So this happened. The Victoria University debating society hosted an event at which one of the moots was:
“This House, as a parent, would tell their daughter to drink responsibly to avoid sexual assault”.
How breathtakingly daring of them.
As people have pointed out on Twitter, it’s not fair to say “all debaters are dudebro neckbeards”. So I won’t.
What I will point out is that this whole structured debating thing seriously reinforces a lot of patriarchal, privileged bullshit.
1. Because it treats serious social topics as completely morally relative
This is how you’re meant to argue when you’re eventually in charge. You’re trained for it, and part of that training is regularly being presented with morally indefensible positions to defend anyway or risk losing whatever competition you’re engaged with. I have seen perfectly decent young men get carried away defending genocide and torture because that’s the only way to win. Those who are unable to do so are taught that they have no business having political opinions. The people assumed to be the future elite are not rewarded for getting the answer which is most correct, most compassionate or humane or even sensible – they’re rewarded for smashing the opposition. And that’s how you get politicians who will argue anything they’re told to, enact any policy they’re told to no matter how many how many people will get hurt, just so that their team can win.
Chief adjudicator Stephen Wittington justified the moot by saying:
“As part of that discussion we discussed what the purpose of debating was, and as part of that discussion we talked about the fact that debating often requires people to defend ideas or arguments that they don’t personally agree with, even in circumstances where people do in fact have very strong views about those issues.”
As though the problem is that some people (in this case, women) just need to be challenged with different opinions. As if “I was raped and society said it was my fault so the rapist was never prosecuted” is just a strong view on the topic. Shocking news: it’s really shitty to use people’s real lived experiences of traumatic events as a thought experiment.
2. Because it holds “rationality” or “reason” or “logic” as supreme
Especially in comparison to emotion. Which is one of the reasons that moot above is supremely shitty. Hey, women, so 1 in 4 of you have experienced sexual assault, and probably been victim-blamed to hell and back, but now we’re going to grade you on how calm and reasonable you can be while arguing in favour of victim-blaming. Win!
Patriarchy privileges intellect and demonizes emotion. Totally coincidentally, men are held to be sensible rational creatures, and women in New Zealand have to convince two doctors that they’re so mentally fragile they deserve an abortion.
3. Because its judging criteria are privileged to hell
Guess what kind of people are most likely to be really good at the kind of speaking and preparation rewarded by formal debating? People from upper-class highly-educated families, that’s who. People who are able-bodied and neurotypical.
Please note that this doesn’t mean only rich white boys debate. Plenty of people from oppressed groups will be fantastic at debating in this format. But they will sure as hell have to conform to the expectations of privileged groups to do it. (cf Namond Brice)
4. Because it mistakes reinforcing oppression with challenging norms
There are a million ways to challenge people to think outside the box, or to explore current social issues, without going for the bog-standard Bob Jones line of debate.
The fact is, this was a completely unfair debate. Not because people were upset by it, not because it breaches the all-powerful Feminist Code, but because our society has already well-equipped the affirming team with arguments. Nobody arguing in favour of this moot had to think very hard about how they were going to make their case, because their case is made every single day to the point that many people consider it “common sense”. The negating team, on the other hand, had to fight not just their opponents, but centuries of social conventions and assumptions. And some of them will have been struggling with being triggered in the process.
So why do it? Because not all debaters are dudebro Grammar old boys, but plenty of them are, especially the ones at the top. And why would they do anything but reinforce the power structures which keep them there?