University debating supports patriarchy

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

The point of debating is not to discover truth.  It’s to win.  This article from the New Statesman (h/t Elle) explains it far better than I can:

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?


  1. dpalenski

    I was once invited to a University of Auckland debating society meeting it was pretty much like you outlined in this post

  2. Moz in Oz

    It would be really interesting to see them debate “This House, as a parent, would tell their son to avoid committing rape”. That would be a challenging topic, and one that all sorts of people could really get their teeth into. Plus I’d love to hear the negative.

  3. Bee

    So I’m a debater. Have been for 4 years at university and took part at school. I am not going to touch on 1 through 3, as I have been talking about this a lot this afternoon and I cannot be bothered to type that much.
    I do want to quickly mention 4 though. 4 is breathtakingly wrong. You say “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”.”
    I have yet to talk to any debater who looked at this moot and went ‘ah yes, an easy aff’. This is not an easy aff. This is an easy neg. This is an easy neg because most debaters in NZ accept that rape culture and victim blaming are real. It is easy to show how telling children things like ‘don’t do X Y and Z because you might get raped if you do’ reinforces these cultures. It is easy to show that rape culture harms the very daughters that the aff would be trying to protect.
    It is a hard aff because you have to try and prove that this advice is a) actually helpful and b) that it does not reinforce rape culture.

    And Moz in Oz, you will never see that debated at a debating tournament, because it is impossible to neg.

    • QoT

      It is easy to show how telling children things like ‘don’t do X Y and Z because you might get raped if you do’ reinforces these cultures.

      Sure it is. Which is why everyone accepts that rape culture (a) exists and (b) is bad. Wait, no they don’t. Please don’t mistake two douchebag DJs getting stood down for a few months as a sign of actual cultural shift.

      ETA: and another thing? Let’s assume you’re right and it is “an easy neg”. Doesn’t that just establish that university debating is a totally artificial environment? Because otherwise all the cool debating kids would be able to solve rape culture overnight.

    • Moz in Oz

      Bee, I don’t believe it’s an impossible neg. I’d be happy to take it on, because I think I could make a good go of it. I could probably even do it based almost entirely on quotes from major media publications.

      I think on both you’ve missed a couple of plausible arguments, because you’re thinking of feminist facts rather than popular culture and common sense (ahem). Affirming the “don’t get drunk, you might get raped” is actually as easy as spinning a couple of the victim blaming yarns and saying “it’s just obvious, innit”. In a plummy private school voice, of course, and with liberal use of anecdata. Likewise the “would you teach your son(s) not to rape”… one counter is “well, who does that?”. Forget “is it a good idea”, argue the statistics. “you’re in NZ, almost no-one in NZ teaches their sons that, so it’s extremely unlikely that you would do so”. Paint the affirm as living in a “rainbows and unicorns” fantasy land. Say “oh, yes, *ideally*” in a sardonic voice a lot.

      Because, offensive though it is to point it out, it’s rare for people to stand up and say “the solution to rape is… don’t rape people”. That’s the whole liberal-feminist mainstream, right there.

      (yes, I gave up formal debating because so many of the topics were bu… silly, and people being proud of spinning plausible nonsense got to me after a while).

      • Moz in Oz

        This, for example, is a kind-of-positive article about rape that nonetheless is keen to emphasise that “intoxication is a risk factor for rape”. Note that pandagon is a fairly feminist site as mainstream bought media commentators go. The that article purports to be about how the crime stats people are not asking the questions that would let us confirm that drinking=being raped. Presumably so that nice people can then stand down hard on those irresponsible drunken sluts… now with real facts!

        FWIW Bee, I agree that my topic suggestion would never be debated by that lot, but obviously for very different reasons to yours. Ruling out “men shouldn’t rape” because one side might be offensive… if they did that, we’d never be having the current discusion.

        And props to Deborah for standing up in the media on this one.

    • K

      “And Moz in Oz, you will never see that debated at a debating tournament, because it is impossible to neg.”
      Sounds like you can’t handle the challenge. Nothing is impossible to neg.

  4. Ella de'Vil

    [QoT: Ella, to be honest, your comment is such a perfect example of deliberately missing the point and ignoring the reality of privilege that I’m letting it through. Future comments of this nature get deleted. Because blogs don’t have a right of reply.]

    I’m just going to address points 1 through 3

    Point 1:
    Learning to argue anything and everything doesn’t turn you into a bad person. If anything it makes a person more cautious about believing ‘convincing’ arguments. It helps you learn why immoral arguments are wrong. You learn to scrutinise assumptions, you learn to understand the tricks that people use to justify things and you learn to pick them apart.

    In debating for sport, the purpose is to win. It just happens that you learn skills that help you “discover truth” (or usually untruth) along the way.

    Point 2:
    There is no such thing as emotional truth. There are 2 types of truth, 1) Logical truth and 2) Physical truth. An example of a logical truth is 2 + 2 = 4. An example of a physical truth is that gravity on Earth is -9.8m/s^2. Unfortunately, how we feel about things doesn’t change either of these things.

    Women are completely capable of understanding and arguing rationally. Women aren’t dumber than men. It’s not patriarchy to assume that women can use their brains to do science, math and logic and all of that stuff. It’s not about demonising emotion, it’s understanding that emotion is a different kind of thing and has a different place in argument.

    [QoT: Let’s consider why argument has been structured to ignore emotion and why we think “arguing rationally” is inherently a good thing. Hint: may involve thinking about power structures in our society. Like the post said.]

    Point 3:
    I have the same problem with Point 3 as I do Point 2. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, what your gender or race is, the rules of logic (and hopefully debating) are the same for everyone. It’s not inaccessible. Logic and rationality isn’t the “expectations of privileged groups”. It’s just how we understand things.

    [QoT: This is where you deliberately miss the point. Debating actually has fuck all to do with “the rules of logic” and a lot more to do about what styles of speech and argument we give credibility in our society.]

    I think you’re probably right that they shouldn’t have used that topic but the actual problem is that women are being sexually assaulted. That’s damaging and no one cares.

    [QoT: “no one cares”? You haven’t been paying attention either, have you.]

    • Muerk

      QOT – I feel I have to reply to this, please delete if it’s a derail on your topic.

      Ella, truth is far more broad than the purely empirical logical and physical truth. Of course there is emotional truth, if there was not we would not understand each other’s emotional states. If emotional experience was purely subjective and relative we would find it hard to relate to other people. Think of the emotional truths of grief, shame, and fear that people who experience sexual assault face – we know this to be emotionally true, ie. actual, factual, not false, genuine.

      To dismiss emotion as a lesser class of knowledge than empirical facts demonstrates a world-view that places empirical rationalism on a pedestal. Factual truth then has a greater weight than emotional truth, so in this world-view debating such an emotionally painful topic becomes acceptable because the emotional suffering caused has a lesser weight than the rational skill displayed by debating such a topic. To take it to extreme your world-view would find it acceptable to debate in Israel, “Hitler was right to exterminate the Jews because they were harmful to European society.” Rationally it’s just an idea that can have its merits (and lack of them) examined and debated, but it ignores the emotional truth of the pain that it would cause Jewish people.

      This attitude ignores the the very real truths of compassion, empathy, human dignity, and love. You can’t tell people to just be abstract about their pain.

    • QoT

      You know you do God’s work going up against the wilful ignorance and general fuckwittery of Jim Mora.

  5. Megpie71

    “This House, as a parent, would tell their daughter to drink responsibly to avoid sexual assault”.

    The proposition being debated is so bad it can’t even be classified as “wrong”. It postulates a linkage between female alcohol consumption and sexual assault as though this linkage was causal: women consuming alcohol causes them to be sexually assaulted. However, the majority of the research and evidence on the subject points to a very different relationship: women’s consumption of alcohol is often FACILITATED by people who then go on to sexually assault them, using the alcohol consumption as a means of obtaining dubious positive consent, or invalidating questions of negative consent (i.e. “she didn’t say no”).

    If they’re going to seriously debate that one in all seriousness, then I have a suggestion for their next topic:

    “This House, as a zookeeper, would tell the general public to sprinkle breadcrumbs on the railway tracks to avoid attacks by human-eating giant badgers”.

    (It fits the pattern: “This house as [$AUTHORITY_FIGURE] would tell [$INDIVIDUAL] to [perform $ACTION] to avoid [$MORAL_AND/OR_PHYSICAL_PERIL]”.) After all, if you’re going to be “debating” absurdities, why not at least be honest about the fact?

  6. Nick

    Hi QOT

    I was at the tournament and debated the motion (on the negative). Let me make a couple of points

    1) The motion was widely perceived to be an easy neg, because it required the aff to show a) that giving this advice did not amount to or promote victim blaming and/or b) that even if it did implicitly, the advice would have some practical benefit to their daughter, and that the overwhelming moral duty of parents was to the immediate well being of their children. Obviously all of that can be effectively challenged in numerous ways, and in my room both negative teams won.

    [QoT: As already noted above, the perception of this moot as “an easy neg” simply reinforces how artificial an environment university debating is. And it’s no surprise to me that negative teams won – no one wants to be the adjudicator who says “yes I love rape culture.”]

    2) NO JUDGE at this tournament would have accepted an argument for the affirmative using victim blaming logic. At a minimum they would almost automatically lose the debate, and they likely would have faced very serious consequences on top of that unless they were an extremely novice debater.

    [QoT: this point is contradicted by your argument at 4. Victim-blaming rhetoric is frequently about “emotionally loaded rhetoric” and is very successful at “persuading” rape survivors that they are at fault.]

    3) The debate was inspired by Yoffe article. No matter how strongly you disagree with her the author is a well respected critic coming from a feminist perspective and attempted to make the case that opposing binge drinking because it has particularly negative harms to women is not the equivalent of victim blaming. Many people, approaching the article from a feminist perspective and in good faith, took different sides.

    [QoT: you can fuck right off with the “it was published in the mainstream media so it’s a good topic of debate”. How many moots do you get inspired by Michael Laws, Paul Henry, Pat Robertson, Bill O’Reilly? Naomi Wolf’s a well respected published feminist, are you going to debate “that rape victims are just jealous because their famous boyfriend was cheating on them”? And why was this the only moot which could be drawn from her writing?]

    4) Debating does not hold ‘logic’ as supreme compared to ’emotion’. Debating is about persuasion and emotionally loaded rhetoric can be an extremely persuasive tool.

    [QoT: Which only reinforces my point about certain privileged types of speech being held as supreme: it ain’t stereotypical women’s emotions which earn you points, is it?]

    5) Yes debating is inherently adversarial, and people who are better educated and privileged in other ways are going to find it easier. I would say that applies to most aspects of university life unfortunately.

    [QoT: “Unfortunately”. How lovely. As though it’s an accident that certain classes of people get to live life on the easiest difficulty setting. Oh well, nothing we can do about that, let’s stop challenging it.]

    • Nick

      [QoT: This comment has been edited to reduce the wall-of-text and delete arguments which have already been addressed.]

      Does the fact that most people on twitter condemned JT and WIllie after their appalling comments show that twitter is an ‘artificial environment’? What it shows is that university debaters are more liberal and feminist than the average New Zealander, that doesn’t make it artificial.

      [QoT: Twitter is incredibly artificial. It skews younger and more privileged and people on it tend to associate strongly with people who agree with them. It’s fucking laughable for you to argue that any organisation which put forward this moot and sees no problem with it, is liberal or feminist, especially when, as already addressed in my post, it reinforces patriarchal tropes about respectability, behaviour, and argument.]

      [I am also thoroughly uninterested in hearing more about how “all debaters are totally awesome and liberal” when the original report on this debate in question noted that some (male) debaters were absolute shits about it.]

      “How many moots do you get inspired by Michael Laws, Paul Henry, Pat Robertson, Bill O’Reilly”

      Some. This year I have debated whether or not potential parents should require a licence (an idea Michael Laws vocally supports). Whether or not abortion is immoral was the final of the NZ Prepared Debating Championships in 2012. I don’t know why the chief adjudicator picked this particular motion in this particular round over others, but it certainly hasn’t been the only motion on an explicitly feminist issue that has been debated.

      [QoT: abortion is different to rape culture because there’s a much higher level of active argument about it in our society. I am not going to explain again that, despite recent advances on the subject, rape culture is largely unquestioned and arguments about policing women’s behaviour are frequently accepted as objective by authority figures. That’s why this whole Roast Busters story even fucking happened.]

      “How lovely. As though it’s an accident that certain classes of people get to live life on the easiest difficulty setting. Oh well, nothing we can do about that, let’s stop challenging it.”

      We do challenge privilege in debating! Some tournaments (the Australasian Championships) have gender quotas for squads for example. More to the point, debating is a reflection of the community from which debaters are drawn, and since privilege is an advantage in university it is an advantage in debating. I don’t however see you making a broad attack on universities.

      [QoT: I have seen nothing in any comments to date which substantiate this. Read the fucking post. Read how many comments are basically asserting that debating is The Totally Liberal Awesome Hobby without even acknowledging the fact that this was a shitty moot and it affected people negatively. Add two and two, and understand that four is equal to debating supports patriarchy. Like it says up the top.]

      • muerknz

        When I was younger and attending university I would have been willing to debate issues such as alcohol/rape and abortion. I would have enjoyed the abstract game nature of the contest and revelled in the skill it took to compete. Now that I’m a lot older and I have significantly more life experience I would not. I’m not saying that all contentious topics are off limits, but I do see how topics can affect people personally. Also there are some topics that are too important to be fodder for a game, so for example I would not debate alcohol/rape, but nor would I debate abortion (I’m against abortion on the basis that it ends a human life).

        I would discuss these topics, even debate them, but only in a real life situation where I was debating with people who genuinely disagreed with me. There’s a level of integrity that I think people need to adhere to. I would refuse to use what little debating ability I had to argue for something evil or to have a debate that could cause people pain.

        I still think there are plenty of topics that debaters can hone their skills on, but not ones that have the likely side effect of hurting someone personally.

  7. Nicci

    Thanks for writing this. Totally agree. Hopefully those debating kids will get an idea of how others perceive them from the commentary on twitter, and realise they drive a lot of people off because of it.

      • Nicci

        True, they defend their own. And some are so swaddled in privilege I think they are sincerely incapable of understanding why this is unacceptable. You’ve obviously attracted some in the latter camp, I’d just delete further comments from them as they will literally never stop arguing, I remember them from the uni hostels. Insufferable.

  8. rhinocrates

    “Patriarchy privileges intellect and demonizes emotion.”

    Which is an, ah… ‘aspiration’. I’d say that it privileges selected emotions by calling them reason, which is nicely deconstructed if you watch Dr Strangelove and read Voltaire’s Bastards.