A few years ago, when professional athletes were criticized for kneeling during the national anthem, it wasn’t always because critics disagreed with the cause that athletes were claiming or because of the irony of multi-millionaires denouncing the nation to which they owed their success. Many fans just didn’t want to see football turned into yet another stage for political activism. Even when a cause is just, healthy societies have spaces where differences can be put aside in pursuit of a common experience, whether it’s something as trivial as a televised sporting event or something as important as forming the next generation of civic leaders.
High school debate has long served this second role. The National Speech and Debate Association is the largest league of its kind in the nation. For nearly one hundred years, it has trained students to reason and speak effectively about issues significant to people and society. According to its Wikipedia page, the NSDA serves more than 140,000 students and coaches each year. It would be reasonable to think that the debaters who rise to the top of this league have become masters of reason and argument, able to speak persuasively on a range of topics. That is no longer the case.
In a clip that recently went viral, the final round of the NSDA’s 2021 Tournament of Champions at the University of Kentucky featured two young women of Team A, one of whom identifies as transgender and who apparently decided they would win the round by “out-woking” their opponent. They began the round by refusing to debate the resolution, which was about the costs and benefits of the International Monetary Fund. Instead, they highjacked the forum to protest the plight of transgender debaters, made the round “a debate about debate,” and promised to “occupy the debate space until trans debaters can participate safely.”
In a saner time (and league), such behavior would result in an immediate loss. However, that did not happen at this prestigious tournament. Instead, the young men of Team B immediately conceded the round and joined a 45-minute discussion on how debaters who misgender their opponents should automatically lose. One even offered, “It’s important to recognize that debate is not about winning an argument. It’s about making sure everyone feels okay and making sure everyone feels safe.” The judges then praised Team A for their “courage” and crowned them the national Public Forum Debate champions.
It would be easy to criticize these students for making a joke out of a competition that generations of their peers worked hard to win. However, that would miss the point. These debaters didn’t invent these tactics or the ideology upon which it is based. They were taught to turn every forum into an opportunity for activism, to dismiss and denounce anyone who questions their claims, and to play the victim to be rewarded. It’s the same training that taught the “Just Stop Oil” activists to deface and destroy priceless works of art to draw attention to their cause. Most recently, a pair of Just Stop Oil climate vandals took hammers to a famous painting in the National Gallery in London.
The painting had about as much to do with fossil fuels as the IMF has to do with transgender debaters. To activists, however, that irrelevance is irrelevant. Their ideology, they’ve been taught, is the only thing in the world worth talking about or doing anything about, and they will actively hijack or destroy all other human pursuits until everyone shares their singular obsession.
This reveals why such an all-consuming ideology is dangerous, no matter what you think of the causes behind it. The notion that no one should be able to do, pursue, appreciate, argue, or think about anything else but their cause is a form of intellectual tyranny that, if tolerated widely, can quickly erode the foundations of a free society. If everything must be sacrificed to your ideology, then it’s much more than a cause that demands justice. It’s an idol that demands worship.
“Good philosophy must exist,” wrote C. S. Lewis, “if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” Such bad philosophy, he warned, doesn’t always take the form of “cool intellect” arguing wrongly but often manifests as “muddy heathen mysticisms which deny intellect altogether.” I can think of a few better descriptions of a debate tournament won by “out-woking” your opponent.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Shane Morris. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to breakpoint.org.
Photo Courtesy: ©GettyImages/LesByerley
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.
BreakPoint is a program of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. BreakPoint commentaries offer incisive content people can't find anywhere else; content that cuts through the fog of relativism and the news cycle with truth and compassion. Founded by Chuck Colson (1931 – 2012) in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends. Today, you can get it in written and a variety of audio formats: on the web, the radio, or your favorite podcast app on the go.
John Stonestreet is President of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and radio host of BreakPoint, a daily national radio program providing thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.