The latest episode of Radiolab, titled “Debatable”, fascinated and troubled me. It focused on the surprising results of the 2013 National Debate Tournament, the United States’ annual competition among top-tier college debate teams, and the eight-year path that one member of the winning team took to get there. It highlighted his adoption of a controversial strategy that allowed his team to win the game from a very unusual direction, one that I find at once challenging to accept and beautiful to behold.
Starting his student debate career in an inner-city high school, Ryan Wash became very good at debating intramurally, and then locally, only for his team to hit an inevitable culture-shock wall as soon as they qualified to bring their game to wider venues. A team of African-American students really sticks out in the larger debate community, according to Wash and the episode’s other interview subjects. This experience would inform how Wash would approach the game once he entered it at a collegiate level.
At this higher tier, Wash joined the fold of the Louisville Project’s strategy (named after the university of its origin). In essence, this meant that he and his teammates approached competitive debates against other universities in an unorthodox fashion: they always ignored the pre-declared debate topic — or, at most, allowed the topic to flavor the angle they used while putting forth their sole true argument, which they presented at every match, without fail. Once the game begins, Louisville-style debaters always focus all their competitive-debate energy on directly attacking the entire concept of competitive debate, condemning it as a racist and exclusionary practice that favors economically privileged students who can afford the time and expense required to hone their topical expertise with tools like research assistants and professional coaches. They attempt to set the topic of every match to this topic, and no other.
The climax of the Radiolab episode involves Wash’s final debate of his college career, the one that clinched the win for his team. Challenged to debate the merits of a particular American energy policy, Wash delivered an improvised and expletive-laden barnburner dismissing both the topic and the tournament as wholly irrelevant when impoverished Americans who shared his background can barely scrape together the personal energy to live every day within an oppressive system set against their thriving. A tournament judge interviewed by Radiolab said that while he felt sympathetic to the bind this oblique approach put the opposing team in, he also felt that Wash’s team did a better job in stating their case convincingly, and so found in their favor.
This gambit carries any chance of working because competitive debate has fewer rules than you might expect. Teams can deploy any rhetoric they wish at the lectern, with no strict admonitions against “going meta”. Over the decades, the show reveals, debate competitors had already used this to develop a standard speaking style that seems objectively bizarre, delivering their points at literal triple-speed — sounding for all the world like an old-timey auctioneer — in order to score as many rhetorical points as they can within their allotted time. The Louisville Project developed a stylistic alternative to this, informed by hip-hop and spoken-word performance art, and then pairing it with a fixed message that seeks to nullify the terrain of every match, hoping to transform every debate into a home-turf game.
In one sense, this strikes me as a beautiful exploit, straight out of the pages of Ender’s Game, or any other saga of an underdog who wins a rigged game by kicking the table’s legs out. It seems like exactly the stone that needed to be cast into the wheel-rut to shake up an insular institution which (the Radiolab episode argues) produces, among collegiate activities, an outsized proportion of professional policymakers. I feel obliged to respect the Louisville strategy enough that I can’t possibly object to it taking the cup once.
I feel impressed by the profitable perversity of the strategy, too, how it winningly plays a wholly inverted version of the game without straying from the game’s rules. I reached for metaphors from other sports — a hockey team that plays the entire game with an empty net? A soccer team whose players take the field but then stand stock-still while chanting slogans about the game’s fundamental flaws? Everything I could think of would result in inevitable defeat for the team in question. The Louisville debate strategy really seems to have found a way to win by refusing to play, and I can’t not love that on some level.
As a competitive-debate layperson approaching the topic from a general games-studies background, I also enjoy the challenge of thinking through the options available to debate teams finding themselves in a match against Louisville Project adherents. Victory of the latter is certainly not guaranteed, but a virtuoso like Wash can transform the match into an act of asymmetric warfare than can easily catch a less flexible team flat-footed.
How can the opponent respond? (Remember that they are obligated to disagree, no matter how they feel about the Louisville message, at least if they want to win the match.) Most obviously, perhaps, they can ignore the gambit, sticking to the topic at hand and trusting that the judges will see their rhetoric as completely unopposed points-scoring against their opponents’ use of non-sequitur, exactly as they would had the first team did nothing but sequentially read passages from Moby Dick or something. This runs the risk that the judges won’t agree that the Louisville strategy holds no merit, and the 2013 tournament victories for Wash’s team speak to this possibility.
If they choose to accept the Louisville-using team’s change of topic, I see two clear counter-strategies. Either they can engage them directly by arguing that their personal narratives and subjective life experiences are somehow incorrect or invalid, or they can join them in going meta, dedicating their argument to how always turning the debate into a debate about debating undermines the spirit of the competition and renders the game unplayable. (This is how Wash’s final opponents tried to meet his team’s attack.) The first sounds monstrous on its face, while the second steps willingly into a framing wholly defined by one’s opponent. Both carry clear risks of their own.
I assume that the Louisville Project strategy will have problems winning the top prize more than once, at least within the venue of the National Debate Tournament. Upsets like this cause rules to change, and — perhaps more optimistically — also encourage longer-term counterstrategies to form organically. Furthermore, maybe the judges won’t feel willing to reward this outside approach multiple times. I admit I lack the level of interest necessary to really dig into the topic and learn more about what went down at the 2014 tournament, where (I see from its Wikipedia page) one of the players Wash’s team faced in the previous year returned to win. It amuses me to think of a future where every debate team adopts the Louisville Project’s precepts, as they did the fast-talking approach of past years’ players — but that seems somehow unlikely.
Hearing the story and thinking it through gave me insight applicable to my own life and pursuits. Wash and others interviewed on the show believe completely in the message of the Louisville Project. When one of the show’s hosts asked another subject how they’d feel about a rule disallowing debate teams from ignoring the given topic, they quickly said “that would be anti-black.” I don’t necessarily find that easy to digest, but I can see where he’s coming from — and it helps me better appreciate sentiments I sometimes encounter within my own fields of interest, particularly as regards technologies for video game or interactive fiction creation, and the skills and resources required to make use of them.