Heartlessness and Hate, Part 2

In Christian homeschool speech and debate, we were told that we were learning logic and critical thinking. What we learned was a kind of feigned intellectualism, one that behaves under the pretense that the most reasonable reaction to anything is no reaction at all. Almost without fail, the winning competitors were charismatic and attractive, smooth and composed. We were masters of taking literally that it’s possible to kill with kindness, and our interactions were icy, yet diplomatic. We were generally expected to make friends with our rivals, so we relied on a competitive environment to form friendships with other kids who were being raised in the same isolated conservative world.

For many of us, debate tournaments were the highlights of our lives. At the time, I thought it was the best it could get. I looked forward to being able to see the other competitors. I realize now that this is because it was my only social life. Well, there were other things, but that was usually VBS, AWANA, or another Christian-led event. In our other activities, I was usually the oldest one there and was expected to help with younger kids. That was true of Christian homeschool PE, music lessons, co-op, gymnastics, AWANA, and the horse vaulting day camp we did in the summer. In debate, I had friends who were closer to my age. We could discuss our interests through our speeches, as long as they were political and Christian enough. Tournaments meant a taste of freedom. Home life was something we didn’t talk to each other about – that was disrespectful to our parents. But it was a relief from being home with our families all the time.

Speech and debate were two distinct categories, which is why I refer to them separately. All involved performance, but with speech, the competition was based on rankings from multiple judges, rather than a win or loss between debaters. In this way, we were able to discuss even more controversially taboo subjects without the problem that debate presented: forcing the other team to take a position that fell outside the bounds of conservative views. For instance, I could not argue that abortion is evil in a debate round, but I saw dozens of speeches in the category of “persuasive” on exactly why and how abortion is evil. It makes me laugh now to realize the irony that we had a speech category called “persuasive,” but there was no direct conflict with an opponent in that event.

What did I learn from debate? I learned the art of bullshitting. I learned how to feign confidence about positions I personally knew the evidence was weak for. I learned how to pretend my points were stronger than they were. I learned how to find quotations both for and against a case from a single article which, when read as a whole, had observed multiple angles of a situation or topic. I learned how to make my words sound as convincing as possible, to win the favor of a judge or sometimes multiple judges.

It was all about the act, the performance of it all, the presentation. During our debate club meetings, we’d get stern lectures about how “the judges are always watching.” This meant we had to be on our best behavior. At all times we were expected to dress up like politicians. Many teenagers were shamed for changing into more comfortable clothing if they didn’t “break,” or advance beyond preliminary rounds. My parents never forced me to wear dresses, but I certainly wasn’t allowed to change out of my “tournament attire” until the tournament was officially over.

“Ballot parties” were basically a way for us to torture fast food workers. After the tournament, we were each given an orange envelope filled with our ballots. Every judge had filled out ballots with our speaker point scores, wins and losses in debate, and handwritten comments and critiques all over them. Even though the tournament was over, we were expected to study each judge’s notes late into the night. By then it was usually past 9 or 10 p.m., when most restaurants were closed, so we usually settled on McDonald’s. Dad liked to say that we were “helping with business” so they wouldn’t mind about being swarmed just before closing. As a small business owner, he didn’t really understand how big corporations didn’t pay their workers any better based on the number of customers there were to serve.

Describing ballot parties is a shameful thing. We’d show up, over a hundred teenagers and their parents, dressed mostly in fancy suits, and line up at the counter, totally overwhelming and taking over the McDonald’s. The workers’ eyes would get huge as we poured in, and inevitably someone would try to call in another employee to manage all the orders. We often ordered something small and gathered around every table and booth available, unpacking our ballots like they were Christmas presents. This was how we’d know which preliminary debate rounds we’d won and lost, a detail that wasn’t revealed during the tournament itself. Sometimes we read judges’ comments aloud to each other, in a serious or mocking tone, depending on the contents.

The obsession with being “above feelings” and to embrace facts, evidence, and logic is a patriarchal, white supremacist idea. It is part of toxic masculinity itself, because it says that any reaction to violence is not valid. “Appeal to emotion” is designated as a logical fallacy. If you get upset, you’re appealing to emotion. If you talk about how people are hurt, you’re appealing to emotion. The whole activity was designed to make us talk about complex political issues without being properly informed about them.

It shouldn’t be controversial to say that everyone deserves safety, shelter, nutrition, and healthcare. Humanity’s resources should be available to all who have need, regardless of their ability to convert their time into adequate profit to stay alive. This is clear to me now, but ten years ago, I was closed off to the realities of imperialism and racism, homelessness and hunger and poverty, and capitalism-based food and healthcare access. Simultaneously, I believed that I was engaging in reasoned thinking, logic, persuasion, and informed discussion of politics and philosophy.

Christian homeschool speech and debate is nothing more than bullshitting your way through being detached to human rights. Everything I learned from spending my time between the ages of 12 and 18 debating and performing speeches is something I’ve had to since question and unlearn. Many of my peers in the competitions will insist that we learned how to question through this activity, but I disagree. Those of us who did think critically were eventually ostracized for following logical conclusions. I had to recognize the basic fact that human rights are not up for debate. I don’t owe you a debate if you think otherwise.

Heartlessness and Hate, Part 1

Many people have asked me about speech and debate and whether it helped me with my communication and critical thinking skills. Now that a decade has passed, I can say with certainty that it did not. Years of frustration with speech and debate eventually led to some relative competitive success, but I had to sacrifice all other education for it in the end. I had no time left for trying to drag myself through basic pre-algebra. I took a “super senior” year, meaning that while most of my friends graduated high school at age 18, I kept competing until I was almost 19. Altogether, I would spend seven years competing in Christian homeschool speech and debate, from 2004 to 2011.

I’ve talked before about some of the indoctrination, like in my posts “My Patriotic Education” and “I’m not saying religion sucks, but it hurt me, okay”. I haven’t, however, previously unpacked this massive suitcase called debate and speech competition. For those who knew who I was before my blog was really known, you know that this is deeply intertwined with…well, every aspect of the identity that was projected onto me. For those of you who’ve been following me since my major pieces in 2014 and 2019, this may be difficult to explain to you.

My limited study time was almost entirely dedicated to preparing for speech and debate. When it came to general subjects like math and science, geography and history, I was taught practically nothing. I had an elementary understanding of these, and by the time I was a teenager, I was expected to spend “school time” teaching or reading aloud to my younger siblings. This was frustrating for all parties involved, and I regret being short-tempered.

The two leagues I competed in were called NCFCA and Stoa. The intention is to prepare children for public speaking and defending their positions with logic and evidence. The problem is that the parameters of the competition were limited to the confines of conservative Christianity. We could not discuss any matters of real controversy.

I knew a lot of other homeschooled kids from speech and debate, and some of them were getting thorough educations. For every 20 or so students that I interacted with, I’d say one of them was really hitting the books because of rigorous parents. This does not mean that they were having a superior experience of home life whatsoever – sometimes the more intelligent parents were more cruel. I’m not making a statistical claim without data, this is just my estimate based on interacting with hundreds of other competitors.

A Christian homeschool debate competition has a distinct atmosphere. It’s full of teenagers who are dressed in professional attire, in many cases deprived of socialization with children in other families except for these events. The competitive age range was 12 to 18, and we were not separated into smaller age brackets. I never learned how to count by grades because I didn’t take placement tests, or any tests at all. I didn’t have to, because my parents exploited a legal loophole that said they technically didn’t have to report any progress on the education they were providing to my siblings and me. As a result, I never knew whether I was doing well or not. I didn’t get grades or feedback very often, except for the results of the competitions.

Tournaments often lasted three or four days. The advantage of being homeschooled is we had the time to block out this much time in a week once a month or so. We weren’t missing school for it. It was considered an educational activity. The schedule was tightly packed and demanding: In a day I would have three or four debate rounds in addition to two or three speech rounds, each of which lasted between 90 minutes and two hours. We debated each other in organized formats with timed speeches and cross-examinations, finishing with final rebuttals.

One of the apparent advantages of debate was that we “learned to argue both sides” of an issue. This claim was technically true because every round had an affirmative and negative team. The administrators worked it out so everyone debated both sides the same number of times. The topic of debate was called a resolution. If we were assigned the affirmative side, we were supposed to defend the resolution, detailing how we planned to do so, and how the harms we presented would be solved by our proposed plan, and what advantages might be produced. If we were assigned the negative side, we were tasked with proving why the affirmative’s plan for change had flaws or would lead to disadvantages.

The topics we debated are notable because they were always carefully chosen from among subjects we conservative Christians could all agree on. The idea was that we shouldn’t force our opponents to take a stance that wasn’t morally defensible. For example, because we all agreed that abortion is evil, making the argument “abortion is evil” would be an inappropriate, underhanded move competitively. The opposing team couldn’t disagree and still hope to win the favor of the judge, who was almost always another conservative Christian homeschool parent, whose children were rival competitors. We did our best to recruit “community judges” to come and watch our tournaments, but it was difficult to convince people to volunteer. As a result, we were stuck in the frustrating position of crafting speeches and debate points catered to the biases of a specific group of people.

My first year, we debated US dependence on foreign oil. While we regularly made arguments about how it would be bad to rely on Saudi Arabian oil, it was frowned upon to run any environmental advantages. So for instance, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was a very difficult case to beat because no judge would vote for a team arguing for the livelihood of the wildlife. My second year, we debated medical malpractice law. Instead of learning about how broken the American healthcare system is and discussing ways to fix it, our cases promoted plans like forcing traumatized patients into mandatory mediation with their negligent providers. This provided economic advantages for the legal system. My third year, we debated illegal immigration. Rather than learning about the human rights abuses under US immigration policy, we had cases promoting ways to crack down on employment verification. The year we debated about Russia, I learned practically nothing about the complexity of the large country.

Overall, we learned to discuss political and philosophical topics in a heartless way. We debated issues without considering the real-world implications of the policies we were promoting. The tone of each debate round was one of detached discussion supporting conservative ideology. There was little consideration for human rights and injustice. In this way, the activity served as another form of indoctrination for conservative Christian homeschooling parents. This was subverted with co-opting free-thinking terminology like “arguing both sides,” “critical thinking skills,” and “learning how to think, not what to think.” However, it was merely a way to keep us from considering things that were too controversial, while thinking we were addressing the crux of these topics. I want to warn people of the danger in this activity because it desensitizes young people. We learned how to talk callously about human beings and their struggles, as matters of debate, not care. This is my first of two blog posts on the subject. In my second post about this, I’ll talk more about the culture of debate and its approach to emotional appeals.