09/09/2007 06:09 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Politics of Discourse and Exclusion

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Lately I've been taking part in a lively discussion among debaters, former debaters, and coaches about what David Somers, my coaching colleague from Riverside Community college, has termed "The Schism" - a division over what comprises correct and acceptable discourse in the debate setting. The battle is being waged, in general, between regionally-based schools that tend to take a more traditional view of debate and those schools and teams that are competing on the national circuit, where debate has evolved into a very different-looking event. One of the sources of discord is the degree to which this evolution can serve to exclude those not already "in the know." David recently commented that "The debaters pushing the envelope of innovation don't need Brechtian Performative Invitational Ironic Interpretive Masai Dance (with a dispositional counterplan) to beat two kids who just transferred from a community college to a nationally-ranked four-year school and are in their first Open-division round ever at a major tournament." In other words, sometimes the unique, special, and cutting-edge can become pretentious and exclusionary. (A note for former debaters and non-debaters alike: the preceding description is actually gibberish; David also works as a standup comedian and is not above deploying a little pretentious rhetoric of his own to make a point.) His answer, though, unlike many of his community college peers, is not to penalize the Brechtian Interpretive Masai dance cases. David is mobilizing mentoring and support networks so that any and all debaters who are interested can learn to develop cutting-edge debate cases of their own, presumably replete with specialized discourse. At the very least, they'll learn to successfully oppose these cases.

The subject of exclusion in education and our wider society has been on my mind a lot lately, anyway, and I think it ought to be on the minds of a lot more people. Politicians are campaigning on the subject of strengthening the U.S. educational system and reforming NCLB. My state, Nevada, is suddenly on the national campaign map because of our increasingly diverse population, and that diversity brings political and educational challenges. In my last piece, I wondered what the world would be like if more of our students could learn in some of the ways my debate students are allowed to; if they could actively engage and critique the information they learned, rather than just learning and regurgitating lots of dry facts on standardized tests. I began my final paragraph with a question: "So what would our educational system be like if it were filled with students who constantly questioned and argued, who insatiably sought out new information so that they could use it to out-think and out-maneuver others?" Michael Coray, who is Special Assistant to the President for Diversity here at the University of Nevada, Reno, read the piece and commented that he believed the question undermined everything I had written before: "Sounds like the purpose of an educational system that values questioning and arguing is to assert hegemony and maintain the privilege which rides in its wake?" Although exclusion was not explicitly on my mind when I wrote that question, it should have been, and, perhaps, there really was a Freudian mechanism at work there. Because discourse, I fear, is just as much a tool of exclusion as one of communication, and we are surrounded by the ugly evidence.

That language can be a barrier to inclusion is well-understood by those all along the political spectrum. A recently-released report by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA notes, "Too often Latino students face triple segregation by race, class, and language." I would argue, though, that while the language barriers faced by English language learners are significant, they are just the tip of the iceberg. Even after immigrants have gained fluency in English, they still face the exclusion experienced by all or most children of less-educated families as they try to succeed in our schools and society; language use is a hallmark of class in our society. Sheer vocabulary is one issue, of course, but communication style seems to have even more far-reaching consequences, since it is both subtler and less well-known by the general public. Lisa Delpit's book, Other People's Children, points out that culturally-based communication differences between average white middle-class educators and their non-white and/or working class students can lie at the heart of so-called "under-achievement" by those students. Delpit says, for example, that coded requests like "Wouldn't you like to put away your toys now?" are commonly used by educated middle-class whites but may be interpreted as genuine questions by working-class students more accustomed to explicit commands from members of their own communities. Of course, when those students ignore the embedded command, or answer, "No," and continue to play, they are often labeled as troublemakers. That perception, leading to further miscommunication and snowballing, can follow them and inform the rest of their school careers. Delpit, like my colleague David, advocates for care and awareness in our own speech, as well as efforts to reach out to the potentially disenfranchised through better educational practices.

Of course, difficulty communicating clearly seems to be inherent to - well, to communication. And exclusion can cut in both directions; a number of the debaters who are out there working on the theoretical edge of debate feel incredibly excluded when the judges from the regional programs refuse to recognize their advocacies as legitimate forms of debate. When I stepped into one particularly heated exchange (and, as I saw it, series of misunderstandings) on this subject on an online debate forum, I said, "The first issue, and it's one I see all over on the past few posts, is that y'all seem to assume that your written explanations are just perfectly self-explanatory and transparent - mais non! This is a problem at every level of written communication, so no big surprise that it applies here, right?" Another of my coaching colleagues, Kevin O'Leary of Washburn University, responded, "It's an occurrence at every level/form of communication, written or not. It doesn't have to be 'problematic.' This was the Enlightenment's trap." Even the best-articulated attempts at communication are laden with pitfalls, then, even among well-educated professionals in the field!

The additional factor that makes even well-thought-out helping strategies problematic is the element of competition that seems ever-present in our society. The regional judges in debate are working to protect their squads' chances of success, as well as educating them for future careers, while the innovators on the national circuit presumably have the same concerns about both education and winning. In the "real world," the competitive motivation clearly seems to win out in debates among politicians; we see them ignore, over-simplify, and sometimes deliberately mischaracterize each others' arguments in order to get to their own sound bite, to "score." I recently posed this problem to members of the debate community and asked to what degree they think it relates to them. Dan Leibson, a highly-ranked debater from CSU Long Beach, responded: "I think debate is all about teaching people to wait to talk, not to listen, which is really unfortunate. I mean, you are also clearly on point that people are taught to mischaracterize arguments in order to win debate rounds ...I think it all comes down to the problem that people are taught that the thing of primary importance in the round is the ballot. When that is true, engaging with The Other honestly will often be counter-productive to your goal of winning the ballot because excluding them or acting dishonestly could lead to an easier win."

So, for our nation's politicians and too many of its students and debaters (and dare I include its educators?), refusal to engage honestly - either willful or inadvertent -- can be a key to victory and a method of perpetuating exclusion. Those being excluded from genuine discourse about problems and solutions are, by and large, the poor, the less-educated, the people of color. Fortunately, all is not doom and gloom in the debate world. I am seeing many collegiate debaters and coaches reject simple victory in favor of socially responsible discourse. As Dan puts it, "I found once you get over the ballot being most important, it's way easier to listen to other people, to try to help them out, to allow them to have a better understanding of what's going on, because it's something that is positive for life, even though it may allow them insights useful to winning the ballot." Dan admits, of course, that in the heat of the argument his own communications are sometimes less than considered and considerate, but he generally spends a great deal of time after rounds and between tournaments talking to other debaters about these issues, sharing what he is thinking and learning.

Are there any politicians out there who would risk personal victory in favor of honest and inclusive discourse for the greater good?

The above piece was produced through OffTheBus, a citizen journalism project hosted at the Huffington Post and launched in partnership with NewAssignment.Net. For more information, read Arianna Huffington's project introduction. If you'd like to join our blogging team, sign up here. If you're interested in other opportunities, you can see the list here.