Most high schoolers have likely heard of Debate, an activity typically known for it’s competitive demographic and seemingly “nerdy” population. The club exists in nearly every high school, though it’s clearly more popular in some than in others. For those that don’t participate in it, Debate is delegated into smaller niches so to speak, known for their diverse approaches to the static one-on-one debate format that most of us typically think of. Among these exist Public Forum, Lincoln-Douglas, and a plethora of other options, however the one I’ve chosen to highlight is Policy.
Policy debate entails stimulating the proposal of a plan to Congress, and though it’s never explicitly “voted on,” the pro and con sides debate its theoretical benefits or downfalls. Typically, people associate policy debate with fast speaking and variety of odd words, but in truth, the activity is far more beneficial than what might initially meet the eye.
This year’s topic for policy debate is education reform, an idea that to many is highly personal and plays a strong role in their lives outside of the debate space. For this reason, many debaters have chosen to speak on topics personal to themselves, whether they’re related to race or sexuality. Personally, I’ve chosen to speak about feminism. Coming from a town where the word “feminism” is plagued by the stereotype of an irrationally angry woman, the choice isn’t one that I have made without pushback. These harmful stereotypes thankfully exist in a lesser form within debate rounds, simply because any notions of disrespect are typically construed as a reason for a debater to lose. But, this isn’t to say that I haven’t combatted a good amount of bias in making the types of arguments that I do. I’ve still had judges roll their eyes in annoyance as I talked about the state of being female in America and the way reforms don’t take this into account. However, because of the protected nature of the debate space, though I’m painfully aware that many of my opponents typically disagree with the nature of the arguments that I make, I still am allowed to make them. This space is one where despite their thoughts, my opponents, and frankly the judges, are forced to listen and understand this perspective, even if it simply be to formulate a decision.
Because of the way I’ve heard opposing arguments articulated, I don’t necessarily find it surprising that some believe feminism at its roots is a movement of complaining. This isn’t to say I agree in the slightest, but seeing the way the media and many people within my community have painted it, I don’t believe these types of dismissals are all that surprising. But, to me, debating offers a unique opportunity to allow for the open and semi-influential discussion of ideas. Though I recognize one speech won’t drastically alter the way many men and women in a conservative area view feminism, I find that debate offers a unique space where whether my opponents agree with me or not, respect and mutual understanding is a precondition to entering the debate itself. And, given that I’ve heard many equate the resistance to the feminist movement as ignorance, this type of space I believe could provide an unconventional method for combatting it.
Additionally, given the level of intelligence of many of those participating in the activity, I find this potential to be incredibly important. Given the nature of debate, many of the students that participate in it will go on to play important roles in policymaking, activism, and law. We can look to people like Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher, and Richard Nixon for gleaming examples of how these skills spill over into the real world. In this way, I find that the discussion of feminism in the debate space is incredibly important.
It provides a real opportunity to force those that disagree to listen and understand, without forcing them to agree. This type of understanding I strongly believe is vital to the future of activism movements, as with it comes a mutual status of respect. In this way, I see a future for feminism through debate.
Though it’s impossible to change the minds of a population, I’ve come to realize that small changes in mindset are ways that big changes begin. We can look to the LGBTQ+ movement for shining examples of this, and to many other movements for equality throughout history. In this sense, a debate won’t reverse the way many people in conservative districts view the feminist movement, but it provides the opportunity for small, pinpointed and personal change. This, I believe, is how the future of the feminist movement should look and will look if we as teenagers continue to voice our dissent in spaces like debate.
Photo via the 2013 South Dakota High School Debate Tournament, recorded on YouTube.