In 2007, a filmmaker named Greg Whitely made a documentary called “Resolved” that centred on high school debate. A film that could otherwise have been a some what boring exposition on the world of debate exposed the complex racial and class bias inherent in American education and the debating world via two of its main protagonists Richard Funches and Louis Blackwell, two young African American inner-city debaters from a high school named Long Beach Jordan in Long Beach, California.
Public understanding of debate doesn’t line up with it’s contemporary enactment. In the minds of the public and myself prior to watching the documentary, debate is seen as a timed battle of wits and words with two opponents or more eloquently and persuasively outlining their respective arguments from a stance of Pro v Con on a particular topic.
While that outline still guides debate, debate experienced a significant shift in the 1960s when a new strategy in debate called “the spread” was introduced. The idea of the spread centered on speaking faster than your opponents so that you can fit more arguments into timed speeches. As outlined in the film:
“Until that time high school debate more resembled what we think of when we speak of high school debate. Since the invention of this new strategy, eloquence and persuasiveness took a back seat to debates which placed a greater emphasis on information and academic research. As the debates grew faster and faster, jargon, a sort of short hand for speaking that allowed the debaters to say more with less allowed developed. Over time the number of people who could actually understand a high school debate grew fewer and fewer, crowds dwindled and eventually you only had two groups of people left: those who could actually understand a debate and those select few who could compete in it”
Here’s what jargon and spreading sounds like:
The problem with the spread besides its rambling incoherence is that due to the emphasis on information and academic research the debaters have to have access to the latest or most updated academic research in order to be competitive. Thus, debate became an exclusive endeavour that boiled down to access to said information via expensive research databases like EbscoHost of which the annual subscription is approximately $40,000 a year. For individuals from schools in lower socio-economic backgrounds like Richard and Louis, debate then became a issue of both class and race as more often than not in the world of debate, debaters from lower socio-economic backgrounds were of color.
The class and race bias that was now inherent to debate mirrors that of society and it was with this perspective that Louis and Richard decided that despite how skilled they had become at using jargon and the spread they were forever playing catch up due to their minimal resources thus depriving them of access to the information and academic research. Therefore, for the upcoming debate year they were going to challenge the premises of debate itself using two points.
What was the INTENT of debate and the PURPOSE?
In doing so they would call into question the inherent class and race bias involved in the participation of debate due to the introduction of the spread and they would question the very purpose of it. Namely, was the purpose of debate to debate issues that the vast majority of debtors were disconnected to (one topic was racial profiling a subject that affected Richard and Louis as a lived experience while being just a “topic” for their white opponents) just to “win” or was the purpose of debate to be an exchange of ideas from which people could grow and learn from?
More importantly, Richard and Louis were going to challenge the intent and purpose of debate by absconding from both the spread and jargon choosing to instead talk to these points in a reasoned way from the perspective of personal experience their decision thus challenging the very power structure of not just debate but the orientation of society itself, with the structure of debate being a micro version of the challenges oppressed people of color faced in a society where the rules are determined by and for those representative persons in the dominant culture i.e. White power structures.
Using the premise of intent and purpose I call into question the very nature of Q and A and argue that it is time that Q and A engage in a debate about itself, its purpose and intent.
Since moving here four years ago from the US I was an avid weekly viewer of Q and A until the last two months in which I have withdrawn from watching a television show that positions itself as a left of center platform whilst with rare exception continually giving a platform to the voices and faces of those members of the dominant culture i.e. White Australia.
Is the purpose and intent of Q and A to be a platform that gives a space in the public discourse for discussion on topics and issues that affect all of Australia or is a platform that is only interested in giving space to and reifying the issues and concerns of White Australia all while presenting itself as inclusive?
I argue that it is the latter and not the former as week after week the panels on average are full of the faces of the most privileged in our society or those voices that can be heard any other day of the week as I can tune in Monday-Sunday and hear a soundbite from a representative of either or other “notable” public figure on any of the mainstream networks. Do they need a space on Q and A also?
Earlier this week the nation’s attention was captured by the SBS presentation of the tv show “First Contact”, a documentary that followed six White Australians around Australia as they met with Indigenous peoples. The show was meant to challenge the inherent racism of said participants and White Australia itself. While the show had a few brilliant moments, the shows failure was connected to its inability to connect the white participants and viewers to the systemic and structural oppression and racism that Australian society orients itself around.
In Q and A and Australian media in general, this structural oppression is made manifest by the marginalisation of voices other than White Australia via a lack of a consistent representation of non white people and discussion surrounding the topics connected to those voices.
In those rare moments that those voices are given space it’s considered a “special” such as the first ever Q and A that took place in Arnhem Land earlier this year when the show had its first all Black panel or like tonight when Noel Pearson, who while certainly being a gifted orator and intellectual adheres to a respectability politic that is popular with White audiences because it places a emphasis on self determination and responsibility for Black people that while being partly true fails to account for the systemic oppressive forces that operate as a fulcrum against Black progression.
Where in the mainstream media landscape is there a forum where issues like human right violating detention centres that have illegally incarcerated asylum seekers, the mass incarceration of Aboriginal Australians, over-represention of Aboriginal children in care, the topic of treaty or the proportionately high death rate of Aboriginals in police custody going to be addressed and amplified?
Q and A continually defers away from these topics by focusing on issues that significantly affect White Australia such as the episode earlier this season regarding this Liberal government’s controversial 2014 budget submission where I watched aghast as not one audience member raised the topic of the additional $50 million dollars allocated toward policing in the Northern Territory when Aboriginal people are already over policed and overly represented within this nation’s prisons. This deference was also highlighted in the “open forum” special three or four weeks ago where a panel of scientists fielded questions from the audience of which one audience member asked about the possibility of time travel. Only a people so privileged can afford to focus on such questions and waste valuable time in a space that could be used so purposefully.
All of this is done under the pretense of progression and good intention, much like First Contact, while not doing the same in kind.
Q and A, like the topic of debate in the film “Resolved” is a micro example of the larger issue that is the disproportionate power imbalance that exists within Australian society, a society that continues to privilege and amplify the concerns and issues of its most privileged by giving them a consistent platform for those concerns and issues to be heard. Until this issue is examined more deeply, then shows like “First Contact” only serve as a superficial feel good bandaid for White Australia that covers the gaping wound that represents the issues of the most marginalised and oppressed of Australian society.
Q and A like the nation itself, is not who it thinks it is and it’s time for some self reflection.