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Changing strategies


WORLD Radio - Changing strategies

Some debate judge paradigms are moving from argumentation preferences into subject matter preferences


MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is September 21st. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Myrna Brown.

PAUL BUTLER, HOST: And I’m Paul Butler. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: good ol’ fashioned debate.

These days, most people only see political debates. And those are usually all about candidates performing well for an audience. But in the world of competitive debate, things look very different. There’s no shouting down your opponent. Everything is timed and structured. And there’s only one person you need to convince: The judge.

BROWN: In high school leagues, just about anybody can judge a debate round. After hearing all the arguments, the judge decides who won or lost. Theoretically, they decide based on the logic and evidence presented in the round. But that’s not always how it goes down. Here’s WORLD Reporter Anna Johansen Brown.


ANNA JOHANSEN BROWN, REPORTER: Classes are in full swing at Harper College in Palatine, Illinois. If you head down to room A138 on a Tuesday night, that’s where you’ll find the debate team practicing how to argue well.

Olimpio Messer joined last December.

OLIMPIO MESSER: I know that many of them exclude very jargon-type arguments, when things call them critiques cues. They hate spreading.

He’s talking about judging preferences, strategies a judge does or does not want to see in a round. Judges can write up their preferences, or paradigms, and post them online.

MESSER: At the big ones like nationals, we could look up our judge in on the Nationals website and see their own personal judging philosophies.

Sometimes, Messer will also look at where the judge is from. Because that usually affects how they approach a round.

MESSER: That applies to my argumentation when I'm going into the debate, and it's a part of the game, unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on who you ask.

Judging paradigms are meant to foster effective communication. The debaters know how experienced the judge is, what their preferences are on delivery style, that kind of thing. Then they can argue their position effectively to that specific judge.

But some judges take their paradigms a step further. They list not just style preferences, but content preferences.

Some judges have posted paradigms that explicitly say, I will not listen to or vote for any arguments that are pro-capitalism, or pro-Israel, or pro-US police.

How should a debater respond to that kind of a paradigm?

MEINERDING: All right. Everyone, follow me? What are these called, again? Stock issues. Yes, these are your stock issues.

Eric Meinerding is a debate coach for a private Christian club called Lasting Impact. He’s here at a debate camp in Prospect Heights, teaching Debate 101 to about twenty high schoolers, all seated in rows at long, skinny tables.

MEINERDING: If there's too many cons, we don't do it. More pros than cons, What do we do? We do it.

Meinerding got his undergrad at Liberty University…a very conservative school in a very liberal debate league. He says he didn’t often see judges explicitly oppose conservative arguments. But even still…

MEINERDING: It was implied a lot of the time too, and the way that they would write their paradigms, or you just knew the judge from the community, you knew you couldn't get away with certain arguments in front of them.

Meinerding says he quickly learned to just stop running those arguments.

MEINERDING: Even if I think they're strong, or they would win the round, or I personally agree with them. And you make that decision enough times, and then suddenly, you just removed the whole strategic option over the course of a year.

Griffith Vertigan is another instructor here at the camp. He’s a former debater and an attorney in California.

VERTIGAN: Ideally, a good judge, you know, goes to the Latin phrase tabula rasa, that means they are a blank slate, who's willing to listen to arguments from both sides, they won't come in with such preconceived biases, that they're unwilling to even consider the other side.

Eric Meinerding agrees almost completely.

MEINERDING: I think the only exception would be if it's some, like, universally agreed upon evil. I think there's a limited limited space where I think the judge should be able to say, I won't vote for this regardless.

But he says even that exception shouldn’t technically exist.

Debate is an exercise, an educational tool. The purpose is to learn argumentation skills, not decide actual policy or express personal convictions. Here’s Vertigan.

VERTIGAN: I've been on the other side of it, where I had on, I was judging a round, where the gal was promoting the expansion of international abortion, something that I'm adamantly against, right.

Vertigan felt his job was to judge the round based on who argued their position best.

VERTIGAN: And I ended up voting for the gal that that was promoting abortion internationally, even though I vehemently disagreed with her. I wrote out the arguments on her ballot, that the negative side could have brought up; the negative side kind of broke my heart that they didn't have anything good.

When he’s training judges, Vertigan tells them they can write their beliefs on the ballot…but it shouldn’t be the deciding factor in the round.

VERTIGAN: What we're losing, though, is the loss of objectivity, the willingness to even consider the other side. And when we get that, I mean, I think we're antithetical to the whole idea of the free marketplace of ideas and the purpose of debate.

Back at Harper College, Olimpio Messer says debate judges will never be able to truly get rid of their biases. Even if they could, he’s not sure they should. Because debate is supposed to prepare students for the real world. And in the real world, people are biased.

MESSER: So learning how to adapt to our audience's biases and learning the cues. Applying our arguments to them. These things are good skills in argumentation.

Eric Meinerding says he’s really grateful for the chance to debate liberal ideas instead of just conservative ones.

MEINERDING: It helped me a lot understand a side of the world that I had no understanding of coming out of a Christian high school background.

So, how can debaters overcome judge bias? For one thing, showing that they understand the judge’s point of view can help. It allows the judge to stop feeling like they have to be the advocate for their point of view.

Another tactic: Speaking with extra courtesy. And that’s a tip not just for debate rounds.

MEINERDING: You teach people to speak with an increased level of civility, like you don't know who you're talking to. So even if you're going to be critical, say such things with grace.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Anna Johansen Brown in Prospect Heights, Illinois.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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