Sierra Maciorowski

There is something rotten in the state of parli

Sierra Maciorowski
There is something rotten in the state of parli


There is untempered rage in my heart that I cannot seem to get rid of even a week after the parli TOC. I have been in the parli community for ten years. I competed as a high school student, and it was the most formative experience of my high school career. It made me better--it showed me how to think in ways that I was never taught in high school classes. And then, when I got to college, it was my home away from home, a little piece of familiarity. It was the first place I found friends. It gave me my first opportunities to teach, an activity which is now central to my life. Even more than that, it shaped my ethic of justice and my conception of what is right in the world.

When I became a coach, I tried to give that sense of home to other students. I tried to share what had been given to me. For a long time, I thought I was succeeding. Then I had the opportunity to run the TOC general assembly, and I heard the rage and betrayal in the voices of so many students from Southern California, Oregon, and even smaller Northern California schools. Their event had abandoned them, and many of them felt there was little they could do to reclaim a space for themselves.

Some insidious corruption has finally found parli, my first home in speech and debate. This problem has been building for a long time. This website has posted numerous articles arguing back and forth about the value of the kritik, speed, and pre-prepared blocks. We have been discussing these issues for a long time, especially how they fit into questions of access and inclusivity. But I never thought it was this bad. When I saw Ryan Wash in 2013 in the policy finals reading his kritik about making policy into a home, I thought, Parli has problems, but at least they aren’t like this. At least they aren’t forcing people out of the spaces that they love.  At TOC, I was forced to confront that people have been forced out of parli at a level I am only just beginning to comprehend. I have been the target of casual sexism  and knew I would overcome it through the strength and love of other women in the activity. I listened to and even fought in the style wars and knew we would come out the other side better for it. But the problem we are facing now is a sinister amalgam of past problems, combined in the worst kind of supervillain team-up.

I don’t fundamentally think many of the techniques that I’m going to discuss here, especially kritiks and speed, are wrong in every given instance. It’s not the kritik that I have a problem with. It’s the use of the K to exclude. It’s not speed that I have a problem with. It’s the use of speed that causes seasoned debaters to be literally in tears at the end of the round because they have not had the barest chance to respond to their opponents. Tech debaters will argue that they bring more to the round—more content equals more education! They’re just helping to improve the activity! And to that, I say, “Sure, if everyone in the room can understand you.” But there are so many other rounds where that mutual understanding and access to arguments is simply not present. Unfortunately, despite my overall equanimity toward them, the two main culprits here are speed and the kritik.

Why has the K become this controversial in parli? It’s used as a tool of resistance in policy debate, especially by black debaters and other debate minorities who are seeking a way to check back against a rich, white institution that privileges students who have access to more research and coaching resources that allow them to cut lots and lots of cards and overwhelm their opponents. In high school parli, at least, it seems that kritiks are not deployed as resistance projects. You simply see positions like Baudrillard and Nietzsche read in the hope that the other side will be so confused by the meaning of “ressentiment” that they can’t possibly recover. As such, they are primarily a method of overwhelming one’s opponent with complex philosophical ideas. Thus, the research advantage is flipped—in high school parli, the K imposes a higher research burden. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the kritik. I think there are valuable things to be learned from it, and it has a place in debate. However, I do not think the K should be used as a tool to exclude people. If your opponent can’t engage with the philosophical points that you’re making because you’re explaining them in a fast or blippy way, you do not deserve to win on your K.

Next, the speed problem. I know that many people have argued that we should have some kind of spreading ban in parli, and the response has always been, “Where is the brightline?” How do we know what’s too fast? One, there is no way to enforce a specific threshold. Two, if everyone in the round can cope with faster speeds, why should we prevent them from speaking quickly? There’s no purpose to the ban in that case. So, at what point does spreading become exclusionary? The answer is simple. As Justice Stewart famously said in regards to pornography, “I’ll know it when I see it.” Each round must be evaluated on whether the people in it were excluded.

This all seems to be pretty commonsense to me, but judging by the reactions of many students at the TOC General Assembly, something is still off. When I have students telling me that they think exclusion of other competitors is acceptable as long as the activity remains fun for them, we’ve really missed the mark on what this activity is supposed to be. To paraphrase The Second City’s Sassy Gay Friend, “There’s something rotten in the state of parli, and it’s your piss-poor attitude.” I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not perfect on this front. I have voted for things just because they were faster or trickier, even if I knew they were both ridiculous and exclusionary. I value cleverness! I enjoy strategic skill! But I don’t enjoy them at the cost of inclusivity. As an educator, I have to keep that as my primary priority.

After the TOC, one of my students sent me Will Repko’s paradigm for policy debate, and I remembered reading it as a young judge just out of high school. He has three main tenets of his philosophy that I really admire. The first is that a judge philosophy is essentially a syllabus for a class where the judge is a professor. When you have a critic with clear views who doesn’t just allow you to run whatever you want, they are giving you an in-depth education within a certain subject. That concept is also key to the identity of parli—the different resolutions each round are supposed to expand debaters’ insights into many unique topics. Second, he eloquently rejects the “big tent” philosophy of round content. In his words: “I no longer think that non-intervention and "big tent" are positively inspiring a better curriculum. The short-term drive to succeed (which incentivizes debating within one's comfort zone) and the desire to keep things manageable (which also incentivizes debating within one's comfort zone) have resulted in the opposite of big tent's intended effect. New horizons are not being pursued -- stale ones are being crystallized.” Essentially, not all arguments are educational in all contexts. Third, he makes the point that many young judges, like young teachers, have an “embrace everything” philosophy in order to get debaters to think of them as the “cool" parent.  However, this shortchanges the debaters by allowing them to fall back into the easiest strategies (e.g., spreading out a less tech-savvy opponent), rather than challenging them to do the harder intellectual thing.

I’m no longer quite so young or quite so anxious about my reputation. I’ve found my place as an educator, so it’s time to take a stand for the ethics I believe should be foremost in this community. How do we get out of this hole we’ve dug for ourselves, where there’s a race to the bottom by the few affluent schools who have access to resources and college judges? How do we revert from this state and maintain our activity as an educational one?  Here’s what we can do to solve these problems, taking some wisdom from Mr. Repko.

1. AS A JUDGE: If you, the competitor, find yourself in a place where your opponent is shouting “clear” and you’re making no effect to be more comprehensible, I’m going to intervene against you. I don’t care what arguments the other side makes. You are spreading them out and sacrificing the education of the round for a win.

As a judge, the best incentive is your ballot. If you, fellow judges, refuse to vote for people who spread out their opponents and decline to explain their kritikal arguments, you can control this kind of behavior. If you vote for it, you’re condoning not only this reckless disregard for other students, but you’re also encouraging those disadvantaged students to think of themselves as second-class citizens.  They shouldn’t think that if they don’t have the resources or time to devote to getting faster or cutting more specific K responses, then they are worthless in the eyes of this activity.

2. AS A COACH: Coaches should do their part by speaking to their students about what kind of behavior is appropriate in round and what courtesy is due their opponents. One of my (many) goals for next year is to work on this with my students, especially those competing at the highest levels of their respective activities. I see this kind of split in LD and public forum as well as parli. I suspect all events go through it. What we in the parli community have to do to prevent this kind of disrespect from breeding in our activity is to make a clear point that this is an educational space, and it is a home for many students, and our students should not forget that in their quest for glory.

Furthermore, regional barriers are uniquely a problem for parli, which doesn’t have as large a national presence as other debate events.  For our part, we’re going to do a little more travel. Before you call “carpetbagging,” hear me out. There is a way to travel to other circuits, and even win in those circuits, with grace and respect. That involves going in with deference for local norms, passing on knowledge as to what is available in your circuit, and offering to share whatever resources you have to give. Next year, we’ll network (much as I hate that Silicon Valley buzzword), and we’ll try to build a more regionally connected community.

3. AS A STUDENT: If you are a student who has felt marginalized, please reach out to my team. There is nothing I want more than to listen to your voice and hear what can be done to rectify your situation. I know it is hard, and you might feel ashamed. I won’t blame you if you don’t.

To the students who are part of the in-group, the parli clique, and are willing to disenfranchise your peers from this activity: I ask you, how can you look your peers in the eye as they are telling you that you are harming them and think yourself morally justified? It is okay with you that these people, even though you read kritiks about inclusion and access, are being pushed out of this space by the techniques that you have adopted to win? I want you to do some serious self-examination and see if you think that cost is justifiable. I want you to face those contradictions and decide if you can live peacefully with them. If you find that you can, you should probably strike me as a judge. I will not be voting for these tactics. And if you find, in your heart, that something is wrong with what you are doing, then the next time you hear someone yell “CLEAR” or “SLOW,” maybe you should think about doing just that.

Julie Herman is Head of Speech and Debate at MVLA and invented Los Altos DH. Technically this is her hobby.