Friday, February 22, 2013

Them's the rules!

Some random thoughts.

First of all, the rules are the rules. No one has to like the rules, and one can petition for rules changes, and propose alternate rules, and one can even blog about them and wear people down until one or the other side finally gives in, but the one thing one can’t do is disobey the rules in midgame. Because you don’t like the rules doesn’t mean you don’t have to obey them. We teach this to our LD novices with the civil disobedience topic. Laws, even when horribly oppressive, are still the laws. In CD situations, disobedient acts are committed with the firm knowledge of retribution. One of the chief reasons for disobedience, aside from moral dictates, is to publicly suffer for those acts to draw attention to the unjustice of the broken laws. But the rules of debate are not the equivalent of the rules of law in society. Debate is a competition, and a better analogy is sports. Imagine a manager does not like the infield fly rule; does this mean that he should encourage his infielders to drop every easy catch? Well, no, because the rule exists, and the umpire is going to make the call whether you like it or not.

[In aid of full disclosure, I had no idea what the infield fly rule was until I looked it up two minutes ago.]

Debate is a competition. People forget that. The problem is that, despite it's being a competition, its aims are not particularly those usually associated with competitive events. That is, we are not necessarily teaching sportsmanship and all the norms that go with it, of “good” winning and losing, of doing your best, of being a team player, etc. Not that these are not inherent in debate, but they are not the driving cause. We’re more interested in the educational values, as a general rule. The skills acquired in debate can be life skills, unlike the skills acquired on, say, the bowling team, which may be fun skills but which are unlikely to come up later in one's career (unless one has a really unusual career, I guess). As an aside, the lack of support for forensics and its life skills education in many schools always surprises when compared to the support for sports and its more evanescent skills. In any case, despite the fact that the skills of debate have a core foundation in improving one’s general education in a meaningful way, the means of developing those skills are through competition, mostly in preparation but more noticeably at actual events. Which is where the rules come in.

Competitions have rules because these allow everyone to know what is expected by one and all, be they coaches, competitors, judges or spectators. The very nature of forensics forces some rules to be, at best, hazy, and there’s nothing terribly wrong with that, provided that we all have an understanding that a certain portion of our framework is fungible. But most things at a tournament are not fungible. Schools have judging obligations that must be met because, otherwise, tournaments simply cannot be run. “You won’t miss my one little old judge” is the Tragedy of Commons waiting to happen. If half the field spends countless hours scoping out MJP and ranking accordingly, personal dislike of MJP doesn’t allow us to negate all that energy so that you can sub in a “perfectly good judge.” If you don’t show up within a reasonable amount of time (and more often than not, we’re too reasonable about this), you forfeit. If your judge could find the room and your opponent could find the room, you have no excuse forty-five minutes later when you show up. If you don’t think a decision is correct, you cannot browbeat the judge until a different decision is made. You can’t take evidence that says one thing and pretend it says something else. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

As I’ve said recently, I want to push for ombudsmen at big tournaments, for issues that always seem to arise for which there is no precedent, or perhaps no time by folks otherwise engaged. But I also wish we had a few more players in the game who simply realize that it is a game with rules that must be followed. Sometimes I think that we are mostly just a whiny bunch of children (and I’m not talking about the students here) who simply can’t accept that everything doesn’t always go their way. I realize that the majority of forensicians are good citizens, but in tab rooms week after week I tend to most encounter the whiny complainers who want to evade the rules when it is to their benefit. And this year, more than ever, it's been one damned thing after the other.

My job in tab is just to pair rounds with the most neutral precision possible. I’m better at neutrality than precision, but then again, nobody’s perfect, and when I make a mistake I’m happy to learn of it and fix it pronto. What I’m not good at is explaining to you that them’s the rules, now go shut up and abide by them.

Grow up. Please.

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