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Alumni Perspective: Debunking the Debate Archetype

Connections remind us that we have always belonged

August 10, 2021 – In debate interest meetings, the product being pitched is the “debate archetype”– well-spoken, outgoing, headstrong, and most importantly, not me. Admittedly, it’s a good product.

This sale is something I should know about.  It’s the one I’ve sold to countless potential debate candidates and the one that personally convinced me to join the debate team. Debate promised to make me confident, more eloquent, more of the “debate type,” and ultimately less of what I was when I started: quiet. My teammates were, by contrast, charismatic, similarly interested in law, and altogether, much closer to what people expected debaters should seem like. The difference reinforced to me that I was still a work in progress — and debate was a critical part to enhancing my presence.

As much as I felt disconnected from the debate archetype, debate increasingly became the space in which I came to know my most unadulterated self. Normally reserved, I connected with others in this community easily, with my teammates becoming my best friends and the coaches and administrators becoming the most trusted adults in my school life. Although I was shy, formulating arguments against the opposition and speaking forcefully in rounds was an organic inclination that gravitated me toward debate in the first place. As adamant I was that I had yet to fit into the debate archetype, it was the first space I ever felt like I truly belonged. When I became captain the following year, it occurred to me that the debater type, whether or not anyone can really say it exists, has never been any indication of what kind of person can thrive in debate, because debate is for everyone.

A year out of competitive debate, I can confidently tell my younger self that I am no worse off for never reaching the standards of the debate archetype. Debate didn’t do any of the things I thought it would do for me: I’m not any more likely to participate in class and seminars and presentations are still difficult for me. Yet, I have better comprehension skills. I’m a better notetaker and a stronger researcher. When I do talk, my line of reasoning is more organized and combative. I now know that being quiet doesn’t mean I have anything less to say, and that being a leader has more to do with listening than talking anyway. But most importantly, I know what it means to be a part of a community, to be reliable, and allow oneself to rely on others.

The implication of the traditional debate narrative, the one that treats quiet people as the metaphorical “ugly girl in glasses,” subscribes to the notion that there is a singular way to show up in the world that is meaningful. For me, it meant that I didn’t belong in what was, arguably, the only space that ever made me feel a part of something. That kind of narrative seems to treat the precluding personality traits as deficits. Being quiet is not the ugly “before”picture in a debate infomercial.  More importantly, framing debate in this way completely misses the nuance of what makes it special to so many people that do diverge from “the debater type.”

The debate type exists because the activity itself promotes a certain type of being. Speaking well, being assertive, are both important aspects of the sport– but it has never been what makes debate valuable or important. The value of debate is belonging. To put into words, it is community, understanding, and unconditional solidarity. Debate didn’t transform me, but it gave me and others space to explore aspects of ourselves we didn’t recognize. The nuance and importance of this for anyone who has never felt they belonged in debate, is that there has never been a way to “belong” in debate. We debaters are connected by our grit, intensity, and desire to be the best versions of ourselves. More importantly, we are connected by each other, and those connections remind us that we have always belonged.

Leslie Pantaleon, a rising junior at Sarah Lawrence College and a New York Urban Debate League alum, is a 2021 White & Case NAUDL Fellow.  The Fellows Program is a paid 10-week summer internship with 10 students supporting NAUDL and two urban debate leagues (Washington, D.C. and Silicon Valley). Fellows typically have at least two-years of college/university study and are selected through a spring application process. To learn more about the Fellows Program, click here

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