Wednesday, 5 February 2014

A quick note on class in Debating

NB: This note was originally posted on my facebook account in December 2013, but I have copied it here, unedited, to allow for a wider audience. Please see here for the original post, including a good discussion. The note primarily reflects the UK Universities British Parliamentary Debating circuit, so may not be universally applicable.  

I don't think we have a class problem in the sense that people are actively prejudiced against people based on their background. But I’ve noticed a consistent trend that debaters are happy to make sweeping blanket statements about the poor and their behaviour in a way they would never about other groups. And no, calling them the "socio-economically disadvantaged" doesn't help.

For example it is a commonplace that the poor are uneducated and stupid, so incapable of engaging with complex political and are easily swayed by racist rhetoric, or whatever the bad thing we want to protect them from is today.

Firstly this sort of thing is just a bad argument, as it massively simplifies a complex issue, and bad arguments are bad, so we should have less of them.

More importantly, imagine how you would feel if you came from one of these communities that is so casually disparaged, how could it not make you uncomfortable to hear how people like you are so obviously stupid and racist? Are you going to want to continue in debating?

Of course systematic class divides in political engagement do exist, but there needs to be a degree of nuance in discussing this, the"socio-economically disadvantaged" are not a homogenous group, there are massive divides regionally, and between the urban and rural poor, which determine what their problems are and how they engage in them. It’s also worth remembering that in the age of ubiquitous free education and near-ubiquitous internet access it is not nearly automatic that poverty leads to ignorance.

The real difference in how different classes engage with politics is in what their interests are, it is entirely rational for disadvantaged groups to care almost exclusively about practical issues that affect them day to day, and they become disengaged with politics when it fails to reflect that. (I'm using this as an example, but other uncomfortable statements about the poor are made pretty regularly).

We should also be wary of arguments that appeal to our vanity.These arguments unsubtly stroke the egos of the people listening, it plays up to debaters self-image as clever liberal people who could never be swayed by bad arguments like the unwashed masses.

This reflects a demographic issue in debating where, as we are painfully aware, debating is still astonishingly upper middle class. That isn't to say that debating actively discriminates, in fact there have been some amazing outreach programs by debating societies and charities (Debate Mate being the most obvious, but by no means the only). But that there are systemic problems that lead to a certain narrow selection of people getting involved in debating. Unfortunately it seems that by the time we reach the level of intervarsity debating the damage has already been done. How to fix this at the entry level could be an essay in itself, but I don't really feel qualified to comment as I'm not really involved in schools stuff these days.

I think what we can do at the university level is encourage an awareness of class issues in the same way we have successfully increased awareness of race and gender issues. This may mean taking class more seriously in equity discussions, though as I am not actively involved in setting equity criteria I’m not sure of the practicalities.

At the most basic level it just means an awareness of these biases, and to not uncritically accept statements about what "the poor" will do. You can do this because it’s the right thing to do, but if you need an extra incentive, then you can probably win against a team by pointing out where they make such blanket assertions, and nothing will train debaters to be better like losing.

Disclaimer: I’m a ridiculously privileged heterosexual white cis male who went to a private school, so I doubt I’m perfect in this area, any comments or corrections from people with more experience are welcome. Also I’m posting this from Heathrow airport while waiting for a flight, so forgive any typos or formatting issues.

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