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@The Arts Unit Art Bites – High school debate club – 08. With Tony Davey

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TONY DAVEY: Hey there. So today, we're going to talk through debates about affirmative action. There are lots of these kinds of debates, and they come in lots of different forms. But basically, these are debates where we say there is a group in our community who is disadvantaged, and the affirmative tries to intervene to improve equality and help that disadvantaged group in whatever field they're disadvantaged in. So there are lots of different topics where that's the basic premise of the debate. We're going to go through some tips on how to handle that now.

OK, so the debate starts with a particular group who's disadvantaged, right? Maybe it's going to be women, so it might be because of gender. The groups might be united by race or ethnicity, so maybe Indigenous Australians is common in the topics that we set. It might be that these groups are disadvantaged because of their religion or their sexuality. All those kinds of things might be things that distinguish a group that is experiencing a disadvantage.

OK, so the premise of these debates is that this group is somehow disadvantaged in a particular field. So the field might be-- it might be something like sport, or entertainment and the arts, it might be something like politics, so maybe there aren't enough women in politics. It might be academia. It might be that they suffer some disadvantage in the legal system, like the way Indigenous Australians are over-represented in prisons. So it's about thinking of what the field is that we're talking about and talking about why that group is disadvantaged in that field.

So the affirmative wants to intervene to fix this disadvantage, right? And there are lots of different ways topics might set this up. One way might be quotas, right? So a quota just means that the government says, well, you can't do this thing unless you have at least this many of the disadvantaged group involved. So you might have quotas for women in parliament that say, all right, no more parliament unless you can have 50% women and men because we're sick of women being disadvantaged in parliament.

So quotas are one way to ensure that you're fixing this kind of disparity, but these topics often are also about things like banning categories, like stopping people from separating boys and girls sport or banning gender categories at awards nights, those kinds of things. They're often about giving tax breaks, maybe, to different disadvantaged groups. Really, it's when there's any kind of action designed to improve equality for a certain community group.

All right, when you're in one of these debates, there are typically three different questions that you're juggling. Not three different arguments or three different sections, they're more like three different balls that you're going to have to be juggling together all at once. But here they are basically.

The first question that is really important in the debate is what's the nature of the disadvantage that this group is suffering? Maybe a catchier way of putting that would be is there a problem? The next question you're going to be dealing with is what would the impact be on this disadvantaged group? A catchier way to put it might be would this fix the problem?

And the last question you're going to be dealing with is what would the impact on the field be, right? So not what would the impact be on women, but what would the impact be on politics? Not what would the impact be on Indigenous Australians, but what would the impact be on our legal system-- those kinds of questions.

So let's begin with that question of whether or not there's a problem. I think it's helpful to start with what the negative says about this, and then we'll get into the affirmative. The first thing the negative might think about trying is just saying there is no problem. There is no disparity. There are just as many women or men or whatever.

That's typically not a good idea. In fact, that almost never works unless the other team has screwed up. The whole point of the topic is that we wouldn't set it if there weren't some kind of disparity worth investigating. I think the only instance I could think where this might work is where the affirmative have completely screwed up and misunderstood what's going on.

I remember we once set that we should require primary schools to hire equal numbers of male and female teachers in, unfortunately, it was a final or a semi-final. And the affirmative got up and said it's a disgrace that there are so few female teachers in our primary schools. And they went on to lose that debate because the negative was able to say, look, there's actually not a problem the way you're talking about. There are heaps and heaps of female teachers in primary schools.

But generally speaking, this won't work. It's just a bad idea to say there is no problem. There is no disparity.

The next option the negative could try-- this might work sometimes-- is to say, look, there is a disparity, but there's a natural reason for it, right? It typically works when you're talking about fields that aren't as important as things like politics or employment. So maybe if you're talking about sport and entertainment, for instance, you might be able to say, look, there's just a natural reason why women prefer to play netball and not to play rugby.

It's the sport they grew up with that they loved. They quite enjoy being away from macho, idiot guys who ruin the game, and they're really competitive. It's people they grew up playing against. So there's a reason that they're opting for netball and not for rugby. It's not because there's some kind of massive problem. It's just what they choose to do.

Or maybe, for instance, if we gave you a topic about requiring there to be more female sports commentators, there's probably a natural reason why there aren't as many female sports commentators on male-dominated sports, and that is because, often, those commentators are ex-players, right? So it's quite difficult to break into that commentary circuit unless you are a player, so there's a pretty natural reason why we don't hear that many female commentators, you could argue. Not necessarily my position if you're asking me.

So that will maybe work. But honestly, it's not a great position either. To be clear, for instance, it's not OK to say having a baby is a natural reason why women are disadvantaged in the workplace because they keep taking time off, right? The natural disadvantage can't be something that we as a society think is a really, really good thing because it stops our race from disappearing from the planet of the Earth, right? If they're providing a service to the world, you're not going to get away with an argument that says they should be disadvantaged because of it, so this is quite a narrow option as well.

The very best thing the negative can try, the best approach is to admit that there is a problem, but that it's largely historical, that it comes out of our unenlightened past, that we used to be idiots about this stuff. And so the disparity is still lingering, but we're well on our way to fixing the problem. So they're not saying there is no problem in this lack of equality. There isn't a problem in the number of women in parliament and so on and so forth.

They're saying, yes, there's a problem, but it stems out of the past, and we're well on our way to fixing it. So they're saying the nature of the problem is one that's really already passed. So the negative can talk about things like recent shifts in attitude. They can point to recent examples of progress, like female politicians that they know who are becoming more and more prominent.

And the most important thing to do there is to talk about age barriers to participation in different fields. So for instance, if you want to argue that there's a reason that there are so many men on the High Court of Australia, you might say, look, it takes a very, very long time to become a male High Court judge-- or sorry, any High Court judge, right? You've got to go through law school. You've got to do your 20 years of practise. Then, you become a judge and so on and so forth.

So people sitting on the High Court right now were starting their careers back in the '50s and '60s when, of course, we know there were problems with women getting involved in the law. Now we don't have those problems. We're going to see more and more people coming through and becoming judges as women. Does that make sense?

So you point to the fact that there was an historical problem, and we're still seeing the results of it. But we're fixing it. And we're well on our way to getting equality.

OK, the affirmative, obviously, then, need to shape their attitude to the problem like this. They need to say, no, this problem isn't fixing itself. This problem is somehow structural, or it's systemic. So they need to point to things in the system that mean it's really unlikely change is going to happen naturally without us getting involved and doing the thing in the topic.

So they might talk to things like old boys clubs, the fact that like boys are out there just hiring whoever went to their school. And that makes it really hard to break into a certain job opportunity or a certain field. They might talk about stereotypes. So there are the obvious ones, like negative stereotypes, that people look at someone and say, no, you're not qualified for this because I think of you this way without any evidence.

But also, stereotypes can be more subtle than that. It might just be that, at the moment, when we picture a politician in our mind, for instance, we picture an old white guy. So it never occurs to us to look for maybe a woman of colour as a politician. I mean, it does, but we're less likely to picture that. And also, for that woman of colour, maybe they're less likely to imagine themselves as a politician when they're growing up, so there's a structural reason we're not seeing those women in politics.

Also, employers are really likely to do things like employ people who look like young thems, right? They're familiar with those people. They're comfortable with them. So they're really likely to pick them for the job.

And also, there might be more concrete things in the way, like those having babies that I talked about earlier, or maybe levels of education. So there are lots of things the affirmative can point to say, no, no. It's a structural problem, not one that's going away.

So that's the first kind of clash in the debate. The negative are going to say things are getting better, even though we still see some disparity. And the affirmative is going to say, no, there are structural obstacles to things getting better, so we can't just sit back and wait for everything to become equal.

So now, let's look at the arguments around whether or not the affirmative's proposal will fix the problem. So the affirmative need to argue that their quotas or their cancelling of categories or whatever it is that they're going to do to advantage their disadvantaged group in whatever field it is, they need to argue that it will make a big difference and that it will bring about, first of all, change, but also acceptance of that change. So firstly, the affirmative are going to say, look, we're fixing the problem because we're doing this massive intervention that will literally and mathematically fix the problem because they're actually requiring there to be, at least mathematically, equality. So that's one thing that they're going to talk about, the fact that they're fixing the problem simply by bringing in lots of the disadvantaged group and getting rid of that advantage.

But they need to do more than that. So they might talk about the fact that once those people are in those positions or established in that field, the others will become more familiar with them. They'll realise that it was silly that they were biassed against them in some way beforehand, right? Maybe an old male politician was saying to himself, oh, I really don't want a female colleague because I'm worried that every joke I tell now is going to seem sexist. But then, you make them work together with a female colleague, and they realise that their jokes are kind of OK anyway. The really sexist ones, they shouldn't have been telling. So they get used to the idea that they can work with these people. It's not so bad.

The other thing the affirmative can talk about is role modelling, right? So they can say, look, it's really hard for very young people to imagine being a politician, or a sports star, or whatever it is if they can't see the grown up version of themselves on television. If every politician looks like an old white man, it's hard to be like a young Indigenous girl and imagine yourself up there as prime minister of Australia. So it's another thing that the affirmative can point to, this idea that if you can see one, you can be one. So that will bring about long-term change, right?

And the other thing that they can point to is that because there are more people in whatever this field is now, they're now more likely to promote people who look like them. So there's this added layer of extra avenues to get into the field because now there are, for instance, women doing the employment in this field, and they're more likely to look at other women and say you're a viable candidate for this job.

The last thing that you're obviously doing on the affirmative is you're sending a really strong message to society that this disparity was not OK. It was so bad that we've stepped in and fixed it because we won't stand for inequality. So you send a really strong, broader message, right?

What's the negative going to talk about? The negative are going to say that change won't work because there's going to be a backlash, that people are going to resent the people who suddenly turn up under this new rule, that they're going to think they're unqualified or that they got the position unfairly, and that everyone is therefore going to hate them. So the first thing they're going to say to them is some version of, look, this person was just parachuted in, and therefore I'm not going to listen to her when she speaks in Cabinet because I don't think she deserves the job anyway. So they might just ignore the new people because they don't think they've earned their positions.

They might also say to themselves, look, this is unfair because this person was not the best person for the job. I happen to know the guy who missed out on this job because she got it, and she only got it because she's a woman. And therefore, I resent her, and I'm not going to work with her. There's going to be a backlash.

Another thing that the negative might point to is that the people from the community who did work hard and did eventually make it in this field against the odds, that they're suddenly going to be devalued as well. People are going to forget all the work that person did and just say, ah, they're just there because of their identity. They didn't earn that position, right?

They'll also say on the negative that becoming familiar with a different group might actually harden your position on that group. Remember that male politician who found out his sexist jokes were OK? It's probably more likely that their biases came through.

They told a sexist joke. Their female colleague pulled them up on it and said, hey, that's not OK, buddy. What the heck are you doing? And they got called in front of a sexual harassment board or something like that, so that actually hardened their attitude towards women in the workplace rather than them becoming familiar and learning to work together.

The negative are also going to say that this is going to feel tokenistic, right? It's going to feel like we're just adding a couple of people from this disadvantaged group, whether or not they're qualified, just to make it look good, that it's window dressing. So that's something else they might point to.

And I suppose the last thing they might point to is that this plan will send a really bad message about the disadvantaged group, a message that basically says something about them means they can't make it on their own. We've got to give them a leg up, right? So for instance, if the debate was about giving sentencing discounts to Indigenous Australians-- a really, really interesting topic-- the negative are going to say that this sends a message to already racist people that there's something about Indigenous Australians.

They can't stop themselves from committing crimes, and therefore they're going to be more and more racist, and that's a terrible message to send to those people. So we might send the message this group is incapable of achieving in this field without our help. They're just as inferior as I thought they were. So those are the kinds of things the negative might talk about.

One last tip for all of that argumentation-- it's really good if you can talk about the disadvantaged group, both in the field that is part of the topic, but also in the broader community. So don't just make arguments about how this will improve women's standing in parliament or women's standing in the workplace. Make arguments about how it will improve women's standing overall or Indigenous Australians' standing throughout Australia. So talk more about progressing the cause of equality on both the affirmative and the negative. Don't just talk about within that specific field.

OK, the last thing that you need to argue about in these debates is the impact on the field itself as opposed to the impact on the disadvantaged group. So this is a somewhat less important question. Obviously, equality is really, really important, so minor impacts on the field might cause might not be that big a deal in the debate.

But you should notice if you win a debate about how this would be really bad or really good for the field, then that's likely to impact on that earlier question of whether there'll be a backlash or not, right? If you can prove that the sport is going to go to heck or something like that, it's much easier to prove that there's going to be a backlash against the disadvantaged group. So this is still an important question in the debate.

When you're up making arguments about the impact on the field, this is a good moment to remember that you should make both principled and practical questions. So if you're intervening in government, for instance, it's worth asking yourself both, first of all, will we get better or worse laws? Will this improve governance? So that's a practical question.

But also, would this be democratic to somehow prefer these people, rather than just letting the people themselves make their choice? So make both principled and practical arguments. In sport, for instance, you might make arguments about whether the sport will thrive or not-- a practical argument-- but also, a principled argument about whether this would be fair or part of the values of that sport to do this to the competition.

So the affirmative are basically going to say a few things about how this is going to be good for the field. The first thing they're going to say is that having a diversity of voices making laws or making decisions is generally considered to be a great way to run a government or a business or anything, right? Maybe if you're in government, and you've got lots of different diverse voices in there, they're more likely to come up with better laws or see where a community has been neglected and legislate to help them out so that those diverse voices mean we get better governance.

That's also true in companies, if that makes sense. So if you're in a company, and you're selling products, but you're a board of white guys, and it only ever occurs to you to sell those products to white guys, having lots of diverse people on the board might mean you see new markets and new opportunities so that your company thrives.

And of course, if your company is thriving, then it's going to be really hard for there to be a backlash. Shareholders aren't going to say to themselves I still hate that there's a woman on that board. They're going to say to themselves, oh, awesome-- lots and lots of money. So it is an important argument to be having.

What's the negative going to say? Well, there are a few different ways the negative can show that this will impact badly on the field. One of the things they can say is that the people who've been brought in under the quota system or whatever it is are going to be so busy keeping their job and trying to stay in there that they're not going to make any difference. They're just going to go along with everybody else. So for instance, the girls are going to be working so hard to seem like one of the guys and not a 'B' word that we actually won't see any kind of improvement.

There are also arguments, for instance, in sport, about how it might wreck the game or make it unfair. So what's an example? I remember when I played AFL 9s, we had a girl playing for us who ended up playing for the GWS Giants. And the rule was when girls score, they get double points.

It was designed to make it fairer for girls and get more of them involved in the game. But it ended up wrecking the game because all anyone would do on our team was just try to get it to her, and then she would kick a goal, and we would win by like a million points. So it can wreck the game, interfering in this kind of way.

The negative needs to be careful about this last one. It also works to say that you're not hiring the very best people for the job, but not if you say it like that. So you don't want to say something like, also, you're not getting the best people for the job because there just aren't enough qualified women. Not true-- terrible thing to say.

But you can get away with saying you're hiring people too early, people who would have been great if you'd let them go through their apprenticeship and do all that lower-level learning they should have done. But because you're bringing them in when they're not quite ready, that means that they're less experienced, and they're less likely to do a good job. Does that make sense?

OK, so that's everything we wanted to tell you about affirmative action debates. Of course, really, the stuff we've talked about will be useful in any debate where identity is a central issue. Or to put it another way, in any debate about things like race, or gender, or religion, it's worth thinking about all of the things that we've talked about.

So hope that was useful, and I hope you enjoyed hearing about things like race and gender from a very old white man. Cheers. We'll see you next time.

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