Oct 2, 2010

NFL retracts "Ground Zero Islamic Center" topic

My debaters were in an uproar last Friday, when the original Public Forum topic for November 2010 was announced:
Resolved: An Islamic cultural center should be built near Ground Zero.
They were incensed that the matter should even be debated, and at a complete loss to fathom arguing the Con.

As I'd already given thought to most of the reasons to disallow the "Ground Zero mosque," and hadn't been persuaded by any of them, I was a bit flummoxed, too, until I thought of a way for the Con to argue without sounding bigoted: to define "should" as a moral imperative, and then place a burden on the Pro to prove that society has a moral duty to build an Islamic center near Ground Zero. My guess is that many Pro teams would mostly be arguing for the right to build the center--not the duty, and would fail to meet the burden. Anyhow, it was the best hope I saw for the Con at least having a tiny chance to win in a particularly liberal region of the country.

All that's unnecessary now, since the NFL has retracted the topic. Via email:
Overwhelming concerns have been expressed by our membership regarding the November 2010 resolution. The Public Forum wording advisory committee worked diligently and thoughtfully to create a timely resolution. However, after due consideration, the National Forensic League has changed the November 2010 Public Forum resolution.

We realize that it is unusual to change a topic after posting. We hope that this new resolution will allow educators and competitors to explore core issues that face high school academic debate.

The November 2010 Public Forum resolution is
Resolved: High school Public Forum Debate resolutions should not confront sensitive religious issues.

J. Scott Wunn
Executive Director
I applaud the decision--and I really like the topic.

Update: ...and here's how Washington state has resolved the matter.


Paul Hamann said...

I do NOT applaud the decision, Jim.

Like you (and most others up here in the liberal Pacific Northwest), I have trouble with the topic at hand here, because it seems to be such a slam-dunk for the pro side. And like you, I then noticed the interesting wording: "Should build." That changed ground significantly...it cleverly pre-empted any "it's their First Amendment right to" arguments in favor of the rather compelling debate over whether the feelings of some victims' families ought to be prioritized over this specific project going forward. My team and I talked about it at some length; my wife/assistant coach and I talked about it at some length, and I think we were on our way to some interesting, nuanced, philosophical exchanges--way better than the ridiculous garbage our political candidates are having on the same issue.

I'm angry at Wunn and the NFL for pulling the rug out on us. While I don't believe this is anything near the most important issue facing the nation right now, whether we like it or not, it is in the news, and it is one of the stated goals of PuFo to have kids engage in exchanges about events in the news that an audience of lay judges might find compelling. Not only does this decision render useless the 24 hours of work my debaters did on this issue, it also means that the NFL (or at least a good chunk of its constituent coaches) believes there are hot issues that our kids are not equipped to talk about. I certainly disagree.

And the new topic? I don't see what you see in it. I've got three freshmen on my team who I want to introduce to public forum, and they haven't yet experienced any kind of high school debate. I have to have their first debates be meta-debates? That's a terribly unfair position to put those kids in. In January or February? Sure. But to lead off a career? No way.

I also don't like the implication in the resolution that the Ground Zero Islamic Center resolution was dropped because it is a "sensitive religious issue." It really isn't much of a religious issue. To the lame-ohs who stereotype all Muslims, it might be, but I don't see how they'll win any debates. (And to have them LOSE their debates is a STRONG reason to run the resolution.) It's an issue about how much we should value others' feelings over our First Amendment rights, and what is appropriate public expression near places of mourning.

Also, the #1 (but often-forgotten) goal of Public Forum is to have debates that are not only palatable but interesting and relevant to the non-debater 99% of our society. This is a resolution that flies in the face of that goal. When we host our PuFo meet (one month from tonight, if any of y'all reading this wants to head out to Heritage High School...), and I sit in front of our lay judges...my referee friends, wife's knitter friends, local Kiwanians, teacher colleagues...this resolution won't mean a thing to any of them. Public Forum judges are supposed to be lay judges, unimpacted by the debate world. This resolution just doesn't fit. (What do you see in it, Jim? I'm just not there.)

I've enjoyed the conversations I've had on this issue--it's brought out a lot of thought. It's a shame that the NFL has capitulated to the pressure here, since that decision will prevent a lot of others from going through similar thought.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to do this here. This serves as a draft of my letter to Scott Wunn I'll be sending off next week expressing my disappointment in the decision.

Chris Coovert said...

My take: the NFL replaced a bad topic with an even worse one. I agree with Paul that the con's main hope on the original topic was that the pro had to formally defend it being built, not just the right to build it. But I was still pretty worried about the potential for where the debates could go.

But as Paul said, the new topic is awful as a first topic. I have 16 or so kids in class ready to learn about debate, and they are going to do it by debating about debate? How is that in anyway reasonable. I would really like the state to consider using the October topic and just bagging the November topic entirely. I don't if that is possible, but I think it's worth exploring.

Jim Anderson said...

In the NFL's defense, they likely don't see this as a "beginning" resolution, because it's the November topic, not the October topic.

That said, I don't like the narrow wording of the resolution--"high school public forum debate resolutions"--but I like the idea of debating whether high school is a proper forum for debate on religiously sensitive topics. Maybe it's just because at a recent practice, a huge (and sometimes heated, though mostly amiable) religious debate broke out when a student was seen carrying a copy of "The God Delusion." (At least, that's how I think it started.) I had to almost literally shoo them out the door when the practice session ended.

The sheer amount of debate this event has spurred in the debate community makes me think it can be debated, practically speaking... but then, the more I think about it, the likelihood still exists that the meta-debate could turn non-meta--and end up riling up religious sensibilities anyway, thus meta-refuting itself.

One other thing I hadn't considered about the original resolution was the inflamed sentiment in many parts of the country, sentiment that could make things especially awkward for students already in a tough spot because of their religious commitments.

So, to clarify and partially retract my original thinking: I applaud the decision to change topics. I am not entirely in love with the new topic, but I think it has great potential. At the very least, the NFL needs a much better "backup topic" plan.

(As an aside, check out all the past PuFo resolutions. It's an interesting list--the event covers propositions of policy, value, and fact. I think that might be part of its charm, and part of what can make it frustrating, because there aren't established frameworks--V/C, plans, etc.)

And now I'm of a divided mind. Thank you, discourse!

Anonymous said...

I, for one, think this topic is hilarious. It sure should be interesting. The NFL basically threw a punch at all of the people who had slapped it for mentioning such a sensitive issue. But that's what public forum is about- and the NFL is basically trying to establish that through this topic. Being a democrat, I think that the favor is in the pro, but that it would be possible to win from a con standpoint. And most of the complaints, I'm willing to bet, weren't about the difficulty to win from each side. They were upset that such a topic should even be touched upon- but what good is debating topics that aren't controversial? The NFL is saying, fine, you think you can tell us what we're supposed to do? Then show us you can argue your point.

Chris Coovert said...

Just so you know, a few of us are considering agreeing as tournament directors to all use the October topic next month. It's not a perfect solution, but I think it's the best option for our state since it will be our first resolution. Nothing has been decided at this point, but we are talking. If you have strong opinions on this, feel free to post here or send me an email.

Jim Anderson said...

Chris, the sooner the decision, the better. If you're counting votes, count mine in support of that alternative.

Cythia Borge said...

I thank for uploading the new topic and can you please give more insight on this topic "Resolved: High school Public Forum Debate resolutions should not confront sensitive religious issues" As other people have said this is a worse issue and I do pf,and this has left me in circles. I look forward to your insight

Jim Anderson said...

I'd say that most of the evidence out there is going to focus on what's appropriate for high school in general / in the classroom, and the idea would be to apply that evidence to the world of high school Public Forum debate.

For instance, check out some of the recommendations for teaching about religion in the classroom, from the Anti-Defamation League.