For Argument's Sake

In praise of high school debate

Becca Rothfeld
Illustration by Tung Chau

First affirmative constructive (eight minutes)
the round would open with fumbling, throat-clearing, the tapping of feet or fingers against tables or tubs—those unwieldy plastic bins we filled with research about free-trade agreements or French social theory that I would lug along the corridors of high schools deserted for the weekend. By mid-morning, I’d already be moving in the miasma of competing pungencies: the stink of sour sweat, the scrubbed floors’ bright institutional tang, the greasy reek of the sandwich I had eaten for breakfast. My destination was a classroom rendered thrilling by its foreignness, for I was far from my high school in Washington D.C., perhaps in a state as distant and exotic as Texas or Illinois. Here, with our tubs stacked around us, we would take our places at vacant desks, pens in hand, arranged in teams of two. At last, a spindly figure ensconced in an ill-fitting suit would lurch into eight minutes of declamation. “CONTENTION ONE!” the speaker would gasp, and we were off to the races.

In the popular imagination, debate tournaments take place on brightly lit stages; participants are future politicians, commanding rhetoricians with pinched loafers and good posture and a patina of prep-school polish. In fact, most debates are staged in generic high school classrooms with chewed gum nubbed under the tables and walls papered with motivational posters. Some kinds of debate, among them extemporaneous (extemp), public forum (PF) and Lincoln-Douglas (LD) obliquely resemble the public ideal, at least insofar as their practitioners try to sound like law-makers and win largely on the basis of their dramatic delivery (or so thought those of us who prided ourselves, perhaps unduly, on our argumentative rigor).

Not so when it came to policy debate, the only sort offered at my school, the sort of debate that I loved helplessly, with the unreserved ardor unique to adolescence. Participants would speak at a rate of something like five hundred words a minute in an effort to cram as many ideas as possible into speeches with strict time limits. Then, too, policy debate was so scholastic as to be largely unintelligible to an amateur audience: it was like a logic problem working itself out in real time. But this was precisely what I loved about it—that the various arguments stood in necessary relation to one another not in virtue of their content but in virtue of their form. All the attacks and parries, all the ornate maneuvering, crafted a conceptual filigree that I adored immediately and irreversibly and that removed me from my workaday life—even when, on the face of it, I was only yelling in a classroom that looked exactly like the one where I doodled through algebra or biology each week.

Policy debates bore little resemblance to the public contests of charisma that the word summoned for people like my parents, who didn’t understand why I couldn’t deliver a winning discourse at a normal or at least comprehensible speed, why I insisted on gulping and glugging in a form as technical, as rigidly structured, as a sestina. Policy debate rounds all began with the so-called first affirmative constructive (1AC), the eight-minute speech in which the speaker described the status quo as dire and proposed a policy that could serve as a remedy.

In 2008-9, when I was a junior and maximally saturated in the cultish culture of the enterprise, the resolution that the council of affiliated schools settled on stated: “The United States federal government should substantially increase alternative energy incentives in the United States.” We were not expected to defend or dispute the resolution in all its tantalizing generality, but rather to choose some specification of it, “the plan.” The affirmative team might propose, specifically, that the government should offer tax credits for companies that contrived to reduce emissions by twenty percent within the next five years. Not passing the plan, we would claim, would culminate in various doomsday scenarios, almost all of them resulting in nuclear war. “Link!” the ill-fitting suit would shout: Only by making a bold commitment to averting climate change could the United States repair its public image and recover its lost hegemony! “Impact!” he would shriek: Only by maintaining hegemony could the United States strong-arm Iran into tabling the nukes that would end life as we knew it!

After eight minutes, the suit would fall silent and slump over in breathless exhaustion, as if he had been unplugged. He didn’t believe anything he’d said, and neither did any of his interlocuters— but belief, we all knew, was beside the point.

during my debating years, and in fact during all the years before that, my mother’s moods were like the weather. Some days were sunny and sanguine; others were black, broken by noon. On the dark days, which were frequent but unpredictable, conforming to no pattern that I could ever discern, I hid whatever possessions I loved at the time, pushing my journals to the back of the closet or shoving my toys beneath the bed as if in preparation for a natural disaster.

It only occurred to my mother to break or ruin what she stumbled over. (The author’s parents dispute the author’s characterizations of her mother's behavior. They told The Yale Review that they remember many of these events differently and contend that others did not happen.)* Her rage was terrible and tidal, a force that rushed indiscriminately at everything in its wake. But the boon, or so I consoled myself, was that the ring of her anger closed so tightly around her that it truncated her field of vision. Everything absent disappeared for her as if it had never existed, and this made it possible for me to protect most of my treasures simply by removing them from her line of sight.

Still, through accident or inattention, I sometimes neglected to take the appropriate precautions, and over the years many things were destroyed, both things I loved and things I had simply neglected to protect. Plates were shattered; clothing was shredded; muffins were crumbled up onto the floor. Once I made the mistake of losing myself in a book I was reading, and my mother tore the volume out of my hand and ripped it into a snowy flurry that cascaded down around my feet.

I, too, sustained injuries, though they rarely left lasting records, not even in the form of the absences that served as anti-monuments to all my broken belongings. My body’s invulnerability struck me as a betrayal, as if it were conspiring to eliminate all the evidence, all the proof, all the fodder for argument. And indeed, today I bear only one corporeal testament to my mother’s derangements: the small balls of cartilage knotted in my earlobes where she pierced, unpierced, and re-pierced them, over and over, when she changed her mind (and changed her mind about changing her mind, and then changed her mind about that) about the procedure I had been promised as a thirteenth-birthday present.

first negative constructive (eight minutes)
in policy debate, we were permitted to challenge any of the established rules if we made good enough arguments against them, but what remained unalterable was the order of the proceedings. The structure of a debate round was rigid, and I took the sort of comfort in its consistency that I imagine the devout take in religious ritual. After the first affirmative constructive and the brief period of cross-examination that followed it, a second suit would step up to the makeshift podium to deliver the first negative constructive, or 1NC. He (or, very occasionally, she) would slam his thumb onto his timer and gallop off like a spooked horse.

During the 1NC, the negative team would lay out the full gamut of possible objections to the affirmative plan. First came “topicality,” “T” for short, an argument to the effect that the plan was not sufficiently relevant to the resolution. If a plan proved untopical, the NEG won by default: they could scarcely be expected to prepare for an unpredictable case. In reality, flagrantly untopical plans were vanishingly rare. Still, the negative always started with topicality for the sake, I guess, of argument.

“Next,” the suit would yell, scattering sheaves of paper onto the ground as soon as he finished reading them. Next would be the “counterplan,” an alternative policy proposal that supposedly averted whatever nuclear catastrophe the plan prevented and also averted an additional nuclear catastrophe that the plan caused. Perhaps NATO or the U.N. should be the one to offer incentives, or so the negative would propose. “Third off,” as debate-speak had it, was the “disadvantage,” (disad), the terrible event that would occur if the plan were put into practice and that the counterplan would not spark. A disad set out the current state of affairs (for example, the United States was presently engaged in peace talks with Saudi Arabia), noted the way the plan might disturb the world’s trajectory (it would anger Saudi leadership and cause negotiations to fall through), and laid out the impact: the invariable nuclear war.

“Fourth off,” would pant the suit, by now slick with sweat, “the kritik” (pronounced “critique”), or “the K,” inexplicably spelled in the German style for reasons I never managed to uncover. A kritik targeted not the effects of the plan but its underlying assumptions. The negative might argue, for instance, that celebrations of U.S. hegemony reeked of imperialism, which yielded dehumanization (the only impact that could ever outweigh nuclear war).

Then the 1NC would consult the timer and spend the remainder of his speech reading a bevy of arguments aimed at undermining the actual assertions of the 1AC. Perhaps the collapse of American hegemony would not cause nuclear war but rather enhance global cooperation, or perhaps the plan would in fact undermine American hegemony. The negative could make either of these arguments, but not both at once, for if the collapse of American hegemony turned out to be a positive development, then the affirmative could not be faulted for occasioning it.

Debate was the first place where I discovered not only the satisfaction but also the sanctity of a game.

This was the sort of neat little necessity that I found so strangely sustaining. Principles as firm as these made me think of warm rooms on rainy days and objects stored where they belonged. They were more reliable, even, than the most reliable person. Arguing both that the plan undermined U.S. hegemony and that U.S. hegemony was bad would continue to be illogical long after we were dead and all our dramas had dissipated. The arguments were outside us, traceries in the air, and they rendered us consolingly incidental.

At the end of his speech, the second suit would stand wiping his face with his hand, surveying the confetti of paper sprinkled on the floor and table around him. He, too, didn’t believe anything he’d said.

those were the years before talk, at least among people I knew, of “abuse” or “mental illness.” Instead, we spoke of “crazy” or “batshit,” as opposed to “normal” or “sane.” It was widely acknowledged among my friends and teachers that my mother was not normal, that she was “batshit,” that sometimes I required special dispensation. I often arrived at school late, sometimes with my face raw from crying, and the reasons for my indiscretions were almost never directly addressed. When a reference to my mother’s paroxysms became unavoidable, I said that she had “Moods,” which was the only word at my disposal for whatever it was that she had. But it seemed and continues to seem hideously inadequate to the phenomenon.

cross-examination (three minutes)
after each of the first four speeches in a debate round (the “constructives”) would come a three-minute period of cross-examination (cross-ex), in which the affirmative speaker, still puffing from his athletic verbal exertions, fielded questions from the opposing team. “But isn’t it ridiculous,” a negative speaker might ask, “to make all these arguments that everyone knows are implausible?”

aff: Ridiculous in what way?

neg: Surely you don’t aim to convince anyone that failure to increase alternative energy usage will result in immediate nuclear war?

aff: No, but we aren’t in the business of persuasion. I’m not sure whom we’d even set out to persuade. Usually, there’s only one person in the room besides the competitors, and that’s the judge, who is just some other team’s debate coach.

neg: But isn’t the point of debate to persuade, if not the people in this room, then at least someone, somewhere, someday?

aff: There isn’t a single point of debate. People do it to get into college, to placate their overbearing parents, because they’re desperately in search of an intellectual community, which isn’t easy to come by in high school, or because they cannot stand to be at home any more than they have to be.

neg: Is one of the points to discover what you actually think about anything?

aff: Well, our arguments were substantiated by what we called “evidence,” and often in the course of reading about alternative energy policy or the harms of colonialism we would become convinced of particular conclusions, for instance that U.S. hawkishness really was responsible for any number of international disasters (as, indeed, I still believe).

But the main thing we learned from debate was that there is a foundational grammar, a skeleton of syntax beneath the superficies of semantics. Debate was the first place, if I may be forgiven for thinking of it as a kind of terrain, where I discovered not only the satisfaction but also the sanctity of a game with rules that remained invariant. I would go so far as to say that debate afforded me my first intimation of justice.

i was recruited to debate
by a sophomore named Sloan, the son of a rabbi who was too busy to bother with him and the younger brother of an overachiever (Harvard, law school, the whole shebang) to whom he believed he would never measure up. Big, hunched, and simian, Sloan smoked pilfered cigarettes in the parking lot behind school and therefore commanded universal awe. He approached me not because he had ever heard of someone so socially insignificant as I was as a freshman, but merely because he happened to pass me when I was chattering at a preternatural speed.

It occurred to me for the first time that contestation, when it is cautious, can be an instrument of care.

I took to the team immediately. In my high school, debate was the province of weirdos who smoked pot between classes and showered infrequently and wanted, for reasons they rarely articulated, an excuse to remain at school late at night. My teammates included rosy, cherubic Caleb, whose parents were bitterly divorced and whose mother feigned heart attacks in hopes of winning the emotional war of attrition she was endlessly waging, and Dylan, who rarely spoke about his family because something, no one ever said what, was horribly wrong with his sister. Debate practice was on Wednesdays, and training sessions for freshmen were on Tuesdays. But almost immediately we all found ourselves debating first during lunch, then on weekends, and finally over Gchat and text at all hours. I had never been gainsaid so fiercely or so constantly, and it occurred to me for the first time that contestation, when it is cautious, can be an instrument of care.

second affirmative constructive (eight minutes)
each team could have eight minutes of preparation or “prep time” between speeches, but it was considered poor form for the second affirmative speaker (the 2A), to take any after the 1NC’s cross-ex. A responsible 2A was supposed to have prepared replies to almost all possible negative arguments in advance of a tournament. We would spend our nights in the high school computer lab writing out “answers” to common disadvantages or counterplans until the security guard came to tell us, in a tone of gentle apology, that the building was closing.

Thanks to our efforts, the 2A had only to pull the right file folder out of the tub and he would be ready to deliver the second affirmative constructive, or 2AC. We would shuffle our papers in readiness, for both debaters and judges kept track of arguments by “flowing,” taking notes on the separate sheets of paper assigned to discrete positions. We wrote vertically, in columns, placing each point a speaker made on a separate line, as if they were rungs on a ladder. Often these points were numbered, which allowed us to tell at a glance how claims lined up with subsequent responses. There was a clear record of which rebuttal corresponded to which assault; the arguments would unfold in sequence, each in its proper place.

i could tell one of my mother’s Moods was imminent largely by the way she walked. The house I grew up in was creaky and cantankerous, with pipes that gurgled and floors that whined beneath the weight of our shuffling. From the relative safety of my room, I could hear my father’s tentative footsteps and my mother’s thwacking stomps as she banged from one room to the next. When a Mood was on the verge of eruption, her tread would grow heavier and heavier until at last I would scramble to whisk my possessions away before she loomed up in the doorway, her hair flaming around her face and her mouth twisted into an awful O.

Later I would come to think that her outbursts amounted to perverse parodies of speeches in debate rounds.

I spent much of my childhood listening, for there was no other harbinger of a Mood and its devastations. There are some lunatics who respond irrationally but at least consistently to the same set of triggers. Some have phobias of spiders or planes; some, like me, can’t sleep, fear abandonment, suffer from hypochondria, and hate to be seen in tears. We are, in short, predictably unreasonable. But my mother’s madness had no method. There was nothing in general she liked or disliked, nothing in general that was sufficient to appease or appall her. In short, her rage was unprincipled. She reacted to stimuli, but what determined how she reacted, whether she hurled the contents of the refrigerator onto the floor and left them to rot there or yanked tufts of my hair out was not the stimulus itself, but merely whether she was in an antecedently venomous Mood.

She was so passionately attached to things that she was almost a hoarder: she crammed our house with as many clothes and old magazines as it could hold—but just as capriciously as she accumulated, she dumped. I might find her filling trash bags as frantically as she had amassed their contents. Sometimes she hardly noticed that I had lost my lunchbox and all the containers inside it, but on other days she chased me around the house with a pair of scissors for having left one mitten in my locker. Every now and then she could be extravagantly generous, but her kindness was no less random, as if in response to a noise to which the rest of us were deaf.

A Mood was a perfection of my mother’s more general imperviousness to appeal. No petition could reach her. The language that spewed out of her when she was in a Mood was a torrent of roaring, and even though it sounded like English, it served no communicative function. Her rage was garbled, glossolalic. Later I would come to think that her outbursts amounted to perverse parodies of speeches in debate rounds, in which language gushed not in virtue of the interiority of its speaker but because argument acquired its own propulsive agency.

A rage like my mother’s brooks no argument. Reasoning with her was like hurling myself against a wall—which didn’t stop me from trying, if only because I could not conceive of any other recourse.

second negative constructive (eight minutes)
the first three speeches of a round were practically scripted in advance. We generally knew which affirmative cases our various adversaries were running—knew them, in fact, in great detail, because each team was required to upload the text of their plan onto an open-source Wiki before the debate, in the interest of fairness. In any event, by the first tournament of the year, we had done so many hours of research on the resolution that we had a good sense of prospective negative strategies, as well as the ways in which a canny 2AC could respond. It was generally not until the second negative constructive, or 2NC, that there would be any occasion for improvisation.

Debate seems to elicit an almost instinctive disapproval among just about everyone who talks about it, and I suspect that the distaste it invites is largely aesthetic.

In a sense, the 2NC was charged with simplifying: she chose which arguments to “drop,” and which to “extend.” But the arguments that she chose to “go for,” as we put it, would by then have transformed into balletic affairs, and the 2NC was invariably a piece of elaborate choreography in which discrete bits whirled together and twirled apart. The execution of the 2NC could be—there was no other word for it—elegant, though not in the sensationalist fashion that would have impressed people who enjoyed watching, for instance, presidential debates. A good 2NC’s grace was of a different and subtler order. So pristinely did one claim imply the next that it was as if the cascade acquired its own momentum. To this day I have never felt quite so toppled as when I closed my eyes and opened my mouth and arguments swooped out like birds.

Did it matter that these arguments were inscrutable to the majority of people in the world? That they were, in a sense, meaningless? That it was immaterial how many of them I regarded as true?

i don’t like the word abuse, in part because it invokes an entire approach to brutalization, a whole family of buzzwords and sanitizations that seem to smooth over the punishing singularity of any instance of what they name. It is true, as the philosopher Miranda Fricker suggests in Epistemic Injustice, that when we lack terms for certain sorts of transgressions (terms like “sexual harassment” or “microaggression”), we lose some measure of power. It is only because such terms are coined and popularized—because a short-cut to condemnation takes root and blossoms into broad acceptance—that everyone knows what sexual harassment entails and why it is objectionable. But another effect of the invention of jargon is ossification. When Hannah Arendt writes that the purpose of thinking is to “unfreeze” concepts that have been hardened into familiarity, part of what she means is that to grasp them is to break through the lacquer of familiar rhetoric and into the oozing center, to eschew the shortcut in favor of the longer, more tortuous route.

The more tortuous route, in my case, is down the hallways of that wretched house, up the stairs, to the left and into the bathroom, where once, when I was twelve or thirteen, my mother grew irritated by my meek insistence that tampons hurt me and my consequent inability to use them. “They don’t hurt you,” she told me. I insisted that in fact they did, and a Mood broke out before I had time to hide anything I valued. “STAND STILL,” she bellowed as she unwrapped one of the offending tampons and, despite my stiffening and my protests and, eventually, my screaming and thrashing, shoved it into me, which did hurt, indeed hurt horribly—an incident she probably does not even remember. (The author’s mother told The Yale Review that this event did not take place.)*

first negative rebuttal (five minutes)
debate seems to elicit an almost instinctive disapproval among just about everyone who talks about it, and I suspect that the distaste it invites is largely aesthetic. What could be more off-putting than maladroit adolescents puckered with pimples, yelping a mile a minute about free-trade agreements? The whole thing, down to the specialized lexicon, has the pathetic quality of bad science fiction. The enterprise seems designed to make rapid fans of boys who have outgrown model trains and are consequently left to fiddle with the screw and gears of pontification.

Certainly, high school debaters seemed to be—and may still be, for all I know—almost all white and almost all male. Sexism of the usual sort abounded: few girls I knew attempted debate, and the handful who persevered despite the all-male teams and the all-male coaches and the all-male everything were left to juggle conflicting imperatives, for the aggression the activity required was at odds with the demand for indefatigable agreeableness to which we were also subject. Perhaps this is why so few of us were successful. In my senior year, one of the best on record for female debaters in recent history (which is to say ever, since recent history is more progressive), there were all of six girls in the top twenty speakers at the national championships, the ludicrously titled Tournament of Champions. The nastiness of this discrepancy didn’t occur to me. To admit my outrage to myself would have been to countenance the inadequacy of my only refuge.

Sexual harassment was also rampant, though at the time I did not recognize coaches’ and judges’ unsolicited overtures as species of harassment. It was not unusual for me, often the only female debater on my team at a tournament, to receive salacious Facebook messages or Gchats from college-age (or older) men late at night. Sometimes, I believed myself to be flattered by their attentions, but mostly I was worried that if I didn’t appease them, I would stop winning. And I had to keep winning if I was to continue to gain admission into the one world where I believed myself to be protected, at least as long as I remained shielded by the strictures of the arguments themselves.

Debate is a game—but there are serious games, salvific games.

Yet for all the precision that predominated in-round, the form of life that congealed outside debates was shadowy and amorphous, dappled with euphemism and denial. The sexism that had seeped into our whole sensibility was impossible to pinpoint: it was smoky and insubstantial, as anathema to articulation as one of my mother’s Moods, for which reason arguments could not be marshaled against it. Any attempt to grasp it would have been like trying to grab at a handful of mist. Men would have asked what the problem was and affected not to know.

And isn’t that sufficient argument against the whole disastrous ordeal of high school debate—indeed against attempts to use debate as a defense at all?

when people tell me they don’t miss any part of high school—don’t miss the gorgeously guileless little idiots they were when they were sixteen and unashamed to love embarrassments like debate—I do not believe them. Things were as fresh then as if they had been cut out of bright paper, sharp against the hazy future. Episodes in my adult life, even the seemingly major ones, seem dull in comparison. Now there is a sheaf of hesitance interposed between me and everything else, and no doubt this layer of remove is what makes me bearable, to the extent that I am bearable. But there was no barrier then, and even trivialities had a kind of solidity or vitality to them of which they have since been drained.

When I think about high school, I know it must have rained sometimes, and I recall several heavy snowfalls. But I still think of the days as long smears of honey. I am always walking down the crooked gnarls of the alleyways with complex branches clutching across them and the sun slung low in the sky. I am walking with Sloan or with Caleb or with Dylan, we are going nowhere, we are watching as the light dims and the windows begin to go golden, and we are engaged in an argument about nothing, an argument that has become eternal in memory, an argument conducted for the sake of itself.

first affirmative rebuttal (five minutes)
the novelist and former debate champion Ben Lerner writes that his memories of debate are “primarily somatic.” Certainly when I was debating I often succumbed to a somatic force, though it was somatic in that special way that running or sex or, I imagine, bodily mortification is somatic—so excruciatingly and exquisitely physical that its physicality dissolves into spirituality, like sugar into water. My memories of tournaments as a whole, from eager departure to dreaded return, are tactile: the squeak of my sneakers on linoleum, the acrid taste of the coffee I guzzled in hopes of speaking faster, the peaty stink of the male bodies in the team van, the bile washing into my mouth when I awoke jangling with nerves.

But when I was actually debating, my accidental self—anxious and acned, always a few pounds too pudgy, with chipped polish on my nails and liner smudged around my raccoon eyes—became sublimely secondary to the demands of the dialectic. When I delivered the first affirmative rebuttal (1AR), a five-minute speech in which I was tasked with responding to the whole of the negative block, I must have looked unhinged, witchy, and wild, with my hair flying and my hands grasping at the empty air. Yet it was as if the whole of my sad self fell away and exposed something glacial and gleaming, something more monstrous and formidable than a sixteen-year-old girl could muster anywhere else. I became magnificent for five effortless minutes until the timer went off, and I collapsed back into mortified inadequacy.

In my later years, when I started winning major awards, I found that I could prolong the gleam I emitted in my speeches, first in the hallways as I walked from one round to the next, then during the clandestine parties we hosted in our hotel rooms at night, and finally all the way to the end of the tournament. Debate provided the sole domain I knew of in which intellectual conflict was dramatized and thereby glorified, and the body and its imperfections were subordinated to the motions of the mind. Social capital came not, for once, in the form of poise, much less in the form of conformity to the standards that submerge teenage girls and that I tried tirelessly in my non-debate hours to satisfy by dieting and binging and purging again, by applying creams and poultices, by conditioning and polishing, and finally by concentrating the blinding beam of my self-loathing onto my too-long nose and too-soft mid- riff, all without any success.

But good debaters were micro-celebrities, revered in our insular community and regarded as attractive practically regardless of what they looked like. They were limned by what we called Good Debater Syndrome, “GDS,” an affliction whose victims found victors appealing even though they were boys with cracking voices and stubble stippling their upper lips. I could see that these boys were not desirable, and yet I desired them, at least when I watched them stitching arguments into a kind of analytic embroidery. Or maybe it was the embroidery itself that I desired, but the avatars of argument were the only part of it that I could touch.

Probably I am wrong to think of GDS as almost revolutionary. Boys, of course, were the primary beneficiaries, probably because debaters in general were male—and no doubt, too, because a girl was never permitted to supersede her looks so entirely. GDS often amounted a sensitivity to the pull that power invariably exerts, even within the narrow confines of a largely irrelevant subculture.

But I remain transfixed by the rhythmic intimacies of antagonism, so fundamental to erotic friction. I was smitten, as it turned out incurably, by those occasional swooping flashes of understanding that arrested me like a sharp intake of breath, by the cold grip of realization. Years later, when I read Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, I would gasp at a passage in which one character’s lover traces her outline with the blade of his sword. Debate felt to me then like the same kind of danger, dizzying and dazzling and exacting, sweet as a sharpened edge. Philosophy still feels this way. So does the sudden, stilling chill of a perfectly turned sentence, the snowy hush at the end of a novel or story I love. These things are true at a different and hazardous depth.

Here at last was a game that was more than a game, a competition I could win not by wearing the right jeans or having the right purse, by being nice or accommodating or soft-spoken, least of all by displaying the “social or emotional intelligence” men so often demand of women as a way of warding off a meeting of equals or, god forbid, a clash with a worthy adversary, but rather by slashing at a stupid argument until it bled to death at my feet.

second negative rebuttal (five minutes)
in the final negative constructive, the second negative speaker would “go for” one of the many arguments that had been introduced over the course of the debate. In the last five minutes allocated to him, he would tie up loose ends, performing “impact calculus,” in which he explained that the horrors of passing the plan were more abominable than the horrors of not passing it. Who knew that there were so many ways in which one nuclear holocaust could surpass another? But we became experts in all of them. It turns out that one holocaust can obliterate everyone, whereas another can obliterate only almost everyone; one can happen immediately, another can be drawn out over years; and so on.

The second negative speaker would briefly acknowledge the contents of the rest of the round so as to wave them away. He would say, There is frequent conflation of debates of all kinds with the sort of debate routinely called for by noxious figures like the conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, who use the term as a sort of dog-whistle. Opponents of debates of this kind rightly protest that contrarian pundits are less interested in good-faith dialogue than they are desirous of license to say offensive things with impunity, besides which there is no reason to give an idiotic speaker a platform.

Finally, the 2NC would hone in on an argument calculated to strike the most fatal blow, noting that by far the most common charge levied against debate takes aim at the practice of adopting a position “for the sake of argument.” Almost everyone who ultimately rejects debate suggests that there is something abhorrent about our ability to unmoor ourselves from reality, something inhuman about a person who can try on viewpoints the way some people try on clothes. Sometimes it is intimated that the problem with taking a detached stance toward politics is that not everyone has the luxury of abstracting away from conditions on the ground (indeed, that no one has the luxury of abstracting away finally or fully). Sometimes it is insinuated that to transform a policy dispute into a game is to trivialize it, and that we cannot do so without anaesthetizing ourselves to human suffering.

The upshot, or perhaps I should say the impact, is usually that high school debate—the crystallization of all those gangly loners spending their weekends talking about fanciful nuclear wars—is directly responsible for the implementation of harmful policies, or at least the inculcation of personal vices. The implication is that it was the adoption of ugly positions “for the sake of argument” that produced Donald Trumps and Steve Bannons on the national stage.

second affirmative rebuttal (five minutes)
finally, in the second affirmative constructive, or 2AR, the second affirmative speaker would use whatever prep time was left to map out a final defense of the plan, in this case of debate itself.

She might open by noting that the negative’s two main arguments were in tension with each other. On one hand, it is claimed that debate is overly emotional and insufficiently rational—that debaters and their defenders are swayed more by speakers’ charisma than they are by the arguments’ quality. On the other, it is claimed that debate breeds rationality so chilly that it approaches cruelty—that the activity’s denizens are so myopically fixated on conceptual clashes they forget to recoil at human casualties. These two claims cannot both be true, and it is the second that I wish to concede. The tribalist farces organized by the likes of Ben Shapiro, who so conspicuously performs rationality without ever achieving it, go by the name of “debate,” yes. But debate of the sort I wish to defend is, if anything, more procedural than it is theatrical.

If anything. And yet it is hard for me to believe that debate and its hapless teenage enthusiasts, who control nothing of any consequence, and many of whom still pick shreds of food out of their braces each night, have much sway over actual policy. Is it really debate that turns people into Trump and his cronies? Or do people become Trump and his cronies because they have odious convictions anyway? (And in any case, why should debate furnish anyone with convictions at all, given its supposed insensitivity to content—its commitment to allowing us to venture on tangents for the reviled “sake of argument”?) It seems odd to blame the failures of career politicians on an arcane after-school club that offends precisely because it is so far removed from reality, precisely because it affords brief respite from the blunt blundering of adolescence, precisely because it divests its denizens of body and circumstance.

Morality is not just a matter of enumerating truths: it, too, has a structural dimension.

Does it follow, then, that any apologia for the activity that saved me comes at the cost of proclaiming its irrelevance? It is true that debate fails as a political intervention, and it is true, too, that debate is a game—but there are serious games, salvific games. To say that debate’s appeal is largely formal is not to insult it, for form precedes and produces meaning; it is the frame within which all pictures are possible. There was a way in which debate was true, by which I don’t mean that the conclusions I advanced were true. They were not, and I knew they were not. Of course I did not believe that there was a meaningful difference between the prospect of one nuclear war and the prospect of another. What I mean is that debate took the form of justice. Innuendo was carved into explicitness, and weak claims were probed and discarded. In this respect, debate was an antidote to the worst excesses of its own culture, for the application of its methods to the many cases in which a woman’s discomfort was gasified would have forced, instead, an honest confrontation with the concrete bolus of misogyny. Whether people hated you or tolerated you, found you too loud or too brash, whether you suffered from attacks of trepidation or temper, they had no choice but to do what the arguments recorded on the flow dictated.

WHEN MY MOTHER AND I FOUGHT during my teenage years, after I started spending all my free hours and even some of my occupied ones debating or preparing to debate, she would often scream, “This isn’t a debate, Rebecca!” and I would think that she was wrong—that whether she knew it or not, there were terms on which she was losing. Somewhere a cosmic or celestial judge was keeping score, taking note of her offensive, appalling wrongness as she cut my clothes up or dragged me out into the snow without letting me put my shoes on, as she made me run alongside the car while she rolled down the windows and shouted or forced me to rummage through the trash for some trivial item I had tossed out until my hands were mucoid with old fruit.

What I needed and what I ultimately found was a sphere, if only a mental one, in which the better points prevailed through the sheer force of their logic. In which there was some remedy when I had been standing and scrubbing the counter for over an hour, unable to see the supposed stain my mother insisted remained there.** I needed the certainty that there was at least one context in which a person’s fearsome irrationality counted against her, in which principles and protections were immutable no matter how hard anyone banged and battered against them.

Morality is not just a matter of enumerating truths: it, too, has a structural dimension. It rests on principles as severe as the steel that undergirds a flimsy building, and on the consistency of their application. Life is never reducible to its ligaments, but the impossibility of perfection does not mean an image of fairness is a luxury or a cavil. Rather, idealization is the only avenue that affords at least conceptual restitution. Now that I am old and canny and have calcified, I could probably no longer bring myself to conduct a debate without abashment. But I am still in the grip—I could scarcely be otherwise—of all those glinting necessities, which are so numinously immune to moods and manias, and will long outlast me and my mother both. They are my best intimations of a territory I need to believe in: a realm untroubled by the perversity of human personality.

*September 26, 2023: Due to an editing error, The Yale Review did not contact the author’s mother or father prior to the publication of this piece. As originally published, this article did not reflect that the author's parents dispute the events described within. Since publication, The Yale Review independently confirmed that several individuals recalled witnessing these and similar events or recalled the author discussing them contemporaneously or near contemporaneously. The Yale Review was also able to review contemporaneous direct messages about some of the events described in this piece. The article has been updated to reflect that a disagreement exists about the events described and that The Yale Review has corroborated events described in this essay with people who witnessed them or heard about them at or around the time they occurred.

**A previous version of this article misstated the amount of time the author spent scrubbing a countertop.

Becca Rothfeld is the nonfiction book critic at The Washington Post, an editor at The Point, and a lapsed academic philosopher.
Originally published:
June 1, 2022


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