Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.
Nico Perrino: Hey, folks, it's Nico Perrino here, returning from paternity leave. I want to thank Tyler McQueen and Darpana Sheth for manning the ship while I was gone. I've heard great things from listeners about the episodes that they hosted. Tyler's two episodes about free speech and abolitionism and civil liberties, and the Civil War, and Darpana, of course, hosting a live so-to-speak webinar about the 2022-23 Supreme Court term.
Before we get started with today's conversation, I want to flag for everyone that FIRE is sponsoring a debate out in LA on September 13th that I hope all of you will attend. This is in partnership with The Free Press, which we've been working with for a number of months now as sponsors of their content, but we're really enthusiastic about this inaugural debate that The Free Press is putting on. It's their first live debate, and FIRE has long taken an interest in debate as a result of our concern about free speech culture.
We think debate is a great vehicle to instill some of the values, the free speech cultural values that we like to see in broader society; the idea that we can speak out on issues we care about, advocate vociferously for them, and talk across lines of difference. The topic of this debate is, "Has the sexual revolution failed?" and we've got two debaters on each side.
On one side, arguing that it has not failed, is Grimes, who is a famous musician – I'm sure most of you are familiar with her – along with Sarah Haider, who is a writer and the co-host of the podcast, A Special Place in Hell. On the other side of the argument, arguing that the sexual revolution has failed, is Anna Khachiyan, who is a co-host of the podcast The Red Scare; and Louise Perry, who authored a book entitled, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution.
Again, this will be on Wednesday, September 13th, at the Theater at the Ace Hotel. Doors open at 6:00, show time is at 7:00, and you can get tickets, which are still available as of this recording, at thefp.com/debates. Again, that is thefp.com/debates. You can also find FIRE plugging it on our social media channels. I'll have a link in the show notes.
But it's kind of a coincidence, in fact, that I'm plugging this debate event on a day in which the topic of the podcast is debates. So, today, we are talking about trends in high school debate that some might call illiberal, or that make debate more difficult. One of our guests today kind of blew the lid on this conversation, and catalyzed, I should say, a national conversation about high school debate when he published an article – coincidentally, also in The Free Press – about some illiberal trends in high school debate, namely the insertion of ideology in the judging of high school debates.
Our guest is James Fishback. He is the founder and executive director of Incubate Debate, which is an organization that hosts free debate tournaments to students across Florida. He spent four years as a high school debater in Broward County Florida, with a number of placements at the National Speech and Debate Associations National Championships; and after college, he was a debate coach in Miami.
We also have Matthew Adelstein, who was a high school debater. He's now a rising sophomore, studying philosophy at the University of Michigan, and he's a writer on utilitarianism. He publishes a newsletter on utilitarianism on Substack called Bentham's Newsletter, writing under the pseudonym Bentham's Bulldog. So, James, Matthew, welcome on to the show.
James Fishback: Thanks, Nico.
Matthew Adelstein: Thanks for having me.
Nico Perrino: So, I want to take a step back, before dive in to the topics of James' Free Press articles, and get a sense of the high school debate landscape. I was not a high school debater. I did a lot of sports, not a lot of academics when I was in high school. I played some music in a death metal band. So, debate just wasn't my world. So, I'd like to hear from both of you, how you got involved in debate, and why. James, maybe start with you.
James Fishback: Absolutely. It's a real pleasure to be here, Nico, and to be here with Matthew, as well. Debate, for me, was an opportunity to channel a passion that I had for politics and economics at a very young age, but I just didn't have a way to engage with that at a high level and to be exposed to different views.
So, I started out freshman year on the debate team down in Broward County, Florida, and started out with a really bad speech impediment, with a really bad stutter, as a freshman in high school. Debate helped me overcome that; exposed me to perspectives that I otherwise wouldn't have been exposed to; gave me confidence, gave me knowledge, gave me a skill set that I pretty much use every single day in the real-world stuff that I do. And I'm just grateful for it. But debate, for me, changed everything; and more than anything, it taught me the importance of being able to disagree agreeably.
Nico Perrino: How about you, Matthew?
Matthew Adelstein: So, when I was around 7th grade, I decided I should learn at least something about politics. There was the presidential election going on; and so, I started reading about politics, watching the various presidential debates, and I became quite interested in it. And so, I began talking about it incessantly; I annoyed all the people around me. And so, eventually, after talking about this so much, it was decided that I had to start doing debates, just as an outlet for my obsessive, monomaniacal focus on politics.
And so, that's how I got into debate. I picked the high school that I did, in large part, because it had a good debate team, and I was excited to do debate. And like what James said, debate really had a transformative impact on my ability to speak, on my ability to think about the world, and on my ability to do research about complex issues. I think I'm a better writer, thinker, and speaker, as a result of debate, than I would have been if I had never done debate.
Nico Perrino: And Matthew, how does high school debate work, right? So, I'm assuming each school has a club, and then those clubs debate clubs at other schools. Is there a national association that organizes these
Matthew Adelstein: There is a national –
Nico Perrino: – different topics, and how do they work? Yeah, and what's the typical format?
Matthew Adelstein: Yeah, there is a national association. There are tournaments that are hosted. And so, people show up to the tournaments; they'll debate at the tournaments. Different events have different rules. So, for example, the kind of a debate that I did in my last two years is known as policy debate, and in policy debate, there is one topic that's agreed upon for the entire year. And so, you just have to do extensive research about a broad topic, like about immigration or criminal justice reform, or water policy.
Nico Perrino: And James, are debaters assigned a side of an argument, or do they choose it? How does it work?
James Fishback: Yeah, it'll depend on the event. In the event that Matthew did, policy debate, he'll be assigned a side. In other events, like congressional debate, which is very popular at the national level, students get to pick their own side.
Nico Perrino: Got you. Okay, so, James, in your article, you highlight National Speech and Debate Association, which I'm assuming is the largest speech and debate association in the United States. Is that the premier one?
James Fishback: That is the premier. It's the largest; it's the most storied; it has the largest impact nationally.
Nico Perrino: It's the one with – I believe in your article, you note that it has 140,000 young debaters on its roster?
James Fishback: Yeah, that's right, and that actually understates it, because those are official members who are paying dues. The numbers are probably closer to 300,000.
Nico Perrino: So, in your article, you allege that this association, the National Speech and Debate Association, has been hijacked in some part by judges who are ideological, for lack of a better phrase, right? Who put together what are called paradigms that give debaters insight into how they judge debates, and ultimately rule on who is going to be the winner. So, can you talk about these paradigms?
James Fishback: Absolutely. So, Nico, the way a paradigm works, essentially, it's an online profile; and it's an online profile that competitors like me and Matthew would be able to see before the round about our judge, and what their preferences are. Now, let's rewind eight to 10 years. Your average paradigm would say something along the lines of "I'd like you to speak at a measured pace, as opposed to 300 words a minute. I prefer primary over secondary source information."
And then, maybe something along the lines of, "I want you to weigh your impacts with those of the opposing team," essentially, to tell me why your arguments matter. That's all fine and good. That's what paradigms were designed to do. But these online profiles that students now read before the rounds sound a lot more like the Twitter profile – sorry, X, the X profile of a social activist.
So, let me just read one of them to you right here. This is from the National College Debate Champion in 2019, Lila Lavender, who has judged hundreds of rounds of debates over the last couple of years. She tells students before the round in her paradigm, "Before anything else, including being a debate judge, I am a Marxist, Leninist, Maoist. I cannot check the revolutionary proletarian science at the door. I will no longer evaluate and thus ever vote for rightist, capitalist, imperialist arguments."
She goes on to give examples of those arguments, which include, capitalism good, defense of the US, Zionism, normalizing Israel, US white fascist policing good. So, for that young sophomore who walks into that debate round, who has spent months preparing for that very moment, she then looks at that paradigm and says, "Wait, hold on a second. I don't stand a chance. My argument rests on, the police are a force for good in reducing violence, or capitalism is the greatest force possible to reducing abject poverty."
So, that's how these paradigms work. And over my two-part series for The Free Press, I looked at a lot of paradigms and really explained what impact they're having on high school debate today.
Nico Perrino: Matthew, when you were a debater, did you look at the paradigms for all of your judges? Is that just standard practice?
Matthew Adelstein: Yeah. Before a judge judges you in a round, you would look over what their paradigm says, and in fact, the way that judge paradigms work, they're not just for the purpose of allowing the debaters before the round to know what's going on. They're also for the purpose of before a tournament, you rank the judges depending on how the tournament works. You often rank the judges from 1 to 6, where 1 is the ones you like best, and 6 the ones you like worst.
And so, you see the paradigms of every judge in a tournament, often; and so, you see the torrent of judges expressing clearly ideological left-wing biases in their paradigm, describing how they prefer various left-wing arguments. And it just becomes very clear after you read paradigm after paradigm that there are lots of people who admit to being explicitly biased in favor of left-wing arguments, and there is not anywhere near the same kind of bias in favor of right-wing arguments.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, that's what I was going to ask. Do you see it ever on behalf of right-wing judges, the same sort of prejudice against left-wing arguments? Have you ever seen something like that?
Matthew Adelstein: I think we maybe found one paradigm that was like that, where there was one judge who seemed to express that he had a bias in favor of right-wing arguments. But this compared to just dozens and dozens of judges who express left-wing arguments. But I think part of it is that it's not just about – for every judge who admits to being explicitly biased, there are lots of other judges who don't admit to being explicitly biased, but who do things that are indicative that they have left-wing policy preferences.
So, for example, in high-level policy debate, it's the case that nearly all judges are perfectly happy if you jettison the topic and just argue about various unrelated things. Of course, the other team can argue for why we should actually discuss the topic; but if you argue that you should win without discussing the topic at all, the vast majority of judges in high-level policy debate are perfectly okay with that. People don't have to put that in their paradigm. It's just assumed that people will be like that.
And so, I think part of the problem is that because debate is so far left, the people who become judges are people who survive the torrent of left-wing bias in debate, and those people are almost all left themselves. And so, then, they become biased in the similar ways that the judges who judged them were.
Nico Perrino: Yeah. I'm looking at here, James, some of the other examples that you have, in your first Free Press article, some quotes from different paradigms. "I will drop America First framing in a heartbeat. I will listen to conservative-leaning arguments, but be careful. I reserve the right to end the debate due to anti-blackness. If you are white, don't run arguments with impacts that primarily affect POCs, people of color. These arguments should belong to the communities they affect."
There's one here that it says, "If you are discussing immigrants in the round and describe the person as illegal, I will immediately stop the round, give you the loss with low speaks" – which is debate-speak for low speaker points – "give you a stern lecture, and then talk to your coach. I will not have you making the debate space unsafe." There's another who says, "I am extremely skeptical of capitalism-good arguments. If you go for them, you'd better do a lot of analysis to convince me."
Obviously, you probably only need to see a few of these in paradigms for judges are you're going through the debate circuit to get a sense that this sort of bias exists. But is it widespread? I mean, would you say that these sort of ideologically-tinged paradigms are the norm?
James Fishback: I would say so, and I think Matthew example is the right one. I wrote about, actually, what happened to Matthew in his final debate tournament ever, at the Tournament of Champions in the fall of 2022. And what ended up happening was Matthew put out a tweet a couple weeks prior to the tournament that the other team, his opponents, deemed politically incorrect.
The debate, Nico, was on US water policy, and undoubtedly an important topic in the country; and the other team didn't really address US water policy. Their main argument was how Matthew Adelstein was an unmitigated racist. And the worst part here, by the way, is anybody can say whatever they want, but the worst part here is that the judge actually took the opposing team seriously, and then went on to excoriate Matthew himself.
And I'm reading here a quote of what that judge sent to Matthew afterward in his written decision. He said, "A debate space where racists or violent people are not allowed is preferable to one where they are."
And so, here's the thing. That judge, if you look at his paradigm, to this day, and definitely when he was judging Matthew – we went back and checked – there was nothing to indicate that he would have done that. There's nothing in that paradigm that seemed to indicate that he would allow someone to highjack a round on US water infrastructure and the protection of water resources, to make a debate about an ad-hominem attack about a tweet that was irrelevant to the round in question.
There was an article that came out this past weekend, actually, in Matthew Yglesias's Substack, by a former debater, as well; Maya Bodnick. And she actually put a number to this. And one way, sort of the litmus test, and I think it's the best litmus test, on whether a judge is ideological to the point where they really can't make sense of it, cannot be an impartial adjudicator, is: Is the judge willing to seriously evaluate non-topical arguments?
So, if we come into a debate on NATO, on NATO expansionism, and you argue that you US police are racist and we actually can't debate this topic, because US hegemony is anti-black, and so on and so forth; totally irrelevant argument. Would you take that seriously? And what Maya's reporting found – and I checked it out myself, and it all checks out – is that three out of four, three out of four judges at the most prestigious national tournament, would evaluate those off-topic critical arguments just as they would a legitimate argument that is tied to the topic at hand.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, I want to talk about Maya's article. But before we move there, I want to just ask Matthew to talk a little bit about his experience in April of 2022 at that prestigious Tournament of Champions in Lexington, Kentucky. I'll just review the tweet here, because I'm sure our listeners are curious. The initial tweet was from Jeffrey Miller, who has actually been on this podcast before; he's a professor. We were talking about neurodiversity and free speech issues.
He tweeted out, "Name one thing that you personally feel is morally disgusting, but you think, rationally, should be legal and accepted by society," to which you, Matthew, responded, "Calling people racial or homophobic slurs." Now, you said you misread that, but I think you can read that and say, okay – presumably you're saying that calling people racial or homophobic slurs is morally disgusting, but you don't think it should be illegal to do so; presumably aligning yourself with the First Amendment in most contexts, depending on the facts of any given case.
But can you talk a little bit about how you read that tweet, and then the fall-out when you got to Lexington in April of last year?
Matthew Adelstein: Yeah. So, in that case, I didn't see the part of it where it said "socially acceptable," and I think that's an ambiguous term. I certainly think it should be legal to say whatever you want, no matter how offensive your speech is. In terms of whether it should be socially accepted, it depends on exactly what we mean by "socially accepted." You certainly shouldn't be violently kicked out of society if you call someone a racial slur, but I think that should be something for which you get pushback, and for which people see you badly.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, but you could read that second clause of his tweet to be it should be that legal standard should be socially accepted by society, rather than what is said is socially – so, it's kind of ambiguous, and maybe a poorly-drafted tweet, but different people could read it different ways.
Matthew Adelstein: Yeah, I think it was a little bit ambiguous. And yeah, so, this ended up being my last-ever round of debate in high school, and my last-ever round of debate total, which I lost to the other team, arguing that I'm a bad person. And it's worth noting that arguments like this, where you just argue that the other team should lose because they're a bad person are relatively common.
If you look at the most prestigious college tournament, for example, there is a debate between two of the best teams in the country, probably the second-best team in the country versus the third-best team in the country. And the second or third best team won by arguing that the other team had sent an apology that was apparently racist. I mean, it's like –
Nico Perrino: In your case, Matthew, did they –
Matthew Adelstein: Arguments like this are –
Nico Perrino: Yeah, in your case, Matthew, did they even debate the topic that was presented, which was protection of water resources, or no?
Matthew Adelstein: Well, so, they made lots of arguments over the course of the debate round. So, very often, in your first negative speech, they were negative. You'll advance lots of different arguments. So, maybe you'll advance one argument where you say they're not topical; another argument where you say their policy is a bad idea; and in this case, maybe a third argument, where you say they should automatically lose on account of them being horrible people.
Nico Perrino: Can you, just for our listeners who aren't familiar, explain what a negative argument means? I'm assuming there's a proposition, and you're arguing –
Matthew Adelstein: Yeah.
Nico Perrino: – the negative side of it. Got it.
Matthew Adelstein: Yeah. There's a topic. One side is tasked with arguing in favor of it. The other side is tasked with arguing against it. And so, but the argument that they ended up going for at the end of the round was that I'm a bad person and that I should lose on account of being a bad person.
Nico Perrino: Did you have a debate partner?
Matthew Adelstein: Yes.
Nico Perrino: And so, they were essentially screwed here, as well?
Matthew Adelstein: Yeah.
Nico Perrino: Geez. And is this common, the idea that you will hijack a debate to do what is in effect character assassination? And do you know who you're debating ahead of time, so that you can conduct all this sort background research, digging through tweets and – I don't know, putting together a dossier on whoever your opponent is, to undermine their argument?
Matthew Adelstein: Yeah, it's not so common. I'd say maybe it happens in one percent of rounds, but it's not so uncommon either. And yeah, so, that's one of the reasons it doesn't happen, because it is actually just difficult to dig up dirt on every other team that you might be debating against, given that there are a lot of teams at any given tournament.
So, there was one team in college that was quite good; they won the vast majority of the rounds; I think maybe one of the most prestigious national tournament – hard to remember the details – and they just did tons of oppo research where they had various character attacks; just tons of the top teams, where they would argue that they were bad people. And one worry about this – and this is something that I think listeners to the FIRE podcast will be concerned about – is that actually making it so that people can get punished for speech that they've said in unrelated domains really has a chilling effect on saying controversial speech.
If you combine the fact that most debate judges are very far left and are quite ideological, such that they accept left-wing assumptions dogmatically, with the fact that you can lose a round for just expressing views that people disagree with, like mild support for the First Amendment, this combines to make it so that debaters are incentivized to not say controversial things; or, to the extent that they are saying controversial things in other domains, to make it so that they say controversial things in convoluted ways; because if the controversial thing sounds bad out of context, then they can lose a debate round.
These are really horrible incentives. We want high-school students and college students to be finding a voice, and to be able to speak up about politics; not to be frightened that if they ever say anything about politics that the farthest-left ideologue would find offensive, that they'll automatically lose debate rounds.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, geez, I am almost diametrically opposed, in my personal political beliefs, now, to what I was in high school, and I would hate to be held accountable for what I said in high school on politics or anything else for that matter, years and years later.
James Fishback: Yeah, and Nico, if I may, I just want to add on to Matthew's point. I just by sheer coincidence was at a high school this past weekend, hosting one of our free Incubate Debate camps, and I saw a FIRE poster with a quote from Frederick Douglas; and I think it's apt here. "To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker." Young Americans need to hear opposing viewpoints that they otherwise might not hear, and for the most part, those viewpoints are conservative viewpoints.
The motivation isn't to convert people. It's to simply expose them to the other side of an argument, with civility, in these open public debates; and when you look at what happened to Matthew, obviously this is tragic. But not only did these students do it, in many cases judges encouraged students to dig up dirt.
So, in my Part Two for The Free Press, I bring up a judge by the name of Zachary Rachkovsky. He tells students in his paradigm, "I will consider indictments of an opponent on the basis that they have done or said something racist, gender, or phobic in their personal behavior. It needs to be clearly documented. A screen-shotted Facebook post, or an accusation with references to multiple witnesses," and the violation, Nico, would only have to "Fall into the category of a commonly understood violation of basic decency surrounding race or gender." He then goes on to explain that microaggressions would also be considered.
So, thank you point about how prevalent it is, it's not uncommon; I agree with Matthew on that, but it's sort of like Chinese censorship in Beijing. What percentage of social media posts actually get taken down by the Communist Party? I don't know; less than one-tenth of one percent, but it has a chilling effect on the rest of the population.
And I'll tell you, in high-school debate tournaments these days, the fear is palpable. It is absolutely palpable, to where if you even use gendered language to refer to your opponent. If we're in a debate as the NSDA tournament director told students in 2019 to not refer to your competitors by their mister or miss and then their last name. So, I would be condemned if I referred to Mr. Adelstein as Mr. Adelstein in that round, because of course that reinforces that six is binary, and yada yada yada. That's the world that high-school debate is living in.
Nico Perrino: Well, so, they said that about gendered language. What do they say about these ideological paradigms that we've been talking about, or the ad-hominem character attacks that Matthew was subject to? Do they support those? Do they encourage those? Are these judges acting independently and outside the scope and framework that the NSDA has set out for them?
James Fishback: Yeah, they've said absolutely nothing, and I spoke with a coach who has been with the NSDA for 27 years, from Kansas, and he was extremely disappointed that the NSDA wouldn't even denounce let alone remove – but wouldn't even denounce the judges that were brought up in the Free Press reporting. To the judge who tells students, "If you merely use the word illegal immigrant, I will stand up, cut you off, you'll lose, and I'll give you a stern lecture; I will not have you make the debate space unsafe," or to the judge who imposes a restriction on your speech based on the color of your skin, this is really easy to denounce; and yet the NSDA didn't.
And by not denouncing it, here we are three months later, or two months later, rather. They've essentially reinforced it and tacitly approved it, and it's going to be a very interesting season ahead. It's really tough to be a high-school debater, now, if you don't fall in line with the ideological dominance of the day.
Nico Perrino: So, James, it was either you or Matthew who had brought up kritiks. This is what Maya Bodnick's reporting and the Substack Slow Boring – that's Matt Yglesias's Substack; he published this I don't know what day are we recording? August 2nd – she published this over the weekend. We invited her on the show. She declined, but I think it's still worth talking here.
And Matthew, you're actually quoted in that piece, as well; you're all over the place. But Matthew, maybe you can kind of describe what critiques are. And this isn't spelled the way we spell "critiques" in English. This is K-R-I-T-I-K, which I believe is probably German, because it's maybe something that came from the critical theorists in the Frankfurt School, but Matthew, I don't know if you have background here, that you can explain what these are, and how they're used in debate?
Matthew Adelstein: Yeah. So, the idea of kritik is that rather than addressing the topic directly, they'll sort of challenge the underlying assumptions of the other team. So, suppose, for example, that the other team proposes a tax on negative externalities to pollution, which is sort of the standard solution to pollution that seems to be supported by most economists; get people to internalize externalities.
The other team would say, "Look, this is capitalist ideologically, and capitalism is this horrible system." So, even if this policy would be good in a vacuum, the other team should lose, because they're supporting the horrible capitalist ideology, and instead, we should move away from capitalism. So, they are arguments that rather than directly addressing the question of whether the topic is a good idea or not, they seek to address the underlying framework of the topic, or of something that's being argued by the other team.
But very often, teams will make critical arguments when they're the affirmative team, when they're arguing for the topic. And so, when they do this, they'll just ignore the topic, and talk about other things, and then argue that they should win because they are talking about other things that are important.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, Maya has an example in her reporting of the affirmative side kind of kicking off the debate by proposing a kritik, either to kind of undermine a kritik that's going to come from the negative side, or because it's the way students apparently debate these days. But they kick it off by not even bothering to advocate for the original resolution.
Quoting Maya here, for example, let's say the original topic was the US should impose a carbon tax. The affirmative side could decide to throw the resolution out the window, and instead argue for an Afro-pessimism kritik which might look something like this: "Western societies are structured on Enlightenment-era philosophy that fundamentally does not value black people as people, and defines them as slaves. Even though documents like the Constitution have been amended to end slavery, it created a society that is rotten to the core, and the only way to fix it is to burn down civil society."
So, it's like you don't even get to the carbon tax, because civil society itself needs to be burned down, or Western society, that is, which is built upon Enlightenment-era philosophy, needs to be burned down. I don't even know how you respond to that. How do people respond to kritiks that totally just toss out the fundamental proposition that the debate is built upon?
Matthew Adelstein: Well, so, one problem is that kritiks are notoriously slippery. So, arguing against them is very much like pinning Jell-O to a wall. So, take the Afro-pessimism kritik. That kritik, it's not convincing because it's a good argument. One claim that's explicitly made by people who make the Afro-pessimism kritik is that it is impossible for any policy to improve the lives of black people.
Now, that claim is obviously false, and everyone who has thought about it for one second knows that it's false. There's no magical structure that exists that makes it so that every policy which might improve the lives of black people somehow is precisely offset such that it doesn't improve the lives of black people at all.
But the reason the Afro-pessimism kritik is convincing is made in debate is because there are a lot of tricks you can do with it. So, you make the claim that society can't improve for black people. You'll also have various arguments for why what the other team did was racist. You also have various arguments for why, even if it wasn't, just burning down civil society is a better alternative, and you can't simultaneously do the things that are part of civil society while also burning down civil society.
And so, critical debaters have sort of an elaborate bag of tricks that make it surprisingly difficult to argue against. But what you do is you just go through the claims they are making, and argue why each of them are false. So, for example, you argue that burning down society, in fact, would be a bad idea rather than a good idea. You point out that [inaudible] [00:33:08] Western civilization is a good thing; it's lifted lots of people out of poverty; it is in fact possible for policies to improve for black people, and that proposing reforms to water policy is not, in fact, racist.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, but it's almost like a fire hose of claims that take more time to break down than to actually make in the first place, or assert in the first place. But even then, if you take this in concert with judge paradigms, you're almost building a perfect rhetorical fortress for some arguments. So, okay, let's say you're discussing the carbon tax, and someone decides to make an Afro-pessimism argument.
Let's say that the person making that argument is a person of color. Then, you go look at Lindsay Shrodik's paradigm that James highlights in his article, that says, "If you're white, don't run arguments with impacts that primarily affect people of color." These arguments should belong to the communities they affect. So, you make an Afro-pessimism argument, you're a person of color; you're a white person that's tasked with responding to that.
You have some judges whose paradigms say that because the argument primarily affects people of color, you shouldn’t make those arguments. So, it almost starts to seem like you're increasingly constrained if you're unwilling to play the game, or even by the nature of just the color of your skin, in some cases, or at least in this judge's paradigm.
Matthew Adelstein: Yeah, I think that's true, and that's one of the problems with these arguments, that the way that judges evaluate evidence for or against them is just completely and totally warped. So, imagine if a person in your daily life came to you and said, "I'm convinced that it is logically impossible for any policy to ever improve the lives of people." You say, "Oh, why do you think that?"
They say, "Well, I read this article from a critical theory journal that asserted as much, and used lots of big words." No one would be convinced. And yet, in debate, if one side asserts that the world can't improve for black people, and their evidence for it is abstruse critical theory jargon from some low-ranking critical theory journal published by Clown College, then that's seen as a powerful vindication of the impossibility of improving the lives of black people.
And in order to argue against that, the bar is extremely high. You have to provide quote robust empirical evidence that the world can improve for black people. There are some claims that are so implausible that the bar for arguing for them should be very high, and yet in debate, judges treat these as if the bar is incredibly low, such that the burden for arguing against them is very high.
So, it would be as if in debate rounds, it was seriously being debated whether the earth was flat, and then judges had a heavy bias in favor of the arguments establishing that the earth was flat, rather than establishing that the earth was flat. The bar for implausible arguments is much lower than the bar for plausible arguments.
Nico Perrino: You mentioned critical theory a couple of times. I think it's worth us just kind of breaking that down, and looking at how it influences high school debates. Kritik is a form of argumentation that comes from critical theory. I'm actually reading two books right now, Grand Abyss Hotel, which is about the Frankfurt School and Institute for Social Research, and some of the philosophers that stemmed from that school, including Herbert Marcuse and Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Adorno.
And then, I'm reading Chris Rufo's latest book, which talks a little bit about critical theory and his perception on how it's infiltrated institutions within America. But correct me if I'm wrong, Matthew. You're the philosophy student. Critical theory posits that it's power structures in society that matter, and less so individuals; and a lot of social problems stem from those power structures, rather than how individuals independently might operate within society.
Matthew Adelstein: Yeah, that's a lot of what they say. Often, the claims that they are making are very hard to pin down, because they'll speak in this abstruse jargon that's very hard to understand. So, for example, I think the clearest case against the reliability of critical theory came from Alan Sokal's experiment where he published a paper about physics that was just total nonsense; it was a joke, but it used lots of highfalutin jargon, and lots of critical theory vocabulary.
And then, he sent it to a high-ranking critical theory journal, and it got published. And then, later, this happened with a bunch of other people. James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose, and Peter Boghossian, I think. They also got a bunch of them published.
So, the arguments are very implausible, and it's been shown that the journals that produce these arguments are willing to publish total nonsense. And yet, in debate, they're treated as if they're super-reliable arguments, as if just the fact that something is asserted by a critical theory journal using lots of jargon is a really good reason to believe it, and you have to provide tons of evidence for why it's wrong.
Nico Perrino: Yeah. James, in Maya's reporting – and I think you noted this earlier – there are some debate formats where this is like two-thirds or more of the arguments that are made, and I think she's only looking at semi-final and final rounds in the Tournament Of Champion. And she breaks down where these arguments are most common, highlighting three debate formats; and I think it would be helpful for you guys to explain those to our listeners.
There's a policy debate format; there's a Lincoln Douglas format; and a public forum format. What are these different formats, and why do we see far more critical theory or kritiks in the policy format, where it's 67 percent of the debates in the semi-final and final rounds featuring critical theory, as opposed to public forum where it's only 12 and a half percent?
James Fishback: Yeah, I'll actually leave that Matthew, since he was the policy debater. But I'll just note, before then, obviously it's a really, really high bar to be able to have an argument against a kritik. Maya brings up in her reporting – and I found this in mine, as well – that you can't respond to a kritik by trying to invalidate what they're advancing.
So, for example, you can't respond to a Marxist kritik by saying that Marxism is wrong, and capitalism is good. You have to explain something like, "Marxism doesn't go as far as Afro-pessimism," and it's a race to the left; who can be the bigger progressive in that?
And so, just to put some words behind that three-out-of-four policy debate judges of the most recent Tournament of Champions entertaining, what do they actually tell students in their paradigms? "I am frequently entertained and delighted by well-researched critical positions," or, "Kritiks are my favorite arguments to hear, and were the arguments that I read during most of my career. I've exclusively read variations of Marxism, Leninism, and Maoism, and am happy to evaluate these debates."
So, the biggest issue here, Nico, is that judges are not just accepting tacitly. No, they're encouraging this type of argumentation. On Twitter a couple of days ago, I tweeted out that it wouldn't be all that different if you went to a spelling bee, stood up there when it was your time to spell, let's just say, "cis-normative," because that's the kritik; cis-heteronormative; it's your time to spell that word.
And then, you go up there and say, "You know what? Spelling is merit, and merit is rooted in white supremacy, and I'm not going to spell. I'm going to play the guitar," and then you bring out an electric guitar and go on the riff from "Gypsy," which is a really great one, but I probably shouldn’t say that, because that's not politically correct to use that word. Or whatever the case is, right?
And so, that is just as bizarre and inappropriate as it would be during a debate on US water policy, or on NATO expansion, to say, "No, hold on one second. We've got to actually talk about racism in America," or whatever the case may be, or this ad-hominem attack that Matthew Adelstein was on the other side of.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, I actually wanted to ask you guys. I hadn't thought about this before, but what sort of position or positions does this put judges in, when debaters make these arguments? So, James, for example, used the white supremacy argument in positing your hypothetical. I imagine arguments towards white supremacy come up quite frequently in high school debate, as well, or arguments about oppressor or oppressed, on the side of marginalized communities.
I can imagine if you're a debater, and they're making the argument that the other side's argument is white supremacist, if you're a judge you don't want to be seen to be favoring white supremacy, right? I think Herbert Marcuse called this sort of framing linguistic therapy, as a way of shaping language to almost emotionally manipulate people, because no one wants to be seen as a racist or a sexist, or a white supremacist, right?
So, you frame the arguments that way. And then, the people on the opposite side are almost on their back feet. And then, you have all the listeners – in this case, it might be the judges – who don't want to be seen or claim to be supporting those white supremacists arguments. So, it almost puts, I imagine, the judges in a tough position, too. If they wanted to support the fundamental premise of the debate, which is the policy that's being debated.
James Fishback: That's exactly right, and what you'll hear a lot of in high-school debate in paradigms is this idea of the power of the ballot. The power of the ballot. And Matthew knows this term, because that last debate round he ever competed in, the judge told him, "The ballot has a transformative power to challenge white debate norms where it is okay to let racist or violent activity slide."
I feel as if a lot of judges take this way too seriously, as if their decision to vote for Matthew over the team that says that Matthew is racist, by voting for Matthew they would be complicit in his ostensibly politically incorrect tweet that is unmitigated racism, per the other team. So, there's a lot of that to it, as well, that these judges, they really have to pinch themselves and be reminded of the fact that this is purely an educational activity that's designed to expose students to different viewpoints, to build up critical thinking and public speaking skills and argumentation.
It's not about your own politics, and a lot of judges have a hard time separating the role as an impartial adjudicator with their own political beliefs. So, when a student goes up there and says, "You know what, Israel has a right to defend itself," there are judges out there who would say, "I can't possibly vote for that argument," even if it objectively won the round, because if it gets out to the rest of my local debate circuit that I voted for what they would probably deem a pro-apartheid argument, that I will face social stigma as a result.
And so, this is the toxic culture that has become high school debate, where the students, the judges, the coaches, everybody, is worried about the person behind them or doing something or saying something that might lead to them being socially ostracized from this activity.
Nico Perrino: Matthew, do you have anything to add there?
Matthew Adelstein: Yeah, I think that's largely true. I think part of the reason why the debate is so far left is that judges are worried about backlash, and so on. But I think, also, is just nearly all debaters are far left. And so, signals of allegiance to left-wing policies are seen as totally innocuous, and things that are treated as very normal among left-wing people and not at all normal among right-wing people are quite ubiquitious in debate.
One of my favorite philosophers, a guy named Michael Huemer, has an article called "Why Not Shibboleths," and the basic point is that very often in lots of spaces like debate, you'll have people just doing very innocuous things that signal left-wing allegiances. So, he gives this example. Imagine if every time you went into a room, everyone just had a little Trump flag at a debate tournament. Well, you would sort of sense that the debate was kind of far right.
Well, in debate, it's not the case usually that people have Biden flags. Very often, people will have laptop stickers that do actually signal their political allegiance. So, something like half of debaters have some laptop sticker that describes some left-wing policy. But it's not just that. It's the vernacular that's common in debate.
So, for example, debaters frequently talk about psychic violence. I remember when I first went into a debate, I was sort of a libertarian, and I just found the term "psychic violence" to be just a bizarre term. What does it even mean, unless you're using telepathy to hack someone? But psychic violence, apparently, means when you say things that are offensive. And lot of left-wing people use the term. I've never heard a right-wing person use the term.
So, the way in which debaters talk is a way that exclusively left-wing people talk, such that it's very clear to everyone that the community is left, and that right-wing arguments would not be tolerated. Or another example is a huge portion of judges have pronouns in their bio, or in their judge paradigm. I don't know of a single conservative who puts their pronoun in their bio. I know of lots of liberals who do it.
So, all of the things that are done in a debate are done to signal one's political allegiance to a tendentious ideology that's disagreed with by about half the country. And so, it's sort of no surprise that left-wing arguments flourish.
Nico Perrino: Yeah. James, in your reporting, you talk about one student at the 2018 NSDA National Tournament in Ford Lauderdale who wrote an open letter on Reddit about her experience, and the student made conservative arguments during the debate tournament. And she said – I believe it was a she; I could be wrong – yeah, she later posted.
And this is a portion of what she said. "I really did not appreciate your words toward me after the round." She's talking to the people who were in the audience. "I did not appreciate the spectators' competitors wearing shirts with matching sentiments following me around to my next rounds. I understand I speak fast, sometimes, and I often unknowingly use words that offend certain groups of people. Also, I'm really sorry that my attire did not fit your standard. I know about the stain on my shirt, but it is really all that I had."
It suggests some classism there, as well, if that's really all that she had. But Matthew, what you just said about the subtle use of language in these debates. What she's saying there is suggestive of the fact that she doesn't speak in that left-wing dialectic, and as a result, she's unwittingly, perhaps, stepping on landmines that only those on the left might be aware of, if you keep up with the kind of dialogues surrounding left-wing issues or their approach to those issues, I should say.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, I agree 100 percent. And this tragic case of this young girl, to add to what you said: The judges and students were following her around wearing shirts that said, "F-U-C-K Trump." And because she committed the crime, in her words, of "Unknowingly using words that offend certain groups of people." And this was something that I looked at in Part 2 of my reporting for The Free Press, was a lot of judges saying things in a very cute and subtle way that were very political. One of the things, pronoun in bios is one of them, to Matthew's point.
But this idea of judges telling students in their paradigms not to make transphobic arguments – and there were over two dozen of those judges at the most recent national tournament in Phoenix. And I emailed every single one of them, and I asked them, "What is a transphobic argument?" and only one of the 26 got back to me, and declined to answer. I actual listed five potential arguments, and asked him to rate which were transphobic.
And the reason why: because I suspect that what is transphobic for them is something that 70 percent of Americans would likely agree with; the idea that children cannot consent to permanent sex changes, or that a 14-year-old girl cannot consent to a double mastectomy, or a so-called gender affirming hysterectomy. These are voices and perspectives that are desperately needed in high school debate.
There was an Axios Ipsos poll from a couple months ago that found that 70 percent of young Democrats would not date a Republican, and 40 percent of young Republicans would not date a Democrat. Those numbers ought to be zero. We should not be prejudging any type of relationship with someone on the basis of politics. And so, at a time when the country is so deeply divided, to tell people you can't make a "transphobic argument," that if you're white, you can't even talk about urban violence in places like Baltimore or Chicago. It's antithetical to free speech and open debate, and it's fundamentally un-American.
Nico Perrino: To close out the conversation here, I want to ask – oh, go ahead, Matthew. You can give closing thoughts on that.
Matthew Adelstein: Yeah, just to add on briefly to James's point. I think this is true. One sort of amusing instance of this there were lots of – so, James did a Twitter Space a while back, where people who disagreed with this reporting could explain why people disagreed with the Free Press articles.
And there were lots of people who said, "This is overblown; judges don't read critical theory arguments." And so, James would ask them, like, "If it was relevant to the topic, and a team argued that there shouldn’t be gender-affirming care," liberals refer to it as gender-affirming care given to minors. Would that be a transphobic argument that you would vote against?
And they would simultaneously assert that there is no judge bias, and also that you would automatically lose in front of them if you made this argument, despite this being a view held by more than half the country. And I think that this goes to show just how thorough the echo chamber is in debate. I think the point about how debaters have a peculiar way of talking is very true.
Very often, one problem is that prior to getting into debate, people sort of talk like normal people. And a debate has its own very peculiar set of terms and norms, such that there's sort of a stigma when you talk like a normal person, say things that conservatives say, given that that's sort of what's said by debate novices, before they become inculcated in the peculiar doublespeak that's rampant in debate.
One particularly bizarre example of this was there was one round where I argue that utilitarianism was the right ethical theory; utilitarianism says that you should take the actions that maximize how well off people are in the aggregate. The other team claimed that this was "All lives matter" logic, because you're counting all people's lives as equally valuable.
And so, what I said in response was, "Well, All Lives Matter, the political movement, we don't have to endorse that; but clearly, the slogan 'All Lives Matter' is true. The alternative is some lives not mattering." And the judge, they didn't vote against me for this. In debate, you'll get speaking points, which rank like – they are useful for tiebreakers; you'll rank how well you did over the course of that round. Usually, I would say the average number of speaker points I would get is maybe 29.1, something around there.
The judge gave me 27.1 speaker points, which is much, much lower. That was the lowest speaker points I ever got, and explicitly said it was because I said that slogan "All Lives Matter" is a true slogan, when I even denounced the political movement. But because I didn't do it in the right kind of debate speech…
Nico Perrino: Yeah, that kind of is a good segue into my last question for you, which is more just a curiosity for me, as a non-high-school debater. In Maya's article, there is a footnote about speed debating, or how it's – because she was citing to all these examples of kritiks, and she said, "IF you go and look at these, you might not understand them; not just because the arguments are ephemeral and abstract, but also because they're talking at like 350 – what is it? beats per minute? – I don't know what it was in the YouTube headline.
But this way of talking in debating that is just so fast that you can't understand what people are saying, can you talk about it? What is that trend? And Erin or Ella, whoever is editing this episode, if we could cut in some examples of high-school debaters doing this, so that our listeners and viewers can get a sense of what I'm talking about, here. It's extraordinary, and I don't get it. So, what am I missing?
Matthew Adelstein: I'm actually sort of more sympathetic to this than I think a lot of other people. So, debate at the high levels is much more of a technical point-scoring game than it is about persuasion, and that's for better or worse. I think largely worse. And so, as a result, I think as you're making the points, it doesn't really matter how fast you make them.
And so, there is an incentive to talk quickly. I think that one problem is that policy debate has a very weird norms for citation, where after you read a claim that's backed up by evidence, you have to read the words that the evidence says that back up the claim. This is not how any academic uses it. Academics use footnotes where they'll make a claim, and they'll say, "This is supported by this source." Rather than having to provide a full paragraph of what exactly the source said.
And so, as a result of that, the way debaters talk it just because of this really inefficient citation style that is demanded. It's just really inefficient. And so, they have to talk quickly to make any significant number of points. So, in my ideal world, people would talk much more slowly; but also, this bizarre citation style where you have to read entire paragraphs in order to make claims backed up by evidence would also be done away with, so that we'd make a similar number of points.
But if we could keep the citation style, then you would just get the unfortunately result; the debaters would make like one point a minute. Things would be very slow and inefficient. So, I think given this bizarre citation style, speed talking is worth keeping.
Nico Perrino: Oh, that's interesting. So, as a non-debater, I didn't know what the incentives were for debaters, and it sounds like speed talking is a result of certain incentives. Because when I think about – and this isn't debate, necessarily, but speech – I think about some of the best speeches. A lot of it is knowing when to command silence, speak quickly or slowly; having that natural narrative ark. Like if you look at Roosevelt's speech after the bombing at Pearl Harbor, "December 7th, 1941. A day which will live in infamy."
Five or six words, he takes 10 seconds to say because he's trying to make an impact. You can look at Churchill's speeches during World War II, as well. Again, these aren't debates; these are speeches, but it's almost musical the way that they're speaking, as a way to make an impact. And I didn't realize in debate that there's this kind of citation incentive that incentivizes folks to speak fast, so that they can get as many citations, perhaps, as possible. That's interesting.
Matthew Adelstein: Yeah, debaters sort of replaced the normal way people speak eloquently with just when there's a point that's especially important, they just say it more loudly, rather than the way normal people speak.
James Fishback: Yeah, and these aren't terribly fungible skills, and I think that's the issue, right? We can talk about speed, and maybe Matthew and I disagree on it, it sounds like it. But just the idea to dig up dirt, ad hominem attacks, hijack a debate, jettison the topic, talk about X when you really should be talking about Y? So, great, you win. You might get a scholarship. But at the end of the day, 10 years later, are these skills that you can actually use in your day-to-day life? And the answer is no.
Matthew Adelstein: Yeah, I think that that's definitely true. And if you look at a lot of the debaters who read critical theory arguments, they're now like embittered Twitter English majors who have nothing going for them, and who are not doing much in life.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, just being on Twitter in general, although James, you seem to really love Twitter Spaces. So, I would encourage our listeners to follow you if they want to join one of those Twitter – what's your handle, James?
James Fishback: It is j_fishback, just how it sounds.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, and Matthew, do you have one that is public, that you want to share?
James Fishback: Yeah, I don't remember what the handle is, off the top of my head.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, you escaped Twitter after that unfortunate –
James Fishback: But if you just type in Bentham's Bulldog it will come up.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, so, by way of closing here, I'm assuming since Matthew, you were cited in James and Maya's article; James, you've published two articles; you've been hearing from a lot of folks. What's the sense for the general public? Are they like me, who was unaware of this world and is absolutely shocked by how it's become hijacked by ideology? Or there additional people coming out of the woodwork, saying, "Yeah, this is such a problem. Thank you for shedding light on it.
James Fishback: Yeah, I've got a lot of people who have reached out since Part 1 came up in The Free Press at the end of May. I'm most encouraged by the judges and the current judges and students who reached out and thanked me for writing about this, because they didn't feel like they were able to bring up this point, but it's been with them for a while, these concerns, these criticisms. And really, we've got to fix it, and I've started my own nonprofit debate league, Incubate Debate, in Florida. But that's not going to fix this problem nationally, to tell you the truth.
We need competing institutions. My advice to the NSDA would be, get rid of debate judges in the traditional sense. Bring in non-former-debaters to come judge these tournaments, kind of like what Incubate Debate has done. Bring in first responders. Bring in local college professors. Bring in members of the armed forces, veterans, local elected officials.
And effectively, what you do is when you take away the marketplace for critical Marxism to be the ideology of choice in a debate round, you end up – the issue here is that if judges weren't so willing to accept this type of argumentation, then 99 percent of society wouldn't either; then, you largely fix the problem. Students start to lose because they realize that hijacking a debate isn't going to change the minds, isn't going to convince anybody on a random street in America.
And then, they have to adapt accordingly. I think that's the best advice I could give the NSDA is drop the current, existing judges; bring on members of the local community, these sort of citizen judging panels. That's going to go a long way to fix a lot of the problems they're facing.
Nico Perrino: Well, great. I think we're going to leave it there. If folks are interested in learning more about Incubate Debate, which James of course is a founder and executive director of, you can go to incubatedebate.org. And if folks are interested in reading Matthew's writing on utilitarianism, they can visit benthamssubstack.com. Again, that's benthamssubstack.com. And Matthew, I believe you write under the pseudonym Bentham's Bulldog? Is that right?
So, I encourage folks to check that out. Follow James, of course, on Twitter, and stay tuned. And again, if you are interested in attending the debate in LA, "Has the Sexual Revolution failed?" that we are sponsoring, and which is hosted by The Free Press, I will be there. It's on September 13th. Please make your way over to thefp.com/debates, and if you have any feedback for Matthew or James or myself, or general feedback about the podcast, you can of course go to your email and email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We also take reviews on the show, if you enjoyed listening, and we're on most of the social media channels. So, just search for Free Speech Talk or So To Speak Podcast. We'll find you there. And Matthew, James, I appreciate you guys joining the show.
James Fishback: Our pleasure. Thank you very much, Nico.
Matthew Adelstein: Thanks for having me.