Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Policy Debate and Race: No Defense

Policy debate's focus on race has attracted some media attention.

The Atlantic ran an article that wondered if the way that winning debaters were interrogating the question of institutional racism, or white privilege, was doing harm to debate.

Not far behind, the blog Powerline argued that yes indeed, from their point of view, these changes to debating - performance, poetry, rapping, and angry swearing about time limits - are indeed a threat to the advantages of debating, such as logical thinking.

The response from the policy debate community so far has come from Dr. Ede Warner, who argues in a blog post that, yes, there is white privilege in policy debate. He argues that he will unpack debate historically to show that black people have always had to break the rules in order to succeed at debate.

While I have no doubt that there is merit to Warner's claim, what we have is another example of debate's inability to defend itself from people who are not grounded in debating.

Both the Atlantic piece and the Powerline piece, in different ways, accept the idea that debate contains and is possibly construed via white privilege. The Atlantic interviews a critical race theorist. The Powerline bloggers happily admit that college has always been a place of white privilege, and therefore debate probably is too - but for them there's little impact to this: "so what?" they write.

What both articles are concerned with is whether or not this method of getting to white privilege  in debate is worth the cost of harming or damaging debate and its myriad benefits. This is where both the Atlantic and Powerline are inviting the debate community into a conversation. Instead, they get nothing.

I will never understand why debate professionals and former debaters have such trouble defending debate itself. Perhaps it's a part of the history of debate that Warner does not unpack. There was a time, probably close to when the Powerline authors were debating, when debate required no defense at all. It was a part of any communication program. Examining issues of the Journal of the American Forensic Association from the 1960s - 1980s and you find many advertisements for graduate programs. Debate was a pipeline into rhetorical and communication scholarship. It needed no defense.

Now communication departments are far more diverse in background of the faculty and objects of appropriate research. Debate is no longer an obvious part of a communication department. And we still do not have an adequate defense of it to provide to those from outside a debate pedigree. Although many conferences have been held since the 1970s, and the turn toward representation in the humanities, every conference on debate since Sedalia has been thwarted by its own positivist outlook. We cannot stop believing in our own tournament winning strategies. Until we distance ourselves from the tournament governing our discourse, debate is in jeopardy.

The tournament has us. Warner's defense begins with an explanation that the essay will use the method that was taught to his debaters. Although this technique and pedagogy is admired within the debating world, and probably has great success (the impetus for the articles being written was the dominating success of non-traditional African-American teams) it generates arguments for the tournament, arguments about the presence of white privilege in debating, something that both articles accept. The rush to the familiar tournament logic trumps other forms of engagement, forms that both articles are ready to accept. But in a world where listserv disagreements often proceed line by line, and interlocutors accuse other participants in the discussion of "not answering" other participants, it should be very clear that we are always already mired in the debate tournament rhetoric.

In order to engage with those outside of the debating tradition, we need a rhetoric of debate. We need to be able to articulate, explain, and defend the practices that we engage in for the broadest audience possible. The reason being is that decision makers - on longevity of programs and funding - read publications like the Atlantic. If there is no defense coming, there may be no funding coming. And no matter how saturated with privilege debate might be, I doubt anyone wants to see it fade away. Creating a divide between tournament debating and arguing might be a good first step. What works at a tournament will not necessarily work outside of it. Why? Because of the demands of form, situation, and audience - in short, the rhetorical tradition.

As a start, let me borrow an example from Warner's essay - the example of the character of James Farmer in the hit film The Great Debaters. At the conclusion of the film. Farmer offers a personal narrative from his experiences in the south as an argument in his final speech to win the debate. Warner interprets this scene to be evidence that Farmer had to break the rules in order to win a debate - proving the dominance of white privilege in debating.

I suggest that we read this scene as Farmer exploiting the ancient rhetorical theory of kairos, or opportunity lodged within the temporal. Kairos is when the speaker recognizes a moment in time where the inappropriate ontologically becomes the appropriate politically. Farmer knows what to do, and what not to do - and he chooses to tell a personal story rather than make a traditional argument. I see this moment as a place to engage both the Atlantic and the Powerline and remind them that debate is a place for rhetoric, for human communication, for human contact, and the development of it.

Here is our kairotic moment - engagement with the media. These are not opponents, and do not require a line by line response. There is no ballot. What is at stake is the legitimacy, in the media and to the readers of these pieces, of the method, art, or procedure of debate as a pedagogical contribution. They are seeing tournament debating and not getting it. If we had a rhetoric of debate that could distinguish between tournament debating and argumentation, that would be a great way to approach the media.

I am not saying that what is going on inside policy debate is somehow bad or wrong. What is happening in policy debate now? How is it different than the activities of Bobby Seal, patrolling the corrupt police in order to call attention to how laws are enforced? What about the arguments of either Ralph Ellison or Richard Wright, two authors who bent the rules, possibly broke them? And their arguments were found persuasive, sound, and yes, even logical. But we would not be able to find the object of their arguments without their seizing of an opportunity to use the rules as a platform of investigation. Most notably here is Malcolm X, who claimed his experience in debating in prison gave him the insight into rules, how they functioned, and how audiences of different races responded to different rhetorical approaches. Breaking the rules? Hardly. Making the rules? Possibly. Exposing the arbitrary nature of the rules? Definitely. But debate, like any other form of communication, can hold those rules in suspense and highlight them in ways that are particular to that form - and seeing it from outside might not make much sense. Legal reform, for example, might begin with something procedural - something most people would feel is a waste of time, or boring. But the change to the entire operating procedure of the court might allow access to a discourse for many who were left out by the designs of power. This is the advantage of being able to explain explanations meant for a limited, specific, and very small audience to a very large one.

It might not look like debating should look, but who is to say what debates should look like? Is a trial a debate? An appellate court? A congressional hearing? Who got to decide those? Who gets to decide what policy debate looks like? Oh, history? Who wrote that? Who decides what gets remembered? And who is in charge of the forgetting?

Debate changed massively with the introduction of switch-side debating. And counterplans. And paradigms. And utopian counterplans. And PICs, and Critiques. And it continues to change. Why? Because it continues to push against its own limits to derive value. It always has. The Powerline essay accepts this - the challenge of debate was not the following of the rules, but the pushing up against them with logic and worldly experience that made it good. If it was merely rule following, why such admiration for their coach?

Warner believes policy debate, and black debaters breaking the rules has been going on for hundreds of years. But policy debate has not been around for hundreds of years. What has been around for hundreds of years is people from different experiences, different approaches and thoughts, and different levels of privilege interrogating why things have to be a particular way. Policy debate - the kind defended by the Powerline blog - is a result of the methods that Warner is defending. That is, without changes and challenges and pivots off of and to the rules, none of us would have the debate experience we treasure and value. This recognition, this kairos, can only come from a distancing of oneself from what works at a tournament. Today's tournament innovation is tomorrows hilarious van-ride humor. If you don't believe me, pick up an old debating book from 70 years ago. Read passages of it to your team mates. You'll see how fragile our best ideas will be in another 70 years. But this is the beauty of debating.

Atlantic, Powerline, and CEDA/NDT all care about the value of debate. But without new techniques of investigation, debate will not be able to provide the type of challenge that makes people want to return to debate. That value though must be rhetorically constructed each time. It cannot be good enough that it won a round or a tournament. That isn't good enough, especially when those outside can easily read that victory as evidence of an activity in decline, or ripe with political dogma.

At the same time, being able to explain the value and nature of the process to those outside of debate requires a turn away from the tournament. Developing a rhetoric of debate requires a place for the tournament, somewhere between examination and thesis, somewhere between advocacy and theater. It is not enough for arguments to win a tournament, the winning of the tournament via those arguments requires an explanation to those on the outside.

Policy debate is undergoing a huge self-reflexive and critical examination. I wonder if those in policy debate will also see the kairotic moment to construct a defense of what they do for the outside. Powerline and the Atlantic seem ready to dialogue. Are those of us who take debate seriously ready to leave competition behind, sit down, and explain what we have here? Or are we just going to continue to use casefiles written for competitions when we choose to engage with those outside of debate?

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Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Parachutes are not for Reasonable People

JGSDF parachute(696MI)
JGSDF parachute(696MI) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sorry for the delays in posting, I've been very sick, and finally just getting this one out. More to come, more frequently, especially during and after the USU Nationals this weekend.

I love learning something new. 

Upset after losing a debate that he "shouldn't have," the debater comes into the tab room to tell the CAs about a terrible chair. At the end, he requests a "parachute."

I'm still quite new to BP, and my experiences so far in it have not given me any indication to think that BP, as it was characterized to me years ago, corrupt and filled with manipulation of the tab to get the "desired" result - that result being the teams that are supposed to win appear near the top. I get judge rankings, and I understand why they exist. But nothing had prepared me for this. A parachute is a request for a judge that "gets BP" for a team that is not doing "as well as they should be doing" in the tab.

It seems reasonable to assume that a competition decides who is good or bad on that particular day. But if one has a positivist conception of "being good" - that it is out there and attainable at all times given one's skill - then parachutes make sense. We can't have reality manipulated. Debate tournaments are meant to expose the properties we know are deep in the minds, brains, hearts, etc of those "good teams" or "good speakers."

So it was met with shock my equating "parachutes" with "tab manipulation" - for the tab had already been "manipulated" because a "good" team had been hurt - they were not where they "should" be.

If one takes the Aristotelian view, that excellence (Gr. Arete) is not an act, but a habit - one finds a very different view. One could certainly not be excellent after just one action. One has to cultivate it, work on it, dive into it, practice it. It's something one does, not something one is. And it's always up for grabs. This is the spirit of competition, that makes tournaments challenging and fun - that you could really lose or win it all.

But in the debate universe it seems enough that one was a World's semifinalist, or a champion, or even if they do very well at certain tournaments for them to be able to request alterations of reality. When a team requests a parachute, they are requesting the poor judge - a judge they are calling bad at the total act of judging - be assigned to other teams in the tournament. Seems a bit contradictory to me. Why would one want to be a champion of a tournament where the other teams you might compete against were chosen to meet you in elimination debates by "bad judges?" It is definitely not the Aristotelian view of excellence. It is the view of debating elites that their valuable property has been taken from them by some lower form. Justice requires the returning of their stolen property.

Debate creates some of the most committed positivists I've ever met. They believe good is a property that once earned, it's yours. It's not something that is determined by situation. They believe particular arguments are good - like magic words, when they are uttered, the spell is cast. Speaker, audience, and situation do not matter. They also believe that speaker scores can be known outside of any context: "82? I've never spoken an 82 in my life!" If you are good at arguing, you are good at arguing. Period. Not much space for the fluid nature of things in this worldview.

This perspective is dangerous in the extreme, and things like parachutes - apparently commonplace enough to where nobody bats an eye at such a request - are a threat to debate's legitimacy.

The notion of parachutes reveals another side of the rhetoric of the reasonable person, that of smokescreen for a vanguard presence in BP debating. Under the rubric of reasonable person, both in the meta and the micro, a vanguard of elitists can comfortably hide, trading spaces on the board in an eternal lateral competition to see which of the chosen will emerge on top this week. This process must necessarily remain invisible at the same time that it is apparently transparent. The CA system, and the emergence of things like parachutes - meant to ensure the vanguard’s membership roles are maintained - are systems of power maintenance that exclude those that don’t meet the requirements already being designated as “good” by an accidental system of privilege mixed with some luck and some ability.

Parachutes are the privilege of an elite class, who really "get" debating, and painfully have to suffer through preliminary rounds on their way to the coronation. For it's ok if they lose then, because the other teams present also "get" debate, and they are worthy. The vanguard is always crowned a victor, and the membership gets to universally celebrate. Parachutes are the police, the justice system, meant to right wrongs done to one's personal property - being good on the tab. They are meant to make things right again.

Some might say that parachutes do not do any active harm to the tab, and, on the contrary, positively repair injustices done in the tab by judges who don’t know how to judge BP. Parachutes do active damage to not only the tab of the tournament where they are deployed, but they do damage to debate itself on the meta level.

If we assume that parachutes are only deployed in situations where the judge is objectively bad - or bad in the opinion of the vanguard on the basis that they “don’t know what they are doing” - the parachute moves this judge away from other vanguard teams and into the realm of the teams that are not vanguard members. This serves to create artificial ballast for the vanguard at that tournament. 

Additionally, if the judge was truly “unreasonable,” that judge should be removed from the tournament or given some guidance on judging from the tab. Perhaps that judge could be placed as a wing with a CA for instructional purposes. This would not happen in most cases, because the judge is probably reasonable - just not “debate reasonable” - the judge does not think in the way that the vanguard thinks about debating.

This also actively removes a “good” judge from a room they were assigned to, and places them in a room to support a team that “needs help.” This skews the rotation of the judges, taking away one that the CA team agrees is good and giving that person to the team that they all agree is “good” - or at least, better than the results so far would indicate.

A tournament has plenty of wiggle room for the “bad call” - although most of the time I would argue the “bad call” is anything but that. Often, we find a “bad call” lining up against our (dangerous) expectations as to who “should” win a particular matchup. This upends the entire idea of having a competition - if the teams that are perceived as good can walk into a tab room and ask for a parachute, why are we wasting so much time on these tournaments? We could just start them at the semifinal, after the registration concludes.

On the meta level, the reasonable person standard, what makes BP attractive, powerful, and enjoyable, is eroded by parachutes. There is no such thing as a “good” team being harmed by “bad” judging - either the judge is unreasonable and cannot judge anymore or needs assistance, or the judge does not judge in the manner ascribed by the vanguard. This choice of identifying the judge erodes the idea that reasonable people are the paradigm for judging. It is possible, and it happens all the time, even at high levels of government that reasonable and well-informed people - often times experts - disagree on a decision or on a call. But this does not mean that the next meeting is populated with people who see the world your way. Any organization that ran its meetings that way would not last long.

If a team is doing very well in a competition, and they are doing better than they are supposed to be, why do CA teams not issue “lead balloons” - assigning a poor judge to their next room to ensure that their performance matches up to expectations? (There is no doubt I would abuse this request for my teams, if I felt they were hitting a streak of luck). Actually, the effect of the policy of the parachute is to do just this - condemn the rooms without name recognition or vanguard elite membership at the competition to cycling through the supposed bad judge round after round. This is a fake tournament, meant to distract the plebeians while the “real” teams deal in "real" arguments, at their cocktail party before the final.

Defense of a vanguard is setting up a dilettante organization in BP tournaments where self-reflexivity on argument quality is minimized, and most concern about argumentation is the judge being in harmony in his or her RFD with the key changes suggested by the speakers. They develop a hyper-inflated view of "good argumentation" that in reality only appeals to a very narrow-band audience of people. Contrast this to the reasonable person standard of judging where teams must be incredibly self-reflexive about argument selection and development, where an elite interpretation of the motion is not at play. Teams under this rubric have to consider and reconsider what it means to be reasonable, in many different situations. They can never be comfortable saying "this argument always wins." This is healthy. This produces a capacity for critical judgement. There is little capacity for critical judgement engendered in an event where one continues to make boutique-style arguments in front of a very limited, and selective audience of experts. One might win the tournament, but at what price? 

The reasonable person standard is in line with all argumentation theory and research done since 1950. The parachute vanguard mode is old philosophical understandings of argument, pre-World War 2. The idea that one can summarily dismiss the audience because one's arguments are "right" is what a parachute is. This sounds painfully out of date in a postmodern, postcolonial, hyper-individualized world where we have access to vast amounts of information. 

Parachutes save the vanguard, but what about the reasonable person? The most valuable aspect of BP has been its tie to the non-expert, non-professional audience. Constructing and supporting a vanguard - the ones who "know" - gives us the servile audience, or the student audience. If one is placed in a position of "knowing less" or being beneath someone's brilliance, one listens to that speaker differently. The reasonable person standard is meant to check this - it's meant to ensure that all speakers must notch what they say against a universal audience (in the Perelman & Olbrects-Tyteca sense) the reasoning that would be acceptable to good minds, not to a specialized elite, or an expert.  This puts the judges where they should be - arbiters. This places teams where they should be - appealing to the judges. Once you start making distinctions during the tournament about whether one team can actually be beaten or not, that is the end of the reasonable person guideline. 

The vanguard see themselves as reasonable, but they see their way to it as the only way to be reasonable. There are many approaches to evaluating an argument. We can revel in this, study it, and reflect on it, or we can try to stomp it out and homogenize it. Tab manipulation, parachutes, whatever you want to call it eliminates a very large portion of how to think about persuasion and arguments, delegitimizes competitions, and spells the end for BP as an inviting and engaging format. 
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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Should We Have Two Different Divisions of British Parliamentary Debating?

Power in international relations
Power in international relations (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This recent article in Foreign Policy is about the insular nature of international relations departments, and how there are two default tracks within those departments. Some departments try to encourage more outreach or impact by indicating tenure standards that look to see if the faculty member's work has had "real world impacts." The issue is that many foreign policy experts are perceived to have very little interest in talking to foreign policy makers.

This makes me wonder if it would not be productive to have two tracks for debate - one for those who just like to debate internally, and talk to one another, and another track for those who want to influence the decision makers and influencers in the world.  If we think of our tournaments as the places where we do our work - much like the university is for the professoriate - how are we doing at reaching those who want to benefit from the expertise we are developing in competition? Similarly, it seems to me that most debaters want to talk to other debaters about their argumentative insights.

We could create two tracks, or two divisions within tournaments. The two tracks would have different judging standards. One would be judging by and for debaters and debate audiences, where the motions will encourage the technical moves and argumentative tropes that debaters love and appreciate, pegging the value of these speeches to debate itself. This is the status quo at most tournaments, so it wouldn't require much alteration.

The other division would feature a radically different judging pool, one that incorporated people other than successful debaters to judge the competition. People from various agencies and other avenues would be recruited to help judge debates, and the debaters would try to adapt to the types of arguments that these people would find persuasive. This would have to happen quite quickly. Or perhaps the judges could have a non-traditional briefing - a Q&A - where they ask the judges what sort of things appeal to them. This could take the shape of something like a voir dire process, such as they have in American jury trials, just to see what the potential jurors' thought process might be like.

It might not solve the problems with debate running off into some cloistered corner of argumentation, like it tends to do when formalized into a competition. The new and strange division would most likely generate a large amount of text through discussion and accounting of various strategies that worked or didn't work in front of particular judges. And RFDs would relate much more to audiences that are outside of debating competitions rather than inside.

You would definitely see the premium on really bombastic or extreme arguments fall away in favor of something more nuanced and incremental. I am not certain I like this possible outcome. There's something very productive argumentatively and pedagogically about principled debate, which I think is at its best when a team takes a very hard line. Now, it is true that a "very hard line" is a rhetorical construction, and it would appear to be different things given the contingent nature of the debate, the motion, the speeches of the other teams, etc. But I don't think that external judges would be very interested in hearing debates that center around whether or not an opening government team would "also support policy X" where policy X is something completely outlandish but logically follows from the principle that team advocated. This might be a dealbreaker for some, as there are great competitive and pedagogical benefits from this norm.

There would be substantial debate and discussion about how to form the judging pools. This would probably rage on in some circuits, but eventually it would have to be tested to see how it worked. Most importantly, and also most controversially, this would probably put an end to our marathon debate tournament scheduling - no more four or five rounds on a Saturday. The sort of people we would want as judges simply would not be able to invest that amount of time all at once. Perhaps we will see debate competitions shift to more local venues, occurring over several days or weeks. Or things could shift to a smaller amount of rounds, held with larger planned breaks between them, keeping the break stricter.

I am not sure exactly what it would look like, but the idea is a very appealing one. This way, people could move back and forth between divisions as they see fit. People who like good debate can be in the debate-oriented division. People who want debates that appeal to a variety of different audiences can be in the new division. I believe nobody will stick to just one for too long - the temptation to try out a different style will have some appeal. It is the cross-fertilization between divisions that will generate some great benefits both for the development of argumentation and the development of a broader type of persuasion.

The reasonable person standard is quickly evaporating, being replaced with a standard that is more in line with something from the positivists - arguments are good that reflect external, eternal standards of what a good argument should do. People incorporate theorists such as Aristotle and Stephen Toulmin, who are writing directly against this concept, as those providing the theoretical support beams for this theory. It's totally bizarre. This suggestion means a return to a more rhetorical conception of argumentation and less a positivistic one. The incorporation of audiences that vary and attend to issues unmarked by the particular perspectives debaters bring to them help us return to the productive and quite right shift from positivistic conceptions of argumentation to the audience-centered theories of argumentation developed in the post-war years. This will help orient debating toward the work being done by contemporary argumentation theorists, who are conceiving of how argument works in courtrooms and legislative bodies worldwide. It's a good connection to establish, and one that mirrors some contemporary (and very highly respected) departments of international relations.
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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Debate's University Role

My public speaking class has not been doing a very good job with a recent assignment, and I can't find many resources to help them out.

The assignment seems easy to us - find an article that makes a claim that you think is ridiculously wrong. Prove to the audience how wrong that claim is by taking apart and analyzing the arguments of the article. They are allowed to do research on their own to debunk the claims, but I'm not such a fan of straight debunking - I want them to talk about the problems with the belief in general.

Many of the students have been using anecdotal evidence as an attempt to argue against research studies - "well everyone I know isn't like that, so the study must be wrong." This is, of course, not an answer to a research study. I've also been suggesting that moving to the realm of the political is a good way of dealing with serious studies - placing the results in conflict with our deepest principles is a way to get the audience to ignore the power of the study - "Does this study mean we need to require people to take drugs even if they choose not to?" Putting things in the terms of freedom or free choice vs. medical necessity or fact is a good way to get the power of the scientific research diminished.

I did some looking around on the internet, maybe not the best or most thorough research, and all I was able to find for students are guides to ensure that they are choosing good sources for their own research - the traditional "tests of evidence" we might call them in debate or argumentation studies. There are no sources out there for students to help them generate arguments against good research, or how to create doubt as to the credibility of a study they might have found that goes against their thesis.

A guide to crafting good arguments, or refutation of good points, is a pretty big lacunae in the educational support materials of the university. This is exactly the sort of gap that the debate society or debate team could fill.  The debate society could produce a series of short videos on how to address gaps in the invention of argument. Students might find tons of information on how to support claims, but might be very intimidated with the idea of how to engage or disprove claims.

I've been thinking and collecting ideas on how to convert a debate team into something internal from something external. The realities of university finances, the continued mounting pressure on university students to be in class and the demands of poorly thought out course design, as well as the increasing problem of poorly managed tournaments that are little more than a thin veneer for a social club necessitate those who care about debate to think of alternatives to the tournament-driven model of debate we are currently bound by.  Thinking of the debate team as an undergraduate research program, teaching people how to understand and engage with serious scholarly research is one way, and a way that I believe will be very persuasive to university administration.

What would this intervention into research assistance look like? Perhaps the materials will involve the following:

1. Discussion on Burkean circumference - how to magnify or reduce the impact of competing claims.
2. Perelman & Olbrects-Tyteca's notion of dissociation - how do we rhetorically create distance and peel arguments apart from one another.
3. Burke's limitations on debunking - how proving something wrong by eliminating all of the fundamental conditions for the position to exist is never a good way to argue against something
4. Distilled guides as to how social scientists look at research - what are the elements of a good study, and how do social scientists argue against a study in the literature or at a conference?

This would be good for the debaters to review, as is the case in tournament competitions, these things are relatively automatic and uncritically applied or used by debaters. They often do it well and smartly, but there's no time to really reflect on what they are doing and why. It would be a great resource for faculty who are often not taught how to teach things like engagement with ideas - they just learn it for the specific requirements of publishing in their field. It would increase peer learning, something that all universities in the US agree is incredibly valuable, increasing retention as well as increasing the connections between students and reinforcing skills and ideas that come from the core curriculum.

I could imagine my public speaking students doing much better after seeing some of their peers take on arguments in a critical and competent way, showing them the power of words to diminish or strengthen any belief for an audience.  This is far superior to traditional lecturing, and it also allows debaters to use their developed abilities and skills in ways outside or different from a competitive tournament. It can certainly help debaters make unusual and very real connections to things that debate experience allows them to do that they might not have considered before.

This also brings up questions of defending debate within a university. Might it make more sense, or provide some compelling evidence through some project like this one, that the debate society should be housed in an academic department instead of student activities? Perhaps the proper home for a debate society is the university library, or the writing center (in so much as they might be divided on a campus). This provides a new context from which to view and consider the potential agency of debating, and also provides debaters with opportunities to get faculty and administrators on the side of the debate program, willing to defend it if a situation should arise where the university is considering removing funding or canceling it. This also provides a nice justification for tournament travel - it is the thing that allows the debaters to train so they can then produce teaching documents and experiences such as this one for the rest of the student body.

considering and reconsidering the role of the debate program at the university becomes very productive and a good investment for the debate society who is interested in expanding its influence while also expanding the metaphor of what debate practice is about. Instead of just lawyer or politician training (tired and old metaphors that really don't do much for us) perhaps the metaphor of training everyone in the community of learners how to value, process, and respond to normative claims based off of researched information.


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Saturday, March 15, 2014

Ethics of the Chair

The Vienna IV seems like a competition that time forgot. It's a competition that reaches back to European debate the way it was long before I got involved in it, to a time when the more weird or inside-joke funny the motion was, the better the tournament. These are examples of motions and procedures that operated debate societies before the current trend of making competitions tied at least somewhat to the tone and direction of the WUDC.

 What I recall the most is how the adjudication team at both Vienna IVs are incredibly autocratic - they cannot stand the idea of a debate going in a direction that they did not directly desire or imagine it would go. They generate tons of rules about how one ought to approach a debate, and what is allowed or not allowed when a particular type of motion appears. Here I present a case-study of the desire of the adjudication team, the work of the teams in a debate to create persuasive discourse, and the role of the person meant to evaluate the quality of that discourse - the chair. I believe that instead of chairs striving to get calls "right," chairs need to get calls "ethical" - that is they need to work hard to make sure that all of the people in the debate are attended to well. Of course, the ethical is not easy, and people love to call people out for breaking the rules. I wonder which one will win.

In round two, a motion appeared that we were warned about in the long and repetitive briefings. We were told that there were some motions that were meant to force a choice - they were mutually exclusive by fiat of the adjudication team, and therefore the teams could not claim that they would be able to get both of the options.  The motion was something to the effect that if a doctor was faced with prolonging a life and causing indefinite pain or ending the life then and there, he or she should end the life.  Not sure about the exact wording, but the motion is carefully hinting that the debate should be, according to the adjudication core, about the choice between death and a painful life without a clear end in sight. The point to keep in mind is that the doctor had to choose between prolonging the life painfully, or ending it immediately.

In the room I was judging in (a wing, blessedly, for all of the rounds I was able to judge - thank you Vienna IV tab room, you really get me) the closing government offered the following argument: If we keep the person alive as long as possible, we might have a shot at getting both a reduction in pain and a long life because we will learn more about how to treat the condition. Compared to the Opening Government's argument of "Only God can take a life" and an interpretation that the Hippocratic oath forces doctors to keep people alive "no matter the cost" - I thought it was pretty clear their argument was at least better than opening's.

Our chair could not even let one of the wings finish talking about the debate before she excitedly talked about how the closing government, in spite of the numerous instructions from the "A-team" (as she called them, made me think George Peppard was hanging around somewhere) and that they deserved a four for ignoring the instructions on how to debate the motion.

I tried a couple of times to offer the idea that perhaps we should evaluate what the teams said in context with what the other teams said - to which the chair always responded, "It's a shame we have to waste time on this." This was the only response she gave me - I think that it was because I was, in her view, also deliberately ignoring the rules of the A-team (confession: I was).

But a waste of time to examine context? What are we meant to be doing otherwise? This is where the distinction between chairing and ethical chairing came into my mind.

This was a moment that made me realize that judges who enforce abstract rules about good debating are not straw people. They actually exist, and are given enormous authority by the rules of BP to enact their rule interpretations upon speakers. What I suggest a chair should do is understand that good discourse is only discernible within a context. This chair refused to consider their discourse as even potentially good, mainly because they "broke the rules."

An alternate defense she gave of ranking them four was that the closing opposition made the argument that the closing government was trying to "do both things, which the A-team (where's Face?) told us we couldn't do." Not only is this argument unexplained, it is an appeal to authority, which I believe not many reasonable people would just accept without asking the reasonable question, "should they win because they pointed out a broken rule?"

I felt that the opening opposition was ignored in this approach, who did a good job answering the poor arguments of the opening government. Under this chair's rubric, that part of the debate no longer mattered for determining a winner - the team that points out the broken rule should win, and that's that. Good contextual argument, although not the best in the world, is always trumped by a team who repeatedly points out "the team across from us broke the rule we heard about in the briefing."

The ethics of chairing involve attending to each team's contribution. This is only possible within the context of what was said in the debate before us. Otherwise, we could have judges sit in different rooms than the debaters and come up with decisions on whatever merits they wished. What this decision reinforced is an approach to debating that I call "gotcha!" debate - the team that wins is the one that most solidly points out the mistakes of the other team. Whoever does this best, should win. Until this round, I always thought that this was a novice debater attempt to make good arguments. It's no longer a straw position, as I've found someone who actually judges this way. It's amazing to find one.

What's wrong with this position? Shouldn't rules be followed?

They should, of course. They make a competition fair and generate the motives we like from competitive debating. The problem arises - as it did in Vienna last year - when adjudication teams offer their own rules on-the-fly for how the motions should be approached. These rules are motivated from a good place. They are worried that the debates on the motions they set will be bad unless they are approached in a particular way - the only way they could imagine. It is never assumed by such adjudication teams that anyone could think through a motion in a different, or more creative manner. They assume their way of approaching it is the only possible good one. So they legislate the approach, cutting off the debaters' access to their own imaginative approaches to debating a motion.

On the other hand, the adjudication team could be motivated by the idea that somehow the debates are going to be bad, because the debaters will be unable to see how to make the debate "good." This also motivates adjudication teams to make up their own motion rules, often legislated spuriously via a "context slide" or other such device. All this serves to do is flatten the debate experience, homogenize it, and kill the desire of the debaters to try creative, persuasive approaches that might make adjudicators nod and think, "didn't expect that!" - this is the experience that a lot of adjudicators want, but don't necessarily get.

I've written in more detail about how bad game design is design that is meant to improve the player's experience by limiting options. All it does is limit the experience of the game, which comes from play - the player must be allowed to interact with the game in ways the designer cannot foresee. This is where the value of a well-designed game arises.

But what role does the chair have in good game design?

I see great value coming from a chair who is aware of the adjudication team's desire for a good debate, but also willing to assume that the teams are attempting to reach that desire through the environment they face. This means that the chair does not read, as mine did, the debaters as trying to "get away" with something, as trying to "break the rules" but instead trying to reach the goal of a persuasive argument in order to fulfill the obligation of creating a good debate. This is the ethical approach - assuming that the other humans in the debate, by virtue of their presence, want a good debate as well - and it is the starting point for chairing. It frames the chair's approach to listening and helping wings articulate why they might like one team over another one. That reason is always because they improved the debate by responding to and dealing with the context in which their speech emanates.

It is something we valorize when a persuasive speaker is able to use restrictions such as rules and skirt them - especially rules like I've seen at Vienna which curtail freedom of speech and expression: "one must speak this way, given a motion worded with these terms, etc."  Those who are clever and can read the rules back against themselves in their argumentation might be teams that are deserving of winning a debate. These things take careful skill and great rhetorical prowess, but these are the moments - or at least the promise of these moments - that keep us returning to debate, even after we've had a frustrating experience. As chairs, people must keep an eye and ear open to such moves, understanding that the reasonable audience in the world of controversy and deliberation, often is moved by those who use satire, equivocation, and sarcasm to expose the rules for what they can be - ideological restrictions that assume the speaking subjects are malformed or incapable of persuasive speech.

While they write their context slides and briefing rules for how to "not mess up a debate," these adjudication teams share with each other the latest humor from John Stewart or Stephen Colbert with one another, blissfully unaware that they are crafting and imposing the same sort of discourse cut from the same molds that are the fodder for these comedians' critiques of bad governance. It would be hilariously ironic if it didn't exclude the very sorts of speech that most reasonable people, including debaters, love.

My experience at Vienna was cut short unfortunately by a need to wander to every pharmacy in Vienna to get medicine for my sick friend who was isolated in the hotel, wondering if she had consumption. But I am glad for this experience in round 2. Whoever that chair was opened my eyes to how persuasive the desire is, even among intelligent people, to punish others for breaking the rules handed down from the master. As debate chairs and judges, we should support rules that allow the competition to take place. All other rules, including motions, are fodder for creative debaters to do with as they wish - very much like how political speeches operate in the sphere of everyday discourse. To believe that the rule breaking team should be ranked lower than a team that advocated unanalyzed ideology is a strange one. But it is true that this happens in our political systems with a horrifying frequency. Even debaters are prisoners of the historical moment sometimes.

When chairing, remember that everyone wants a good debate. When teaching, remember students want to learn something. They are not there to try to trick you, or get away with something, or create chaos by breaking your rules. They are present and they are clever - at least as clever as you are. And you have an obligation to listen to them in the context that they speak. Why? Because you too are a human, and as a reasonable listener, you owe it to them. You owe it to debating. And you are going to go into each debate believing this. For the chair's Hippocratic oath is not to keep the idea of a potentially good debate alive as long as possible - no, just like the real Hippocratic oath, the chair's mantra is simple: Do no harm. We do no harm when we attend to context before we attend to the desires and ideology of the adjudication team when we evaluate the quality of debate speeches.
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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Contemporary Argumentation And Debate just published

The newest issue of Contemporary Argumentation and Debate has just been published online and via open access. If you are interested in debating at all, you should read it.

The editors have done an amazing job with this issue - and for international readers it will give you a sense of where the attention of American debate is right now. My essay is an outlier, absolutely. European readers will be fascinated by the areas of attention that American debate practitioners who write find important.

Looking at this journal side-by-side with the recent Monash Debate Review is a cool way to see where the loci of importance live in the international debating culture and the American one (as very distinct from the American one that is venturing into BP).

Yes, it's amazing - debate is subject to the general articulation of material and cultural concerns before its identity and value can be spoken. Proven yet again!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Just Beyond the Echo Chamber

echo chamber of the Dresden University of Tech...
echo chamber of the Dresden University of Technology (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
THB it is unacceptable for CA teams to set motions at debate tournaments if there is a high probability they would be making competitors debate about topics that they have had traumatic personal experiences with.
This motion was the final round at the Pan-Pacific tournament just held last weekend. I believe this motion is ample proof for my larger claim I've been advancing this year - that debating is currently situated in a discourse of domination and control, one that sees the competitive tournament as its sole reason to be, as the only function of debating, and also aims all concerns of the participants in debate to ultimately be about itself, and it's value as graphed against itself. This motion is an excellent example of this discourse at work - and it indicates an effect and a direction we should go as a community if we want to start addressing the major issues facing BP in the world today.

See here how the motion's value comes from its controversy and immediacy within the competitive debating community, full stop. The values of controversy and immediacy are long held in debating, competitive or otherwise. Audiences like hearing rhetoric that steps-up to rhetoric's time honored function: Offering reasons when knowledge is incomplete; offering propositions in the face of contingency, need, and lack. But in this case, the value of debate has been left outside the debating chamber. The door to the echo chamber has been shut, and the vast majority of the imagined debating audience has been left outside. We are debating to ourselves - we are a vanguard, excluding and claiming we are the people, in one move. This is exceedingly dangerous, and I hope this is the last time that we see a motion about debating as such.

This is not the fault of whoever set this motion. This CA, or adjudication team, is deserving of some sympathy actually. Some compassion. When I read it, I see a person or group of people who really deeply desire for a conversation about the quality, nature, and direction of debating. I see people who are lost, who don't know where to have this conversation. And I see them picked up and forceably moved by the discourse of competition debating to place their concerns in a tournament round - no, in the final of a tournament, because that is what the debate discourse demands is the serious, important place. This motion is a perfect example of how all concerns about debate - what it does, what it can be, what it teaches, what the point of it is - are funneled through a paradigm of the tournament as the end-all, be-all place for any productive debate work or thought to occur.

The problem is that once you are inside the echo chamber, it feels like it's the world. You're cut off. In debate, this echo chamber is quite dangerous, as we've brought all of our warped conceptions about what is controversial in the world in with us. We tend to manufacture controversy out of things that we think are cool in here. Whenever smart and well- read people bring up an idea or something to talk about within the echo chamber, the first thought of the listeners is - "That would make a great motion!" Or worse: Everyone strips the topic down to how it would function as a debate motion, and the whole conversation revolves around that. The tournament dominates all functions of debate and debaters, and all roads lead to it. We conveniently forget that the reasonable person - our rubric for evaluating competitions, by the way - would walk away from most of the controversies we set, including this one. It's reasonable not to attend to a debate that you feel is made-up. There's no anchor to anything outside of the echo chamber population.

Just outside the echo chamber is also not a good place to be. Clamoring for a view inside, to try to get the door open, to hope to get a glimpse of what is "really going on" - this attitude also infects academia, and it's disturbing in both places. People want to chat about the echo chamber in order to make the echo chamber better. Cracks are quickly patched up, and discussions are held about how to make the echo chamber bigger, or more diverse. "We don't have the right types and numbers of people in the chamber!" someone shouts. People scramble to determine how to add seating.

Collected just outside the echo chamber is not where we want to be as a community of debate practitioners. I suggest that we need to strive to be beyond the echo chamber. What does that mean?

Life, just beyond the echo chamber involves discussion about controversy, rules, issues, and other things - including oft-hated pedagogy (the only thing that keeps me in debate, even if most of my readers don't understand why). These conversations must be planned, they cannot be casual and they cannot be between the same few people. They have to be orderly, and they have to be welcoming. They have to be within sight of the echo chamber, so we can understand what we are up against. They give us perspective, they show us the giant world surrounding our little bubble, instead of the distorted, twisted, and distant world seen through the refracted light of the echo chamber. What's important and controversial in here doesn't matter one bit out there. We have to be aware of that, and use debate's limited form and function as a place to start a larger conversation about and with the world outside. Currently, the tournacentric discourse has us in blinders, thinking that all issues and all concerns must be, and are best addressed, by and within the tournament scene. We struggle to expand debate to make it more realistic. What we should do is highlight and discuss the limits of the echo chamber. From there we can see what the next step for people concerned about the world might be.

In American debate, this conversation happened beautifully for many years within the scholarly journals of the NCA and other forensics societies. In debating cultures where there is no faculty presence, and there may never be, this conversation happens on social media, in forums, and whatnot. The Monash Debate Review is a fine start, at least in its current form, and it's what I start with when I imagine life beyond the echo chamber. These discussions should be grounded in literature about argumentation, social issues, controversy, speech, communication theory - but they are grounded. They are grounded in something other than, "They ran a motion similar to this at Oxford" - which is about as deep a reference you might find in current motion discussions. Life just beyond the echo chamber is where the discussion about the chamber takes place, without a timer, and without the artificial conditional limits of the tournament on top of it. Why we think this is the prefered forum for all important discussions - even motion setting - is one of the strangest things ever. If something is an important topic people should be talking about, having it as a motion for 8 or 16 people to debate to determine a winner of a competition is the most counterproductive choice you could make, next to keeping it quiet.

If people do wish to debate the level of personal controversy a motion should contain, or how much the adjudication team should weigh the fact that motions about rape and abortion most likely (and very sadly) touch the personal lives of those in attendance at the tournament, I think these discussions should take place, should be vigorous, and should be well-grounded in the relevant literature from the relevant fields about trauma, affect, and communication. But placing it as a motion - as cute and cool and as clever as it sounds - allows us to feel as if the discussion is taking place. This is another real danger of the echo chamber: The feeling that we've addressed and dealt with something that probably shouldn't ever be finished. This extends to many motions, considered by CAs and adjudication teams as tired, old, and worn out.

A competitive debate round is as much a discussion as a Wikipedia entry is a dissertation. It's a start of a germ of a larger idea that must be developed over time, and must be developed openly, and measured by high standards that are intersubjectively agreed upon no matter the specifics of one's training (This is why in doctoral exams, candidates must have a committee member from outside their field. We not only discourage this, but when it happens, the echo-chamber chair smirks and explains to the outsider how debate "works"). Having a debate on something is not, and never will be, the same as discussing it. It can spark a conversation, but in our current discourse of domination and mastery, that conversation quickly turns to one of merit and skill - "If I was closing government, I would have said . . ." - and the moment of purchase is lost. The tournament makes sure all roads of conversation lead back to it and it alone.

On the issue of inclusion and diversity - nothing could be more related to this issue than motions like this. Could there be a productive connection here? Could it be that motions that were thought out beyond the limits of being "cool to run," grounded in a long, productive, professional discussion about the nature of argumentation and communication, with citations to the excellent research out there on such questions, raise the number of minorities and women interested in attending more than one debating tournament? Our inward focus, constructed by and for ourselves, might not contain any material of interest to those who don't look like the current members of our community. Grounding motions in things other than what we like - or what's within arm's reach of the echo chamber - isn't good enough for attracting diverse participants. To be diverse, we must attract the diverse. We do that by including as much of the world as we can in our events, tournament and otherwise. Manufacturing controversies or having motions that are just about ourselves do not hold the interest of reasonable people. Yes, there are reasonable people who have never heard of debate, never touched it, and have no idea that an extension needs three elements to function properly to win a debate. They are attending to persuasion, claim, and proof - very reasonable, and there are a ton of them out there in the world, much more than there are ex-debaters.

Diversity cannot hope to appear at our competitions through our current "playground drug dealer model" of hoping that they come to one or two and get hooked, becoming customers for life. "Don't worry," we say, "as the product gets more pure, the high will be so much better." We begin the processing of argument into something beyond that nasty street mix. In a pure form, it has no impurities. It is exactly as we think it should be. It's so pure, it's almost nothing. There are no particulates in it other than debate itself. It is so pure, it cannot be anywhere but here in front of us. And when we take part in it, we must wonder what it is that we are taking part in. Sanitized, pasteurized, free of anything objectionable to the tournament biology - this motion is the most pure debate product imaginable. As Slavoj Zizek writes in The Fragile Absolute, when we drink caffeine free diet Coke, what exactly are we drinking? We are consuming a product where all of the elements that gave it its identity - uncertainty, impurities,etc (in the case of debate) - have been removed in order to improve that identity through purification. In debate, our motion writing practices attempt to extract anything deemed unhealthy to "good debating" - imbalance, uncertainty, too many good arguments for one side (!), etc. All elements that give debate its flavor and nature, and we want them gone. What exactly are we making here?

Our practices of tournaments should be more than just about the tournament. They should be more than just about the rush one gets from the stimulant of competition. They should be showcases of the power of debate pedagogy - transforming people into amazing thinkers and speakers, ready to reach out to whatever audience they are in front of, and do their best to move that audience toward an idea with only their words. Sounds a bit romantic, but it's also incredibly true. Speaking persuasively never loses importance. Inside the echo chamber, or just outside it wanting to be in, one only attends to the rhetoric that appeals to the vanguard audience.  You can make the vanguard audience smile. This vanguard wants nothing more than to stand in for something more broad.

The vanguard is not welcoming - it is a meritocracy that does not recognize privilege. The vanguard thinks anyone could join it by being successful, but they set their own changing standards of membership. The most dangerous mistake you can make in practicing rhetoric is to substitute the vanguard for all audiences. When one conflates argumentation that appeals to the vanguard as the normative state argumentation should take in the world, the set up is perfect for the debater to dismiss any and all non-conforming argumentative discourse as unworthy. Debating outside the echo chamber is malformed. "Oh," we exclaim, "If only everyone had access to debate training! We could fix this!" But negotiation, argumentation, and deliberation has been working away much longer than formal debating has existed. Things are fine with argumentation - many scholars are exploring how this works, using their lives to do so. But we ignore any idea of adapting to how those people do it. The vanguard imagines itself as reasonable people, not the way it should be, that the vanguard invites reasonable people into the echo chamber to judge, participate, and comment. No, you have to prove you are reasonable by mastering the esoteric act of a judging test. Prove you are reasonably vanguard!

Our vanguard is sort of out of touch as well with what makes a persuasive argument. There are national and global conferences every year about argumentation - and they are full of paper after paper displaying how persuasive argumentation does not fit the standards of reasonable and rational thought, no matter the culture, no matter the field. These papers never get old, because human affairs never get old. Living just beyond the echo chamber means understanding debate's limits, and how it might be best as just an introduction to the messy, irrational world of argumentation, reason, and - something we don't' really discuss that much -  the evil uses of  'rationality' as a justification in human affairs. Life just beyond the echo chamber means recognizing cool speeches and cool topics are only such because they are perceived that way by a very low bandwidth audience.

But the tournament for tournament's sake discourse is a steam roller, going at a quick pace, and not anywhere near out of steam. We can't really blame individuals, the situation is ours. As Michel Foucault writes, a group of signs can be seen as a 'statement' not because someone said them, but because "the position of the subject can be assigned." [1]  It's not because someone made a motion that was bad - it's not that simple. This motion can be recognized as such because it reveals very clearly what the role of the debate participant must be - that of tournament focused, that being as a subject of the tournament, as subjected to the tournament. Your words are for the tournament; your arguments exist at the tournament's pleasure. Since we are placed in the position of the tournament subject, it only makes sense by the logic of this discourse that our most important issues would become debate motions in order to be properly addressed. One cannot address concerns about a practice unless the language of those concerns is recognizable and articulated by a proper subject, who emerges with the power to speak and be heard precisely because the space for such an act was laid out by the discourse. In other words, one never speaks alone. One's speech, in order to be known as such, must follow the rules laid down by the system of rules for meaning that appear from noplace in particular.

 This discourse - the one that allowed this motion to be set - for it was not some CA or group of people, but the dominating discourse that makes tournament debate valuable - is the perfect storm. It meets all of the qualities of a good motion, tested against an actual controversy within the debate community itself. This is what I mean when it is graphed against itself - it appears to be an amazingly important topic, because the standard of an amazingly important topic is set by the discourse from which this motion arises. This is similar to Jacques Lacan's model of perfect pleasure - "A mouth kissing itself." But nobody wants that - it's disturbing and disgusting. It's better to have two mouths kissing - less sanitary, less sterile, and lacking in perfect pleasure - but we keep wanting to do it, again and again. The pressure to remove impurities from debate actually kills the vibrancy and diversity of debate because there's less and less room for people to see themselves as a potential subject within our practice. They don't see a spot for themselves. A mouth kissing itself is hardly invitational to others.

If tournaments did not dominate the collective debating imagination, this question would not exist, nor would it be a controversy, nor would it be a controversy that a CA would believe meets the standards of being a competitive debating motion. How does this motion, in any manner whatsoever, reach toward a reasonable person? Or a rational voter? Or whatever malleable, imaginary audience we like to concoct being a witness to these persuasive speeches?  This motion discards the very standards of judging BP debate in totality, since no audience of reasonable voters could be assembled to judge the arguments. We could very easily assemble an audience of reasonable debate practitioners to judge it - in fact, we do that for every motion, don't we? But we understand that we are discussing something more than just ourselves here. The guidelines for judging you'd find at most tournaments indicate a desire to speak beyond the echo chamber. I suggest we follow them, and get a healthy distance so we can place issues like the one in this motion into a discourse other than the one that extols the tournament as the best thing, and the everything.

[1] This is from Michel Foucault's book The Archaeology of Knowledge (New York: Pantheon, 1972), 95.
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