At a recent Malibu contest, Brett Beeler of Cal State Fullerton stopped mid-sentence in a debate and asked teammate Caitlin Gray for a document.
As she rummaged around, Beeler impatiently left the podium and whispered heatedly at her. The tiff escalated, and suddenly he slapped her.
The judge of the debate came unglued. "You need to leave right now!" he shouted at Beeler.
But the slap was an act — a way to breathe life into the otherwise dry debate topic, a court case involving domestic violence.
"I really did believe it was an incident of domestic abuse," said the judge, Orion Steele, a professor at the University of Redlands. "It took me a good half-hour to cool down." Then he awarded the victory to Fullerton.
Each of Fullerton's two-person debate squads uses a strategy tailored to individual members' backgrounds.
Puja Chopra and Parija Patel, both of Indian descent, sit down and meditate in debates to symbolize that arguing over legislation is pointless because true change must come from within.
When performance teams face each other, things can get pretty weird. Long Beach State once faced two women from Concordia College in Minnesota who stripped down to G-strings and talked about reclaiming their bodies from objectification by men.
The all-male California team couldn't get past the distraction. "Their brains left them," said Neesen, their coach.
Another contest pitted a Fort Hays student dancing with a chair against a Northwestern team reading the script of "Dr. Strangelove." The topic was federal control of Native American land.
Another prominent tactic is quoting rap lyrics in rounds.
Kevin Drum says that actions such as this "better suited for a career on Fox News than the debaters of my parents' generation."
I don't think that's true, and I think it mistakes the role of these performative debates. Although the L.A. Times tries to pitch performance debate as in opposition to obscure post-modern philosophers, there are actually very deep theoretical roots to this sort of debate. Much of the argumentative justification for why this sort of debate is legitimate, what its impacts are, etc, stem directly from the most cutting edge philosophy out there today. In other words, it isn't just theatrics--it's got a real and sustained connection to important educational concepts. To take the rap lyrics example, I've quoted with approval Professor Paul Butler's stellar article Much Respect: Toward a Hip-Hop Theory of Punishment. That rap music, as an expression of the lived-experience of at least portions of Black America, may have something to tell us about policies and procedures that disproportionately impact Black Americans shouldnot surprise us. Ultimately, the use of rap lyrics is not meaningfully different from, say, the law and literature movement. Many scholars have discussed the importance of narratives as a means of giving credance to suppressed voices--driving home the oppression they face and the horrors they've realized. Dry debate over abstractions, they argue, makes it easy to rationalize oppression--but it's much harder to say that this person in this story has been treated justly and fairly.
One can argue that this type of debate isn't ideal, or find flaws in it. And that's fine. One could also argue that certain judges tend to fetishize it at the expense of fairly adjudicating rounds, and I'd probably agree with that too. But I still think that the presence of performative strategies in debate is legitimate, and it catches way more flack from traditionalists than can really be warranted based on the educational precepts debate claims to uphold.
Even performative debaters still want you to cast a ballot...