Language, cultural and religious discrimination in debating: an empirical study

Gemma Buckley
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Following a large scale survey of debaters from around the world, in a discussion of the findings as well as the author’s own observations, this article explores the question of bias and discrimination towards debaters from different national, language and racial backgrounds.

I was incredibly excited to debate at my first Australasian championships in 2009, hosted by Monash University. After successfully making it into a team for the first time –  with Meredith Prior and Melanie Tedja (an exchange student from the University of Indonesia) – I was ready to work hard and do well. The fact that many members of my club presumed that Melanie’s ESL status would hold her and us back simply inspired my team to try even harder. With a positive outlook and feeling confident about our preparedness, we entered round 1. This was the first of many rounds that tournament where Melanie’s ESL status was mentioned explicitly in either the judgement or personal feedback we received, with many adjudicators saying that they simply “couldn’t understand anything” she had said, and so found it “difficult” to give us a decisive win, or a win at all.

English is Melanie’s second language, and certainly at times she may have spoken with imprecise language or a noticeable accent, but never did those things make the quality of her analysis impossible or even difficult to decipher. At the time Melanie was on an AusAid scholarship to Monash and was entrusted by the university to teach undergraduate students (like myself) with no concern for her language capabilities. Neither my teammate nor many of our fellow debaters had ever experienced difficulty in understanding her. It disturbed me to see that judges would use occasional mistakes as a justification for ignoring perfectly sensible argumentation.

Events such as these underscore the prevalence of discriminatory attitudes towards non-native English speakers. Increasingly attuned to these biases, I began to see the same pattern repeat itself at subsequent tournaments I attended. I was finally compelled to write this article as, many years later, I saw the very same justifications used against ESL speakers at this year’s Australasian debating championships.

What follows is a culmination of my experiences on the international debating circuit over the past five years, as well as those of many others who were kind enough to take part in an online survey. It is my hope that it will inspire you to reflect on your own experiences and do something.

What do I know?

Throughout September and October I undertook a survey of the international debating community relating to the question of discrimination in debating. Statistical results and anecdotes provided in free text responses are featured throughout this article (statistics are represented as rounded percentages). In order for you to appropriately contextualise the results I have undertaken to provide an overview of the demographics of respondents, however if you wish to find additional information, a full list of the survey questions and results can be found here: www.monashdebaters.com/mdr-survey.php in the New Year.

Thanks to the power of Facebook and the hard work of many friends the world over in sharing the link to my survey – entitled “Experiences of discrimination in debating” – we had 1022 respondents. Of those respondents 61 percent identified as male and 38 per cent as female. 55 per cent of respondents identified as native English speakers, whilst for English as a second language (ESL) and English as a foreign language (EFL) it was 31 per cent and 12 per cent respectively. There was a wide variety of nationalities represented (35 to be exact), with significant regional diversity. 38 per cent of respondents were from Asia, 31 per cent from Oceania, 17 per cent from Europe (Incl. Israel and Turkey), 10 per cent from North America and 4 per cent from Africa. Unfortunately there were no respondents from the Middle East or South America. It should also be noted that most of the survey questions were optional so the number of respondents who answered each question differed.

What is the problem?

I began this process with a feeling of discomfort at many of the things I had witnessed over my years in international debating, but with a lack of clarity about exactly what it was that made it far easier for some to win than others, in spite of their actual performance. As a result, the scope of the survey was broad, asking respondents to consider issues of race, religion, ethnicity, nationality and language status (the survey explicitly instructed individuals to avoid considering issues of gender and sexuality1). Cumulatively the survey results seemed to provide an answer – survey respondents generally believed that all of those characteristics appeared to in some way correlate to your chances of success, some more than others. The most prominent explanations were positive discrimination in favour of individuals from generally Western and internationally successful institutions, and negative discrimination against those from non-Western and/or smaller or less successful institutions. The stereotypes regarding ‘successful’ and ‘unsuccessful’ were closely linked to actual or perceived ESL and/or EFL status. Survey respondents in general believed that ethnicity, nationality and/or race were less likely traits to attract discrimination than language status, however there was a significant minority of individuals who expressed concern over the treatment of religious, particularly but not exclusively Islamic, debaters.

How bad is it?

33 per cent of survey respondents said they had personally been the victim of discrimination based on the characteristics outlined above, which increased to 40 per cent when looking specifically at ESL respondents.

When expanded to ‘witnessing discrimination’, the number reached 46 percent of respondents. The most commonly described examples were:

  • Racist language and/or jokes in debates or at socials.
  • Judges giving unfair or poorly explained decisions, explicitly or perceived to be, on the basis of immutable characteristics.
  • Adjudicators complaining about the quality of their debates, conflating ‘ESL debates’ with ‘bad debates’.
  • Teams dismissing outright, or giving insufficient response to, teams of an ESL or EFL background.

Over 65 per cent of those surveyed stated that they heard about instances of discrimination as described above. There appears to be little doubt that this is a widespread problem. Indeed 71 per cent of respondents agreed that tackling issues of language, race, ethnicity, and religious based discrimination should be a high priority for the debating community. Both ESL and EFL respondents largely agreed that this form of discrimination ranked as a primary concern for the debating community. Indeed it was ranked as the highest of a number of priorities, including gender and sexuality based discrimination, by 45 per cent of ESL respondents and 73 per cent of EFL respondents.2

Interestingly, for native English speakers the number one concern was gender based discrimination, with 33 per cent ranking it first over the 24 per cent who ranked language based discrimination as the top priority. This difference in priorities may have a number of explanations, including that discrimination against women is worse or more noticeable on native English speaking circuits, that native English speakers are more conscious of gender discrimination, or that native speakers are simply less likely to prioritise tackling language based discrimination given it does not harm them personally. Regardless of the explanation for this disparity, it highlights the importance of educating the broader debating community about the severity of this problem, through continued research and dialogue.

What does it mean?

The first, and by far most undesirable, outcome of discrimination in debating is that it skews the results of debates. As this survey and the anecdotal evidence provided within suggest, even the most well intentioned judges can be guilty of letting teams get away with glib responses to the material of ESL/EFL speakers, or making insufficient efforts to look beyond insubstantial language errors when making an assessment of the logic of arguments. In an activity that is based on rationality and logic, and intends to reward merit, it is unacceptable that irrational factors may ultimately determine the winner. As debaters, we spend a lot of time talking about equality and critiquing ‘broader society’ and ‘government’ for discriminatory policies, but it seems we struggle to recognise those same problems when they plague our own house. In society your gender, race, religion, socioeconomic status and culture (including your language abilities) all determine how easily your voice is heard, but for debating to remain an activity worth dedicating significant time and emotional and physical resources to, it should aim to rise above those things – to be better, to be fairer.

This type of discrimination also changes the way that individuals debate; it makes people more wary of taking a stance that, for example, positively depicts religion or uses non-Western examples.3 Recently myself and another Monash debater were lucky enough to do some training for university debaters in Uganda. In the course of discussion she said something that stuck with me: the amazing thing about debate and the way it forces you to take two hard-line and oppositional stances, is that it ensures that all possible opinions are countenanced and nothing is taken as a given. Only through participating in such a discussion could we then truly reach a well-informed and meaningful opinion. Perhaps that view is overly optimistic, but I believe that the power of debate is certainly in the diversity of opinion that it promotes and the way it forces people to engage with arguments and concepts and examples they may never have otherwise. That power can only be fully realised when individuals are not afraid to speak up and make arguments that fall outside the current ‘conventional wisdom’, wisdom that is often incredibly Western-centric. Unfortunately discrimination against people of particular religious or cultural backgrounds and the persistent focus on ‘Western liberal democracies’ serves to narrow the scope of debate and in doing so fundamentally undermine its aims.

Finally, there is an insidious social division that is created by the kinds of discrimination previously described. Over 50 per cent of ESL and EFL survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed with statements about feeling intimidated by and looked down on by native speakers and claimed to find it difficult or embarrassing to socialise with individuals from different cultural or language backgrounds. Again these statistics are supported by anecdotal evidence, with many respondents telling stories of being asked to leave ‘white’ room parties or being told that as an ESL speaker they “didn’t belong” there. As long as this continues it is unlikely that most participants will get to take advantage of the unique opportunity debating offers of getting to know and become friends with people from all over the world.

How do we solve it?

There is no doubt that the international debating community must take some action in response to language, religious and race based discrimination. Tougher than reaching agreement on the need for action is determining what should be done and by whom. I am of the opinion that every person involved in the debating community has an important role to play.

For the purposes of discussion I will divide relevant actors into three broad groups: authority figures (tournament organisers, equity teams, adjudication cores and peak bodies), those directly affected (anyone who is the victim of discriminatory behaviour) and bystanders (everyone else). I will look first at how we can attempt to prevent this behaviour in the long term and then at how we should respond in instances where discrimination does occur.

Prevention

Few of the survey results shocked me; one major exception was a set of comments repeated by a number of respondents in response to the question about whether being white makes it easier to win a debate. An argument that was consistently made was that language status or perceived language status was a significant factor in the likelihood of a team’s success, a non-controversial contention on its own. However, most went on to suggest that that was reasonable given debating is a public speaking exercise and command of the English language is important to persuasion. It is that sentiment that I think is reflective of the very mentality that underpins the discrimination discussed earlier – the idea that by simple virtue of you being an ESL or EFL speaker/team (often equated with geographical origin/race rather than an accurate assessment of language capabilities) you are less capable than a native English speaker/team.

In response to the same question, many respondents also identified positive bias based on the reputation of the institution a speaker originates from, suggesting that it was far easier to win if you came from Sydney, Oxford or Harvard etc., regardless of your actual performance in the debate. In my experience that is certainly the case. At the Australasian championships last year my team was awarded a decisive victory over a team from a small Asian institution which I can only assume was based on the preconceived expectations of the judge, given it certainly was not reflective of the debate that actually took place.

There are two serious problems here. Firstly the fact that debates are being essentially prejudged, and the secondly the conflation of strength of vocabulary and quality of analysis and logic. Should these issues remain unresolved ESL/EFL teams will never do as well as they deserve to and the fairness of debating will remain in question. The good news is that this can be changed.

Firstly, through the leadership of authority figures, especially adjudication teams. It is essential that briefings address these issues. Of course it will take some time to convince biased judges that an ESL/EFL team can be competitive with a team from a leading Western institution, but providing some guidance on how to assess language difficulties would be a good place to start. Right now the usual instruction is that you have to “try your best” to understand what is being said by a speaker with language difficulties. Often that instruction is not followed by teams or adjudicators, who continue to dismiss the contribution of non-native speakers with a simple “I didn’t understand anything they said”. More problematically, I believe the instruction misses the point. The aim should not simply be to understand the words being said by a speaker, but rather to evaluate the underpinning logic of their argument and the evidence they provide. So long as quality of argumentation is seen as synonymous with having the most three syllable words in a speech, then it will remain a competition of language proficiency rather than a debate, and it will remain a competition that systematically excludes ESL and EFL speakers.

Telling people to think differently about debating is one thing, but actually showing them how to is much more important. As such, an increased focus on teaching adjudication is necessary to resolve this problem. This is something that individual societies and circuits can certainly improve, but something that tournaments also have an extremely central role in. In recent years there have been many laudable initiatives, such as adjudicator seminars leading up to a tournament and compulsory one-to-one training for trainee adjudicators at tournaments, and it is critical that those things are institutionalised as the norm. However, in my experience the biggest issue lies with mid-tier adjudicators, who are often less experienced individuals from successful debating societies and right now are the ones entrusted with watching debates that most often include ESL/EFL teams and speakers. It is much more likely that someone in that position will make the mistake of equating proficiency of language with good argumentation than somebody who is older and more experienced. For that reason it is incredibly important that those individuals are given the chance to receive feedback on their judgements from senior adjudicators (on panels) and concurrently that the best judges are more actively rotated through the tab.

I know there is some controversy surrounding that last suggestion – I have heard people say that getting the right results in the open break is “more important” more often than I care to count. That sentiment is inadvertently created and propagated by the treatment of ESL and EFL finals as some sort of sideshow to the main event, something that tournament organisers can and should change.  Simple actions like giving the finals of each equal billing and not publicly describing ESL finals as the chance for everyone to “go and get some food before the next final” would be a good place to start. The reality is that the achievements of ESL and EFL teams are equally impressive, regardless of the fact they end the rounds on fewer points than the main break teams. The common view that that suggests and inferiority of those competitions ignores the incredible difficulty involved in debating in a non-native language. I think it is useful for all native speakers to consider how competent they would be at participating in such a quick thinking and speaking activity in a language other than English and then ask themselves again how ‘inferior’ the ESL and EFL breaks really are. Many modest changes to the way tournaments are run could go a long way to changing the mindsets of individuals, and ensuring that in the future more than a handful of native speakers show up to support those talented individuals who represent the best ESL and/or EFL speakers in their region or the world.

Further, in order to make the outcomes of debates more fair, adjudication teams should consider setting fewer Western-centric topics. 50 per cent of survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed that judges tended to prioritise Western examples and material in their assessment of debates, which speaks to either a problem of their own bias or an issue with the Western focus of topics (or more likely, a combination of both). The trend of teams choosing to contextualise debates in ‘Western Liberal Democracies’ is one that inadvertently serves to punish speakers from non-Western backgrounds, and thus should be curtailed. It needs to be considered more accepted that motions may get set in the developing world. In the same way that non-Westerners are expected to be experts on America and Europe, so too should Western speakers be expected to be able to debate about the rest of the world. To the extent that individuals have insufficient knowledge, topic setting should help to prompt individuals to educate themselves appropriately.

Whilst those in positions of authority have significant power to prevent discrimination that certainly does not mean everyone else is powerless or guilt free. A consistent theme of survey responses, and something that I have witnessed for years, is the social division between the members of prominent successful native speaking institutions and those from smaller, less well known and often ESL/EFL institutions that characterises international tournaments. Many non-native speaking respondents expressed their discomfort or feeling of exclusion in social situations. Debating already suffers from a degree of exclusivity and this continues to be exacerbated by prominent individuals and societies choosing to simply opt out of socialising with anyone outside their clique, by, for example, skipping all tournament social events in favour of room parties with their own.

This kind of behaviour not only makes people feel unwelcome and often prevents them from returning, but it also means individuals from different backgrounds do not meet and become friends and learn to respect each other’s talent in the same way as they do with individuals from their own circuit. As Kate Falkenstien’s article in this volume demonstrates, regional biases seem to regularly be at play in adjudication decisions, and thus more interaction between different circuits would not only be enjoyable but could also help to ensure fairer decisions.

Moreover, it is the responsibility of every person to make efforts to end the pervasive norm that equates ESL and EFL with ‘bad’. That includes intervening when people make derogatory comments about watching an ‘ESL debate’ or other statements that degrade and devalue ESL and EFL speakers. 32 per cent of survey respondents admitted to having, intentionally or not, behaved in a discriminatory way. Acknowledgement, as they say, is the first step to recovery, but it is important that this is followed up by consistent effort to stamp out this behaviour in others and in ourselves.

Further, participants need to avoid falling into to the trap of presuming that once someone is ‘good’ they are no longer an ESL/EFL speaker. When Melanie represented Monash she was asked by members of our club not to register as an ESL speaker as it would ‘reflect badly’ on us. The implication of this request was that the ESL category was reserved for people who could not possibly go to Monash University. Similar comments were made to me about a number of ESL and EFL speaker award winners over the past few years. The fact that you are impressive enough to be great in spite of the barriers you face does not mean you are any less deserving of the recognition of the existence of those barriers. The continued presumption that you are less deserving or there is cap on how good you can be before you are no longer ‘really ESL’ will make it incredibly difficult to fight the association between non native status and inferiority.

Finally, it is critical for the ongoing prevention of this type of discrimination that those who are the victims of it come forward and talk about their experiences, along with those who witness it. It became clear in the process of doing this survey that many, particularly native speakers, did not believe language/race based discrimination was a problem in the international debating circuit. It is incredibly difficult to garner public support for measures like those outlined above if there is widespread ignorance of the existence and severity of the problem. The best way to rectify that is for people to talk about what they see or experience, as difficult as it may be. In the final section below, I will suggest a number of things that could serve to make this process easier.

Response

All the undertakings to prevent discrimination against non-Western speakers, whilst being necessary and useful, will not change the minds of all biased individuals. As such, it is important that tournaments and the debating community as a whole respond decisively to discriminatory behaviour when it occurs.

Of those who reported that they had been a victim of discrimination, a mere 13 per cent reported seeking help from tournament equity officers or adjudication core members. Those who chose not to come forward cited reasons such as:

  • Believing those individuals had more important things to worry about/it did not warrant reporting.
  • Being afraid of the embarrassment or potential repercussions of coming forward (many explained that the ‘perpetrators’ had been on, or closely associated with members of, the adjudication core).
  • Having concerns about their capacity to ‘prove’ what happened.

This is a startling statistic and suggests that current measures are insufficient. It is clear that tournament authority figures need to make an active effort to create an environment where people are comfortable coming forward and action is taken. Over 50 per cent of respondents who did seek out official assistance reported being unhappy with the outcome, suggesting that penalties were rarely applied. It was widely felt that perpetrators of discrimination ‘got off scot free’. One survey respondent praised the actions of a particular Australs adjudication core member who, upon being asked by a judge to “stop watching ESL rooms”, told that adjudicator that such a request was unacceptable. The judge was demoted from a chair to a trainee for subsequent rounds, and the respondent reported being amazed that such an action was taken. Rather than being an anomaly, it is important that this kind of response become the norm. There is nothing more demoralising for a victim of discrimination than to see the person go on to watch top rooms and break with seemingly no consequence for their bad behaviour. This perceived (and actual) lack of recourse ensures people do not come forward when they face discrimination, thus continuing the cycle of underreporting that obscures the severity of the problem.

Another critical change that equity teams in particular need to make relates to their immediate response to complaints. A significant number of respondents agreed or strongly agreed (32 per cent of ESL and 48 per cent of EFL respondents) with the statement “you were told that discrimination was being used as an excuse for your/someone else’s poor performance”. The default presumption must change from a mindset that says non-native speakers are worse at debating and use discrimination as justification for their poor performance. The presumption should instead be that there may be legitimate grounds for a complaint, and as such all complaints warrant follow up.

Conclusion

As I near the end of my competitive debating career, I cannot help but reflect of what an amazing set of experiences and opportunities this activity has given me. None of what I have written above should be taken to mean that I regret my participation, or that debating is unfixable. However, I do believe it is incumbent upon every individual who feels lucky and privileged as I do to make an effort to extend that feeling to as many people as possible. There is no doubt that as it stands, individuals from a non-native English speaking, minority cultural, or religious background do not have the same chance to achieve and feel the sense of accomplishment they deserve. This is a state of affairs that we should all regret and commit to change.

*I could not have produced this article without the help of Amit Golder, who was instrumental in the creation and analysis of the survey, and Melanie Tedja, whose many wise words over the years inspired me to do this and whose assistance with the article itself allowed me to come to the conclusions I did.

  1. Whilst it is obvious that these are concerns, I felt that there was sufficient publicity around them and others who had taken on the task of investigating these issues – as seen in other contributions in this edition of the Monash Debating Review.
  2. A full list can be found at <a href=”http://www.monashdebaters.com/mdr-survey.php”>www.monashdebaters.com/mdr-survey.php</a>
  3. This will be discussed in more detail later in the article.

Published by

Gemma Buckley

Gemma has just completed a Bachelor of Arts at Monash University. She is the former President of the Monash Association of Debaters, as well as an Australasian debating championships runner up and top 10 speaker.