By Terence Aaron
ABP and WUDC are approaching and trainers in active debate clubs are in full swing. By now, teams for the BP season are determined and they’re busy thinking of cute names for their teams in future inter-varsities.
For high school debaters, the struggle is too real. It’s the end of the year and all the major exams are coming soon. If the world schools selection for Team Malaysia is any indication of how hard debaters work at such an early age, I’m worried about how the rest cope with all the pressure.
However, behind all the stacks of case files, there will be people who don’t even get to make the team. Then there are people who can’t seem to break in the big four despite all the effort and time poured into debating. These are stories rarely told and often forgotten. Unfortunately, they are the people who quit debating because they think it’s not for them. Some struggle with the idea of being stuck on a plateau and some fear that time is not in their favor.
I’ll admit, I was one of them. I was rarely the first choice for my trainers and there are times I struggle to even remain relevant in the club. To further complicate things, I kept measuring my capabilities with the finest minds the country had to offer.
Here’s my message to people who are stuck there, selections isn’t a measure of your self-worth. At this point, I understand if you feel that debating isn’t for you. But if it means anything, here are a few pointers for you to ponder.
Look At Where You Started
The Malaysian debating scene is probably one of the most active in the region. Some of us struggle to find free time for ourselves. In fact, I had to write the first draft of this article/post on a bus ride back from a tournament in Perak.
While this is good for training, the downside to this is that if you’re new to debating or struggle in debating; you might forget to check your progress. Week after week, you meet the best speakers in the country making it to the break rounds of a local/prestigious debate tournament. It’s the same faces over and over again, and these stellar individuals are your only yardstick. Its easy to see why some people feel rather bad about their capabilities as a debater at this point.
Instead, what you should do is take the time to reflect upon how you started as a debater. We take for granted the small victories that we make along the way. If you’re somewhere in the middle of your debating career, try to look for your first few debates. Even better; look at your old notes (if you can find them). If you’re a hoarder like me, then you probably have stacks of your previous notes that you can track down. I normally get a kick from looking my old notes and realize how relatively mature my sentences are today in comparison. Sometimes I look through notes of debates where I managed to think of some kickass argument I’ve not used in ages.
Then I look through my old speeches and see my speech patterns. I rarely remind myself how horrible I stuttered.. Even today, I can still see remnants of it in my speeches. Especially with my dyslexia, even reading from a piece of paper was a terrifying act. I remember being called a nervous wreck and the smallest intimidating act around the environment of debate could easily bring havoc to the structure of my sentences.
The point is, we struggle with what’s ahead but forget to have some joy in the increments we gain. Sure, some people achieve more goals than us but its only because we started from different points in life. This brings me to my next point.
Like Everything Else, Debating is Heavily Contingent on Privilege
For a sport that features mature discussions on the range of differences we have as people, we rarely speak out loud about privilege in the sport. I do admit, there are helpful initiatives like having categories that facilitate and acknowledge these differences like the “English as a 2nd Language” or “English as a Foreign Language” categories in the big four tournaments.
While language comprehension is a crucial issue, the exposure to the topics presented in the sport also plays a bigger role. So while two different families may speak English as a 2nd language in the household, the educational background of the parents might affect what people know and learn at an early age. Debaters with parents who are educated at the tertiary level are more likely to talk about issues that are closer to their area of expertise. On the other hand, parents who didn’t get their degrees after high school might speak issues of greater importance to them. So these different sets of experiences shape how people approach issues. As unpopular as how this sounds, debaters from well to do families (or more “cultured” families) tend to shun the way people from the lower & lower-middle view things. It could be the jargon, it could just be how their perception of things are.
Debating, unfortunately, is inherently a very middle to upper-class sport. So as much as people would want to create categories for people with different exposures to language, it still doesn’t help people who feel as if the scene is detached from them. Is it any wonder the people who feel more belonged in the scene are kids who grew up in urban/suburban areas, from English speaking backgrounds and those that can relate to common pop culture, consumed by those in an upper middle to upper upbringing?
Then there comes the monetary aspect. Debaters, who can spend more money, tend to go to more tournaments. While those who are broke sit on the sideline. Then there’s institutional privilege with people who are from clubs that are well-funded. They get to pay for the best trainers, they have the financial means to go for tournaments every weekend, they don’t have to work that extra shift to afford to pay for rego in the next IV and they can afford to categorize tournaments into pro-am tournaments and competitive tournaments. While being good helps, being associated with a “brand” does you wonders. When I told my friends that I was furthering my studies in West Malaysia, they kept using the euphemism “going to the mothership.” I knew what they meant. The mothership is the base. It has everything. It’s where people get “promoted.”
No one said it explicitly but I know what they are saying; I’m going to have it easy.
I don’t have a perfect solution to this.
But there is one thing I think could help those trapped under these problems; just show up. If you are there often, it will be hard for them to ignore you. Be part of an adj panel and explain why you view things in a certain way. You have to force them to view things from your angle. If you think there’s another scene that resembles your troubles, prop them up. They need your help more than anyone else. These people would want to find a place they can feel belonged to and they would return the favor in the future. The bigger your circle is, the harder it is for people to ignore you. If you ever doubt this tactic, just look at the Asian contingent in the big four. As much as this sounds like I’m just repping my hometown, this was what Kuching debaters did. They propped each other up, pushed each other and contributed to the scene.
Then there’s one simple thing that people can do; ask for help. But not many are able to climb the mental barrier. Just talking to those who have an advantage over you might very well just change the way they view your problems.
Learn To Love the Game
So prep time is ending and it was the final preliminary round of UADC. All that went through my head was how to figure out the best angle, the best case, the best mechanism and the what I thought was the best argument possible for the motion.
I was so caught up in figuring out on how to do the job that I forgot how to enjoy the game. Debating is a social game. The moment you forget that, you’ll forget how to handle yourself. So that’s what happened to me. I was already a socially awkward human being. To talk in front of people is already a tough act to me. So if I didn’t enjoy myself, I was only a master of word salad.
The only way for a person to give a good speech and not get choked up is to enjoy it. I believe I’m not the only one who experiences this. It is the only way you can stop sounding plastic and put your mind in your intonation. Many inexperienced debaters get caught up in the facts and they get over emotional for the wrong reasons. There’s a reason why manner is half of the game. So unless you already grow up in an environment where you are free to experiment on how you express yourself (guess again which families have this opportunity), you’ll have to put your mind in the manner.
And the only way for you to have good manner is to have fun.
Even if you don’t win a debate with good manner, at least the speech is entertaining. That in itself is a value. The obsession to nail everything right at all cost is unhealthy. It consumes you.
The nights that people spend making stacks of case files retrospectively, scares me. I remember trying to pointlessly look for information that I have no idea if there will be of any value in any arguments. Sometimes, we have to ask ourselves why we searched for all this information.
All of this started because we were curious. If everything else consumes your initial curiosity, then what’s the point? After you cover your bases, pick something that you like or enjoy. Remember, debating is a team sport, not an endless know-your-facts race. I’m not advocating anti-intellectualism. I’m saying that you should pick something you enjoy and spend more time there.
You don’t need to be a know-it-all. The pursuit of knowledge is only useful is you can use that knowledge without damaging yourself further.
But If You Still Wish To Quit, Quit Because You Found Something You Love
At the end of the day, I can’t stop people for who they are. I can’t change what they think and I can’t dictate what amount of effort people can put into a hobby.
However, if you want to quit, don’t quit with the feeling of despair and hate in your mind. Quit because you found something that interests you think and spending so much time debating, might inhibit your potential.
Don’t treat debating as something you hated because you “wasted” so much time on it. Instead, view it as a platform for you to do other things. Be it writing or running your own startup, you can carry the lessons you learned from the debating community over.
If you ever feel down in the gutter because you feel that you never did well in debating, hating the sport won’t help you.