The Most Controversial Thing I Ever Wrote, Part Two: By R.L. Stollar
By R.L. Stollar, HA Community Coordinator
“When I heard that CFC was banning the book and telling people not to buy it I raised an eyebrow.” ~An email from a complete stranger, two months after I wrote my most controversial essay ever
I didn’t think it would be a big deal.
I really didn’t.
Which, I know in retrospect, was stupid of me. But, for what it’s worth, my parents — who underwrote my research books each year prior to publication — didn’t think it would be as big of a deal as it was, either.
When I wrote “The Anatomy of the Pedestal” almost a decade ago, for my 2004 research book Uber-Plethora, I wrote it for, not against, NCFCA. I wrote as an alumnus, a current coach, and someone who cared deeply about and for my students, my peers, and my friends — both currently and formerly in the league. I wrote it because, as a 20-year-old relatively fresh out of competing in NCFCA myself, I was worried.
So I wrote about it, with the hope that it could start a conversation among the people I worked with and respected. I wrote about it passionately — which, unfortunately for me, means I also wrote about it in rather dramatic form. I didn’t use as many disclaimers and qualifiers as I do now. But I also didn’t have the knot in my stomach that I have now, the knot that tells me I could “get in trouble” for what I write, even if it is the truth.
What happened, at time, was thus highly unexpected.
People. Were. Outraged.
How outraged? Like “Kill-the-Beast!”-Beauty-and-the-Beast-style outraged.
Communicators for Christ (now Institute for Cultural Communicators) had — for the past three years — carried my research books on their tour and sold them exclusively. Which made sense, because I pretty much spent my entire high school traveling with David and Teresa Moon, the founders of CFC (Teresa also being one of the founding leaders of NCFCA, along with my father and several others), designing their curriculum, and teaching thousands of students speech and debate across the country. I was one of their original student instructors. So it made sense that they’d carry my book.
But now CFC was outraged. They were going to immediately cease selling the book and would tell everyone to not buy it. After a long conversation, Teresa offered a compromise: if we ripped out my essay (as well as two other less controversial parts) from my book and sent them new copies, they would consider reselling it. David Moon from CFC had gone further, demanding that the entire “Sociology of Debate” section get ripped out. It was outrageous, he said, what I wrote. It was inappropriate, out of line, flat out wrong, and could damage the reputation of homeschool debate. But in the end their exact demands were as follows:
“1) Remove The Anatomy of the Pedestal, R.L. Stollar
2) Remove All About Resolutional Kritiks, Stephen Mar
3) Remove references to dating in any bios”
If we would “consider these modifications,” Teresa said an email follow-up to David yelling at me over the phone for two hours, maybe, just maybe, we could “work out the remaining book-selling details with David.”
But CFC was not only outraged party.
Parents starting calling. Parents from around the country. They demanded my parents let them talk to me (even though I didn’t live at home and was 20?). I had some of the most intense conversations (although “conversation” isn’t accurate — they were more like lectures, since I never talked much during them) I have ever had, as parent after parent lashed out at me for saying the evil things I said. I spent several hours listening to one of NCFCA’s leaders (and later one of the founders of STOA) argue that I was making it all up — which was ironic, because one of his daughters was one of the people whose struggle with self-injury inspired what I wrote. But I couldn’t tell him that. And he wouldn’t have listened anyways.
Then there were the emails.
Here are excerpts of one such email I received. This one is from Dorr Clark, who would later serve as the Debate Committee Chairman for STOA :
“There seems to be something capable of offending almost anyone, although I believe that a great many people who could be offended will never see it, and I’m grateful about that…”
“Some readers will be offended by the politics, some by the lack of moral discretion. What is most grievous to me is the carelessness towards the feelings of others, and the manifest ingratitude. There are other emotions on parade as well…”
“I have to believe [Ryan] took his observations pretty seriously; but for me it’s all very reminiscent of that moment when teenagers come to realize that their parents must have had sex, and may still be…”
“I hope for everyone concerned the sales are really, really small.”
So what was it that I wrote, that had my book almost banned and had my words so vehemently attacked and actually censored? That had grown men and women, the “adults” in my life speak down to me (a legal adult) as a child, an evil, rebellious child? What did I dare say, that made a leader in the homeschool debate world wish that a project I poured my heart into failed miserably to the point that I would suffer economically?
Well, it was this, the most controversial thing I ever wrote:
The Anatomy of the Pedestal: A Case Study in Idolatry (circa 2004)
American culture is idol-obsessed. From the halls of Congress to underground recording studios, the American people place heroes and heroines upon platforms and glorify them. It is a trait common to all: every subculture, whether great or small, whether mainstream or fringe, has this obsession. While the majority of U.S. adolescents might idolize Avril Lavigne, Blink 182, and other such denizens of pop radio, the anti-pop movement engages in the same acts of deification. They might denigrate Miss Duff, Miss Spears, and Master Durst, but they do not hesitate to magnify Master Folds, the confessions of a dashboard, or even Miss Björk. In short, American culture is a culture that longs to put spotlights wherever it can.
The two sides of the spotlight
Many Americans want the spotlight on themselves. A brief glance at American Idol will confirm this fact. Something about the spotlight promises that one’s fantasies can come true if one just has enough popularity. One sees this mindset in Hollywood. Even though it has had more than its fair share of rumors, heartbreaks, and corruption, Hollywood has retained a veneer of innocence. It still represents “the American dream,” the dream of driving to sunny Southern California and pulling up to a red carpet. Many Americans retain their Disney mindset of wishing upon stars. They hope for some new “gold rush” — or that their prince will come. And, oddly enough, stardom seems to promise such things — and stardom has no qualms with flaunting this side of itself.
Because of its promise to fulfill dreams, the drive towards popularity has become so intense that most of the U.S. population — while mocking those who succeed — secretly wish to appear on Reality TV programs. Medical professionals even have a name for this drive: “Celebrity Worship Syndrome.”(1) As long as the devotees have their day of fame, they have no qualms appearing the fool. They will air their putrid inner thoughts on blogs. They will pose naked for the public eye. They will even sing at karaoke shows.
Underneath the glamour and glitter of stardom, however, lies a very dark underside. Most people today, when they refer to “the underside,” have a specific economic and/or sociological phenomenon in mind: that of Third World poverty. These people — who are often “liberation theologians” — call the poverty-stricken masses of Latin America, for example, “the underside of history,” because the Latin American poor rarely receive the attention of historians, policy makers, or the media. Instead the world focuses on the grandeur of civilization: its advances, medical revolutions, tabloid rumors of political leaders, and various and sundry world wars. Rarely, though, do newspapers bother to report in depth about “the underside”: the mother who cannot feed her child because she herself has no nutrients in her body and therefore has run dry of breast milk, or the child who has not eaten in days and can see his brittle skeleton pressing against his skin.
While “the underside of history” has this economic and social meaning, it seems applicable to the spotlight of stardom as well. For beneath the grandeur of the rags-to- riches stories, underneath the silk garments and multi-million-dollar homes, lies the grief of humanity. The newspapers rarely portray this grief. It appears now and again, of course: when an Olsen twin acquires anorexia or when Natalie Wood descends into a watery grave. But Americans do not like to discuss these matters. Oh, they love to gossip. It tickles their voyeuristic appetite to read the latest happening or scandalous rumor in The National Enquirer. But they never do this to understand the human beneath the celebrity. They read it for entertainment’s sake and The National Enquirer reports it to sell magazines. For all their railings against pornography’s evils of objectification, American culture at large engages in no less of an evil: objectifying its celebrities.
Occasionally, of course, the objectifying does not bring pleasure. Every now and again a story will “shock.” What this shock does, though, is not create true compassion for those who struggle with a drug or alcohol addiction, family abuse, or suicidal tendencies, but rather it creates outrage. The public becomes disgusted with the “imperfect” lifestyle this or that celebrity lives: when, for example, a celebrity enters a rehab program or fails in a marriage. The public demonizes him or her and suddenly that celebrity’s career is jeopardized: not because the public actually lives a better life, but because the public has not the moral and spiritual depth to know how to understand and tolerate its celebrities’ imperfections. Thus it commits the ultimate hypocrisy: it condemns those who admit to having the very struggles common to each and every human being by nature of his or her humanity.
The spotlight and the forensics subculture
It is of the utmost importance, as we turn our attention now to the forensics subculture, to remember that it is an extension of: (1) American culture at large and (2) human beings specifically. As a result, all of the previous observations regarding cultural forces come to play within forensics. The longing for stardom, the struggles that come with being human, the tendency to either deify or demonize — all of these mindsets and energies manifest themselves in speech and debate. And this applies without exception to NCFCA itself.
Such a suggestion, of course, seems rather shocking. To implicate NCFCA, a Christian organization of primarily Protestant conservative homeschoolers, with voyeurism, idolatry, and demonization, may initially appear audacious. In the long run, though, this implication has no “uniqueness” (as far as debate theory goes). Since the beginning of time Humanity has poked its nose into others’ affairs, even to the point of desiring the same knowledge of good and evil that belongs to God alone. To desire this requires not only an insatiable curiosity but also the hope of being equal with God, a hope of nothing less than idolatry. And the moment God questioned Humanity’s motives, Humanity resorted to blame shifting: Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent. Only Satan himself had the respect and inner consistency to accept his punishment without speaking back.
In light of human history, therefore, it is no great claim that a collection of human beings — in this case, NCFCA — contains voyeurs, idolaters, and banshees. The only other clarification that might be necessary here is that this problem extends beyond NCFCA. As an extension of American culture and a manifestation of humanity, NCFCA is but one place in which the evils of humanity manifest themselves. Other prime areas of manifestation would be you, the Apostle Paul, and myself, for the Apostle said (and I echo), “I am the chief of sinners.”
The infamous pedestal
All of these attitudes and energies appear in debate most notably in a concept known to most every NCFCA competitor yet rarely articulated. The concept itself is numinous: tempting and desirable, yet at the same time fearsome and hallowed. The concept is “the pedestal.” The pedestal is the place of honor. It is forensics’ olive wreath. It is that upon which any god or goddess of this league stands so that others can look at him or her and admire the person’s finesse and expertise.
As such, the pedestal is not primarily for those who win tournaments. Of course, winning tournaments helps one on the quest to step upon the pedestal. But the pedestal is more than tournament conquest. It represents honor, not merely trophy collections. To stand upon it one must first win the hearts, minds, and souls of the NCFCA populace — always the competitors, and often the parents as well. One must have the tact to avoid offending parents, but also the courage to speak one’s mind when necessary. One must play with fire, and yet know when to blow out the match. One must speak with wisdom, while wearing a coy smile. In short, one must be a public master of oneself and be recognized as such by both one’s peers and one’s elders.
The difficulty arises once one succeeds in scaling the pedestal. For suddenly the ground appears very far below oneself and the spotlight shines directly in one’s face. Suddenly one realizes that to obtain stardom in NCFCA is to receive a grave responsibility — and a nearly unbearable weight: that of being the standard of excellence within a Protestant, conservative, homeschooling subculture.
Instantly the shackles descend and, make no mistake, the pressure weighs down heavily. One may be an adolescent, but the subculture ignores this. They reference their mantra: “Do not let anyone look down upon you because of your youth, but set an example…” And this mantra serves many a purpose: it dictates what you can wear even after a tournament, it puts limits on which persons you can befriend, and it has no tolerance for the pains and agonies of “growing up.”
Naturally such a burden is hard to bear. Many have cracked under its weight.
Once this occurs, of course, the gossiping choirs descend. Word spreads like wild fire and one’s reputation can be tarnished in an instant. If NCFCA were large enough to have a National Enquirer, it would seize hold of such opportunities and exploit them to the maximum. Often, though, a newspaper is not required: homeschooling parents do this task well enough. (And if they miss anything juicy, it will at least still surface on Homeschooldebate.com.) Furthermore, homeschooled adolescents are naïve enough either to blindly follow such parents’ leads or to recklessly cheer on “the rebel” without their parents’ knowledge.
The pedestal, therefore, takes on a demented shape to those atop it: the pedestal is that towards which all aspire, and, once conquered, that which all its conquerors long to leap off — yet cannot without great inner and public turmoil. In short, the pedestal is the point of contact between the Protestant, homeschool subculture of debate and the American culture at large: it is the clearest manifestation of the devastating impact of the spotlight of stardom. When Hollywood celebrities suffer their blows, they turn to alcohol, sexuality, or suicide. When NCFCA’s pedestal-ized icons suffer such blows, they often turn to similar tonics.
This, of course, does not surprise anyone who understands human nature and the times. But, oddly enough, it probably surprises most homeschooling families.
Nursing the wounds
The question arises: what can and should one do in light of this reality? Naturally, a thorough answer cannot be given in an essay of this length. But at least a suggestion or two can be made. First, members of NCFCA — and Americans in general — must realize just how devastating success can be. (2) Stardom is no easy cross to bear. The pleasure is but momentary and the effects can last a lifetime. We must constantly keep this in mind as we allow adolescents to engage in the struggle for success. We must be sensitive to their needs and attentive to their cries.
To be able to do so requires that we have knowledge. We must take the time to equip ourselves. Many psychological and sociological accounts exist that explore what impact the debate subculture has on the adolescent mind. (3) While the disciplines of psychology and sociology often discredit themselves with strange conclusions and faulty assumptions, they still can perceive forces at play within a social context that participants in that context cannot. At the very least we ought to allow these disciplines a voice. Then we ought to consider the voice well, with all the talent debate affords.
If the disciplines do perceive well, we must next consider how to heed their warnings. Must we alter our vision? Must we entertain the notion that, in our passion to “save the world,” we are losing the hearts and minds of the next generation by exhausting them? Do we hold our children up to false and dangerous expectations? Do we not express our love for them adequately? Do they feel accepted? Do we give them the room necessary for them to grow up and make the natural failures along the way?
Answering such questions will prove crucial to the health of NCFCA competitors — and in general to the health of all American adolescents. When teenagers today turn to bulimia, cutting, and drugs, and increasingly so, we must stop and ask ourselves: why? And instead of pointing fingers at “secularism,” “Hollywood,” and other such easy excuses, perhaps we ought to aim our fingers at ourselves. Perhaps we ought to wrap our hands around our own necks, and shake out of our heads our preconceived notions. Only then can we look objectively at what presuppositions we bring to the situation. Only then can we answer in all honesty: Are we obsessed with idols, we who claim to believe in a triune God and no other? Do we push our children too harshly in our desire to “raise up” this “Generation Joshua”?
If so, why?
Think long and hard. Put yourself in the shoes of someone in the spotlight.
At what cost the pedestal? A child’s life?
I will conclude with an excerpt from an email I sent to a close friend who contributed to Uber-Plethora and whose essay was also lambasted by STOA’s Dorr Clark. This email, like this controversy, is also from a decade ago:
“if we touch the heart of but one parent, or but one student, we will have done our duty — even if it comes at the cost of a thousand dorrs. at least we’re being honest. being honest — that’s really the best thing we can do…
“i want everyone to know what life is really like. i want these younger ones to know that even the oh-so-impressive [name omitted]s, ryans, etc. struggle. it’s ok to struggle as Christians! they NEED to know this.
“if it pisses parents off, that’s their parents’ loss.”
A decade later, we are fighting the same fight.
End of series.