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Good Evening, Vietnam
Reflections on WSDC 2023
1. “Caring was a thing with claws. It sank them in, and didn’t let go.”
— V.E. Schwab, A Conjuring of Light
Each May, a few dozen teenagers try out for the Canadian national debate team. It’s a gruelling process, and most kids have already jumped through several hoops to qualify. Some will get happy phone calls the week after, but most will get a politely-worded, mildly soul-crushing rejection email. They’ll be upset for a while after, and I suspect many of them will simultaneously be a little ashamed of how intensely they feel — because while we look down upon failure, we also expect a sort of measured nonchalance in its aftermath.
I often hear people tell one another that things like competitive debate don’t matter. “When you look back in 20 years,” they say, “You won’t remember which rounds you won or lost.” (The same goes for math grades, or job interviews, or college applications.)
In a cosmic sense, this is true. A bad speech will not injure you; it will not starve you; you are a high-achieving 16-year-old who will probably still have some wildly successful future career in corporate consultancy. But I think this ignores how much of human meaning is derived from seemingly meaningless things. We pay some people millions of dollars because they are good at throwing orange balls into a metal hoop. We spend months grieving breakups with people who, frankly, are probably very replaceable by one of the billions of other humans on the planet. Sometimes the fact that we care about something right now — in all its subjectivity and imperfection — has to be enough.
Within this odd, artificial realm of meaning, then: I think getting to represent a country is a rare and deeply rewarding thing. I’ve written before on the unsatisfying hollowness of Canadian national identity. Competition helps make our imagined community a little less imaginary; our team is acknowledged and spoken about as something distinct from others.
The legacy stretches beyond our particular moment in time. Over the last 30-ish years, a couple hundred nerdy Canadian teenagers have boarded planes to foreign continents and sat in anxious anticipation of the speeches to come. Each of them has worked long hours into the night, reading about secessionist movements and structural adjustment policies until the letters melt together. Each of them has been castigated for making a particularly moronic argument in the heated days before WSDC begins. I get an odd sense of almost-déja-vu sometimes: the feeling that someone else has walked a similar path to me, and has left some footsteps behind.
1.1. I feel something between gratitude for and obligation towards the dozens of invisible people who made this experience possible. I won’t list them here. But I do think it’s worth observing all the small acknowledgements contained within our speeches themselves. If you don’t hear them, listen a little more closely:
I begin my speech in the finals this year by describing Buddhist protests in the Vietnam War. The image has been seared into my brain from the 18-hour Ken Burns documentary that Brent loves so much. In a debate about elite universities, we manage to weave in Arsalan’s biweekly rant about the warmongering sociopaths of the Harvard Kennedy School. He looks proud.
And then there are subtler things — habits that are unconsciously imprinted upon us, and only reveal their sources upon detailed examination. Vincent pronounces his long a’s the same way as Matt Anz. We say ‘deranged’ far too much, thanks to the influences of Max Williams. I still use case studies from the Chomsky books that Matt Farrell recommended me when I was 15.
I think this is one of the most precious things about the activity. Each debate is so wonderfully iterative — it weaves together disparate threads, the quirks and passions of people from different chapters of our lives. At its best, the pieces come together into something new and complete, with richly familiar moments.
2. “No animal could ever be so cruel as a man, so artfully, so artistically cruel.”
— Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
I don’t like competing. This is an odd confession, for someone who has spent roughly five years doing it obsessively. But I don’t like the way it makes me feel — the frustration of stumbling over words that are fluid and clear in my mind, the anxiety that slithers up through my throat before a decision is made, the deluge of thoughts afterwards.
Sometimes, competition flattens the beauty of speech. I became a more disciplined speaker over time, and a more successful one by the metrics of the activity. I learned to speak more efficiently, to excise unnecessary words, to stop rambling for several minutes at a time about Tsarist Bulgaria or geoengineering or the ethics of meat consumption. Concision is a useful skill, but a painful one to develop — it requires so much sacrifice of what is interesting and meaningful to us. Only occasionally do beauty and competitive strategy fully overlap.
Perhaps most disappointingly, competition incentivises a certain viciousness that I find unappealing. Debate is a civil activity, compared to any real sport, but there is a unique cruelty in the way we manipulate our opponent’s ideas — bending and deliberately misapprehending them into some unrecognisable result. Maybe I don’t want to call people’s well-intentioned arguments absurd. Maybe I don’t want to interrogate them, in the middle of their speech, with a question I know will nudge them into stuttering confusion.
It’s worth noting that none of these problems are inherent to competition. It’s possible, with attention and time, to discard many of our anxieties over achievement. It’s possible to reach the delicate equilibrium between self-expression and competitive success. (Some audiences secretly crave authenticity anyways, I think.) Most importantly, I think it is possible to disagree in a way that is both kind and persuasive. It involves listening more carefully, appraising arguments more charitably than is necessary, phrasing things more gently around the edges. Sometimes this will cost some competitive zeal. I see this as a sacrifice worth making.
3. “Together, they would watch everything that was so carefully planned collapse, and they would smile at the beauty of destruction.”
— Markus Zusak, The Book Thief
Each debate can be won through many different strategies. Sometimes debaters refer to them as ‘paths to victory,’ and I often imagine them as physical paths to a glittering destination. In some debates, the path to victory is clear — it has few crossroads, and is paved cleanly with pretty words. In other debates, the path is more complex; it might bend back on itself to avoid a particularly threatening argument from the other team, or swerve dramatically and unexpectedly, mid-round, to reflect some crushing epiphany. And then there are debates where you are forced to defend difficult, messy things — arguments that are politically sensitive, let’s say, or subject to misinterpretation. Here, the path to victory is rocky, potholed, strewn with thornbushes. It requires precise and careful navigation.
I’m always fascinated by how many distinct ways there are to reach the same endpoint. In the first few minutes of preparation time, the paths begin to emerge before me. We begin discussing; my teammates point to various obstacles, and map out new roads that I didn’t notice before. I love this part of the process — the raw creativity, and the joy in observing how differently all five of us think.
When you lose, the diversity of paths becomes more painful than exciting. You examine the landscape of the debate again and notice the vast, unexplored regions that were previously ignored. Perhaps we could’ve used a different thought experiment to defend civil liberties, you think to yourself. We could have said several more reasonable things when they asked how we solve global poverty. We become cartographers after each failure — mapping the hundred different turns we could’ve taken to get to the right place.
I could meander on here and suggest that we ought to focus on the journey rather than the destination, and put aside our failures once they’re done. But honestly, who knows whether the human brain is even capable of switching off its neurotic instincts?
What I’ll say instead is that there is often something beautiful to be found in all the neuroticism. Our final debate was about whether we should let benevolent AI govern the world. In the car ride home from the auditorium, runner-up medals burning holes into our pockets, we spent at least an hour talking about existential risk and killer death robots and what J.S. Mill would’ve said about eugenics. After a brief wave of annoyance — why didn’t I think of these things three hours ago? — I sit back a little, and observe how passionate and indefatigable my teammates are. They divulge their wildest, most ambitious claims to the group, who reshape and expand the ideas in turn. They gently repair speeches that won’t ever be used again.
Oh, how I’ll miss this, I think to myself, as they argue softly in the backseat.
4. “Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.”
— T.S. Eliot, “Four Quartets: Burnt Norton”
For about five days after WSDC, I did not speak a single complete English sentence. This was not exactly a choice: through the magnetic forces of social obligation, I had arrived at the remote Bengali town where my (very loving, but only partially literate) grandparents have lived for decades. I can barely speak Hindi, and they definitely can’t speak English. So I scraped together broken phrases from my meagre stash of words. With a healthy dose of pantomime, we made things work.
The contrast between my two worlds was jarring. I had spent three weeks trying to carve perfect sentences out of my thoughts. We use the English language almost gluttonously in debate. And here I was, 48 hours later, struggling to ask my grandmother if she needed help getting to the table.
Sometimes language fails us in the moments where we need it the most. The experience is inarticulably frustrating, and a little melancholic too: it evokes all the what if’s and if only’s of living so far away from the place where each generation before me grew up.
Silence does offer some unexpected relief. I don’t find it easy to speak much of the time, even in English, even among people I’m close with. Some of my friends’ words flow smoothly off their tongues, confidently and with little hesitation. When I form sentences, it’s a less steady process. My mind grasps frantically around for the next word — shortlisting, trimming, rejecting unsuitable candidates. West Bengal gave me the license to be quiet.
4.1. I think I was ultimately grateful to return to English-speaking civilisation. I used my words timidly at first, newly conscious of their worth, but soon relearned my usual, half-lucid, half-jumbled method of speech.
It is tiring but worthwhile to express oneself precisely. And in a way, the experience reminded me of what it was like to start debating in the first place. I recalled the frustrations of imperfect expression, the longing for comfortable passivity, and eventually, the freedom in communicating frankly.
We end up in a place of gratitude. Because despite its flaws — the anxiety, frustration, cruelty, transience, perceived meaninglessness — debate allows us to speak and be heard completely. Most of us don’t get this privilege too often.
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