Hindsight 20/18: Debate
Sep 21, 2018 • Matt "math debater" Wang • ~ 40 minute read • 4846 words
For a large majority of my high school “career”, debate defined the person I was. It dictated my friend group, my schedule, and my personality. It got in the way of everything else I could do in my life, whether it be schoolwork, having fun, or personal relationships. In one perspective, you could view high school debating as controlling: as a jail that holds high schoolers prison. I know people in the debate community who believe that this is true.
Not me, however. I think high school debate is the best thing that has ever happened to me.
I have always loved talking and arguing. At a young age, I was always babbling about something - a common complaint from teachers, friends, and my parents is that I just wouldn’t shut up. This didn’t come from disrespect or enjoying being annoying. Rather, I really just did enjoy talking about anything; it kept me engaged.
This naturally transitioned me into public speaking. The type that I did, persuasive speaking, involves giving a 5-minute speech that attempts to convince the audience of something. This was by far my favourite part of middle school - I’d spend hours coming up with speech topics, writing several different drafts, and practicing them in front of the mirror. And, I thought I was pretty darn good at it too: I won a few awards, giving speeches on climate change, food scarcity, nuclear power, and the spirit of volunteering.
I think at the time, winning was a big part of what drove me to keep on doing public speaking. Of course, I don’t care about those awards any more (and I’d like to think that I don’t care about awards in general any more), but they played a crucial role in developing one of my most important passions now: social discourse.
not so humble humbling beginnings
The natural progression from doing persuasive speaking is debating, and that’s the path I followed. When I joined UCC in Grade 7, I went all-in on debating. I did it at school, though my opportunities were limited due to my age - so, I also took classes outside of school at a place called Toronto Debate Academy (TDA), for two hours a week. I definitely went in a little cocky: I came off of a hot streak of public speaking awards at my middle school, and I was demolishing people at UCC. TDA, however, changed things up - and for the better.
TDA is primarily taught by one man named Rudi Lof. Rudi is the best debate coach that I’ve ever met: not only is he very good at teaching the skills involved in debating, but he’s also great at knowing exactly how a specific kid should be taught debate - and how to teach them more than just debating.
At the time, I think there were two major characteristics that he identified: I was a bit cocky/disrespectful, and I was naturally curious. He did a great job of dealing with both of those sides of me.
To deal with the overconfidence, he had me face kids who were older than me and better at debate than me - an experience that I never had - and against whom I was promptly demolished. That definitely took me down a peg - and in the long-run, made me a much nicer person. But we’ll get more into that later.
As for the curiosity, Rudi just gave me a lot to read: I ended up reading the Economist weekly (something I still do now to this day, though out of enjoyment), articles that he sent us every week which focused on current affairs and debate topics, and a laundry list of historical events and books that I tore through over the next four years. As I’m sure you know by now, the type of media you consume significantly affects how you think and talk - and I like how that turned out for me.
I also went to my first “real” debate tournament: Hart House High Schools 2013. Unbeknownst to me, Hart House is one of the most competitive debate tournaments in Canada, and I promptly got smacked. I was a bit upset that I didn’t do well - it was a massive failure in comparison to coasting in middle school - but it left me with determination. Someday, I’d come back and win Hart House.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I would attend the next five Hart Houses. And I would never win.
In Grade 8, I could finally start debating for my school. At the time, I was an unproven talent (and still a bit cocky), so they didn’t send me to any tournaments yet. I tried to take matters into my own hands, so I signed up for York High Schools independently - a big no-no (and something I regret doing in hindsight). But, that no-no came with a big silver lining: I won top junior speaker - which inflated my ego by quite a bit, but also proved that I knew how to say words in the correct order. After returning from the trip, the club made me promise to only ever debate under the UCC name - and of course, I agreed.
That would be the start of my favorite activity in high school.
The rest of the Grade 8 year is pretty uneventful: I practiced a bit, went to a few tournaments, and did comparatively well for someone my age - but nothing stellar. The one thing I will highlight is that my debate partner at the time, Brent, became one of my best friends at the time - and that’s a relationship that I still hold dear. It was a sign of much more to come.
the golden run
Let’s jump ahead to Grade 9. For the next two years, I would have the best results that I’d ever get in my debating career; from an awards perspective, I had “peaked”. In that sense, I think it’s kind of disappointing - nobody wants to peak in Grade 9 and 10 - but more on that later.
First and foremost, I doubled down on Rudi’s classes. I moved up the ranks, kept on devouring all the resources that he gave me, and continually kept on improving. At that point, I think all of my cockiness in debating had subsided: I’d been beaten by enough debaters for that to never be a problem. But, I replaced that with a strong drive to learn more and know more: one that was fueled by the pursuit of knowledge, and not winning awards (though that’d become a plus). This is still the attitude that I have today, and it’s one that I’m proud of having.
The improvement showed. I won McGill High Schools’ Junior Final and got top speaker (though with a very embarrassing speech about how “blankets don’t stop rape” in front of an auditorium with more than a hundred people). I got 2nd Junior Speaker at Hart House, without breaking (i.e. not making the “playoffs” of a debate tournament - something that’ll happen quite a bit in my debate career). I went through the gauntlet of Ontario’s Junior Provincials, qualified for Nationals, and got 12th Speaker in the country - again without breaking (which made me the highest non-breaking speaker).
I want to be clear: I’m not here to flex some achievements I got in Grade 9, that’d be pathetic. I just want to set some context. This’ll all make sense as you read more of the story.
I also became friends with Julian, my new debate partner. He was (and still is) one of the smartest people that I had ever met, and I loved debating with him. I’ll talk about people more later though.
I maintained my hot streak in Grade 10. I returned to McGill, breaking to senior quarterfinals and then to semis, which is generally unheard of from a Grade 10 team - and then promptly got demolished by two other teams from my high school. I got 10th speaker for my troubles, which was nice. We went to Queen’s, and I was the 2nd U16 Speaker, again without breaking.
However, that still qualified us for the International Competition for Young Debaters (ICYD), a tournament where I’d head to Oxford and debate against people from all over the world. ICYD was possibly the singular highlight of my high school “career”. It was an amazing experience: my first (and to this date, only) time in Europe, touring Oxford, and meeting people from all over the world. It was also a crowning achievement for my debate “career”: we broke to semifinals, and I got 6th speaker - which made me feel pretty good (even if it didn’t mean I was the 6th best debater in the world in my age category). Without a doubt, this was the “peak” of my debating career - and a moment that I’ll look back on fondly for quite a while.
As a footnote, I did attend Hart House that year too, but I had to drop out after four rounds due to illness - even though we were on track to break. That’s a big disappointment for me - if I took better care of myself, my debate “career” would be different. I’ll touch on that in another post, though.
Uh oh, “the fall”. Sounds ominous, right?
Grade 11, as previously discussed, was a rough year for me - things got too busy, too out of my control. As a result, I had to drop out of Rudi’s classes - something that definitely impacted my debating.
We went back to McGill, and didn’t even break - even though I got 9th Speaker, I felt… disappointed. We bombed in the Oxford Qualifiers. We went to Queen’s, and didn’t break nor get any speaker awards. At Hart House, we broke to quarterfinals, and promptly got demolished - in a round about the ethics of technology, no less. No speaker awards that time either. We barely scratched ourselves out of senior regionals, ultimately to almost make it to nations (but not quite, as we lost a bubble round on sanctuary cities).
I also applied to join Team Canada, which is Canada’s official WSDC team - the team that represents Canada in the debate equivalent of the World Cup. It’s a very competitive team, as Canada generally punches above its weight (i.e. its population and “prestige”) in international competitions. I did well at the provincial tryout, going to the national tryout in Vancouver, but I ultimately lost a very close race to get on the team.
On one hand, being on Team Canada was a dream of mine: it was the ultimate form of debate competition, a nice show of patriotism, and the opportunity to spend time with some of the smartest people my age in Canada. It should have been devastating for me to hear that I didn’t make it - it sure did devastate other people.
I had such a bad year, debate and otherwise, that I fully expected myself to break down or spiral into a deep bout of depression.
I don’t know why, but I took it in stride - biting down and congratulating my friends that made it. I think that was a turning point for me.
Senior year was no better, but in a different way, it was better. In my final McGill run, we broke to semis and lost on a very hard motion. I racked up an 8th Speaker award there, a 3rd at Toronto Regionals, and a Top Speaker (my only one) at Oxford Provincials. At Hart House, we failed to deliver, not breaking, not getting a speaker award, and the same result happened at Ontario Provincials, losing a bubble round (i.e. if we won, we would’ve gone to nationals) on possibly the worst debate motion I’ve ever debated (THW classify the NRA as a terrorist organisation).
I ended my debate career with few trophies and medals to my name, with no appearances at senior nationals and not making Team Canada.
With all of this time I invested, I had no tournament wins or major accomplishments to show to universities.
And I never won Hart House, or even came close to it.
silver linings playbook
A part of me is still very sad, very disappointed. I know I could have done better; I know that I’m a better debater than what’s on the paper. Another part of me doubts that claim; that it’s just a remnant of my narcissism and cockiness, believing just a bit too hard in myself. But a final part, the most important part, doesn’t care any more.
That part recognizes high school debating as the greatest gift that I’ve ever received. In a very debate-y fashion, I’ll explain why in three points: on how high school debating functions as an institution, about debate as a mechanism for self-development, and about the people that I’ve met along the way.
For anybody who has done high school debating in Toronto, they know how hectic debate tournaments can be - and that OSDU makes the trains run on time. Yet, I think that high school debating is one of the best organized, most effective high school “institutions” (if those even exist). I think this lies in two parts: in the spirit of debate as an activity, and the group of people that debate typically selects for.
First, the spirit of the activity. Debate has been around for a very, very, long time, and it has a set of core ideals that have guided how debaters think and act for centuries. I don’t think I can speak for all debaters to identify those core ideals (which may or may not be a bad thing), but to me there’s been a holy trinity: open discourse, pursuit of knowledge, and a welcoming community.
Open discourse is literally what the activity of debate is: examining both sides of an argument, looking at different perspectives, balancing different ideologies and world views.
The pursuit of knowledge is the end goal of debate: to know more. Not only knowing history and statistics and facts, but other people’s perspectives, cultures, and life experiences.
A welcoming community is what every activity should strive for, but it’s doubly important in debating: without a welcoming community, people wouldn’t be willing to speak their minds nor argue against each other. Only with a community that welcomes all people, and all ideas, can debate fully flourish.
Now, other activities have similar goals too: MUN, Mock Trial, DECA, etc. However, they don’t practice what they preach to the same extent. I can’t exactly put my finger on why this is the case, though I think it has to do with a multitude of factors: level of corporate involvement, tradition, and most importantly, selection bias.
According to our friends at Wikipedia,
Selection bias is the bias introduced by the selection of individuals, groups or data for analysis in such a way that proper randomization is not achieved, thereby ensuring that the sample obtained is not representative of the population intended to be analyzed.
Basically, I mean that the group of people who do high school debate are radically different from a sample of random teenagers. This has to do with the type of activity that debating is: compared to MUN or DECA, debate has a significantly steeper learning curve, requires people to explicitly argue against their personal opinions 50% of the time, and has a much harder competitive pool (i.e. it’s very hard to win because of bracketing, and there aren’t many awards). All of this means that high school debate attracts a certain kind of person (e.g. people willing to put in huge amounts of time and energy to argue against their own personal opinions), and proceeds to weed out a large proportion of the initial group.
The resulting group of people (i.e. the “debate community”) tend to have certain character traits. In order to survive in high school debate, you need to have grit, you need to love reading, you need to be open-minded, you need to be articulate, you need to love learning. Those are traits that I’d love to have in a friend, and so naturally, I’ve made many friends through debate. These are attributes that I’d like to cultivate in myself.
I do want to hone in on one specific virtue, open-mindedness. The world that we live in today, one polarized by identity politics, social media echo chambers, and anonymous aggression, does not lend itself to good discourse. Extracurriculars like Model UN say that they create open-minded communities, but I think that high school debate is the only community that truly follows up to that virtue. In order to be a good debater, you need to entertain all options - not just your own opinion. To be a great debater, you have to fundamentally understand the opposition, to understand the life experiences and ideological foundations that shape people’s opinions.
I may not be a great debater, but I’ve had the pleasure of talking to many of them - and it’s always a pleasure. When I come in, I feel no judgement for my opinions nor shame for ignorance. When I come away, I feel like I’ve always learned something - about myself, about others, about the world.
It’s also worth it to point out that there are actual institutions in high school debate that propagate these ideas. Tournaments are run by universities or debating organizations, who have the sole goal of furthering debate (in its semantic sense, not the competition) - and as such push these ideas forward. The people that I’ve met who run these debate tournaments deserve equally as much praise as those who participate in them: they toil tirelessly to create an environment of true open-mindedness and discourse, an environment that is endangered by the status quo.
I think there’s a little bit of crossover from the previous theme. Out of the virtues, I do think that the most important impact on me has been a transition in open-mindedness. Before I did debating, I was very cocky; I believed I was always right, and I just couldn’t fathom that somebody could disagree with me. I never tried to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes - mine were always better!
Debate has changed that attitude in a few ways. It pointed out that I wasn’t always right - and that if I kept being that cocky, everybody wouldn’t like me, and I’d lose a lot. Sometimes, this came from somebody flat out telling me that I was wrong, in a debate or just in casual conversation. But more significantly, it often came from myself. When I’d have to make an argument for a side that I didn’t believe in, I really had to dig down and empathize with “the other side”. Over time, there were certain personal opinions that I couldn’t justify - the counterargument was just too good, and I knew that because I said it in a speech.
When I explain this to people, my most common example is affirmative action. As an Asian American male, I think that affirmative action significantly disadvantages me (which is somewhat contentious, and I suggest you do your own research). As a result, I was staunchly anti-affirmative action - why would I support something that is clearly so racist, something that targets me for something I didn’t control? Clearly, this was a failure of modern liberalism.
Since it’s so controversial, it’s a very common debate topic. I can’t count on two hands how many speeches I’ve given supporting affirmative action. And somewhere along the way, I realised that the arguments that I made actually made sense - and moreso, that I couldn’t defend my own personal position in a debate.
I am now pro-affirmative action - my gripes with it come with execution, not principle. And this isn’t the only time that debate has “flipped” my personal opinions. To name a few, debating has changed my mind on abortions (to pro-choice), American interventionism (generally bad), religion (respectful agnostic instead of asshole atheist), No Child Left Behind (terrible idea), and even being vegan (a great idea, even though I still like eating meat). Generally, you could say that debate has made me more left-leaning (as it typically does), but it’s also simultaneously made me understand more about conservative viewpoints that I don’t agree with.
My example for this is Brexit. I think Brexit is an awful idea, and I hope that the UK can somehow still maintain as many of the benefits of the EU that it can (and vice-versa). If Brexit had happened before I started debating, I can guarantee that I’d lambast anybody who publicly supported it: called them stupid, yell at them, angery react their facebook posts. However, I think that’s the wrong move. A debate coach I had (Lewis) pointed out why empathy is so important in situations like this: if you’re a steel worker in rural Scotland who just lost his job to globalization, and Nigel Farage says that he can get you back your livelihood, then of course you’d support Brexit. It’s made me realise that most of the “incorrect opinions” that I thought other people had were not out of ignorance, stupidity, or malice: it was out of circumstance.
As a result of that, I think I’m a much less combative, more respectful person. Occasionally, I’ll still have outbursts of obnoxious cockiness, but they’re usually about small things like whether Lady Bird and Moonlight are stylistically similar movies or if hot dogs are sandwiches. On big picture things, ideas that people hold close to their heart and shape their identities, I think I’m much more understanding. That’s what the world needs more of.
Debate has also shaped who I am in other ways. It has made me a more confident public speaker, more analytical in how I read and write, and has made me more aware of current affairs and history. It took me down a notch, something that I desperately needed, but has also given me confidence to speak my mind when I think it’s truly important.
Without a doubt, debate has left me a better person.
you, and other people
But, enough about me - I’m my least favourite subject. Debate has also brought me closer to a lot of super cool people: people who’ve benefited from it just as much as I have. Outside of UCC, my closest friends have all been people I’ve met through debate in some way, shape, or form, whether it be at Rudi’s class, a debate tournament, or through other debating friends.
I love most of the people who do debate. As a community, it’s very supportive - you’re likely to see more and more familiar faces in tournaments and in rounds, and as you become a veteran you start facing all of your friends in rounds. In other activities that are competitively geared (like MUN), it’s often hard to become friends with your competitors - since it’s hard to separate the person themselves from the entity that’s trying to beat you at the game. Yet, I’ve never had that problem with debate: when the round is over, the round is over - and we all become friends (barring a few oddities).
When I lose to my friends, I don’t feel upset - sure, I wish I debated better, but at that point in time I’m fully supportive and cheering them on in their next few rounds. Very few other activities are like this: in most of my sports career for example, sportsmanship was only a word that administration would remind us of. In debating, sportsmanship is the name of the game. Metaphorically.
A big example for me is Team Canada. Even though I didn’t make the team, I felt no resentment; rather, I just kept cheering them on and hoped that my friends on the team would succeed. Compare this with the attitude that people treat sports teams, or even universities: if you get rejected, it’s all “fuck them, they suck” and not “good luck to them”.
This is not to say that there aren’t bad apples in the bunch, or drama that shouldn’t be happening. But, my experience with debating’s community was almost wholly positive: as it weeds out people with negative attitudes or people who are too combative, the people that you see time and time again are amazing.
Those people have shaped me too, outside of the virtues of debating. Specific people I’ve met have rightfully called me out on being an asshole, or supported me through tough times, or gave me opportunities that I would never have had otherwise. It has created very deep relationships for me - since all we do is talk, I feel more comfortable talking to debaters about big picture problems or when I’m self reflecting. It’s made me a better person (wow, I’ve typed that sentence out so many times), and I’m grateful for that (that phrase too).
I didn’t do this for the other hindsights, but I’ll quickly give shoutouts to the people who greatly impacted me throughout debating (in one way or another). Many thanks to Rudi, Malcolm, Kimathi, Julian, Adil, Brent, Eric, Heather, Logan, Nitish, Justin, Imran, Sara, Emily, Adithya, Alykhan, Jill, Helena, Naomi, Max, Lewis, Ms Wang, Ms Turner, and Steven Penner. There are countless more that I’ll forget to name - thank you to all of you too.
other, disorganized thoughts
Here are some other, disjointed thoughts that I’ve had - there’s no discernible structure here, and you’re fine to skip this. Or anything I write, really.
I do think there are some small negatives from debating. In some ways, it has made me more pretentious and combative (typically when talking politics), something that I’m working on toning down now. When my “hot streak” ended, it really hit me hard mentally - something that I could’ve dealt with much more healthily than how I did. It had made me very results-oriented for quite some time, always looking through the tab and at speaker scores. Yet, I think that I’ve outgrown most of these issues, in part because people in the debate community have called me out for being… douchey.
I often think about what my life would be like if I committed harder to debate. I balanced it with WAC, MUN, CS stuff, and schoolwork - if I went all in, would I have been good enough to make Team Canada? Would I be studying PPE at some English university or in a pre-law track in an Ivy, instead of doing CS at UCLA? Would I have gotten the awards that I craved, the recognition that I wanted? Or would I have the same success that I had, and not be good at anything else either?
I also do wonder about what my life would be like if I didn’t do debate. I often envision myself just being a worse-off person, but I always do wonder. Would I have met different people that I connected with as well as I had from debating? Would I have even cared about current affairs? Would I be much better at computer science? Would I be happier?
Dwelling on the past is almost never helpful, but since debate has been such a big part of my life, it does keep me up at night. But, I’m happy with the journey that I’ve travelled, and the people and things I’ve seen along the way.
the beginning and the end
I’m going to try debating at UCLA. I’m a bit rusty, and I’m definitely not as good as a lot of the debaters on the university circuit. But, I really love debating, and I’m excited to do more of it.
If you’re reading this and you’re in high school (or middle school), I’d absolutely recommend that you try debating. It’s not for everybody, and it will be hard, but almost everybody in the debate circuit has cited it as the most impactful, most influential, most important activity that they did in high school.
If you’re reading this and you know me personally, you know that there are parts to this story that I’ve left out on purpose.
If you’re reading this and you know me personally, you know how much debating has meant to me, and how much it has changed my life.
If you’re reading this and you don’t know me personally, hopefully I’ve given you a window into the wonderful activity of high school debating, of what has truly changed the life of this insignificant guy from Toronto.
If you’re reading this, I’d like to congratulate you for getting through 4815 words of terrible writing, and I hope that I’ve provided some insight on how my mind works.
If you’re reading this, I’d like to thank you.
Until next time!