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Plastic Trophies and Ill-Fitting Suits: A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Speech and Debate


Loves history and politics almost as much as Kurt Vonnegut novels.

Pimply teens in business attire filled the crowded prep room, already resembling the corporate consultants and cable news pundits they would one day become. It was 2017 and after doing Extemporaneous Speaking — a type of competitive high school speech — for only a year at this point, I already had mixed feelings. I had a community in Forensics — as we call it in my school — but I was getting tired of the cut-and-dry, formulaic thinking that Extemp in particular encouraged. This predictability was somewhat of a necessity, however. After all, we’re only given half an hour to prepare and deliver a seven-minute speech on unique current event topics each round.

Whenever you deliver an Extemp speech, you know what you are going to say. You open with an AGD, or attention-grabbing device, often sounding like Agent Smith from The Matrix failing to land a punchline. Then you give some background context before ultimately repeating the round’s question verbatim and answering with an (always) “resounding” yes or no for “three key reasons.”

So there I was, fifteen in a gray suit, my speech on Filipino terrorism in my hand, ready to turn this whole thing on its head; why not have some fun? I began my AGD:

“There is a term for a sexually attractive older woman and that term is MILF, standing for ‘mom I’d like to… sexual expletive.’ However, if you were to travel to the Philippines, you’d find that MILF stands for something completely different. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front has been waging war on the Filipino government for six months…”

Look, I was fifteen, dying to showcase some individuality and had just learned there’s literally a terrorist organization called “the MILF.” The absurdity was pleading to be acknowledged. What would you do? Looking back now, as a senior and co-captain of my school’s Extemp team, I’m not so sure. I yearn for more tongue-in-cheek deconstructions of what it means to act “professionally” as a student, but as captain, I find myself advising my freshmen not to deliver such edgy material. Though, I think now I’d stay away from that joke in particular. To some extent, I’m older and wiser, but I’m also afraid I’m perpetuating the status quo of an extracurricular activity that so desperately needs a postmodern shot in the arm. Ultimately, Extemp is the place where students start to find their identity and become politically aware so we ought not to shy away from free expression… all the jokes and political opinions that come with it.

We can all extol the virtues of speech and debate; I certainly received invaluable skills from it. In the three and a half years I have been in high school, I have spent most of it with my captains after hours, competing on Saturdays and winning plastic trophies. It’s certainly been the defining factor of my high school career. As a senior, I have “worked my way up the ranks” to become Extemp captain and the team President. And as much as I have entrenched myself lovingly in the community, that doesn’t stop things from irking me. I also want to make explicitly clear that I am not expressing discontent with the students who participate in this event, merely the culture it encourages.

While Forensics gets its share of criticism, from inside and out, none of it seems to touch upon the frustrations I have. For instance, last October the New York Times published an op-ed entitled, “Are School Debate Competitions Bad for Our Political Discourse?” While the article agreed with my assessment that Forensics isn’t necessarily a boon for political progress, it relied on reasoning like, “The goal is not to determine the most reasonable or fair-minded approach to an issue, but to defend a given claim at all costs.” The article spoke specifically about the debate side of speech and debate where students prep both sides of an argument then present/defend one side at random during a round. The author was concerned that debate has produced and will produce politicians and voters who are too ideologically dogmatic and unwilling to compromise, having not been taught skills in deliberation, but rather argumentation.

Perhaps the author may like Extemp more, where the surface goal is to explain a situation to answer the question of the round — not to persuade. However, I’ve found that Extemp still forces you to take a side — the side of prevailing, mainstream narratives and political moderation. It is the same thinking that gives rise to dispassionate analysis and political inaction on the governmental level. I’m concerned that the event may breed young thinkers who would much rather detachedly cite statistics in a suit than take action on the issues they read about moments before. Every mundane speech I give about the stock market and even Trump’s irrelevant weekly shenanigans is another seven minutes I cannot advocate for single-payer health care, an end to American imperialism, and decisive action on climate change. Admittedly, I’m exaggerating that direct time trade-off, but it is emblematic of the frustration I feel having to hide my progressive political opinions under a saccharin centrist facade. I don’t want to become a disinterested number-reader who will pontificate on the Rohingya genocide without really caring, only self-impressed with my intellect and finally being able to pronounce the ethnic group’s name. The world needs fewer analysts and more activists.

Centrism is worshipped as political impartiality in the Extemp world and goes hand in hand with the indifference I am talking about. Months ago, I all too often heard these high school intellectuals — some of whom I know behind closed doors to be die-hard progressives — hail Beto, Booker and Kamala in their speeches as the most likely winners of the Democratic nomination. That level of centrism is still political bias. Bias towards the center, bias that is encouraged.

I see this in the Extemper’s sacred text: The Economist. This is the magazine that endorsed the Iraq War and published an edition advocating for a “new Scramble for Africa.” They recently labeled Bernie Sanders as leading a cult of personality when they lied about his campaign slogan being only “Bernie” instead of the true slogan: “Not me. Us.” Last year, too, they essentially said, “Mexico’s new president has policies that are very popular and might help the people. But who cares? tHe MaRkEtS aRe WoRrIeD!!!” The National Speech and Debate Association has existed since 1924. I’m certain Extempers in the ’30s said Hitler was a miracle for markets. Extemp breeds the next generation of McKinsey consultant presidential candidates.

Look, I know what I’ve written seems explosive, but I needed to get these feelings down. I will stay involved in Extemp — my home — for the few months I have left in high school. I have no intention to disown it, I’m only offering this as a word to posterity. Not only do I think students need to take themselves less seriously, but politicians should too. Let’s be honest about who we are and then maybe we can lead honestly. I also don’t want to be misinterpreted as believing keeping up-to-date on the news is bad. We need more people to be aware of current events in politics today. But one step beyond awareness, we need involvement.

Hey, I really want to learn. I want to surround myself with books, to be intellectual. But I think that can be done while maintaining what makes me as well as a desire to fight for others, not just to see them as trend lines on a spreadsheet.