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Reflections on Extemp

Goodbye, Extemp: some parting critiques of the event I love

James Gao is a recent graduate of Ridge High School who competed on the circuit for four years. Here, he offers his thoughts on ways that extempers can improve their event insofar as it relates to advocacy and societal reform.

I began writing “A Goodbye to Speech” nearly four months ago, when quarantine first began. In typical Jimmy fashion, I procrastinated much of it. I never imagined I would be able to end my high school speech career as a national champion, something I’ve yearned for since freshman year. Thank you.

First, I wanted to acknowledge the privileges I have had that allowed me to compete on the (virtual) national stage. I performed at Nats in my own room, with my own computer, an external webcam, and wired Internet. I recognize that many of my competitors (and millions of other high school students) do not have those same luxuries. Additionally, over the past four years, my parents have spent thousands of dollars to allow me to compete all over the country. As a result, many of the judges I encountered throughout the tournament were ones I had already met several times. Judging based on name recognition is a real occurrence, one that disproportionately hurts students without the ability to travel frequently. Speech and debate tournaments are far from meritocratic, and I felt it necessary to recognize the socioeconomic privilege often needed to succeed in these events.

Over the past few days, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the way extemp is designed — often, in ways that limit its effectiveness as a platform for advocacy. Personally, after four years and hundreds of hours poured into this activity, I feel as if I have become better informed about the world around me, but not better equipped to translate that knowledge into action. Today, I read the New York Times for nearly half an hour, daily, but I still feel uncomfortable phone banking, protesting, and circulating petitions; I am only confident in calling for change when it answers a prewritten question.

I am hesitant to make sweeping generalizations about extempers (after all, the rest of the speech and debate circuit already does that enough). I know this is not true for all of my peers, and I applaud those who have taken their activism outside of the prep room. But overall, I would argue that extemp still fails to lend itself to the mindset that fosters progressive thinking and reform — and that those failures are a direct product of the event’s design.

First, let’s consider the way we write our speeches: how many times have you been asked to pretend that a “White, first-time mom judge” was the audience for your speech? I’ve heard it dozens of times. As a captain and a coach, I told my students to design their speeches the same way. When we create statements of significance, we are taught to see White as the default color and American as the default nationality of our audience. Our impacts are “successful” insofar as they are relatable to White cishet middle-class citizens. In some ways, this makes sense: Our tournaments are in America, where White people are still a majority, and we want to design our speeches with the broadest possible appeal. In doing so, however, we allow judges and audiences to escape the difficult conversations they do not want to have. By avoiding impacts centered around Black and Brown communities, the livelihoods of persons in underdeveloped nations, or persecuted religious, ethnic, or sexual/gender minorities, we remove ourselves from the risk that our judge will “zone out” during our speech — but we also imply that their lives and their struggles are inherently less valuable than those of WASPs. We often presuppose that “judges don’t care about [insert ethnicity/nationality here]”, but the only reason why they don’t care is because we let them. It is time for us to demand more from our judges. It is time we build stronger, more unique impacts that challenge White/Christian/cisgender/heterosexual as defaults. It is time we use our speeches to advocate for causes and communities we care about, rather than using them to appeal to and uphold a deeply unequal status quo.

This same line of reasoning extends to the questions we choose to speak on. From our very first speech, we are taught to avoid topics on“controversial issues” — namely, race, gender/sexuality, and reproductive rights. While some of us ignore these prescriptions (Anurima Mummaneni’s 2019 USX final is an incredible example), they cannot make up for an event-wide culture that favors dispassionate discussions of elections and economics over social issues. That culture also extends into how questions are written: because no one picks them, tournament organizers stop writing them, and important issues that need to be discussed are never deliberated. In four years of competing in extemp, I have never once drawn a question about transgender rights in tournament, even though the rampant discrimination transgender communities face is far more relevant than “What is the role of celebrities in politics?”, a question I’ve drawn four times (thank you, local CFLs). Before the death of George Floyd two months ago, I had never spoken on Black Lives Matter. As extempers, we read the news; we have all been aware of the rampant systemic racism in our society for years. Why, then, were we so complicit in ignoring it until external factors forced it to our attention? How can we spend four years giving speeches every weekend and still not know how to speak with eloquence and sophistication on the subject of race “in the real world”? In Interp and Public Address, the most memorable, affecting pieces I have seen are about these “controversial issues”: sexual assault, mental illness, identity-based discrimination. They have brought attention to important problems and forced audience members to contemplate topics they would not have otherwise been comfortable contemplating. Extemp must be held to the same standard. We must stop weighing the fear of getting dropped by judges who personally disagree with us over our need to use our platform for good.

Finally, I wanted to highlight that extemp, by its very nature, favors incrementalist, bite-sized reforms over sweeping policy changes. This is due to two (related) factors: time and solvency.

Time management is the bane of many extempers’ existences (myself, included) — and while our seven-minute, three-argument constraints are what make our activity challenging and interesting, they also limit the nuance with which competitors can explore ideas outside of the mainstream. Inherent to unified analysis, the preeminent extemp strategy, is the need to fit three separate responses to a question under one all-encompassing “umbrella answer.” Resultantly, the only ideas that work well in extemp speeches are the ones that can be introduced, explained, applied, and impacted in ninety seconds. We rarely ever answer questions with “it’s complicated” — even when the ideas we want to express are complicated! — because our theses are always supposed to be “sweet and simple”. Although extempers can hold more complicated theories and beliefs about many subjects, they are often forced to choose the simplest, least radical ones for the sake of time.

For example, let’s take a complex (but pertinent) issue: police reform. An answer like “defunding the police” would have never worked as an answer to a question advocating police reform before the death of George Floyd brought it to the mainstream. It would have been too radical, too difficult to explain, too messy to package neatly into three cut-and-dry points. Instead, such questions would have been answered with solutions like “ban chokeholds” and “increase body cameras”. They are simple, logical answers, and they are important steps toward police reform, certainly, but they do not challenge the nature of policing. They are reform-minded and incrementalist rather than large and radical. They are the type of answers that extemp judges, coaches, and competitors have been trained to value.

I ran into this issue often as a competitor. I could not bring up Modern Monetary Theory as a response to questions about the national debt or suggest majority single-member district voting as a solution to partisan gerrymandering because there was no way I could explain and apply it in ninety seconds, while also preparing and presenting two completely unrelated points. 2019 IX champion Rene Otero’s final round-winning speech was critiqued by many as being “too generalized” and “too abstract”, despite the fact that he was given just seven minutes to speak about generating economic prosperity across the entire continent of Africa. But there is a world of economics beyond neoclassical theory, and economic opportunities in Africa deserve to be considered outside of the context of the limited existing ones. Either we need to make extemp a longer event, or we need to rethink unified analysis and the way it prizes simplicity over complexity and centrism over radicalism.

That same affinity for centrism also manifests itself in extemp judges and competitors’ obsession with “solvency”, or the feasibility of implementation of any advocated solution. Solvency is an important factor to consider, certainly, but since high school students (usually) don’t have the agency to implement their solutions, no matter how feasible, there is no harm in thinking big. We ought not to let the status quo marred by inequality and injustice prevent us from imagining a world that is more equal and more just. Again, “defunding the police” is unlikely to happen in America anytime soon. Yet it is still a worthy thought experiment to envision a society without policing, and to posit that vision to judges and audiences. When we prize solvency above all, we presume that many elements of the status quo are unworthy of challenging. Well-read extempers will know of the “Overton window”, the theory that public policies are only feasible once they are politically palatable. Right now, extemp encourages its competitors to reflect where the Overton window currently is, rather than determine its future direction.

I am guilty of many of the problematic choices and behaviors I identify. As a competitor, I chose the “non-controversial” questions. My vague mental conception of an audience was always White, cisgender, and straight. As a question-writer, I valued specificity over potential for advocacy. Some of my failures can be attributed to a lack of creativity. Some of it can be attributed to cowardice. I wish I had reflected on extemp this critically while I was still a competitor.

I hope, however, that all the competitors, coaches, and judges still on the circuit can — and, at least, consider ways that they can better use their platform for good. I don’t expect to see a shift away from unified analysis or toward social issues overnight, but I think even just critical evaluations of extemp can be beneficial for addressing the flaws in the event we all dedicate ourselves to. After all, as I learned throughout my four years of extemp, “it’s important to be a good extemper, but it’s even more important to be a good person.”

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