Wrestling with another Safe Space. Where fear is greater than debate.

I can not even begin to say how utterly crazy this seems to me.

Recently the University of Vermont hosted a debate tournament with over 150 debaters from 18  schools across the U.S. and Canada. That in and of itself is not crazy. What made it unique was that the tournament did not allow men.

Perhaps, even that is not crazy.  Some of the reasoning struck me as odd though.

“There is also a lot of sexual predation that happens in the debate community,” said UVM debate director Helen Morgan-Parmett. “The tournament, I think, provides a safe space where people feel they are debating other women, and their bodies aren’t necessarily on display.”

If your body is “on display” in a debate tournament, it is because you want to put it on display. The standard dress is pretty bland.Sure, there may be some guys turned on by a woman wearing a heavy burlap sack, but for the most part, everyone is pretty conservative in dress and respectful.At least it was in my day. There was certainly a lot of flirting and a lot of dating. And championship tournaments were like the Olympic Village sometimes. But, all in all, it was too busy and the people too focused on winning.

Let us say, for sake of argument, that there was some questionable conduct going on. Why can’t a code of conduct be created to deter it or punish it? Yes, it will probably lead to fewer downtime conversations between the sexes but probably not by much. Debaters tend to talk to people because they like talking and listening.  They tend to be smart and well informed about the world, or at least more informed than most. They can understand a code and follow it and without it getting too awkward. Though, there would be plenty who could ridicule it. These are young people after all. Young people skilled in mockery and sarcasm.

But another cited reason is the feeling that women suffer in competing with men because of sexism. It has been argued that college debate is prone to the same sexism and misogyny that pervades American culture and that far more men than women compete. And while in terms of numbers that may be true, there can be no question that there is no shortage of highly skilled female debaters. And they become that way by taking on all opponents and honing their craft. While it can be argued that events such as these help women because they have the chance to compete without sexism, I am not sure what that says about how we are teaching girls and young women about facing challenges.

I read something like this and I ask, “How safe of a space do you need?” And where is the joy of beating those who doubt your abilities? I won numerous local, state, regional and one national championship in debate and left a lot of white boys and girls in my wake. That was, admittedly, part of the fun. You meet them on intellectual turf. Did I ever get hosed because of racial bias? Sure. But, that’s part of learning how to adjust to different audiences too. Which, is what you have to do in life, isn’t it?

Maybe I am wrong here. After all, I am not a woman. But, I am a competitor. And the idea of thinking the only way I can get better is by avoiding the competition is just mind-boggling to me. While some may say this is similar to single-gender schools or Historically Black Colleges and Universities, I think the differences are enormous. Those institutions are about increasing confidence, skills, and nurturing so that one can grow enough to never feel lesser than the power majority. It feels like a step back, not forward. Of course, there is a lot of that going around nowadays.

It is not going out on a limb to think that many of these debaters will want to go into law, advocacy, sales, education or a number of other vocations that rely upon one’s ability to think on their feet and sell the story in front of them. Vocations that will require overcoming the skeptical or at least make them take another look at your position. And that cannot be done by evading the uncomfortable truths of our society.  It is sexist and it is racist and it loves to pat itself on the back for not being as brutal in either as it used to be. But, those are the cards we have and we best make sure our young people have the skills to cope with that world. And that will not come by remaining in safe spaces. That will only happen by going into the safe spaces of those who do not want you there and showing you belong.

It may not mean always winning, but let me explain something about being the underdog. The longer the underdog stays in the game, they long they press and push, the more the favorite (or the champion) starts fighting in a manner that is not about winning, but in not losing. And once they know they have to play that way, once they know you are a viable contender, then the real games begin. And yes, it is a shame that it is a lifetime struggle. But giving up is not really an option either.

Ric Flair is famous for what should be a motto for anyone who wants to succeed: “To be the man, you have to beat the man”. Loosely translated it means that to be the best, you have to beat them. Not quiver in a corner from them, but beat them. Not hide from them, but beat them. And you can never beat who you refuse to play.