Warner presided over only part of the evolution of debate that took place over the next two decades. He resigned as part of a settlement in 2011, after being accused of sexual harassment. (He has challenged the settlement in the Kentucky court system.) These allegations came two years after he was charged with arson and assault in connection with a domestic dispute; he pleaded guilty to some of the charges.
But his project continued without him. As alternative debate, as Louisville’s debate style was eventually called, slowly filtered out into the wider community, it evolved to encapsulate other ideas and identities. Some teams began to recruit Black debaters as a way to counter Louisville’s identity advantages, which meant Warner, whose original goal was to diversify debate, made the progress he wanted. By 2013, when a gay, Black squad from Emporia State University became the first team to win both the C.E.D.A. and N.D.T. titles in the same season by focusing on the intersection between Black and queer identity, alternative debate had become firmly established at the highest levels of the activity.
The debate I judged was between inexperienced debaters. The team from Orange County spent most of the round with confused, anxious looks on their faces. They tried to express that something was unfair about all this but quickly demurred and more or less agreed that debate needed more people like those on the team from Long Beach. At the end of the round, as the two teams went through perfunctory handshakes, the white and Asian team laughed with relief and said they had learned a lot. I agreed and voted for the team from Long Beach. Something was happening, and I wanted to put myself on the right side.
I have thought and rethought that decision for the past decade. The country certainly faces larger problems than diversity in debate, but as state legislatures pass laws banning critical race theory in schools and the discussion of politics devolves into a pyrrhic culture war, Warner’s intervention certainly deserves a second look as a precursor for what was to come.
Many of Louisville’s innovations, for example, came from Warner’s reading of actual critical legal studies and critical race theory scholars like Mari Matsuda, Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw, especially his team’s contention that the best way to learn about oppression was to hear the narratives of the people who have been oppressed. By routing every debate topic, from NATO expansion to climate change, toward American racism, Warner created a literal hierarchy of who should be heard and what should be discussed.
There was also a whiff of racial essentialism in Louisville’s core arguments: Was there really a Black way to debate? Was there no real value in reading the opinions of experts on the effects of racist foreign policy, even if its harms fell on other people? And was race really the correct way to view the problem of elitism and exclusivity in the community?
A healthy portion of the winners of the Tournament of Champions have been so-called people of color (mostly Asian Americans), but there have been precious few women or poor people of any racial background. By focusing only on race and, more specifically, the alienation and discomfort felt by the individual debaters in the round, the scope of the debate narrowed from the theoretical world down to the actual power dynamics within the room, namely a debate team at Louisville, one of the finest public universities in the country, versus another debate team, often representing another fine university.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of debaters are middle- and working-class kids in mediocre or failing high schools. They put on blazers and pantsuits on Saturdays, drive to a nearby tournament, speak persuasively to an audience of parent chaperones and never see the Tournament of Champions, much less an elite college debate.
If I were asked to describe — in the broadest terms possible — my general thoughts on things, I would say that most things are uncomplicated, some things are complicated, but almost everything worth writing about is both uncomplicated and complicated. In the abstract world of debate, I disagree with many of Warner’s arguments for the reasons stated above. Simple enough. But in the messier world, I acknowledge that he correctly assessed that the very real problems of inequality in debate could be addressed only when actual wins and losses were on the line. No amount of diversity training, conferences or “dialogue” would have done as much as one powerful team taking a loss. I admire his ability to see a problem, apply a method he believed in and change the face of debate.
The Louisville Project worked. And although I am skeptical of the type of identity politics that Warner practiced, which downplays the effects of class and can, when applied sloppily, preclude solidarity by placing one narrative above all others, it should be pointed out that it wasn’t a Black team from Northwestern, Dartmouth or Emory that ultimately won the National Debate Tournament in 2013 but rather Emporia State, a school that accepts over 80 percent of its applicants and has an in-state tuition under $7,000 a year. An identity-first approach, in other words, took the most prestigious title in debate away from the rich, powerful schools.
Still, I believe Warner’s project presaged a profound change in the way that race and inequality are now discussed, not so much in ideology but rather in methodology. The range of possible solutions to problems of inequality have drifted together and consolidated themselves. What has resulted is a false consensus.
This, at first, might seem counterintuitive — there is, for example, a wider scope of electoral choices on both ends of the political spectrum than there was a decade ago. There are more pathways into politics that go beyond the electoral: Last summer, millions of people went out to protest in the streets at a scale and intensity that had not been seen before in my lifetime.
But this broadening has also been accompanied by a type of forced acquiescence to whatever proposal gets the most traction. Too often, this requires us to bury any criticisms we may have of it. The University of California, for example, recently ended the use of the SAT and the ACT in its admissions process. This policy, which is being phased in, was meant to address the lack of diversity at the system’s 10 campuses — even though we are far from having a consensus on the effect that standardized tests have on diversity, much less what forms of “diversity” count at these schools with massive Asian populations. Still, the move — in some corners, at least — was cast in stark terms: If you want diversity, you must agree with eliminating the SAT and the ACT. If you criticize the decision, you must oppose diversity.
I call this process “binary consensus building.” When judges voting in a Louisville Project debate were presented with the problem of exclusion in debate, they were given two choices for resolving it: Vote Team A or Team B. Similarly, a recent rise in reactionary politics has meant that the range of possible solutions to policy issues has been drastically reduced, forcing people into a type of acquiescence to whatever solution gets placed in front of them. Do you want to stop inequality or not? Are you a racist or an anti-racist? Do you care about race or class? Are you on Team A or Team B?
This content was originally published here.