December 14, 2016

On debate judging, subjective performance, w/ autobiographical digressions

I believe I've mentioned this before, but if not: I didn't (really) play any sports in high school. I did try, a little, freshman and sophomore years, but to basically no effect. I was only about 5'11, 170 lbs, and I ran the third slowest mile in gym of all the ~60 guys in my graduating class. I think it was around 14 minutes, which... isn't actually running, at all, because I couldn't do more than jog for about thirty seconds without getting winded. All of this is to say, I wasn't big, fast, and had no demonstrable endurance. I also couldn't hit a baseball, or, y'know... do anything athletic with any real proficiency.

But I could talk a lot, reasonably well, and there was a competitive outlet for that: Debate. Suddenly, I was good at something. It was odd, but I think, in hindsight, quite necessary. There's a place for hard-learned lessons--but a little confidence isn't the worst thing in the world, either. So I went from the guy who would basically hide during practice, to someone who expected to win everything, all the time. I went from being afraid to compete, to embracing it. Senior year, my partner and I were undefeated when negative (the negative duo is tasked with arguing against the stated plan, which the affirmative proposes and then attempts to support), placed in every tournament I entered, then finished third at state.

I've judged quite a few tournaments since then, including national qualifiers this past weekend. If I'm being honest, this has less to do with whatever success I might have had as a speaker, and more to do with the fact that I'm a living, breathing adult, willing to show up. Turns out, not many are willing to give up Saturdays to hear teenagers shout about Chinese missile proliferation at 100 mph.

I am, though, less because it's fun--though it... sort of is--than because I value the experience. It mattered a great deal to me, and so I want to help get it right.

Of course that does raise the perpetual question: What the hell is "right" in a purely subjective competitive endeavor? The team that wins is the team that convinced you they won, essentially; but that's logic so circular as to be functionally useless. There are various paradigms that take aim at some slice of objectivity; a judge might state their preference towards pretending to be a policy maker, or focusing on stock issues, etc. Or maybe they just go with who sounds the best. It really does vary, and with very few exceptions, the judges don't share these preferences before the round. So the debaters are left to compete without really knowing how score is going to be kept. If that sounds anxiety inducing... it really, really is. And yet, the better teams tend to perform consistently, which suggests the whole thing isn't as arbitrary as it sounds.

Still, it seems incredibly strange when compared to my present competitive focus--running, which I am generally less awful at now than I was during my teenage years. Debaters can--and basically always do--feel aggrieved when handed a loss; but the time you run is the time you run, and there can be very little argument about it. Racing is, perhaps, the most honest thing there is. Debate is... well, not. You don't lie--at least not often, or blatantly--but you spend a great deal of time arguing things you don't believe, using evidence you know damn well to be biased, cherry-picked, etc.

I'm really only interested in noting the difference between the two things, and not issuing judgment on their respective qualities. Both have benefits, and I enjoy both for what they are. Not the hottest of takes, but that's probably ok.

A note on my running, speaking of: I'm not injured! That's really the best part. I have some tentative race plans, and perhaps a rather audacious goal. I'd rather not write it out yet, though, lest I look like an idiot. (I am still, after all, not quite so confident in my running. Near the beginning of every race, some part of me is convinced my body will just revert to 16, and I'll face-plant 800 meters in. A slightly less extreme version of this anxiety manifests after basically every poor training run, also. So if it seems I'm cynical and/or negative about my running sometimes, well, it's because I am.)

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