The Death Of Sincerity, Or A Sincere Death

Posted on March 10, 2010


From Omar’s Note
March 10, 2010
Dr. Omar Salahuddin Abdullah


At least, a Sincere Death

A long time ago now, or so it seems to one becoming increasingly confounded by the affairs of a world gone deaf, dumb and blind, I wrote an article for a debating journal entitled ‘What’s the Matter with Manner’. I mention this only as a means of providing the basis for my complete withdrawal of every single plea made in the course of that misguided document – and my utter surrender to the inevitability of a trend in competitive debate – at least in Asia – that brings us ever closer to the brink of sterile, pasteurised, formless, featureless and inherently meaningless debate and speech-making.

I offer this sad and even painful commentary as the result of my participation in the very recent Malacca Debate Open, hosted by Multimedia University and the insights gained through the shared experience of our team: Dengkil Institute for the Terminally Insane, or DITI, as the organisers insisted on calling us.

Please do not imagine for one moment that this epistle represents some kind of collective ‘whinge’ on the part of DITI, or indeed, that comforting and supportive Institution that we had the honour to represent. These opinions, while shared by many of what I’d like to refer to as Malaysian debating’s alumni (given the comments received in conversation with these worthies since the MDO grand final), are entirely my own view of what has occurred, perhaps not least because I have been around long enough to actually recognise a trend when I experience its birth and progression. Age, perhaps, does have one or two things to say for it… For example, may your God grant that you live long enough to debate with your own children…

During the course of the 5 preliminary rounds in which feedback was provided to us and the teams competing against us, plus the slightly more cursory and individualised feedback that we sought after the knock-out, or ‘break rounds on the third day, not one reference was made to “manner” by those that adjudicated in our rooms. Not one!

This was clearly not a problem for many teams, but it was for us. You might well ask, “Why?” Well, apart from the obvious response that Manner-based considerations are supposed to account for 40% of the total marks (or two fifths of the total allocation for any one speech), members of DITI’s debate squad have always sought to enliven their contribution to debates with the appropriate use of things like humour, wit, expressions of sincerity, the use of emphasis, and so on. Clearly, none of this was particularly important to the vast majority of adjudicators in the competition because the only category in which commentary was consistently and exclusively given was that of Matter. Thus, even Method-related items seemed to be insignificant – as things such as team dynamism, response, and shifts in the mechanisms of control didn’t feature in our feedback either. All-hail the great God Matter.

One of our adjudications was a classic: With the actual result withheld, the Chair talked very briefly about the Proposition’s positive contribution to the debate (ours) and the way in which we had passionately advocated (No, he didn’t use the term himself, but it was “passionate”) arming Burmese guerrilla groups. He then congratulated our opponents on basing their “opposition” to this in stating a preference for the status quo ante (although not actually requiring them to argue how – particularly ‘how’ it was going to solve the problems of a civil war, summary executions, genocide, and so on; our opponents being quite happy with the current levels of cruelty and not wishing to make an already untenable situation more cruel and untenable. Something we painted as having the same logic as making dead people even deader!). With no positive material on the opposition bench and an approach based entirely in negation, we momentarily sensed victory, only to be utterly floored by the next phase of the adjudication feedback, which started with a statement which went something like this… “With this kind of balance existing, I was required to analyse the material in the debate on the basis of a risk assessment framework…” Suddenly, this became a debate that no proposition could win, least of all ours. Why? Well, we had actually proposed something. Therefore, as our proposal supported a change to the existing situation in that country, it had risks – and, as the opposition supported the status quo, it had no risks associated with it, and yes, we lost.

Now, the lads from Dengkil always try to be as graceful in defeat as we are in victory and there was nothing different in this case, but in focussing entirely on the matter offered by both teams in the debate on the basis of an external framework he, himself, superimposed upon it, the adjudicator not only ignored the smug, arrogant, totally negative way in which the opposition approached the debate, but rewarded them for failing to provide any positive matter and penalised us for actually proposing something (which is what I had been taught a proposition team is actually supposed to do). He pretty much avoided ruling on the ad hominem attacks from Opp directed at me, the old guy, too, so I guess I must be a failed coach, a failed debater, and probably a failed adjudicator too…

In fact, it seems that several other older hands have experienced very similar things in competitions in recent years and I have developed a theory as to why they happen. It goes like this…

A word that began to characterise adjudication feedback early in this decade, becoming quite the buzz amongst adjudicators, was “engagement”. Teams failing to ‘engage’ with the material/arguments developed on the other bench were penalised for the infraction. I have a feeling that this helped to develop the notion that, if a proposition could somehow avoid their responsibilities in terms of the potential for risk to be associated with their proposal, then they’d stand a better chance of having less to defend, confuse their opponents as to what was actually being proposed (by proposing something that wasn’t actually much different from the status quo, or so clouding the issue with ostensibly relevant ideas and clever rhetoric that their opponents wouldn’t wake up to the fact that they didn’t actually have anything to really oppose, but had probably spent the majority of their first two speeches in trying to clarify the debate before realising their error) and leave the adjudicators to sort it out for them.

This, then, was the beginning of the era of the “soft case”, and because adjudicators let some very good teams get away with running case-lines that didn’t actually propose anything – even Proposition teams that proposed the ‘status quo’, other teams started to emulate them and avoid their responsibilities too.

As this approach developed, adjudicators found themselves listening to debaters using words like ‘analysis’ and not actually developing any, feeling that the word alone was probably enough. In such an intellectual vacuum, adjudicators stopped thinking for themselves and often allowed themselves to be led by the signposting of the speaker. Why? Well, it was just easier. After all, adjudicators have always had problems with the more subjective aspects of the evaluation and assessment processes. An approach that seemed to generate a much more objective means of adjudicating debates was attractive. This is the stage at which adjudicators began to conjure with their own purely objective analysis of material: “…If they said the words, then the argument was made”, rather than, “…They said the words and threw an example in for good measure, but I’m still waiting for the reasoning.”
Eventually (and this is the preface to the point that I think we’ve reached now), debaters began to get upset when an adjudicator used his or her intellect to weigh the merits and demerits of particular arguments and determine their relevance to, and impact upon, the debate that has taken place(Remember the ‘…average, reasonable person?’ Nothing in that clause about the average, reasonable person being dumb, or an empty slate). I’m pretty sure that this happened at about the same time as accusations of adjudicators “…getting into the debate,” began to peak.

Now, it is my considered opinion that many adjudicators assume that certain arguments are a given, especially in topic areas that regularly provide the background for certain types of motions. They assume them, and completely absolve the team proposing them from the responsibility of making them; making statements without ever, actually, reasoning them through and developing concepts of relevance to and impact upon the debate.

You hear this stuff happening with horrifying regularity these days. Teams will use the phrase, “The harm principle” without working through the argument and the adjudicators seem to think that’s fine: Speakers will refer to the blanket of UN involvement, without ever feeling that they should talk about what kind of involvement, which agencies are involved, or talk about possible outcomes. Debaters will throw in the odd reference to articles, terms of reference, legal precedent and regulations in the Social Contract, without ever feeling the need to say which Social Contract they’re talking about or what the relevant articles are. Of course, this is hard when you are, in fact, referring to Rousseau’s Social Contract, because it doesn’t actually have articles or amendments – and moreover, none that I know of contain any legal or constitutional prescriptions to speak of. Maybe that’s why they provide the philosophical underpinning to things like constitutions, not items that they must contain.

The problem is that, apparently, either adjudicators don’t know this, or they’re not allowing their (perhaps) unreasonable and above-average knowledge of the world to become a factor; instead, taking everything on face value and assuming a significance that the material clearly doesn’t, itself, deserve.
What you get are virtually meaningless concoctions of banal and risk-free statements, connected as loosely as possible to the actual wording and spirit of the motion by means of insipid rhetorical devices that sound relevant, without actually having to be. In other words, bullshit. Oh yes, it’s sophisticated bullshit alright, but it still stinks and it really pisses you off if you step in it. Well I, for one, have stepped in enough of it.

However, back to Manner.

DITI have always sought to debate fairly and honourably, running motions in the spirit in which they were intended to be debated by the members of the adjudication team that came up with them, but perhaps more importantly than that, we have also sought to entertain.

During the MDO, at the commencement of one of his replies, The man that even DITI’s legion of lunatic inmates call ‘hysterical’ asked the adjudicator how he felt right at that moment; how much he had enjoyed the three constructive speeches on our opposing side in comparison with ours, and then, what he would have felt like at that moment if all 8 speeches had been like those of our opponents. The adjudicator probably thought that our happy lunatic was being a bit cruel, but he was forced to agree that we had certainly brought something extra to the round in terms of levity and entertainment.

When debaters have an audience, their ability to ‘entertain’ should be an important element taken into consideration by an adjudication panel. I would also argue that this ability to engage with an audience becomes even more important to a team when they get into the break-rounds of a competition. The necessity for these essential tools should place a different kind of burden on the skills and abilities of teams and speakers to compete. This is one of the things that differentiates between the strategies and skills that are required at different stages of a competition. In any case, after all is said and done, if debating is to become a desert devoid of passion, persuasion, incisive wit, emotional appeal, strength of conviction, remonstrance and humour, why on earth would anyone want to do it – or watch it for that matter?

Oh, wait a minute, I forgot the ones that are walking around with deeply internalised “risk assessment frameworks” that are just itching to apply them to a set of 8 risk-free speeches. I should applaud them: they are the future; your future!

After the longest time throwing myself headfirst into the cauldron of debate, as an adjudicator, as a trainer and, more recently as a debater, I have to admit at last that Jason Jarvis was absolutely on the button when, earlier this decade, he made a case for Asian debating in general to abandon, or at least radically reduce the portion of marks that are awarded under the various rulebooks for Manner. He’s right… JJ, good for you and I’m sorry it took me so long to realise it.

Even though many teams and institutional debate squads have been making inroads into the development of the higher level manner-based skills, like humour and the ability to develop a rapport with an audience, get them on-side and be entertaining as well as erudite, we can’t adjudicate manner. In fact, there is a deliberate and insidious effort to legislate against people who can be both funny and clever. Chief Adjudicators rarely, if ever, talk about the importance of manner-related issues in competition briefings anymore. Adjudicators are not instructed in how to adjudicate debates on this basis: They are often merely told that 40% is for this and 40% is for that.

I would stand you an adult beverage the next time we meet if you can find an adjudicator who would feel confident awarding a debate to a winning team on the basis that their manner had been substantially better than that of the mumbling almanacs on the other side. I think you’ll find that they are probably as rare now as rocking-horse droppings, and yet, given the fact that two fifths of the marks awarded for a speech are allocated to elements of manner, there is absolutely no basis on which you should not be able to do this. Indeed, I don’t even agree that you only take manner into account at the point at which your assessment of the Matter-related elements and your evaluation of the Method-related elements still leave you, the adjudicator, with an irresolvable stalemate. In instances where the strength of the manner-related elements is clearly superior, there will be attendant questions as to the ability to persuade, the ability to convince, as much as there should be an ability to interest and equip with understanding. These must also be accounted for in the general reckoning – not just in the event that your alcohol-dulled wits can’t decide.

If teams are boring to listen to; if the adjudicator’s attention keeps sliding off the speaker’s monotonous diatribe like water off a Niger Delta duck, then something should be done about that – irrespective of how many facts, figures and emphasis-free words have been crammed into seven minutes. People that speak too fast should be penalised. People that run overtime should be penalised. People that suck the life out of what should have been an interesting and entertaining debate should be penalised [Well, actually, they should probably be banned from the intellectual craft until they develop a sense of humour, or be condemned to guard geological exhibits in a Natural History museum for the rest of their lives, but I’m trying to be nice].

As there are no adjudication standards that may be applied anymore, almost anything goes. Joint adjudicator/debater briefings have been shortened over the years until they are no more than a quick garbled flash through a series of PowerPoint slides: A score on a test sheet; one that might be completely arbitrary or accidental, becomes the mainstay of adjudicator pooling and allocation.

Moreover, the mass of paperwork that teams submit in the form of feedback on the processes of their adjudication are rarely read and even more rarely taken account of. How else would you explain the fact that adjudicators who get the lowest possible marks from some teams continue to feature in the top rooms and even break. Forget the feedback form. It isn’t going to make a ha’porth of difference – and no, they won’t take you out of the tab if you fail to submit one. That might mean that they’d have to prove that they’ve read through all those forms.

And then there’s mutually preferred adjudication selection…

So, what do you do? Well, for one thing, those bodies currently regulating Asian debating formats and competition types could honestly recognise the truth in what I’ve been saying for a long time now.
Many of us don’t do humour well; many of us revile it and those that can do it. After all, some tried to cut humour rounds from our main competitive frameworks very quickly after the Australs and the WUDC did it. The genre stuck around for a few years, but now it’s all about “serious debating”. Bit of a pity that the most successful speakers in both of those two competitions inevitably posses both phenomenal rhetorical skills and a wry wit.

OK, so recognise that fact and take the Manner component out altogether. That way, you could even penalise someone who tells a joke on the basis that it’s irrelevant material. Good stuff for anally retentive, manically objective adjudicators…

Of course, you’ll kill debating. You’ll emasculate speakers with the very skills that we need to emulate in Asia if we are to compete on the international stage – and by ‘international’, I mean world-level. While interesting and enjoyable, home-town tournaments that might attract a team from Thailand and another comprising a tour group of legal secretaries from Chad don’t quite move into the top category of ‘international’ for me.

Make MATTER the only category; and all those fact-gobbling ticker-tape machines with a reasonable grasp of robotic English and an ability to bore the pelt off a hibernating Grizzly can then focus on the serious stuff… the all-important facts that a debate speech and case should exclusively comprise. Exclude dynamism: after all, anything that might be construed as a levelled and relevant response might engender a risk – and let’s stop those people putting things in ways that are entertaining and interesting. We really don’t want the sounds of laughter and applause interfering with the ability of our adjudicators to apply their externally developed frameworks in the purely objective assessment of debate material – and we don’t want anybody to be persuaded. You let the adjudicators decide what’s an argument and what isn’t, even if it obviously isn’t…

After all, debating, at the end of the day, has nothing to do with entertainment.

Just don’t ask me or any of my friends to come and watch.

Room 59, Dengkil Institute for the Terminally Insane.
DITI: “Doing more with every other neurone since before any of us can remember.”