Friday, 22 November 2013

On Style, Judging and Ingrained Biases

I made a bit of a fool out of myself recently.

Quick situation sketch: I am coaching my former high school for the upcoming Dutch Schools Nationals. This
competition introduced a new judging format this year where matter and manner (content and style) are judged in equal terms (so yes, a victory on style points is possible). My high school team, as well as the debating club as a whole, is majority female.

I recently heard about a study that said that women sound more convincing if they use "evasive language". I also read a related study that shows that women in pop culture make on average longer sentences and use more passive speech. In debating we value people being direct and to the point, as we like people to analytically demolish other arguments.

A fresher girl, 15 years old, made some compelling points in a debate about allowing anonymous adoption. She told me that a child of adoptive parent would be greatly hurt by not knowing who her parents are. The one thing that bugged me during the adjudication was her usage of passive language, and unanswered retorical statements. So during individual feedback I started showing her how to use language far more directly - before stopping in my tracks and realising that my linguistical preference comes from how I was brought up to talk, and how I know that this girl quite likely talked the way she did because of her environment. Indeed, most female freshers in the debate club made the same "errors' in their talking style. However both the fresher guys in the debate and the more experienced girl were far more direct.

I quickly waffled my way out of the explanation and moved on to talk about other points of feedback. Mentally I double-checked and wondered whether it was good advice to ask the girl to change her speaking style for the benefit of a game, and whether I could objectively say that her speaking style was "wrong", and not a result of my own personal preferences.

Holistic judging and the erosion of cultural-linguistical barriers

In parliamentary debate, certainly on an university level, we teach judges to judge "holistically". This means that instead of judging speakers on a range of separate criteria (style a 70, content a 72, strategy a 72) we look at all elements of a speech as a whole, and look at "persuasiveness" as an intuitive mix of logic, emotion and relevance. In doing so, we educate our judges to judge a speech primarily on their content. We think that strategy, style, structure, et cetera are important in relation to the content. So an argument can be made more persuasive if explained really clearly, or if strong examples are tied in to the explanation.

Given we have such a tremendous focus on the content of the speech, this means that trained parliamentary judges forgive errors that laymen find simply unacceptable. Debaters usually speak at higher speeds than average speakers, for instance. We note down the complex logical arguments that people present, and weigh them of to equally complex and interesting arguments. Furthermore, we look very precisely at what was actually said, and judges are trained to not take language concerns into account (so a speaker with impaired English who makes logically understood arguments can win from an argument that is less logically sound, even if it is explained in "better" language).
As a result people whose English would be ranked as worse by many laymen can win from people with better English if their arguments are logically more believable. So our judges are trained to actively discount the myriad of subconscious biases that influence our daily opinion of speech - saying that a team won because "they sounded better" or "they just sounded more convincing" will hold little weight during adjudication.

This judging tradition is something we celebrate, as it gives people from different backgrounds equal opportunity to engage in debate on an equal footing; it is now your smarts and wit that count, and no longer whether you have the best Queen's English or if you got lucky with the development of your vocal chords. The reason for this is incredibly simple: we are all a product of our own unique upbringing and linguistical backgrounds, and thus value different speech styles. It is next to impossible to say that our own subjective speech preference is "correct" or "better", and if we allow individual judges to take their stylistical preferences into account the game would be skewed in favour of people with similar linguistical backgrounds, or people who have a better awareness of the judges' preference. However, the laws of logic are nearly universal (although people can be "persuaded" more or less by similar argument to some extent). Moreover, explaining a call based on the content of a speech means that speakers can reproduce this feedback. Speakers can understand the logic of how their speeches where judged and reproduce that logic for future debates.

The explicit focus on style and the reconstruction of barriers

Having given a defence for celebrating the power of argument, and the necessity of discounting biases, let me make a caveat of using style as a unique detached reason for deciding a debate.

Style as a judging metric related to content is devoided from hosts of cultural assumptions. The questions a judge can ask in this regard are: "did the speaker explain the point clearly, did I understand it immediatedly?" "Did the speaker use any jargon I don't understand?" "Was that example impactful?"
If however you ask a judge to make a value judgment on style that is not necessarily linked to content, people's subsconscious biases may come into play.

My speaking partner has a high-pitched voice. She's a terrific speaker, however, and at the last Worlds she ranked as the highest continental European speaker of the competition. But many new speakers at our society have to get used to the pitch of her voice, and some of them have voiced that she sounds "intimidating" or "shrill". After a couple of rounds of debating they learn to value the arguments she makes, and get used to her speaking style.
The reason they don't like this speaking style is because we have ingrained that it is an "unpleasant" style. But also that there are negative gendered connotations to high-pitched voices. As society used to be patriarchial, women were considered unfit to hold political opinion, so feminine voices were considered unfit to hold serious conversations.

Similarly, when you hear an accent different to your own you may subconsciously believe the arguments to be less strong. Firstly because you find such an accent more difficult to understand, and secondly because you could consider the accent less valid. Even in the Netherlands, a very small country, accents from the southeast ("Limburgs', or people speaking with a soft "G") get pejorative attributes such as "provincial" attached to them.

The most vicious part of these biases is that you don't think about them consciously. You've grown up with these linguistical connotations, so subconsciously you apply them in your standards. Moreover, unless you are explicitly challenged, you will use your preconceptions to continue judging someone's speech. So my partner would probably continue to be looked at oddly by new debaters if we don't learn them how to value her excellent speeches.

And the danger is that being primed to judge on style means that you overcome the content barriers that keep these biases in check. Clarity, structure and examples can be objectively explained as being "good style". Subconscious biases such as vocal delivery of an argument may not. And when you focus solely on style, that is the trap you may walk into.

Similarly, I had to bite back my tongue when I judged my high school pupil. And I have to check myself when I judge another of my pupils with a high-pitched voice, noting that I should pay attention and judge her fairly for the amazing arguments she makes at age 16.


Debate should be valued as a clash of ideas to which everyone, regardless of age, background or gender can freely participate. Careless use of style as a separate judging criteria can however undermine this clash of ideas by a judge's subconscious biases towards a speaker's vocal delivery. Style judges therefore need to pay attention and consciously weed out their subconscious biases. In that way we can love debate for what makes it great.

1 comment:

  1. As far as I'm concerned style is most definitely important in so far as it enhances or limits a persuasive speech. So if speaking on a very high-pitched tone is very distractive and makes judges miss points of your speech, that's a reason to try to change that. If your way of speaking makes your speech more clear and easy-to-follow, that reflects in how judges understand you (and reward you). So if you ask me Daan your feedback wasn't 'wrong' in any sense, it can be very important for people to be more effective at debating. That doesn't mean it SHOULD be like this - but hey, the reality is that some styles are just appreciated more than others.