Everything is different in online debate. These changes are not just limited to the way competition works, but also appear in the way debaters act during tournaments. While online debate has made many aspects of debate more inclusive, it also highlights the bro culture that has gone largely unnoticed for a long time. The goal of this article is to provide some pros and cons of the current nature of online debate in the context of inclusivity.
CON: Online Toxicity
With the rise of messaging platforms like Discord, the opportunities for sexism and racism run wild. Sexist remarks, racial slurs, and generally non-inclusive conversation can make gender and racial minorities wary of participating in the online sphere. In online debate, this can be detrimental because texting is one of the only ways to make friends. One possible explanation for this is the online disinhibition effect, or the idea that people feel separated from reality when talking online, allowing them to say things they would not normally say in person. This could be a reason why people on debate Discord servers, group chats, or even private conversations say sexist things that they might not otherwise say in person.
However, an alternative explanation for the increase in offensive language online could also be that these conversations are simply reported more often. Online conversations offer a unique opportunity for accountability that is often not available in person. Screenshots and screen recordings are a built-in, verifiable way to call out sexist behavior. This idea offers us one solution to make online spaces more inclusive: we can remind ourselves to look out for and take action when we see sexist behavior online.
CON: Cross-Ex Etiquette
Online debate has direct impacts on in-round behavior. A commonly reported situation for many gender minorities is when a male opponent repeatedly interrupts them during cross-ex. For many, experiences like these amplify feelings of discomfort. On NSDA campus, overconfident debaters and wifi issues often result in a difficult cross-ex where it’s hard to intervene and ask the next question. Debaters will often pretend, or even realistically feel like they can’t hear their opponent and keep answering the question, often talking over female/trans opponents. Outside of cross-ex, it can be difficult for debaters to engage in conversation when male debaters and judges are loudly and aggressively having a discussion. While much of this issue is largely situational, debaters can keep in mind the unique struggles of online debate and be mindful in listening to and respecting their opponents.
Nonetheless, one of the biggest pros of online debate is safety. There is a much lower risk of sexual assault when both debaters are safely debating from their own homes. However, this benefit brings up a big question: should debaters have to resort to online debate, just to feel safe in round? While online debate provides debaters with a logistically safer environment, our goal should be to make all debate, online or in person, safe for everyone.
Online debate is a new experience that we all have yet to master. While it is extremely difficult to eradicate sexism, I believe that by keeping in mind the unique challenges that gender and racial minorities face during online debate, we can foster inclusivity online. We may not have much control over whether debate goes back in person, but we can continue to try to make this activity the most accessible as possible, no matter the format.