If you’ve been to a major, chances are you’ve heard an equity briefing at the start of the tournament. Chances also are that during this briefing, you zoned out a bit, or got impatient at hearing the same thing again, or realized there was time to nip out for a coffee before the draw for the first round got going.
So, given all of that, why am I writing about equity? Mostly I think equity is under-discussed outside of major tournaments. Probably as a result, there are loads of misconceptions surrounding equity floating around the circuit. More significantly, discussing equity is incredibly important for circuits to decide what kind of social norms they want to see, encourage and propagate, not just during debate rounds, but at socials, training events, and online discussions.
Beginning from a basic question: what is equity? The standard answer is that equity tries to ensure accessibility to tournaments for all participants, by (as far as possible) preventing harassment based on characteristics like race, gender and class. Equity officers also serve as neutral third parties that hear and address concerns in a fair manner – so, for example, if a participant was the target of a racial slur, and felt uncomfortable speaking to the perpetrator about it, they would approach the equity officers.
Arguably, the goal of equity policies is to eventually stop existing, because there is no longer any need for them to. Unfortunately, that world doesn’t look anywhere close to materializing yet.
In June, I asked a tournament in Singapore if I could host a forum during their lunch break to discuss issues of gender representation in debate. While the tournament organizers were nothing but accommodating, the whispered responses from around the room when the forum was announced ranged from “But what’s the problem?” to “Why is she only talking about women? What about the men? That’s so sexist.”
I like to think that at least some of these individuals had their concerns answered during the forum itself, as statistics of gender representation at university tournaments flashed on screen and women shared their experiences of being called too loud, too high-pitched, too hysterical – too much.
I also know that at least some of these individuals did not. Anonymous post-event responses included terms such as “feminazi” – because, of course, this initiative was tantamount to genocide – insults about the appearances of the women that had spoken, and blisteringly sarcastic calls to “kill all men.”
This is hardly an uncommon reaction to discussions about gender and equity. Nor is it even a severe incident, in the grand scheme of things that have happened to female debaters.
Earlier this year, a female debater received an anonymous rape threat in a registration form for a gender-themed debate tournament. Many other debaters, across multiple tournaments, have spoken about being groped and harassed at alcohol-sodden socials, about being unable to get away from overly-persistent individuals, about getting upset at sexist acts or slurs and being told, “Don’t get so emotional, it was just a joke.”
The phrase “just a joke” always gets me. It’s always just a joke, and the person calling it out is always uptight and humourless, until very suddenly, it isn’t.
In the past two years, I’ve served as an equity officer at multiple tournaments, across multiple regions and circuits. I mention this not because I think this makes me an expert, but because I want to draw on those particular experiences to offer some perspective on equity.
Most criticisms I’ve heard about equity boil down to three main groups: one, it’s unnecessary; two, it’s ineffective; three, even though it is mostly ineffective, when it does work, it is often weaponized and used to target individuals. These, incidentally, are the three rebuttals that every Leader of Opposition should have in a policy debate.
I remain unconvinced by the notion that equity at tournaments is unnecessary. See: all the incidents I’ve just mentioned. See: the constant punishment of ESL and EFL debaters by judges for their accents. See: the casual derision with which arguments about “the poor” are made.
The next claim, that equity is ineffective, makes a lot more sense. The actions that equity teams can take are constrained by what the complainant wants. At WUDC last year, for example, complainants could raise issues either formally or informally, but only formal complaints – emailed, or in writing, and submitted to the equity team – could prompt any kind of disciplinary action (such as requesting the offending participant provide an apology, or issue a warning to the offending participant).
Quite often, for a multitude of reasons, complainants choose to raise issues informally instead of pursuing their claims further. When this happens, equity teams, in most cases, become largely restrained to making general, anonymized announcements condemning further such incidents.
Nevertheless, I think equity serves an important norm-setting function for circuits.
It is indisputable that equity cannot solve every problem at a tournament – and more than true that, as one person put it, “Even if power dynamics are perpetually unequal and break nights are problematic, equity can’t stop two consenting adults from hooking up” – but what it can do is ask individuals to consider how their actions impact others. It can remind individuals to treat each other with kindness and respect: to not mock a clearly nervous young fresher at their first tournament, to refrain from drinking or drink responsibly if one cannot control one’s actions while drunk, to back off when told to back off. It urges individuals to look out for one another, to check peer pressure on drinking, to check in on drunk friends at socials and provide them with the opportunity to leave if they want to. And at the very least, if nothing else, it provides a listening ear to those who need it.
Equity enables people to make choices. It does not prescribe them. It does not say, under no circumstance are individuals allowed to get drunk and hook up at debate socials. It merely says, if you are uncomfortable, if you want to get out, we hope to be here for you.
The last claim, that equity is weaponized and used to start witch-hunts, is an interesting one. I think the underlying assumption behind could go something like this: equity listens only, or mostly, to the complainant’s side of the story, and will punish without just cause.
In fact, equity is not punitive in the majority of cases. First, as I’ve pointed out, most complainants raise issues informally. Second, when formal complaints are made, the equity team must begin an investigative process. This includes speaking to both parties, as well as any witnesses of the alleged incident. Only after all these interviews does the equity team confer with each other to determine if there has been a breach of equity policy. If there has, then the equity team further confers – in some cases, along with the CA team and the convenors – to determine the appropriate resolution mechanisms to employ. All of these checks serve to balance the interests of both parties. Third, equity teams often opt to mediate rather than punish: this could include talking to the offending participant and advising against inappropriate behaviour, requesting an apology, or facilitating a conciliation session between both parties. Disciplinary actions such as issuing a warning or barring offending participants from tournament events are only used in severe cases.
The underlying assumption could also be that rumour-mongering with regards to equity violations will run rampant on the circuit, thus destroying the lives of those accused without just cause.
A few responses: first, equity complaints are kept strictly confidential on the part of the equity team. Second, rumour-mongering about inequitable incidents, if they are severe enough or occur frequently enough, is honestly pretty likely to occur with or without equity teams. Third, even if rumour-mongering arises, I think a circuit with strong equity norms is probably more likely than a circuit without those norms to condemn and quash baseless, hurtful rumours. While there remains the possibility that well-known debaters might be able to manipulate equity for their own purposes, the answer is not to abolish equity altogether, but to ensure that equity teams are, as far as possible, composed of apolitical individuals with the ability to push back against overt political agendas.
Where can we go from here?
Frankly, I have no idea. I cannot claim to speak with any authority whatsoever on what any circuit wants, or what it should want. A good start would be having a discussion about equity within one’s own friend groups or debate clubs, rather than seeing equity as something dictated by 3-5 people which only matters during tournaments. After all, how we treat each other in real life – in practice rounds, at parties, in heated online discussions – often spills over into how we treat each other at tournaments, and vice versa.
There’s also something to be said for starting these conversations on the schools circuit as well as on the university circuit (in Singapore, at least, there’s a reasonably large overlap between the two). When I was in high school, a common joke on the schools circuit was that the all-female teams that won rounds did so because of the lengths of their skirts. There’s still a sense of grumbling resentment among some debaters when they lose to strong female speakers (or, as some have put it, “a bunch of girls”), and still a tendency among some judges to tell female speakers that they should be less “shouty” and “aggressive.” Speakers still occasionally make arguments denying the reality of racial discrimination. Judges still occasionally look down on speakers from non-elite, non-branded “neighbourhood” schools.
Equity in this context is doubly important: it asks young adults to consider, perhaps for the first time, the humanity of others that are not like them, and it helps those who might feel persistently side-lined or uncomfortable realize that they are not alone in their experiences. On an informal level, coaches could talk about these issues with their teams during practice sessions or after rounds. On a formal level, having an equity officer at high school tournaments could raise awareness about the above issues, and give high school debaters someone approachable to speak to about judge bias and rude comments in-round.
Ideally, I would like people to think, really think, about what equity is and what it could be. It’s a much-maligned term, carrying with it the baggage of unsuccessful applications and careless misapplications, but at its best, it promotes norms that help individuals flourish on the circuit, regardless of their identity.