Some thoughts on the role of personal experience and debate…

 – THE judy butler

Coach, University of West Georgia

The question is not do we debate from our personal experiences (I have never heard a team say we personally experience oppression and you don’t so we win) but whose personal experiences do the structure of topics reflect – I would humbly suggest that they presuppose a relation to the state as a neutral, natural and normal tool of policy, that you can program in a goal and out comes an OUTCOME – not an historically AND CURRENTLY hostile institution that was anything but neutral in its subjugation of you and those who look like you – 18 to 24 year old black males know they disproportionably populate the jails as a class – their FRIENDS go to jail, it is not a statistic that they just read about – and the concomminent day to day reality of the policing of young black men that requires a great deal of real, in person contact between the security organs of the state and those young men – and not much of it is positive or feels like protection – the statistics are glaringly apparent.

Pretending debate or any policy making deliberation can be somehow separated in anything but a very surface and artificial way from ones personal experience is counterintuitive – you can acknowledge it or not – but I defy you to teach novice debaters how to debate without appealing and referring to their personal experiences

While functioning as an assistant debate coach at Emory, I came into my (and THE) first Emory sponsored urban debate lab with very little sense of what the relevant differences would be between the 12-year-old Westminister students who had historically populated my novice labs and novices from inner city and suburban Atlanta schools with zero debate background, My experience had been with young, usually very privileged prep school kids as high school novice labs and they had been educated from that perspective. My pitch about why debate was cool contained a list of presidents and powerful social and political actors who had debated and it was very successful – as a rule. I suspect that is because these kids found it credible to believe that they were destined for power– so seeing the world, as they did, from the perspective that you could imagine growing up to embody a person positioned to be the impetus for a huge change in social conditions through existing power institutions because you or at least people like you will be inheriting the reins of power, They believed that role playing the government was really a practice arena for their futures ––

My urban debate novice lab did not envision public service in the sense of running for offices that house power as their future, nor their past or present, for that matter – their own historical heroes (and their parents and role models) were activists, not politicians – the government had been an enemy, then reluctant defender of civil rights AT BEST. – There was a stark contrast between the cards we showed them about whether government actions can solve social conditions and their lived experiences with state institutions and state interventions into their personal experiences. Their lived experiences are in sharp relief when contrasted with these neutral policy assessments; these institutions are not theoretical to them, Their experiences are of being at the receiving end of powers use, not in its control room, which means its visibility and function in their everyday lives is much more prevalent and concrete than your average prep school kids – immediately they vociferously protested my strategy for the summers entertainment – why would we do that – work really hard for two weeks, in a LIBRARY, and READ COURT OPINIONS- its summer and we are kids – why will this be anything but a bullshit fantasy pretending to be the power-wielders when we are merely its objects – and none of what you (Judy) are talking about (the literature, that is) speaks from our perspective as the resisters against those institutions that are designed to mask or further our literal subjugation like Supreme court opinions – old white man promises that usually pan out to an excuse to justify more subjugation – – and what possible reason can you give us for going along with this –

My answer back in the moment was so that you don’t become the Mariel Cubans that this court screwed so badly – so your next written correspondence isn’t from jail – not because you are a criminal, but because the MANs power is real: it has the motive (subjugation and centralization of order and control) and the means (ability and institutional power in the form of courts, cops, agencies, teachers, guards, judges, immigration officials) to label you as such IS real, and we gotta be able to see it coming (understand the systemic physical and rhetorical practices that manifest themselves in our confinement) so that we can avoid their jabs and look for openings to jab back – if you don’t know what they are up to, they are harder to beat – and they are ahead in the struggle – whose the frickin underdog here – so if your personal experiences have positioned you such that the organs of the state feel aimed at you rather than aimed against your enemies for you (and anyone in the New Orleans Stadium during Katrina got to figure that out in a very personal manner), the topics structural and continual practice of empowering the state in the name of its potential to achieve some social good might strike one as counterintuitive and a total waste of time at best, and a requirement for you to advocate and participate in the further masking of the reality of state power in your own personal experiences at worst – as Damiyr Davis often said, George Washington was my Hitler, and the idea that George would have been totally comfortable owning a person like Damiyr as an object –I find that a fair reason for suspicion of the state and its historically grounded heroism persona as a tool for social change.

So, like I said: Pretending debate or any policy making deliberation can be somehow separated in anything but a superficial and artificial way from ones personal experience is counterintuitive – you can acknowledge it or not – but I defy you to teach novice debaters how to debate without appealing and referring to their personal experiences – and if you are ever confronted, as I was with a stark contrast between your personal experiences and theirs, it is a sobering and educative moment – and if you truly manage to get them to DIVORCE themselves from their personal (feelings and experiences that formed their views) selves while they are contemplating what whole social policies should be, it sounds pretty scary and eliminates our gut check on the stories we hear that describe reality from real people – and that sounds like a recipe for is one of the ways in which our ideas about people get turned into neat, top down dictated formulas about actions taken upon objects; and those who have exercised agency as subjects through the institutions of power feel like they accomplished some end, when in fact their unacknowledged empowerment of the state to perform some good end has a rachet-like effect on the systems power vis-a-vis those it controls and shapes (the usual suspects), giving the illusion of progress toward some linear social good, when in fact there is a net loss in power relations between the state and SOME (hence, potentially all) people of a given, identified group. thanks for reading.