The most controversial characteristic of competitive academic debate as practiced in many “national circuit” formats is the speed at which speeches are delivered. For as long as there have been competitive debates with strict time limits, participants have attempted to make the most of their limited speech times by speaking as quickly as their audiences will tolerate. Attempts to restrain the speed of debaters’ deliveries have largely failed. Lincoln-Douglas debate, founded 40 years ago as a slower alternative to policy debate, is now often as fast as its older sibling. And Public Forum debate, founded almost 20 years ago as an even more aggressive reaction to “fast debate,” is following the same trajectory; many Public Forum debates are now just as fast as policy debates.
When newcomers are first introduced to “fast debate,” they are usually shocked. Sometimes, this elicits harsh criticism — as anyone who has ever perused the YouTube comments section of a debate can attest, “What are they doing?!?,” “How can anyone understand this?!?,” and “What has happened to the American education system?!?” are common (and often quite passionate) reactions. But sometimes — much more often than one might expect — a person’s initial exposure to fast debate inspires a positive kind of shock similar to the one often experienced when someone is first introduced to challenging but viscerally intriguing art forms like hardcore punk or Gangsta rap. There is something immediately curious and intensely captivating about fast debates, but this can be as difficult to explain to someone without debate experience as it is to explain the appeal of Black Flag’s Damaged or Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) to someone who grew up listening to REO Speedwagon and the Eagles.
None of this is to say that the acceleration of delivery speeds in debate is self-evidently or indisputably desirable. There are many legitimate criticisms of fast debate, and that’s probably part of its appeal. In the same way that “Rise Above” or “C.R.E.A.M.” are more satisfyingly provocative and emotionally resonant than “Can’t Fight This Feeling” or “Hotel California” (especially to a certain type of young person) even though (and maybe because) the latter songs have achieved much more popular success, there is something irresistibly enthralling about fast debates. This captivating weirdness, as much as the natural evolution of competitive pressures to cope with finite speech times, explains why debate (whatever the format) seems to trend inexorably toward faster deliveries.
Any veteran (and even most novice) debate participants have almost certainly experienced a frustrating interaction with someone who just can’t get over how fast debaters talk. Over the years, I’ve tried various approaches to answering these questions — sometimes emphasizing the competitive pressures facing debaters, sometimes extolling the academic benefits of fast speaking (and listening), sometimes comparing debate to other specialized discourse communities with similarly inaccessible communication norms, and sometimes downplaying the significance of speaking speed altogether. These answers tend to sufficiently mollify my most dogged interrogators, but I can tell that they are often left unsatisfied.
How can I better explain what fast debate feels like to someone that has never experienced it for themselves? From now on, I will refer anyone who takes an interest in this subject to Ben Lerner’s acclaimed 2019 novel The Topeka School. Lerner was an exceptionally accomplished debater at Topeka High School, winning International Extemporaneous Speaking and finishing sixth in Lincoln-Douglas debate at the 1997 National Forensic League National Tournament. He also competed in policy debate—he finished his career with the most overall NFL points of any student in the country—and his experience in these three events forms a small but important plot point in The Topeka School.
In the following excerpt, Lerner’s protagonist — Adam — describes a policy debate tournament at Russell High School (one in which Bob Dole, then a candidate for President of the United States, makes an unexpected cameo). It provides by far the best description of the aesthetic experience of fast debate — what it feels like — that I have ever read:
And now Joanna stands to deliver the first affirmative speech. For a few seconds it sounds more or less like oratory, but soon she accelerates to nearly unintelligible speed, pitch and volume rising; she gasps like a swimmer surfacing, or maybe drowning; she is attempting to “spread” their opponents, as her opponents will attempt to spread them in turn—that is, to make more arguments, marshal more evidence than the other team can respond to within the allotted time, the rule among serious debaters being that a “dropped argument,” no matter its quality, its content, is conceded. (Competitive debaters spend hours doing speed drills—holding a pen in the teeth while reading, which forces the tongue to work harder, the mouth to over-enunciate; they practice reading evidence backward so as to uncouple the physical act of vocalization from the effort to comprehend, which slows one down.) The judges hunch over their legal pads, producing a flow sheet of the round along with the competitors, recording argument and counterargument in shorthand, making little or no eye contact with the speakers. During the brief intervals wherein their pens are idle, they twirl them around their thumbs, a signature habit of debaters.
To an anthropologist or ghost wandering the halls of Russell High School, interscholastic debate would appear less competitive speech than glossolalic ritual. See the cystic acned first negative speaker from Shawnee Mission—his dress more casual, typical of the rich kids from Kansas City— [end page 22] reading evidence at 340 words per minute to support his claim that the affirmative plan will overburden family courts, setting off a catastrophic chain of events. He lets each page fall to the floor when he’s finished, along with drops of sweat. He inhales sharply, shouts out another tagline —“Overburdened courts lead to civil collapse”—then reads more evidence, getting briefly entangled in a stutter that, at such volume and such speed, makes it sound as though he’s having a seizure or a stroke. As time runs out, he sums up his arguments, although few of the uninitiated could understand him: Gregor evidence points to back-backlogged courts as result of increased child support enforcement judicial overload leads to civil collapse collapse leads to nuclear conflict China or North Korea nuclear strike in ensuing power vacuum out-out-outweighs whatever benefits affirmative plan offers and and and and Stevenson proves affirmative plan no solvency regardless because resistance from from internal agencies blocks imple- implementation must vote no on disadvantage impact alone but but even if you you consider plan as plan no solvency 1AC key source for Georgia courts not not applicable to fed program only state level so there is no way to vote but negative.
The spread was controversial; if it happened in front of lay judges, there was shock, complaints. More than one highly ranked team had misjudged its judges and been eliminated in early rounds for speaking drivel. Old-timer coaches longed for the days when debate was debate. The most common criticism of the spread was [end page 23] that it detached policy debate from the real world, that nobody used language the way that these debaters did, save perhaps for auctioneers. But even the adolescents knew this wasn’t true, that corporate persons deployed a version of the spread all the time: for they heard the spoken warnings at the end of the increasingly common television commercials for prescription drugs, when risk information was disclosed at a speed designed to make it difficult to comprehend; they heard the list of rules and caveats read rapid-fire at the end of promotions on the radio; they were at least vaguely familiar with the “fine print” one received from financial institutions and health-insurance companies; the last thing one was supposed to do with those thousands of words was comprehend them. These types of disclosure were designed to conceal; they exposed you to information that, should you challenge the institution in question, would be treated like a “dropped argument” in a fast round of debate—you have already conceded the validity of the point by failing to address it when it was presented. It’s no excuse that you didn’t have the time. Even before the twenty-four-hour news cycle, Twitter storms, algorithmic trading, spreadsheets, the DDoS attack, Americans were getting “spread” in their daily lives; meanwhile, their politicians went on speaking slowly, slowly about values utterly disconnected from their policies.
Joanna was too fast for the Shawnee Mission kids; Adam spent most of the semifinal round pointing out which of her arguments his opponents had dropped. In the finals, when they were back on the negative side, they hit rivals from Lawrence High. When they’d lost to Rohan and Vinay in the past, it had been Adam’s fault; they were as well prepared as Joanna. But that day, for whatever reason, his mind was particularly swift.
And that day at Russell High as he enumerated in accelerating succession the various unpredictable ways implementation of his opponents’ plan would lead to nuclear holocaust (almost every plan, no matter how minor, would lead to nuclear holocaust), he [end page 24] passed, as he often passed, a mysterious threshold. He began to feel less like he was delivering a speech and more like a speech was delivering him, that the rhythm and intonation of his presentation were beginning to dictate its content, that he no longer had to organize his arguments so much as let them flow through him. Suddenly the physical tension he carried was all focused energy, a transformation that made the event slightly erotic. If the language coursing through him was about the supposedly catastrophic effects of ending the government’s Stingray surveillance program or the affirmative speaker’s failure to prove solvency, he was nevertheless more in the realm of poetry than of prose, his speech stretched by speed and intensity until he felt its referential meaning dissolve into pure form. In a public school closed to the public, in a suit that felt like a costume, while pretending to argue about policy, he was seized, however briefly, by an experience of prosody.
Debate makes a few more appearances on The Topeka School, including an outstanding and often hilarious description of extemp (as the protagonist prepares for and competes in the national tournament). Lerner’s ultimate conclusions about debate and its role in communication and society are tentative and tangled up with many other observations and experiences. But this short description of the Russell tournament, and the way he shows the reader what it feels like to participate in a fast debate, is itself a masterful literary accomplishment.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Lerner — a Fulbright Scholar, a Guggenheim Fellow, a MacArthur Fellow, a National Book Award finalist, and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College — would craft such a compellingly accurate description of fast debate, but I am grateful that he did. From now on, my response to anyone that asks me why the debaters are speaking so quickly will begin with a question of my own: have you read The Topeka School? Here, let me send you a link…