Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Crowd Pleaser

I was surprised by how quickly they broke me.  I had thought I was mentally tough, inured against arguments and criticism.  It turns out that my toughness was a veneer.  The Crowd Pleaser—you know him as that guy who writes short stories and shuffles them off into the aether in the vain hope of publication--had always been lurking close to the surface of my soul, longing for the approval of his audience.  And now, faced with a cavalcade of boos, he’s sulking backstage, unsure of whether to venture out again, and unclear on where to find a different crowd.


I was always a competitor as a kid, but never an athlete.  My venue has always been competitive speech and debate.  I was very, very successful in high school, a two-time All-American and one of the best in my generation in the state of Kansas.  I found in the community of debaters a set of kindred souls, people with whom I could work in a spirit of mutual appreciation.  After a mediocre college career and a brief and disastrous foray into journalism, I pursued a teaching degree and became a debate coach.

I’ve been both good and bad at my job; quite good at my peak (multiple state champions and national medalists as recently as 2010) and quite bad lately.  The cutting edge of competitive debate is forged at the college level.  It tends to be a young person’s game.  For a while, I was that young person.  Later, I employed a few.  But my grip on the intricacies of debate theory slipped appreciably when postmodern philosophy and critical race theory, as opposed to policy analysis, became pivotal to the game.  Nor, as the demographics of my school changed, were my students able to spend thousands of dollars on summer institutes where they could learn from the top minds in the activity.  So I dropped behind the curve.  As I did so, I began to see the game with a different set of eyes.

For as long as there has been competitive policy debate, there have been outsiders within the broader community—kids whose skills, resources, time obligations or commitment level didn’t make it possible to succeed in the elite realms of the activity, where speech at upwards of 350 words per minute and reams and reams of expert evidence are the norms.  Their voice within the game is pretty slight, largely because the game self-selects its participants after a certain point.  Very few people are willing to stay around for a long time in the role of cannon fodder.  Fewer still are willing to do this when the activity becomes—and this is not too strong a description—vicious in terms of individual behavior and interpersonal courtesy.  Rounds at the top level are judged by former competitors who care for substantive argumentation more than for the norms of public discourse.  The competitors who succeed in this environment become tomorrow’s judges.  The spiral builds upon itself, until the elite rounds are in many cases brutal exercises in toxic masculinity.  Much lip service is paid to stamping out the uglier side of the game.  Explicit sexism and racism are rejected—the community is overwhelmingly politically progressive.  But in the end, the norms are defined by the survivors, and competitive rounds become increasingly unkind environments.  Even elite talents leave—but once they’re gone, their concerns by definition cease to matter.

As I became an outsider for the first time, I started to want to work towards the creation of an environment in which more traditional, delivery-oriented styles of debate could be rewarded—to create an enclave in which courtesy could thrive alongside analytical rigor.

But I also wanted to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of the hardcore members of the Kansas debate community as they strove to win the state’s first-ever national championship in policy debate—to honor the kid and the coach I once was.  And to that end, I implemented several projects, such as the bid tracker which honors recipients of bids to the DCI, Kansas’s elite debate event.  And, more notably, the Kansas HS Debate twitter feed, @KSDebate.


The concept of debate community within Kansas had always been important to me.  My most cherished memory as a high school competitor was of the “War Room” at the 1989 National Tournament in which Kansas teams which had formerly gone head-to-head joined forces to elevate one of their own to the brink of a national title.  In 2007 the experiment was repeated; I was part of the operation as a coach and saw one of my own teams elevated into the top ten and another school’s repeat the 1989 achievement by reaching finals.

The time seemed right to bind together the broader community in pursuit of the top prize.  Other coaches were better at the tactical side of the game—sharing information, plotting strategies—so I dedicated myself to creating a mechanism by which common achievements could be shared in real time.  Twitter was still new at that time.  @KSDebate was born.  The account served as a common clearinghouse for results which were sent in by national tournament competitors and coaches in real time.  For the first time, there was one place to go to know how all of “team Kansas” was doing.

As the site grew, it became a place to share results of important invitationals as well—DCI bid qualifiers, DCI itself, the various state tournaments, out of state “national circuit” events.  Fans of the activity had in most cases gained the ability to follow their own squads, or those of their friends, through individual team Twitter accounts.  Now, through the collective account, they could follow other Kansas teams as well.  It did not occur to me, at the time, that people might not particularly care to do so—I assumed that everyone was rooting for everyone else.

There is, of course, an old aphorism about what happens when you assume.


The issue that had ultimately proved fatal to my career as a journalist was an inability to confine myself to the facts.  In stories about people in panda suits serving as school crossing guards, about social service outreach for the hearing impaired, about mock elections for elementary school students, I was constantly spicing up the writing through the insertion of material that made the story feel more “complete” to me.  It was never anything so obviously unethical as a fabricated quote; indeed, I got in considerably more trouble for quoting people accurately than anything else.  Instead, it was the “connective tissue” of the stories—the supporting facts of news events that seemed necessary for people to understand the events in question, and which I therefore offered by way of explanation, only to discover that my assumptions had been inaccurate.  I had been lazy.  I hadn’t fact checked.  I had allowed my desire to entertain my audience, to be recognized as a “good writer,” to wreck me.

As a Twitter account manager, I was rarely factually inaccurate.  But I was also unable to restrain my urge to entertain.  And entertainment, to me, was pointing to what I saw as the flaws and foibles of the debate community.

However lighthearted my intent, people do not enjoy having their tournament errors and political beliefs held up to mockery in an arena allegedly dedicated to “building community”.  Over time, I received more than one “stick to the facts” response to these commentaries.  I ignored them.  Grudges developed.  I made enemies of whom I was unaware.

I was also making enemies on another front.


As my own squad descended into decrepitude, as the game left me further and further behind, I became more and more concerned for the plight of those kids whom cutting edge debate had also left behind.  Funny, isn’t it, how our circle of compassion manages to extend to people like ourselves, but not an inch further?

The Debate Coaches Invitational meeting discussed the possibility of restoring a “traditional” debate division for students interested in a moderate rate of delivery and evaluation by parents, teachers, and other “nonexperts”.  Preeminent in the rationale of the proponents was an alternative to the casual cruelty which they—which WE—saw as common in bleeding-edge policy debate.  A broad consensus initially supported the concept of a new tournament along these lines.  The devil was in the details. Concerns about what, exactly, the tournament would look like killed the plan.  The coaches’ vote on the eventual formal proposal was evenly split, and hence, the proposal failed.

A large number of coaches, myself included, were outraged by this.  It occurred to me that it was unfair to ask next year’s seniors to lose their opportunity at recognition so that the coaches could feel 100% comfortable with the specifics of change.  It struck me as a paradoxically conservative behavior for such a politically progressive bunch—using fear of radical change as an excuse to ensure that the fruits of success were concentrated in the hands of their current owners.

I acted.  I created a social media group dedicated to the creation of a tournament to recognize traditional debaters.  A number of coaches coalesced around the idea, and recognizing the increasing toxicity of my own personal brand within the community (and my inability to work well with others), I elected to step aside and leave the event in their hands.  They’ve done quite well; the first championship is a sizable event among excellent teams and will be contested this coming weekend.

I did not understand how powerful the backlash against my behavior would be.  I cannot say in retrospect that I shouldn’t have acted as I did, but I should have been smarter about the anger I was generating.  People who’d held the monopoly on the recognition of “elite” debate in Kansas were seeing their authority diffused, usurped by a new gang who couldn’t compete at their game and who were, therefore, largely unworthy of respect.  A couple of those who'd objected were elite coaches, but a larger number were members of the college debate community--recent graduates who serve as assistant coaches and frequent judges, and who are in all reality the arbitrers of the “good” within Kansas debate.

It is not without justification that they fill this role.  The increased involvement of college debaters in the direct training of high school debaters has been the one indispensable element in the rise of Kansas debate to national prominence.  Head coaches commonly defer to them in questions of argumentative strategy and in-round behavior.  The collegians do the job they are called upon to do, and achieve the results they are told to achieve.  They arbitrate the important rounds, and decide what’s worthy of praise and what’s worthy of scorn.  And as time goes by, our community becomes more like theirs; closer to the cutting edge.

And the students, taught from their earliest days to revere the collegians as role models and heroes, trained by them at summer institutes and prepped by them for elimination rounds at in-season tournaments—well, the students are THEIRS.  They absorb both the collegians' tactics and their politics, and above all their assumptions about the good.  They become the leaders of the community, and the definers of what is in and out of bounds.

It should be stressed:  the collegians do none of this with the intention of gaining or wielding power.  They do it for the same reason I did it at the same age, and for the same reason I created the Twitter account:  to serve their community.  Theirs are the noblest of reasons. 

But their definition of the community, I would eventually come to realize, were narrower than mine.  And their norms were never my norms.

A couple of the collegians reacted to the creation of the traditional debate championship with public explosions of rage, expressed in social media.  A couple of others seethed silently and took passive-aggressive swipes at the rationale of the event when the opportunity arose.  A few, I think, took note of me, and of my role in the creation of this event and in social media, and wondered why an old man whose time had passed was presuming to speak for Kansas Debate.

I wonder now if it was evident to others how much anger I had created, how many people—students, college assistants, head coaches--chafed at what they saw as my arrogance.  It was invisible to me.  I thought I was serving the community.

A more professional individual could have kept the plates spinning longer.  Not forever, I don’t think, but for a while longer.

But I am not, at my core, much of a professional.  I had to express myself.  I had to be The Crowd Pleaser.


My Christmas tweet at @KSDebate, since deleted:  “Merry Christmas!  Remember, it’s distasteful to respond to Santa’s “Ho Ho Ho” with a feminism K.”

Fairly innocuous on its surface, I think.  And actually pretty clever, in a subtle way.  It points to the inability of some self-described feminists to distinguish actual oppression—including directly sexist discourse—from harmless behaviors that share similar appearances.  It's a behavior that produces a less effective feminism, one that comes across as spiteful and mirthless.  And the best bit of the joke is:  if you treat the joke as sexist, if you fail to understand how a guttural expression of amusement is not the same thing as a slur aimed at women, you give evidence of the exact inability to make distinctions that the joke references.  You make yourself the butt of the joke.

I thought so, anyway, I STILL think so, in fact.

But then, I saw the joke through a different lens than others did.

Specifically:  I didn’t see myself as a patriarchal figure wielding arbitrary authority through the power of a Twitter account, actively seeking to control and undermine other people’s discourse.  Those who DID see me that way read the tweet…well…differently.  With a great deal of rage and anger.  “Merry Christmas to everyone but you!  Choke on it!”  And plenty more, in the same vein.

I still did not understand how other people’s perception of the power dynamics involved differed from my own.  I saw myself as a minority figure challenging a majority view through humor.  I thought I was the rebel alliance.  They saw me as the Death Star, out to kill feminism.

The intention of the account was to unify the debate community.  I was, instead, creating friction and pain.  On Christmas day, no less.  That hadn’t been what I wanted.  I deleted the Tweet to prevent others from having their enjoyment ruined by it.  To those who were bothered, this wasn’t an effort at amelioration.  It was an effort to cover up evidence of my crime.

I took a break from Twitter to re-evaluate.  I would seek consensus the next time out.  I would try to make reference to the common activity, to the bond which, whatever our political and philosophical differences, produced us all.  To the history of the game that made us what we were.  For once, no comedy.  I would seek to restore community.


New Year’s Day.  A fresh start.  And a post at another popular account asking who should be inducted into a hypothetical Kansas Debate Hall of Fame.

Perfect.  The history of Kansas debate is kind of my specialty.  I think it is probably fair to say that I have studied it as thoroughly, and know it as intimately, as any man living.  I can tell you who won the inaugural Kansas state debate championship in 1911.  I can name every member of the five Kansas teams that have contested the NFL national title.  I had something to contribute here.

Moreover, I had been reading the online discussions related to the baseball Hall of Fame, and the questions associated with induction and character.  Do you let in the steroid cheats?  What about the overt criminals and perjurers?  What case do you make to exclude them in a world where Ty Cobb, an inveterate racist who once beat up a double amputee, was a first-ballot Hall of Famer?

There were all sorts of interesting issues to be debated.  Here we go!  Here’s my contribution.  The first of five posts:  the coaches’ wing of the Kansas Debate Hall of Fame as I’d envision authorities creating it.

All extraordinarily successful coaches.  Some of the I cut at the last minute were those of legends.

The final name on the list is that of Richard Young.  A good case can be made for him as the most successful coach in Kansas history.  More than any coach in the state’s history, he won regardless of conditions.  In western Kansas at schools with less than 200 students, at the state’s largest inner city high schools, and everywhere in between—the state’s most consistent and inevitable winner.

And a convicted serial rapist of children whose conviction was later overturned on a technicality.

Which was, in all probability, why he coached in so many places.  Why he couldn’t keep a job in spite of all the winning. Unbeknownst to us all, he was being passed like a bad penny from district to district by cowardly administrators who wanted him gone but wouldn’t put themselves at risk of a lawsuit by telling the next set of administrators why.

I suppose I could argue that I hadn’t been thinking of this fact when I composed and narrowed my list.  But that would be a lie.  I had.  I included him because I believed that we were debaters setting the terms for a debate.  I had provided a list of those coaches who would have been inducted under the terms used by professional sports halls of fame.  But that had not been the prompt I was answering.  I had answered a prompt that asked who I PERSONALLY WOULD INDUCT by saying I would induct Richard Young.

The first person to reply to this tweet was, very possibly, the best assistant coach in Kansas.  One of those college kids, in fact.  Assistant coach of his own brother, who had won last year’s national championship—yes, after a hundred years, Kansas debate had finally climbed that mountain!

The last name of this coach, and of his champion brother, was that of their father.  Their father had changed his own name from “Young” because of the absolute havoc that Richard Young’s behavior—including, according to trial testimony, incestuous homosexual rape—had wrought upon their family.

The post I’d lightheartedly proffered for debate and discussion was predicated on the greatest personal tragedy of this coach's father’s life.

“Utterly disgusting and indefensible,” he called it.  And as I read, and realized, and felt my body go numb in response, I could not disagree.

It could not possibly be the case, could it, that people who I’d been working to serve for so long—the community I’d sought to build—thought I was celebrating child rape?  SURELY the context was clear?

Well…I don’t have permission to post the responses.  But you can go through them on your own, if you wish, and count the likes.

I had, of course, failed to bargain with a number of factors.  One of which is—and I will be blunt here, because I will defend the truth of this argument to the death—is the very nature of Twitter.  When I initially joined it with the idea of creating an instantaneous outlet for debate results, Twitter was broadly seen as a means by which live news could be shared.  Today, it is an integral part of the outrage economy, and a means to generate support via virtue signaling.  And oh, my, hadn’t I opened the door to that.  The counter-tweets went viral, and the enemies of rape culture swarmed, eager to outdo one-another.  There were a lot of good arguments about how my initial post was Flawed and Wrong, some of which I myself quickly came to endorse.  But there was also a BLIZZARD of virtue-signaling and like-trolling. 

I had acted callously.  But I had relied upon the assumption that readers would assume my good faith at the outset; that it would be understood that I was one of the “good guys”.  A guy who’d worked for seven years to glorify the accomplishments of Kansas debaters, including and especially women in the activity.  I had thought that was how I was broadly seen.

But I was wildly wrong.  I had given too many people too many different reasons to question my motives.  I was broadly seen as a vainglorious popinjay with no meaningful recent achievements who wielded his Twitter feed as a stick to hit kids with.  And in particular, I was seen by many among the college cohort as a broken-down old-schooler who was engaged in an active attempt to undermine the achievements of the state’s elite contemporary debaters.

And there would be no presumptions of good faith on my part.

None whatsoever.

“Rape apologist.”


“Everything that’s wrong with Kansas Debate.”

And the poll, responded to by a healthy chunk of the community, advocating my “removal” as sponsor of the Kansas Debate feed—the one I’d created from scratch and built over seven years.  I have no idea what that "removal" was supposed to entail, whether they had in mind some kind of impeachment procedure or whether they thought a twitter account was an actual physical location that I could be hoisted out of with a crane, or what.  In any event, the proposition passed by a margin exceeding that of the Johnson-Goldwater election.

I was surprised by how quickly they broke me.  By how fragile I turned out to be.  By the descent of insomnia, and by how much I came to dread each new chime from my cell phone as a tweet came in.  By how much I took all of it to heart—not just the rational objections, of which there were several but also the stuff that was just plain dumb: the ludicrous overreactions, the assertions of hidden motives by people I’d never even met.  I was surprised by what I saw, at the time, as the undoing of everything I'd sought to build, based on the inclusion of a single name in a single tweet.

I was wrong, of course.  The tweet struck the match.  But the kindling had been piling up for years.

The Crowd Pleaser had been present always, eager for everyone’s applause.  He had been sure that his attempts at cleverness had been appreciated—not by all, maybe, but surely by most?  In his version, others saw his antics as he saw them—as an effort to pay back and glorify the community that had nurtured him, rather than as an artifact of ego.

Like a shitty journalist, The Crowd Pleaser invented facts to suit the story he wanted people to buy. 


At the end of the day, there was no possible way to recover even a semblance of good faith.  It all had to go.

You can read the post here, on the site which I originally created to track the DCI bids of the state’s most elite, modern, cutting-edge teams.  It went up a few hours after the initial disastrous tweet—long before the majority of the tweet hurricane unfolded, but far too late to make any difference.

I don’t have much to add to it.  The reasoning of the tweet was dumb and careless for the reasons listed.  The apology will be proffered.  The relationship to the broader community is changed in ways I cannot yet guess at, and the Twitter site is ended.  The college kid who’s building a new site for the same purpose is actually going to do a very good job, I think.  He’s always been invested the glory of the Kansas debate community and worked to support it at every level, including those elements that don’t share his stylistic preferences or ideology.  And he's a smart kid.  He’ll make better decisions than I did.

DCI is next week.  I have to be there because my novices are competing at an event at the same site.  I have never in my life so dreaded the prospect of walking into a building and looking people in the face.  I don’t say this out of shame, because few of my actions have actually been shameful.  They have, however, been delusional.  My eyes are open, and I dread what they’ll see—particularly when I see my reflection in the eyes of others.

I don’t know what I do next.  Debate in some form, probably.  Certainly I want to teach young people how to persuade and how to argue while at the same time rejecting spite, cruelty, and moral certainty.  In spite of the letters and emails they’ve received, my administrators seem inclined to keep me on as coach.  Maybe I will have to build something completely new.  A new way of thinking about debate.  A new activity.  A new community.

I’ll think on it.  And, in my spare time: more writing.  Perhaps a tragedy, this time.  The story of a guy who sets out to do good, but who’s undone by blindness to the flaws in his own nature.

But then, I've been writing that book for a long time.

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