So I Just Saw Resolved

In our household, Rachael and I try to be flexible with splitting up weekend chores, changing off who gets groceries, who cleans up the kitchen, things like that.  The only chore that I have a solid lock on is doing laundry, which is great until it’s time to actually fold everything and I put it off sometimes indefinitely.  I am aware of this flaw in my approach to laundry, and I have had many a day where I ended up fishing through unfolded clothes to find something to wear for work.

Fortunately, I usually curtail this problem by putting on a movie or some television and folding then.

This weekend, I settled on the 2007 documentary Resolved as my laundry movie after having it in my Netflix queue for years (many thanks to James for recommending it to me in the first place).  It’s an interesting film that explores the state of high school policy debate and follows several high school students through their debate careers.  Two hail from one of the wealthiest communities in Texas, while two others come from a poor public school in Long Beach, California.

Now, before we get any further into the movie, I have to give a little bit of background.  In college I got involved with a debate society that holds regular meetings to carry out recreational debates on various topics of interest.  The only competitive event of the group’s year is a debate that we hold with our on-campus rivals (yes, it is extremely nerdy that my alma mater has not one but two debate societies, and we have an ongoing rivalry), which is decided by a panel of neutral judges and follows a format very similar to policy debate.  I never participated in that event when I was a student, mostly because I never had the confidence to try out, and I just flat wasn’t a good enough speaker.  Nonetheless, I always enjoyed these events, because they were always an excellent chance to see some really talented speakers argue over an interesting topic.  High school policy debate, as depicted in Resolved, is only similar in terms of the format; everything else about it is new territory for me.

So, the first thing that we learn about policy debate is that since around the 1960s, the dominant method of argument is a strategy called spread.  It’s a very simple concept: you speak as quickly as possible so that you can fit as many points as possible into your allotted time.  The complication comes in the execution, because top level competitive policy debaters are capable of speaking around 400 words per minute.

Resolved (2007) Poster

Though things do get heated in a couple of the debates depicted, there’s never a point where the speakers actually yell in each others’ faces and their words fall out like literal bullets. (Image credit: IMDb)

This kind of presentation is not fun to listen to.

Information flows quickly, and people who are not practiced in listening to policy debate have a lot of trouble simply processing what’s being said, let alone evaluating arguments (the flow of speech is so rapid that the documentary provides subtitles when showing speeches from debates).  The entire pastime is obviously highly specialized and niche (perhaps the biggest giveaway is the fact that the competitions we see never involve debating in venues that are intended for large audiences to observe), with participation in the community being restricted by some pretty hefty entrance requirements.

This is a weird and fraught point, because many communities that tend to be niche often involve various prerequisite conditions for participation.  One of the biggest that I can think of off the top of my head is video gaming, with its various monetary and ability barriers (the very fact that many self-identified gamers like to enforce a distinction between “hardcore” and “casual” gaming only emphasizes this point; you’re only “hardcore” if you can afford a current-gen system or PC, possess the free time to invest extensively in the hobby, and possess both the skill and physical ability to actually manipulate the controls of your chosen game).  Exclusive hobbies reek of privilege, and policy debate, which we see is accessible only to very wealthy communities at the top levels of competition, is no different.

Enter the two guys from Long Beach, Louis Blackwell and Richard Funches.  They’re black kids from a poor urban public school, but they have a lot of talent as debaters, and we see that they won their state championships their Junior year of high school while adhering to the typical spread style debate strategy.  In their Senior year, they decide to develop a different type of argument as a way of critiquing the status quo in policy debate, particularly since the topic for that year had to do with racial profiling, and an argument about privileged versus non-privileged groups was relevant.

I really like what Blackwell and Funches did with their argument, particularly since it relied on a style of argument that isn’t so heavily dependent on the mounds and mounds of research that more affluent debate programs can devote time and resources to gathering.  I really like debate (at least, I like the version I was introduced to in college, with its emphasis on strong logical argument coupled with polished rhetoric and presentation), and, like with pretty much all the things that I enjoy, I want it to be enjoyed by more people.  Advancing a style that doesn’t carry with it all the extra requirements that spread-heavy debate so clearly does (and which is also, frankly, more engaging to watch) seems like only a good thing to me.

Anyhow, if you want to watch some kids talk absurdly fast, then Resolved can be found on Netflix.  It’s only 90 minutes, so it’s just about perfect for one laundry folding session.

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One thought on “So I Just Saw Resolved

  1. I’m glad you watched it! I did debate in high school and even spent a year as a Policy debater. The HS debate world has tried and tried to replace policy with something which is more accessible and every newly invented form of debate has failed to dethrone Policy. Most recently the NFL (that’s National Forensics League) introduced Public Forum debate. That was my event and I even made it to the NFL National Tournament, the superbowl (just kidding about the name there). It’s a partner debate much like policy but the emphasis is on slower, clearer, articulate arguments. Interestingly, it started as a debate which Ted Turner bought the rights to in 2002. For the first few months it was called Ted Turner Debate and Crossfire after the CNN show Crossfire. Later on, they made it a permanent part of the NFL and named it Public Forum.
    Here’s the wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_forum_debate
    So, yeah, your analysis of an elite system creating barriers to entry is absolutely correct. Policy debate has all the prestige and funding at the few schools that have a history of participation. It’s pretty much impossible for a new school without an established program to compete.

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