The Most Controversial Thing I Ever Wrote, Part One: By R.L. Stollar
By R.L. Stollar, HA Community Coordinator
When I prepare to publish something I wrote that I know will be controversial, my stomach clenches into a knot. I feel nauseous and worried. I start imagining how it will be misinterpreted and attacked — and, when I am right, I am right on. I predict exactly what will be said and the tone with which it will be said. Which is always discouraging, because — as a trained communicator — I try my best to anticipate controversies and nip them in the bud. In fact, I’m almost neurotic about that. I have a tendency to pad my writings with qualifiers and disclaimers like a worried mother might pad her kid for its first day of street hockey.
The thing is, I revel in provoking conversations and breaking down assumptions. I have always tended to fight the status quo and to question the toed lines. But at heart I am a peacemaker. I don’t shout “fire!” in a crowded theatre when I see no fire. I am motivated by love and compassion for my fellow human beings — particularly the misfits and the disenfranchised. When I am outraged, I am outraged by dehumanization.
I wasn’t always plagued by a stomach knot before I published something controversial.
That knot only started growing about ten years ago.
Because ten years ago, I wrote the most controversial thing I have ever written.
In 2004, I was a junior in college. I attended a conservative Christian college in Eugene, Oregon — Gutenberg College, a classical, Great Books school with a heavy emphasis on exegesis of the Bible and the canon of Western Civilization. At the time, I considered myself a conservative Christian. In fact, after a long bout with depression the previous summer, I had recently recommitted my life to Jesus. I was also still involved with NCFCA through occasional coaching and the research books I did each year — the Plethora Series.
I tell you this background because I need you to understand the context in which these events occurred. I was a conservative Christian; I loved NCFCA and — three years after I was a competitor — was still heavily involved because of my love for it; I was attending a conservative Christian college.
I was a far cry from the proverbial soul lost in college.
I made the mistake of speaking up when I saw a problem.
Every summer, I created research books for NCFCA debaters. (And keep in mind that, ten years ago, there was only one homeschool debate league — NCFCA. STOA had not at this time split from it, as this was half a decade before the Great BJU Protest of 2009, when competitors, alumni, and coaches protested holding the NCFCA National Tournament at BJU on account of the university’s history of institutionalized racism.) I called my book series “Plethora,” in the sense of overabundance, because these research books contained an overabundance of evidence for policy debaters — at least in my mind at the time. Being the typical homeschooler nerd, I named the books after the Matrix series for the first three years: Plethora, Plethora Reloaded, and Plethora Revolutions. In 2004, the fourth year, I ran out of Matrix titles to copy, and we had just read Nietszche at Gutenberg, so I called the fourth book Uber-Plethora. (The final year’s book was The Last Breath of a Dying Plethora.)
In the months before I began working on Uber-Plethora I had recently learned about the scope of self-injury among some of my students and friends in NCFCA. I had been thinking about my own experiences in NCFCA and touring with CFC, and trying to process — as a Christian — the incongruity between the pressures and values of the league’s high performance culture and Christian love and compassion. I had also been out of homeschooling for three years, attending college, and had become particularly fascinated by the study of sociology. The concept that, even in NCFCA, sociological forces were at work was game-changing. It was helpful for me to understand how something like self-injury, or any of the problems I was observing, could occur in a Christian homeschool debate league.
I made the mistake of thinking people would listen.
Plethora had always been a different sort of research book. We never were strictly an “evidence book,” giving debate students nothing but evidence. I prided myself on the fact that Plethora included analysis of the topic and provocative essays by debate coaches and competitors from around the country that challenged how we thought about debate strategy and theory. I wanted to promote new ideas, to encourage dialogue about controversies, and include a diversity of voices.
My experiences with Plethora were, in a sense, a lesson in organizational strategy that would foreshadow HA.
Plethora would foreshadow HA in more ways than one.
In 2004, for Uber-Plethora, I had a fire in my heart. And I wanted to take Plethora’s value of thinking critically to a new level. So I included a brand new section. In some ways it wasn’t new: the values that influenced it were always there. But what was new was that I asked fellow debate coaches and alumni of NCFCA to use what they learned from NCFCA to think about NCFCA.
Why? Because as an NCFCA and CFC alumnus, a coach, a Christian, and someone with many of my best friends in NCFCA, I cared about NCFCA and I hoped that, by having these conversations, we could make NCFCA better.
We called the new section of the book, “Towards a Sociology of Debate.”
Here’s the introduction to that section that I wrote:
Towards a Sociology of NCFCA Debate
Rarely do we ask ourselves what psychological or social impact speech and debate might have on adolescents. Of course we know the usual list: better articulation, better research, better cooperation, and so forth. But the activity has become so much more than speech, evidence, and teamwork. Ask anyone who competes today and his or her reasons for competing will differ widely. Most likely one’s answer will be about socialization or about the ideological mindset that sees forensics as part of apologetics or cultural redemption. Few nowadays perceive the activity as purely post-motor-skill enhancement.
These perceptions, consequently, give rise to certain questions: What is the relationship between a purely academic exercise (such as debate) and the culture in which one engages in the exercise? How do our preconceived assumptions enter into debate? How do they shape our expectations about the activity’s results? Why do adolescents behave how they do once they enter the activity?
In recent years people have given significant attention to such questions. Primarily, though, this attention has come from non-NCFCA, non-homeschool circles. For example, Gary Alan Fine analyzed primarily the debate culture of the National Forensics League in Gifted Tongues: Highschool Debate and Adolescent Culture (Princeton University Press, June 1, 2001). Deborah Tannen explored American culture at large in The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue (Ballantine Books, February 9, 1999). It seems, then, that our culture — mainly a Protestant, conservative homeschool community that adores speech and debate — ought to put its own self under the microscope and analyze itself in similar fashion.
To aid in this task, we have included — for the first time ever in an NCFCA source book — a collection of essays that begin this process. Jonathan Wolfson, for example, discusses how debate can be used in non-academic situations: in college, for example. Joel Day argues that, if one has participated and learned from debate, one brings into the “real world” certain powers that consequently come with certain responsibilities. Kirsten Flewelling shifts the focus from society at large to individuals specifically: how does success in debate impact the people who succeed? Lastly, R.L. Stollar explores NCFCA’s tendency to have false expectations and how these tendencies can be detrimental to the health of its members.
Our hope is that these essays will spark further interest in the relationship between debate and society. We have merely scratched the surface in this book. There is much more work to be done. We urge you to consider the issues explored in these articles. Do not critique them superficially. Think about what they suggest and ask yourself how you, your club, and others ought to act in light of the material presented.
We pray that what we have contributed will serve you, your clubs, and humankind beyond our inner circles. And we look forward to continuing these studies further.
I don’t think it is necessary to tell you that we did not continue those studies. I probably don’t even need to tell you that our essays sparked no further interest at the time in the relationship between debate and society.
But what I need to tell you is a lesson in anatomy.
The anatomy of the pedestal, to be precise.
Because “the anatomy of the pedestal” was the title of the most controversial thing I have ever written.
And I wrote it ten years ago for Uber-Plethora.