Jon Thorpe1 Comment

Notes From Underground

Jon Thorpe1 Comment
Notes From Underground

POI welcomes op-ed submissions on this subject expressing alternative opinions.

At the 2015 Stanford Invitational, some teams decided to boycott the tournament topics and instead debate topics prepared by a committee of former competitors and former coaches. Parli Underground was a group set up to coordinate this effort and announce alternative topics. Underground rounds only happened in cases when both teams agreed beforehand on the alternative topic. In the final round, Spencer and Steven ran a critique of resolutions and laid out the rationale for the preceding underground rounds.

The resulting post-Stanford discussion has been one which was necessary to move the community forward, but also one which I found deeply problematic in many ways. Below, I make a few points. 

Different members of the community are going to have different opinions about the tactics used by underground teams. But disagreements about tactics should not obscure the far more important point – Stanford resolutions were highly problematic. In an activity where girls are vastly underrepresented – in part, I would argue, because of rampant sexism – tournaments should avoid resolutions that invite students to defend domestic violence ("Ray Rice does not deserve a second chance in the NFL"). This is not just a one-time mistake. Three weeks ago, MLK-Logan asked students to debate whether "Palestine" – a territory without any coherent unified government – is guilty of war crimes. The finals topic at Stanford – "It is legitimate for states to deny residence to immigrants who openly contradict the state's predominant values" – is offensive to me specifically. If I were affirmative in that round, I would have to argue that I, as a Russian immigrant, should not have a right to free speech in America.

Before questioning the tactics of the Underground, ask yourself – why would dozens of students risk disqualification and endanger their debate careers for participating in a movement that gave them no extra competitive edge? I believe that the students have reached their breaking point. Imagine how problematic the resolutions must be to drive a debater to something this extreme. Do not try to pin this on the committee that wrote the alternative resolutions. It was the students who had to endure tournament topics, the students who made the choice to rebel, the students who accepted the risks inherent in their decision. Students have their own agency and their own opinions. Underground debaters have expressed their opinions about the Stanford resolutions loud and clear.

Policy vs Philosophy
The final round, as well as some of the post-Stanford discussion moved in the direction of debating whether policy is good or bad. I think that's a straw man. CFL, GGSA, UOP, SCU, and Windsor all show that we can have tournaments without NPDA judges, without kritiks, without spreading, without theory – and still have good rounds on good topics. Stanford resolutions aren't problematic just because they are value/fact topics. They are problematic because many of them (even the policy ones) are trivial, unfair, and/or offensive. As a former LDer, I love debating about philosophy, but "Greed is more harmful than sloth" is not a philosophical debate. I challenge anyone to show me a paper in a peer-reviewed philosophical journal that discusses such an issue.

The Underground has been criticized for not including all teams. I am inclined to believe that there was an obvious logistical reason for this. The Underground had to stay underground to avoid retaliation from the tournament. If it had been publicly announced, it would have been killed in its infancy, and we would not be having this conversation right now. Yes, it is incredibly unfair that non-underground teams had to go through the entire tournament debating bad topics. The way to solve this unfairness in the future is to write better topics, not to crack down on students who dared to challenge the system.

For what it's worth, I do think that the current circuit is highly elitist, and we need to address this. But, again, don't blame this on the underground kids who did the best they could under the circumstances.

Topic Boycotts are Justified
Love the Underground or hate it – that's not the point. What goes on in a round should be up to the four debaters in the room. Period.


Our circuit has a lot of smart people who can propose a lot of great plans. First, however, we need to all acknowledge the harms of the status quo. That was the goal of the Underground, and that's the goal of this op-ed. We are all in this community because we want parli to be the best it can be. I am already beginning to see some constructive discussion revolving around topic guidelines. Let us continue that discussion and make sure the 2015-2016 parli season will be the best one yet.