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You’ve all imbibed the “burden of communication rests on the communicator” and “the judge is always right” narratives from your coaches and parents. Contrary to the (intentionally provocative) title, these sentiments aren’t inaccurate per se. Homeschool debate is a game with a simple objective: winning the ballot. HOWEVER, many debaters conflate this game with an adjacent—yet fundamentally disparate—game: winning the flow. Sometimes, these games align; winning the flow often entails winning the ballot. But even when both games converge, the causality between the two is indeterminate. Maybe we can’t always attribute the vaunted win rates of talented debate titans to winning the flow but rather to a plethora of alternate related factors: perceptual dominance, ethos, clarity—a cocktail of intangibles which essentially amount to vibes. 

At any rate, let’s not discount these narratives—they’re immensely beneficial in combating this pernicious conflation. Speaking pragmatically, if you want to decorate your room with some shiny objects, boost your clout, garner some scholarship money to PHC, achieve your pet underlying incentive for winning, you sure as heck better disassociate the two games and remember that the explicit endgame of NCFCA and Stoa is judge accommodation, which means homeschool debate is about cultivating arguments and personas which asymptotically approach universal appeal, not winning on the flow. The activity we cherish is ultimately a crapshoot—you can be a debate demigod and encounter judges who are irrevocably biased against your arguments, your speaking style, your gender, judges who obstinately adhere to their preconceived debate theory even though you lucidly explain the legitimacy of topical counterplans with zero AFF engagement, judges who misunderstand your arguments even though you’re 26-2 this year, etc. Hence the metaphor of an asymptote—you have to approximate universal appeal to the best of your ability and that’s frequently different from winning the flow.

Point is, if you want to win the game as it’s currently constituted, adopt those narratives. Nevertheless, I hope to outline a preliminary philosophy of when the judge is wrong. Why? Because it hopefully improves judging quality. And because I firmly believe that within the social contract of the debate space (I hate myself for saying that just as much as you do), judges undertake certain obligations to debaters.

Let’s start with two obvious cases. The judge isn’t always right when:

  • Their voluntary or involuntary distraction impedes their comprehension of the debate—checking their phone, daydreaming about the forthcoming food in hospitality, falling asleep, etc. 
  • They deliberately select ballots with problematic intentions, such as planning to vote for or against a particular debater for whatever reason.

The justification here is probably intuitive, but in case it isn’t, consider the alternative: If we apply the “judge is always right” maxim to these scenarios, we traffic in some flagrant victim-blaming. “You should have been more engaging to prevent the judge from getting distracted.” “You should have been more charming/charismatic to alter their bias.” Even in cases where it’s theoretically possible that this hypothetical version of you could have done something differently, the opportunity to adapt at best usually comes too late and at worst is entirely unknowable to you—you’re not aware that a dash of humor would have snatched your narcoleptic judge from the sweet embrace of slumber until they start snoring during your critical third DA. If we continue to press the “burden of communication is on the communicator” rubric to its logical conclusion, then debaters should transmute their cases into standup comedy routines to preempt this situation from ever happening because, hey, it’s their burden—if it happens it’s their fault! And while ADS debate might not be a wholly unwelcome development, it undercuts certain elements of debate’s fundamentally academic orientation. The solution to the reductio is acknowledging that judges bear an obligation to debaters to actively eliminate distractions and impartially select ballots. In other words, the judge isn’t always right.

Establishing the existence of this baseline obligation provides the basis for its expansion. If we agree that judges are obligated to debaters in some meaningful sense, we should (1) isolate the principles undergirding that obligation and (2) examine the application of those principles. Again, since this is intended to be an initial foray, I’ll sketch just two extrapolations of this obligation:

  1. Flowing. The distractions point above implies a duty to memory: Distractions are problematic because they undercut a judge’s ability to recall details about the round, a prerequisite to participating in one’s role as judge. If flowing substantially increases a judge’s ability to recall arguments (spoiler alert: it does) AND doesn’t infringe on some countervailing right (spoiler alert: it doesn’t), then it’s arguably entailed by a duty to memory. Judges who flout this norm shirk their duty and they’re not always right.
  2. Objectivity. The problematic intentions point above implies a duty to neutrality: If judges must interrogate their intentions to ensure they don’t evaluate debaters from dubious motivations, whether they’re trying to sabotage someone or—more innocuously—expecting teams to win rounds because their reputation precedes them (I’ve, uh, been guilty of the latter. BUT NOT the former smh), they should probably interrogate a litany of other things too… starting with asking “am I persuaded by this argument because I personally believe it or because the debater provided a warrant for it?” for every. single. argument. As an aside, I certainly don’t want to foster defeatism—just because the vast majority of judges to varying degrees don’t uphold their obligation to neutrality doesn’t mean you can’t persuade them. Way back in 2016—my senior year of high school—NCFCA debated privacy vs. security for LD. There was this infamous ex-military community judge who rolled up to all the tournaments at a location that will remain unnamed, judged every LD prelim and as many outrounds as he could, and ALWAYS voted NEG because nAtiONal sEcuriTY. Until my good friend literally went full MURICA mode on AFF—complete with a voting issue acronym of “USA”—and took the dub. Just because judges don’t abide by this obligation doesn’t mean they’re unpersuadable; it just decreases overall fairness.

Ok, so how does this interface with the classic homeschool debate mission of developing practical persuasion skills? Particularly with the latter point of objectivity—don’t we need to cultivate our ability to overcome prejudice and bias, as literally every LDer ever intones, “in the real world?” Channeling Ethos blog manager Ben Brown’s excellent piece on the separation of competitive debate and practical benefits, I’d contend that NCFCA and Stoa doesn’t approximate real world persuasion in the vast majority of circumstances. Real world persuasion is generally discursive—you’re usually attempting to persuade a person with whom you’re talking (not an external observer) through the give-and-take of conversation (not circumscribed speech times). Homeschool debate is an artificially constructed environment… already a different project from real world persuasion. As a result, these obligations are consonant with the unique environment of competitive debate, where the judge is situated as a neutral arbiter akin to the court system.

The mantra that the judge is always right exemplifies the game debaters navigate, but it obfuscates the obligations judges have towards their debaters. Let’s advocate for mechanisms which promote judge education (improved orientation, shadowing opportunities like in collegiate British parliamentary debate, etc.) in homeschool debate.

Joel Erickson coaches Lincoln-Douglas for Ethos and British parliamentary debate at Wheaton College, where he studied philosophy. This fall, he will be attending Harvard Law School.

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