As a young child, I’ve never forgotten a picture of Jesus that I heard painted at a Bible study. Jesus was the King of everything and everything was made through Him. Yet, He didn’t come down as a King in all His majesty. He didn’t part back the skies and say “here I am, I am your Savior, worship me!” He didn’t send multitudes of angels to go before Him.
No. He instead chose to come to the earth as a baby — arguably the weakest way one could come into the world. He disarmed Himself of all His glory and his majesty. Why? Because He was trying to set an example for us. He had to live our lives in order to teach us the ways of God and to then ultimately die for us on that tree — as the only perfect and unblemished human being ever and forever.
In debate, judges must do something very similar. When entering a room, we must disarm ourselves. We must leave our opinions, our ideas, and most of our knowledge on the subject at the door. Then we must sit down…. And listen. Not to ourselves, but to the debaters. Why? For the same reason that Jesus disarmed Himself: teaching and education.
Here are three reasons why.
Reason 1: Judge Minds Are Mostly Unknown
The mind of the judge is oftentimes confusing and hard to interpret for debaters. It’s not entirely their fault… granted the fact that debaters are mostly prohibited from interacting with the judge, and — as per NCFCA’s recent (and somewhat un-educational and unfair) rule changes — debaters may no longer ask about judging philosophy and must only stick to general questioning.
With this in mind, it’s practically impossible for debaters to guess what their judge’s opinions and initial arguments for/against XYZ argument is. If a judge comes into a round with their initial bias, two not-so-good things have a high likelihood of happening.
First, debaters on both sides are highly likely to hit an argument you absolutely disagree with on a fundamental level. In this case, the playing field for debaters becomes uneven because the pro-debaters have to convince you of a position that you’re highly against without even knowing that you are. Furthermore, the con-debaters don’t even need to say anything and yet would most likely win the argument with zero effort.
Second, the chances are also very high that debaters hit an argument that you absolutely agree with. In this case, the playing field becomes just as uneven as when there’s an argument you absolutely disagree with because now the pro-debaters have to do less to convince you of that argument and con-debaters have to do more to convince you it’s false.
We’ll talk about why this is a nightmare scenario for debaters at the end of this article, but first I’d like to get to the second reason…
Reason 2: Two Teams, Not Three
When you walk into a normal debate round and take a seat, you see three teams: the affirmative team, the negative team, and…. The judge’s team.
“Wait a minute! That doesn’t sound right, does it??” is probably the question going through your head right now. Your confusion is correct. There are only two teams in debate rounds. You have the affirmative who proposes an idea and the negative who tells you why that idea isn’t admirable ONLY in regard to affirmative arguments.
“Duh!” is probably your next thought. “Why does it matter that there’s two teams?”
Allow me to explain myself, because this is the fundamental reason why we ask debate judges to lay down their personal bias before entering the round: the judge ONLY looks at arguments in respect to the OTHER team’s opposition arguments.
What do I mean by that? Well, it’s quite simple. When you judge a debate round, you drop your initial personal bias on any and all arguments. Maybe you know that the AFF’s funding doesn’t exist. Maybe you hate counter plans. Perhaps you dislike solvency arguments. Ask yourself one question in these scenarios: “Did the other team contest it?” And if they didn’t, then that means the argument wasn’t submitted in the round and therefore you can’t vote on it.
Look at it like a courtroom. An accused criminal cannot be found guilty of a crime that wasn’t first proven by evidence and argumentation that was submitted to the evidence docket. Likewise, you as a judge cannot vote on arguments that weren’t presented in rounds, regardless of how strong your personal opinions about them are.
Reason 3: Debate is a Simulation of the Real World
“Okay, Justin, up to this point you’ve presented a very solid line of argumentation. But isn’t debate supposed to be about the real world?? Isn’t one of the core tenets of high school debate about learning how to persuasive someone who disagrees with you because that’s what happens in the real world??”
Amazing question! I have two responses which I’m sure are agreeable to.
First, I like your question, but it, unfortunately, isn’t what’s happening here. If leagues allowed debaters to get to know the judge’s opinion more and have conversations with them, I would absolutely agree with the statement of “conversation” in your question. However, this is unfortunately not the case. As I’ve said before, debaters are completely unaware of the judge’s personal bias on almost all arguments. Even if a judge was to give a 10-minute introduction of what they liked and didn’t like, then there would still be a plethora of untouched biases that would be met on each and every individual argument. It’s impossible to disclose all bias, so therefore we judges should completely ignore bias in rounds.
But second and much more importantly, high school debate models the real world, but it’s also a simulation. What that means is that it’s not the “real thing” but we try to get it close as possible. What this means is that while many things are going to be the same as the real world, there are some things that might not.
Personal bias is an excellent example of this. While personal bias is true and exists in real life and in the real world, it’s unsustainable in debate rounds. Why? Well, in the real world, people are actually running for president, they’re actually running for the Senate or House of Representatives, and they’re actually running for governor or state representative. In a debate round, debaters are just proposing a policy and responding to negations of that policy. Or proposing a value and responding to disagreements with that value. It’s not actually getting passed and it’s not actually real. It’s simulated.
And personal bias is a dangerous and uncontrollable variable in that simulation that should be immediately eliminated.
To Disarm or Not? Answer: Think About The Debater
Before we conclude, I would like to quickly perform a thought experiment. Imagine yourself as a high school debate. Young. Overly energetic. Illogical (somewhat ;).
Having a judge who used personal bias in-round would be a nightmare to you — a high school debater who spends hours and hours a week researching, prepping out strategies, and running practice rounds to test new skills. Furthermore, many of these debaters spend thousands of dollars to be at each tournament and most likely pay for debate clubs and private coaching. If they’re losing arguments because of initial judge personal bias that you can’t control nor see and avoid, then how dejected and discouraged do you think you’d feel?
You’d probably feel as if all the cards were stacked against you and the entire world is scheming to hurt your chances in life. Image if you were just one round away from breaking. Or perhaps one ballot away from a high-level outround. Imagine how heartbroken a debater who just lost a round due to a personal bias judge would be.
I kid you not, but this is exactly what debaters have nightmares about and is one of their greatest fears. So I propose a simple solution: leave your bias at the door. Disarm yourself in love and teaching, just like Jesus did for us. In doing this, set an example of ethicality for the students you judge.
The future debaters you judge would be thrilled. And so would I.
Vote Your Opinion!
What’s your opinion on judges and personal bias? Feel free to respond to the following poll as well as leave a comment below!
Justin is a three-year alumnus of NCFCA and an honors student at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell. Currently a junior, he hopes to receive his degree in computer science with a concentration in cyber security and minors in criminal justice and math. Justin has plans to achieve his master’s and Ph.D. in computer science and cyber security. In his senior year of high school debate, Justin went from never competing in a single outround to averaging semis or quarters at every national open, including 4th place at the 2021 NCFCA nationals, as well as averaging finals at regional tournaments. His philosophy in debate is that debate is a game. Providing one is ethical, the most persuasive argument flies. At the end of the day, Justin argues you should honor God & have fun! Debate is not all about winning, it’s about the skills you foster.
You can learn more about Justin by reading his bio, and you can book coaching with him over here. You can also catch more content from Justin by checking out his personal website and blog as well as subscribing to his YouTube channel.