The decades-long Intersociety Debate held between the University of Georgia’s Phi Kappa and Demosthenian Literary Societies is dead and done until at least fall 2022.
The rivaling literary societies have removed the debate from their 2019 intersociety agreement due to an inability to come to a mutually acceptable compromise over the amount of times members can compete, marking the first time in 28 years the organizations have not upheld the tradition.
In practice, the intersociety debate is a measure of which society is the best in oration each academic year. A fundamental notion to understand, however, is the differing perception of the debate in each society, said Phi Kappa First Assistant Manav Mathews. While Demosthenian views the tradition as a way to train new members by providing an opportunity to practice prepared speech, Phi Kappa treats it as a competition to put its best speakers forward.
Every four years, the chief and associate justices of each society re-ratify an intersociety agreement that sets forth plans for future intersociety meetings, debates, the rules for each event and a breach of agreement for re-ratification. During the fall 2019 renegotiation period, Demosthenian approached the chief justices of Phi Kappa with a request: establish limits or rules against repeat speakers, or the society will not continue the debate into the future, Demosthenian Chief Justice Jonathan Shelnutt said.
Phi Kappa was “not prepared” or “willing to accept” the idea of setting a limit on the amount of times speakers can participate in the debate, Phi Kappa Chief Justice Matt Aldridge said.
In attempting to meet down the middle and preserve the tradition, compromises were presented on both sides. Phi Kappa suggested capping the amount of times veteran speakers can participate to two or three, but Demosthenian “refused,” according to Aldridge. Demosthenian suggested giving priority to new speakers or forming two separate intersociety debates — one with entirely new members and one without. Phi Kappa told the society it wasn’t “interested in anything except for the status quo,” Shelnutt said.
“We don’t have a junior Super Bowl and senior Super Bowl in pro football,” Aldridge said. “There’s one Super Bowl to determine who the best team is.”
Running out of “great compromise options,” Shelnutt said, Demosthenian determined it would “prefer to do it with an organization which was more interested in what we were interested in doing.”
A laudable rivalry
Though the growing contention over establishing a limit emerged within the past decade, the rivalry between Phi Kappa and Demosthenian is one of the oldest in the South.
A band of former Demosthenian members dissatisfied with the society’s structure and proceedings established the Phi Kappa Literary Society in 1820 at UGA. A “laudable rivalry” — according to language used in a Senatus Academicus meeting from 1820 — was then born.
Both societies signed a treaty to outline intersocietal relations and “preserve the mutual friendship” among members during the year of Phi Kappa’s establishment. The treaty established binding terms of “amity and respect,” forbade the “illiberal and scandalous” abuse of opposing members, addressed the punishment of members who eavesdrop on the opposing society and prohibited each organization’s expelled members from joining the other.
Phi Kappa quickly grew to around 125 members within its first year. In 1863, however, mass student enlistment during the Civil War left the society with only five active members, leading the society to disband until 1866. The society would disband and reform two more times before re-establishing in 1991.
Phi Kappa’s membership fluctuated during the 2000s, Shelnutt said. When the society dwindled to around 15 members in 2009, it became “unfeasible” for Phi Kappa to develop a new five-person team against the 50-person Demosthenian society every year.
Phi Kappa’s returning speakers became a point of contention as the society grew over the course of the next decade, and “it was no longer necessary for them to use the same people over and over,” Shelnutt said.
But if the entire idea of the debate is to grow as logicians, societies shouldn’t view repeating speakers as a problem, Aldridge said. Aldridge is not convinced Demosthenian simply views the debate as an opportunity to grow its speakers.
“If you were to go to their Wikipedia site today, you would find a long, very elaborate spreadsheet of the previous ISDs and their outcomes, which I think speaks to the fact that they honestly value this thing as a competition and not merely as an opportunity of growth for their members,” Aldridge said.
‘A little bit of myopia’
The intersociety debate’s year of establishment is unclear because dates were documented in handwritten minutes “that have been largely lost to the ages,” according to Phi Kappa Historian Chase Duncan.
A form of competitive debate between both organizations has always existed. The debate wasn’t referred by its current name until Phi Kappa’s refounding in 1991.
“There’s a little bit of myopia here — this is a long-standing tradition between these two organizations on campus, and to throw the whole thing away for this one issue is probably not in the best interest of either society,” Mathews said.
Though Aldridge sees a future where both organizations can renegotiate the terms of the debate, he doesn’t think “there will ever be a time where Phi Kappa agrees to simply banning all veteran speakers from competing.”
“We’re very disappointed that we won’t be having an ISD with Demosthenian at all this semester, but that’s obviously not more disappointing than it would be to ban our own speakers from competing to accommodate Demosthenian’s interests,” Aldridge said.
The 2019 renegotiation period was not entirely fruitless. The judicial council added a provision that allows future justices to amend the document outside of the renegotiation period, which the traditionally rigid language of past agreements did not allow. This gives judicial councils the power to renegotiate the intersociety debate on terms that are acceptable to both societies, Shelnutt said.
Shelnutt said there are “no hard feelings” from Demosthenian’s side, and the society is interested in continuing its rivalry and positive interactions with Phi Kappa.