are mirrored in our public sphere. Political discourse is often little more than a game. Its goal is to score political points with witty rejoinders and scathing takedowns. The purpose of “adult debate,” as with debate for 16-year-olds, is to bludgeon your opponent into submission instead of engaging in open-minded dialogue.

Also I love the author coda / mini bio at the end:

Jack McCordick is a freshman at Yale University and a former intern at America. He and his teammates from Regis High School won the high school debating national championship this year.

When building Discourse, we had questions about formal “debates” and I found them stultifying and pointless. The main things you get out of social discussions like these are:

  1. Ideally, and most importantly, empathy from your fellow man. Really that’s it. That’s all you’re supposed to get. Anything else beyond that is gravy.

  2. If you are really, really lucky, the discussion will encourage other people to have slightly more nuanced viewpoints. Changing minds is never gonna happen, at least not where you can actually see it. But nuance matters. Nuance is important. On any problem of substance that people are going to strongly disagree about over time, shit is not easy. And people who think shit is easy are, uh … kind of the problem?

People do, in fact, change their minds… very slowly, then all at once.

Seriously. When was the last time you actually saw someone change their mind? It doesn’t work like that. At all. Minds do change, but you’ll never see it happen. If that’s discouraging to you, perhaps activism isn’t your field.

Anyways, the takeaway here, the things we can actually do, are:

  1. Try to build empathy, even if you disagree.

  2. Don’t present (even if accidentally) an overwhelming show of discussion force that bludgeons people into submission via sheer volume / size.

For me as a dude, both of those are a bit of a challenge, but #2 is easier for me to fix. Just say your piece and let it go for a while. Don’t reply to every little thing.

As for things Discourse, the software, can do:

  • Discourse warns you if you’ve posted more than X % of the replies in a topic (thus dominating it)

  • Discourse warns you if you’ve replied 3 times in a row in the same topic to the same person, when the topic has more than 5 participants

  • Discourse does not let new users post over and over in the same topic (limited to 3 replies, unless another user replies to them)

  • Discourse has strong global new user (TL0) post and topic rate limits, and a special sandbox for first day participation rate limits across all users, whether they are TL0 or not.

All of those exist under the broad umbrella of “diversity of opinion and thought is good”.

Still, there is more we can do. For example, we do have a bit of an oversight on length. I’ve seen people come to my blog instance on the rare political topic and post reams of text, literally ten thousand+ words, over and over, in individual posts. We don’t catch that kind of mega disproportionate individual reply length at all. But we should.


I was appalled at the Radiolab piece about the black college debate team that won by saying everything is about racism, and never, ever actually debating the assigned topic. Kobiyashiyashi Maru indeed.

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Agree – that is an interesting read.

Walls of text, over-the-top pedantry and intellectual bullying are becoming (sadly) ever more prevalent in online discourse. Building tools to combat those without causing undue friction for everyone else is going to become more and more challenging.

I think it’s probably worth highlighting (for those that aren’t familiar with Discourse instances outside of this one) that these are all customisable settings. There are communities that don’t require hand-holding to that degree – but that flexibility is what makes it so powerful.

I don’t understand… isn’t this more an indictment of inappropriate application of metrics than anything?

I suspect that this line is an important bit:

It has been turned into something that can easily be scored.

A handy metric is one of those things so useful that you will start by being tempted to do a great deal of epistemological violence; and be lucky if you end up even being able to recognize when you are doing so. But did I mention useful(albeit with the risk of enabling you to do the wrong thing with speed and certainty)?

I’m also reminded of D&D, and other tabletop RPGs’, battle against the forces of min-maxing munchkins and soul-devouring rules laywers. Nobody expects a ‘realistic’ simulation to be viable with pencil, paper, and a handful of D20s; but the tone of the game changes sharply when people shift to gaming the rules rather than playing the game; and there are basically no known architectural solutions: some rulesets are more blatantly exploitable than others; but they all end up relying on a ‘GM doesn’t have to put up with that nonsense’ clause(and the existence of a GM who won’t put up with than nonsense; but also isn’t so capricious that players feel that blind adherence to the rules is the only alternative to rocks fall; everyone dies style management).

And the ‘existence of a GM’ bit is the real kicker. You can iterate your way to somewhat less broken rules(and that’s a good idea; broken isn’t good); but if you can’t or don’t trust some amount of benevolent discretion you have to rely on going by the book rigorously enough that gaming the rules becomes a viable, typically overpowered, strategy.


That’s what got me with the presidential debates this last election.

It just fucking baffled the hell out of me when the moderators, who were there to keep things on topic and to prevent bullshit, did nothing when tRump started blatantly insulting people, lying to everyone’s faces, and generally didn’t follow the rules at all.

If the moderators are going to be so impotent and lame, then we just don’t need them. They’re not serving any function the timers can’t already do.

If your moderators are going to let everything slide and not point out lies, fabrication, and cut off people who’ve stopped debating and started just insulting and attacking, then they’re not doing their jobs.

“Oh, your chaotic good character just spent all night planning how to steal all the gold in Fort Knox and keep it for themself? Your nat20 isn’t high enough, the guards see you and summarily execute you.”


Metrics like voting for candidates in an election, you might say?

I am listening to this, and it is very interesting, but I do not think your text describing the episode is remotely accurate.

OK, it’s been a while since I heard it. I remembered them “debating” at every debate that the whole debate was racist, forcing their opponents to engage in a debate they had not prepared for instead of the assigned topic for which they did. What is it really about?

IIRC, the main problem was that their opponents never ran Topicality against them. Hell, I ran topicality against on topic arguments just to muddy the water.

Some judges (this was 96?) really hated the topicality arguments, but a lot (being former debaters) loved when you spent a good amount of cards on the meaning of “substantial”.

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I was a high school debater in the 70s, during the rise of speed-debating. I was able to do that, but in my last year – with the help of a partner who was trained in England – I slowed way down; we didn’t win as much, but we still did reasonably well, enjoyed ourselves more, and the judges seemed happy with our willingness to ignore or dismiss half of our opponents’ points and focus in on the major ones. Perhaps the ones that came later were more prone to count that as a fault.

That said, I don’t understand this objection:

an intellectual game, not an exercise in truth-seeking. It has been turned into something that can easily be scored

The point of debate in high school is precisely to train students in crafting arguments regardless of one’s personal beliefs; this not only hones a student’s rhetorical skills, but also gives them willingness to give fair consideration to both sides of an argument.


That is why the beakdown in debate structure is relevant to today’s world.

How much consideration can you give to an argument if the whole process of debate prep is memorizing hundreds of points regardless of the actual words so you can ramble them out faster than the human auditory system can even process the language?


That point diarrhea problem is a different issue to the one about debate being an intellectual game rather than about truth. I agree that the former is problematic – and has been for 40 years at least – but I see the latter as a important and positive aspect of high school debate.


That was a very interesting listen. Extremely relevant to breakdown of structure in debate. It is questioning the role of formal debate (or if it even makes any sense at all) in favor of empathy, which was exactly my first point.

If you listen to the last few minutes — which is more useful, being able to elaborate the pros and cons of an issue at extreme length, in extreme detail — or simply having empathy and listening and truly hearing about what others are experiencing?

(The answer is sort of both, I guess, but when pressured, the judges favored empathy over artificial debate formats and arguments.)

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What baffled me the 1st time I heard about this nonsense was that in the real world, you’ll never win an argument like that. You win people over not just with points but with real rhetorical and oratorical skill. Just watch any Obama speech, his pauses and rhythms. Honestly, his oratory got him elected as much as anything, his record was thin. My teen daughter tends to speak fast and monotonically, and we constantly tell her to slow down and inflect, emphasize your points and giving people time to absorb. This academic debate culture has said that is utterly unimportant.


it’s policy debate… That’s the way it’s been for a long time.

You have EIGHT MINUTES for your first speech. That was barely enough time to throw out my biofuels affirmative and make sure I covered all the bases.

My favorite was successfully defending against Gobal Warming and Global Cooling by accepting both of them.

My least favorite was running against a HAARP conspiracy theory affirmative. Bleh… the judge wasn’t very nice either despite my partner’s improvised Spiderman Solves counter-plan.

If you want “real world” debate, then you go with Model UN, Mock Trial, or Lincoln-Douglas.

A little over a decade ago, there was a web 2.0 site geared toward debate. One person would post a question, and then two people could answer it - side A and side B. People could vote for one side and leave a comment, I believe the comments were aligned left or right depending on which side you voted for. But then the comments could also get agree/disagree votes. Your profile showed how many upvotes or downvotes you’d gotten for a topic.

When I first found it, I thought it would be a great discussion site, and indeed some of the early discussions seemed interesting. Possibly they were seeded by the site founders. Clearly they were trying with the votes and per-topic reputation etc. But it quickly went downhill - so far downhill - so fast. The topics were all polarized by nature, and the posts and comments rapidly degenerated.

Trying to prevent debates from going that way via software sounds like a big challenge. Once you’re out of discussion and into argument territory, things get messy. And allowing users to flag/tag comments can be gamed, of course. Perhaps sentiment analysis AI could be used in some way, although I don’t know anything about it except that it exists. It might not be nearly far enough evolved for that yet.

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Debate has always been a horrible means of discovering truth, though.

Debate is, fundamentally, a contest of rhetoric. Having logic and the facts on your side provides, at best, a tactical advantage.

There’s nothing innately wrong with rhetoric, but it isn’t a truth-seeking skill. It’s a tool of persuasion and influence.

Science is not based on debate; it’s based upon evidence, experimentation and consensus. We don’t resolve disputes by putting the two top scientists on stage to argue for an hour [1].

Not everything is science, obviously. But debate does not become a more effective truth-seeking tool just because the focus is a non-scientific topic.

[1] We do that for education and entertainment, but not for discovery or proof.


Exactly. You don’t debate to find facts. You find facts to debate. And you debate in order to convince.


Is less than persuasive and convincing. It seems really vulnerable to Gish Gallop where you have one debater arguing in bad faith and just spouting as many lies and fabrications as possible so that the other side would have to spend weeks correcting and clarifying.