Let’s Debate: Has COVID Really Improved the Debate Community?
By Olivia Integlia
As President of the Dawson Debate Union (DDU), I was hesitant to run the club online. After three years of competitive debate, I was acutely aware of the pre-existing problems within the debate community, and I was worried that shifting online would worsen these issues.
I was quickly proven wrong. The Canadian University Society for Intercollegiate Debate (CUSID) has not only helped debaters successfully transition online, but has also taken the opportunity to reform flaws that lingered in the debate world. Likewise, many debate clubs across Canada, including the DDU, have been working towards making the community more accessible, inclusive and equitable.
I found myself pulled into the crazy new world of debating in high school. From there, I quickly grew as a debater. I will never forget the thrill after having won third place in the French Nationals Debate Championships. My coach’s technique was simple – you compete against the best until you are the best.
When I took on my role as President of the DDU, I hoped to train members the same way. I soon realized that this technique would not be effective in CEGEP. The first problem I tackled as President was putting our members on an even-playing field with our competitors. As we began to participate in various tournaments, it became clear that the DDU could never provide the same skill set as those we debated against. The reason is obvious – the DDU is one of only two CEGEPs to partake in university-style debating. Most CUSID participants come from well-established clubs. Our members typically compete against highly experienced debaters, and university circuits have access to far more resources than any CEGEP-level organization. Moreover, both travelling expenditures and costly registration fees made it difficult to send debaters to several tournaments, which prevented members from gaining valuable experience.
Luckily, shifting online has introduced new opportunities for disadvantaged clubs such as the DDU. Our members now have access to more training resources, in addition to the weekly DDU practices. Unlike ever before, our members have the luxury of going to tournaments all across the world from the comfort of their homes!
As several CUSID members work towards making tournaments more accessible to newer members, an existing problem was given more attention — the prejudices embedded in the debate community. It is nearly impossible to guarantee that every judge is fulfilling an impartial role. I personally have faced sexism throughout my debate career. Oftentimes judges congratulate my male colleagues for being passionate, whereas I am told that I am too aggressive. Judges blatantly ignore the contents of my speech, or credit my arguments to my partner. Some have accused me of being unqualified and unskilled as President, because they much rather see a male candidate in this position.
I am not the only one who faces these microaggressions. In light of a recent controversy, debaters have taken to social media to share their own experiences of biases within the community. Such pressures forced CUSID to make important changes, and they used the online platform to do so. Some of the changes include encouraging debaters to use team names and pseudonyms to ensure anonymity. Moreover, clubs, including the DDU, opted to host practices and tournaments on Discord. This platform, unlike Zoom, specializes in audio communication. Participants are thus incentivized to keep their cameras off during tournaments. Gender, sexuality, race, religion or ethnicity no longer have a place in a judge’s perception. They have no choice but to focus solely on the content of the speech.
Nonetheless, there is still a lot of work to be done. Despite the benefits of anonymity, new measures must be put in place to ensure accountability, should a situation arise. CUSID has prioritized making this online platform a safe space. We in the DDU introduced a new position on our executive team— an equity officer. This specialized position is responsible for promoting inclusiveness, tolerance and respect. CUSID took an important step in creating committees to lead discussions with debaters and address concerns within the circuit. A safe space is especially beneficial for minority groups since it allows all debaters to have their voices heard and cultivate friendships. These networks also allow clubs to prepare merged practices with larger institutions to pool teaching resources for underdeveloped clubs. They also allow various institutions to organize combined tournaments as seen in the Quebec Round Robin – an upcoming debate tournament hosted by Dawson and Bishop’s University.
Whether debaters are helping one another set up clubs online or exploring new possibilities, it is undeniable that there have been some positive changes. It is time to share your passion with the DDU!