Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Defending Confusion and Uncertainty in Debates

My recent attendance at a High School tournament made me realize how often we associate the presence of simplicity or clarity in argumentation with good argumentation.

How many times have you seen a team win a debate, or even an argument, by using a strategy saying that their policy or principle makes things uncertain, unclear, slows things down, or makes people uncertain about what to do?

My guess would be very few times do teams win on such arguments. These arguments are so outside of normal political discourse that they might not be "legal moves" according to the norms of the debating community.

The argument that uncertainty or murkiness is a good thing is an argument that one would be much more likely to hear in an academic environment. Slowing people down in thinking, making people reconsider (as long as that reconsideration is not used to show a quicker, more crystal path to a beautiful solution to the problem presented in the debate), or making sure that people are paralyzed with information and aren't sure what action to take are not necessarily arguments that are easy to get behind.

In our community, overdependence on The Economist and other news analysis that is generated to turn profit might be the reason we are unpersuaded by arguments that are often the conclusion of academic publications. That audience is used to, and expects, incrimental advancements in the understanding and addressing of issues in the field. In the world of for-profit journalism, clarity and simplicity rule the day as these are the things most likely to keep someone watching or reading the product that you are generating. More viewers and readers means more revenue.

Basing our topics and our competitions on the content of one publication that is not motivated by debate-ability or critical thought might be a serious disconnect. However, our addiction to The Economist is not going away anytime soon. Most debaters and most leaders in the community unproblematically agree that if it appears there then you should be prepared to debate it. And that's the lay of the land at this moment.

So in this environment, can supporting uncertainty, murkiness, or loss of clear thinking and slowing down of the political process be goods that you could use to win debates?

I think so. The question is how these arguments are deployed. The best way to do it within the confines of the round is to ask yourself how certain you think the other side's solution is going to deal with the problem. Compare that to how certain you think you are about the detrimental effects of their policy. In situations where they might be winning arguments that prove that their solution will work and your problem might not happen, you can raise the specter of the guess to show that if they are the least bit wrong, your problem will still happen and there's no going back. The concepts of erasibility and reversability are good ones to argue for here.

On the level of principle, uncertainty might stand alone as a good principle in a world where most political discourse and scientific information is throttled into a funnel of absolute judgement even before we have had a chance to fully digest its meaning. This seems to be better on Opposition benches as you could oppose most motions with a principle of uncertainty, and deference, and waiting as a good way to address the situation. This might be better on topics dealing with complex systems such as the environment or the economy, and less effective on issues such as military intervention for humanitarian reasons. But there's a way to apply it there too I'm sure. Something about not being sure how people will respond to the invasion force is used as a defensive argument, but there's great ground to consider this as a positive good - staying out of it and thinking might be just as good, or at least avoid the problem of treating other peoples as if they are unable to handle their own affairs.

Many of these arguments are familiar. They become more unfamiliar when we talk about them as something we would want to cause or directly create in our advocacy. They become a bit strange when we talk about how it's good to create situations where people will hold back and think a bit, where people will ponder a decision, mull things over, and really grapple with whether or not they should do something. Endorsing uncertainty and hesitation of action is a rare principle in debates, but it could be a good way to have more nuanced debates, rather than hearing that far too simple "rational actor" model of the human psyche we love to go to as an explanation of why our side is the best.

If a thoughtful argument from another sphere can be adapted to our strange debate sphere and find competitive success, it might serve as a banner for those who worry about competitive equity above everything else in debating that opening up the door to things that don't neatly fit into the comfort zone of debating. Taking my discussion here to the next level would be for teams to say they are uncertain about the motion, and that might be a reason to endorse or reject it. But that's a bigger move than the one I am suggesting here.


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