How Can We Win the Battle for Ethical Debate?

If there is one thing you can be totally confident of hearing at the end of every speech or debate round, it is that question, “how was your round?” A proverbial fly on the wall of the hangout room would assume that contriving unique conversation starters is not something speakers and debaters excel in. It would probably be right. But a more serious trend that should probably leave us all a bit uneasy is debaters responding to that question with some sort of accusation of unethical behavior from their opponent…

I walk away from every single tournament encouraged by the fellowship with my like-minded peers and the deepening of true friendships, but it is disheartening to hear such serious issues discussed so frivolously, as if integrity violations have become normalized. I want to offer you my strongest exhortation to fervently avoid unethical debating in any form that it rears its ugly head.

Let us not forget what unethical behavior in debate is: sin! From misrepresentation to fabricating evidence, breaking the rules is not honoring to the Creator and is wrong. There are many reasons debaters slip into unethical behavior, but I think it is pertinent in this case to call a spade a spade; ethical violations of any kind are wrong. How, then, do we resist this sin?

First, remember that no debate victory is worth dishonoring your Creator. Romans 14:12 describes a sobering scene on judgement day when, “each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.” When you and I are giving an account of everything to our creator, how we represented Him in debate rounds will be a topic of discussion. We should all conduct ourselves accordingly.

I have personally felt the temptation to cut corners in the heat of multiple debate rounds and I can tell you, the temptation is fierce and unrelenting. Let’s be real here, winning just feels really good! As a fallible human myself, the best advice I can offer is from God’s word. I cannot offer a strong enough recommendation to memorize and soak up the wisdom of Mark 8:26, “for what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” Winning debate rounds is nothing like gaining the whole world. And even if Satan’s temptation makes you feel as if an ethical violation is worth the short-lived praise, consider the gravity of forfeiting your soul and pray earnestly for God’s help to resist the temptation. It is simply not worth it.

But sometimes unethical debating arises when debaters accidentally misrepresent something because of laziness or only cursory verifications. I have seen numerous pieces of evidence where a debater uses just a snippet of an article where the author goes on to contradict the contention the debater made. I have been in dozens of rounds where a debater misrepresents an opponent’s argument simply because he or she was not diligent enough in listening to the debater’s own words. And I am not proud to say that I have done both of these things. In these cases, debaters do not actively choose to cheat, but are they not still in the wrong? I personally think this is where we as debaters fail most often. We are simply not diligent enough in doing what is right so we begin to slip into doing what is wrong.

So why do we hear debaters frivolously accuse their opponents of debating unethically so often? There is absolutely some validity to many of these complaints, but should we really be so eager to question our peers’ integrity? Allow me to go out on a limb and argue that sometimes we just like to make excuses, including if that means telling a dozen of our closest friends that we lost because Joe Smith cheated (no disrespect to any readers who may be named Joe Smith). It is ok to lose to a worthy opponent! In fact, some of my favorite rounds in my five years of debating have been rounds I narrowly lost to close friends or just excellent debaters. We should probably all think twice before making an excuse for losing, especially if that is by tarnishing the reputation of our peers.

Do not get me wrong, there is absolutely a place for the compliance team in this league. Some debaters have a reputation for consistently acting dishonorably and there must be accountability if we expect improvement. There are cases when it is right to approach compliance and it is almost always wise to graciously talk to your opponent if you suspect some ethical shortcoming. But honestly search your heart for your motive; if you desire to help your opponent by encouraging him to debate more honorably, go ahead, talk to him and possibly even take the issue to compliance. But do not go to compliance because you think it is your best shot at winning the round and do not go around spreading rumors about the debater. After all, are those things not their own unique class of unethical behavior?

Imagine a debate tournament where every debater only used sources that honestly supported his or her claim. Imagine one where, if a debater was not totally confident about what the opponent said, he or she would clarify it before jumping to misrepresentation. Or one where debaters were willing to just take a loss without making excuses and casting shade on every opponent? How sad is it that such a tournament seems like no more than a distant possibility?

It is excellent to work hard, grow as a debater, and yes, it is great to win rounds! But I think we all need to start debating as if we are debating unto the Lord and as if we are actually interested in His glory. This means resisting the temptation to choose to blatantly cheat, fervently doing the right thing so we avoid deception and misrepresentation in every form, and acting honorably when we are the “victim” of such unethical debating.

Daniel 1:8 is quite the picture of determination. It says that Daniel “purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself.” I will purpose in my heart to fervently avoid every kind of unethical behavior in my debating. I exhort you to purpose in your heart to do the same. And with God’s help, I think we will all honestly be able to respond to that oh-so-common question by saying that the round was good, clean, uplifting, and honoring to God. You might lose more rounds and break less often when you debate with integrity, but as much as those things sting in the moment, isn’t it worth it to know that God is exulting over you for choosing to honor Him?

This article was written by one of our fantastic Lasting Impact! interns. After they graduate, their name will be released. If you are a writer and would like to be a contributor, as a Lasting Impact! intern, please contact-