Making room for beauty

I have long concealed a dark scandalous secret.  I’m not a true computer nerd.

Don’t protest.  It’s true.

Yes, I have a lot of the skills of nerdosity.  I can and do program for a living.  I can and do fix computers all the time.  I can and do understand them at a level that almost everyone else cannot.   But I know the difference between me and the True Nerds; I don’t design and implement operating systems, or cryptography schemes, or new programming languages or frameworks, and ultimately it’s because I lack the passion for it.  For me, technology is operational, and interesting only insofar as it is useful. I only occasionally tinker; once the Thing Is Working, I am satisfied and leave it alone in favor of things that are not.  So I don’t tend to dig in and reach that next level of true understanding that a True Nerd finds so satisfying.

And yet, I spend almost all my life mashing a keyboard and churning out computer code.  I travel across the country on a regular basis to do onsite training, tech support and more coding even from cheap hotels, high schools or colleges as I can find the time.  My family is never quite sure what time zone I inhabit at any given time.  I don’t own pets for fear they’d surely die, and my plants tend to be the type that can sustain minor droughts.  I sure don’t do it for the money; I could probably triple my annual income by focusing on my geekery alone and going to work for Google or some such masterpiece of the Nerd Kingdom.   I do not get to travel in the fun sense much more than the average person; for all that I’m constantly in different places, I mostly inhabit classrooms and airport hotel ballrooms, and such things look the same in Miami and San Diego and Philadelphia and wherever else I find myself.

But I’m not complaining.

I work as a software consultant to the world of speech and debate.  I work with the National Speech and Debate Association for most of my time, and have side work with the Boston Debate League serving inner city debate in Boston, and consult with numerous individual tournaments as well; I’m writing now from an airplane headed towards the Pi Kappa Delta Nationals, a collegiate debate and speech competition, after tabbing the American Debate Association nationals last weekend; last few months saw me at Cal Berkeley for a high school tournament attended by over 3,000 people, and before that the University of Texas at Austin, Charlestown High in Boston, Emory University, Lexington High in MA, and before that UC Berkeley again.

I have an awful lot of Delta miles.

Such tournaments are amazing experiences that we who live with the world don’t always step back to appreciate.  On the weekend of the Cal Berkeley tournament I helped run that event where 3,000 high school students got up in front of judges and spoke.  Some spoke of high philosophy and the morality of handgun ownership, some spoke pre-prepared dramatic presentations, some spoke of the US surveillance state and its limits and benefits, some gave speeches they wrote themselves on a topic of their own choice, and still others overrode the set topics they were assigned to debate and instead injected their own culture, identity and viewpoints into their debate rounds.  But all of them spoke, multiple times, in front of audiences large and small, about topics whose depth and emotional impact often belied the age of the speakers; high school and college students, almost all between 14 and 22 years of age.

Middle schoolers compete to0, some as early as fifth grade; I just didn’t happen to go to any tournaments with them.  Not yet, anyway.

While I was at Cal, an equally large number of students were doing the same thing across the country at Harvard, with smaller but still large events happening elsewhere, at UPenn, at Pinecrest in Florida, and in countless other high schools across the country.  President’s Day is a remarkable weekend in the world of speech and debate; during it, well over ten thousand young people across the country stand and speak anywhere between three and twenty times apiece.

There are intense controversies within the debate and speech world.  Some competitors play fast and loose with the rules of the material presented in the dramatic events, or address uncomfortable and controversial material in their speeches, and not everyone approves.  Some debaters object to the idea that others can and do ignore the official topic in a lot of rounds to promote their own agendas, or can engage in sometimes quite personal ad-hominem attacks or tactics to win a round.  Others still dislike how arcane and rapid-paced many debates have become, freezing out communication and persuasion in favor of a baroque form of logic, and arguments in quantity instead of quality.  The edifice of speech and debate is undeniably imperfect, and often unsatisfying.

But it is never static; it is a living work, a collective action by a cast of thousands who make it what it is at any given moment.   Our current controversies do not get in the way of the ultimate mission: to encourage young people to speak, and stand and be listened to; to overcome the huge fear most people have of standing up and being heard.  The core of speech and debate, the core of being heard and believed, is knowing what to say; speech and debate encourages critical thinking and breaking boundaries, rewarding people for finding a different way of expressing an idea that nobody else thought of.  Those mavericks are the ones who get the biggest trophies.   Small wonder, then, that our rules are fluid and flexible and often abandoned; they’re under constant attack, along with every other idea in speech and debate.  But even in the resulting chaos, there is no better crucible for young minds.

And the effect is clear.  The parents of my team can never get over what happens to their children when they join speech and debate.  One confessed she started having to look up words her 15 year old casually used at the dinner table.  The students share their insights with their families and other friends.  Donald Rumsfeld, during testimony before the National Commission for Terrorist Attacks in 2004 , called the person who sets the annual debate topic the most powerful person in the country.  Debaters can instantly speak with authority about hegemonic foreign policies, afro-pessimism and social justice, or meta-ethical frameworks behind moral decisions.  Speech kids might start talking about the economy or the election at the drop of the hat, or be able to convince you in their performance that a full cast play is happening in front of you, while just one person performs it.

We hope that getting the young of the country to be unafraid to think and speak on what matters will create a habit that sticks.  And stick, it has.  I have former students running for public office right now, directing Hollywood shows, clerking for Supreme Court justices — and teaching, learning and doing new things that don’t fit easy categories.  Debate is home to counter intuitive ideas that later become mainstream, as we work them out.  A lot of debate ideas sound patently ridiculous when they’re first advanced in the round, but the students capable of creating those ridiculous ideas go on to learn how to create breathtaking ones, and do so with the same skills we encourage: questioning everything, not allowing boundaries to stand in their way, and then thinking nothing of standing up and delivering their ideas to audiences large or small.

And we don’t talk over each other, at least not as much as you’d think.

At tournaments, two things happen.  One of them is this activity that I can only call pure beauty in its engagement and intricacy and energy.   The other is, unfortunately, practical: we do an awful lot of waiting around.  Schedules must be produced, judges assigned to rounds, rooms opened and closed, ballots entered and results tabulated before the next schedule goes out.  The logistic elements of a tournament are staggering, and often confusing and daunting to the newcomer.  Parents who ask what time things will end are sometimes laughed at; tournament schedules are more often aspiration than promise.   These delays are not intended and never desired, but often can’t be avoided; we have an awful lot of moving pieces at tournaments and even one that goes awry can sometimes throw the whole affair off.

My primary claim to fame is creating and maintaining Tabroom.com, a site that tries to make the whole thing as automatic as possible.  Tabroom does scheduling, online ballots, registration intake and confirmation, communications and whatever else I can think of that makes things easier on tournament directors.  Tabroom.com has grown by leaps and bounds in popularity, which imposes its costs and stresses in terms of support requests and cries for help.   Thanks to the NSDA, I do have assistance in manning the support lines, but also a new challenge: while I’m keeping the wheels spinning on Tabroom, I’ve also been feverishly working on Tabroom’s successor site, which will be called Treo.  The core technologies at the heart of Tabroom.com are aging and due for replacement; Treo will take advantage of new advances in frameworks, languages and methods.

Tournaments, for me, are not fun.  They run me ragged.  Running a tournament is a 5AM to midnight type of job.  Most people run tournaments only once or twice a year, leaving time to recover.  I do it every weekend.  I would collapse if I were truly in the trenches every moment, so I have to fight very hard against my own impulses to carve out more time for sleep.  Even as I do it, and try purposefully to be selfish, I still never get enough real rest while I’m at speech and debate tournaments.  I work almost every day, rarely taking a full 24 hours off of tabbing or coding or whatever else I do.  But all the while, I’m seeking ways to make one more button to shave off ten minutes here, fifteen there — and sooner or later, those minutes become hours and hours become days.

And I do it all not because I’m a nerd.  I do it because the better Tabroom and later Treo get, then tournaments will have more beauty and less filler.  I aim to make the task of running speech and debate contests ever easier, ever more automatic.  The better the software, the more time we spend on debate and speech itself.  It will then be easier for others to coach new programs and bring new students to tournaments.  It will be easier to host tournaments and run them, and provide the opportunity to more kids.

That’s why I do what I do.  That’s why I play a professional nerd even though my heart isn’t truly in it. I could do work that brought me more direct happiness, but I doubt I could find something to do with more meaning.

Today, March 15th, is National Speech & Debate Education Day, by Senate proclamation no less.  It’s the USA’s participation in World Speech Day.  The day is intended to promote the collective work of intellect and beauty that I struggle each day to make a little better around the edges.  I’m not a true nerd, but I play one in the speech & debate world, to support and make ever more room for that beauty, and bring it to ever more kids.

And that, to me, is more than enough motivation.

A theory of theory

A is the interpretation.

Most theory is terrible, and never should be run.  Theory as a strategy is harmful to debate.

B, the violation, is self-evident.

C is the ground.

Judges are routinely voting for things they hate, because the debaters present them little choice.   Theory is everyone’s villain: nobody refers to a theory heavy debate as a classic. We speak of rounds “devolving” to theory battles, designating them for a lower plane of evolution. It leads to unhappy judges, lowered speaker points, and unsatisfying rounds – all assertions that need little warrant.

Theory doesn’t win. Sure, it wins rounds – a lot of them. But it doesn’t tend to win tournaments.   Debaters who resort to theory a lot are the under performers – the debaters who never seem to reach the level of success their skill would suggest for them. The big championships tend to be won by the debaters who engage in it least.   Theory can win when both debaters do it, as the judge wishes to be elsewhere while signing the ballot. Theory can win when the debater using it is much better versed in it than their opponent – a round which the theory debater would have won anyway.   It can also win in the cheap shot round – throwing a trick out there, a snake hidden in the weeds, to snatch a victory from a better debater. The last approach is seductive to sophomores, struggling in their first varsity rounds. It also only works for sophomores – once a debater does it enough, they cease to catch anyone unawares, as their opponents grow alert to the threat.

Theory doesn’t help LD. The more theory has grown in the last four years, the more LD participation numbers have dropped. Theory is not useful beyond debate. What little it does teach – logic, extemping arguments – substantive discussion teaches better. Theory could easily drive students away – it’s boring. It’s a skill that will give them nothing past LD.   We’re left with the debaters who would have stuck around anyway – debaters who are glad to win theory because they’re in it to win, and don’t especially care about how they get there.   Debaters run it as a time sink, which crowds out actual substantive debate by definition.

Theory encourages more abusive affirmatives in the first place. If every debate is just going to devolve to theory anyway, there’s little penalty to breaking realistic norms with intent. Why not run an abusive, shifting and non-topical plan, when you’re going to have to win a theory debate anyway? May as well start off with a lead on substance.   This year, I hear a lot of angst at the rise of critical race theory arguments or other non-topical cases based on identity, which some LDers have imported from policy. I wonder how an LD debater who runs mutually exclusive theory interpretations can possibly object to abandoning topical debate in favor of identity arguments, when what it’s really replacing is theory games involving invented rules.

Theory blocks access to LD.   It’s totally opaque in most cases, as ground arguments speed on by incomprehensibly; I rarely even bother trying to flow it, given I can’t understand and don’t pretend to care. The local debater or debater trying out LD for the first time is just blown out of the round, and then figures they should look at PF or mock trial. There’s nothing wrong with PF or mock trial, but there’s something wrong when someone who really loves philosophy and would be happiest in LD settles for them because they can’t make headway against theory.

Theory is the preserve of those who can afford camp. Research about topical literature is available to all. Research about identity and performance is likewise available to all.   Camp makes arguing these things easier, but it’s not necessary.   Theory, however, can be learned nowhere else.   It rose in part so camps could justify their cost – it’s the only way, short of rigging the topic votes, that a camp can provide arguments guaranteed to be useful in the coming school year.   But their utility comes at a cost; since there’s no external way to learn about theory or practice it, beyond the bounds of a large coaching staff or affording camp, it becomes a gateway issue, a hurdle to those who have neither. It’s hard to teach oneself substantive debate and philosophy, but the internet and the library do afford the chance. It’s impossible to teach oneself theory, since it’s all about technique, and most of that technique is about freezing your opponent out of rounds in the first place.

Theory prevents the formation of actual norms in the community. If we had the occasional theory everyone asserts is necessary – some viable limits on the topic, and the approaches that affirmatives and negatives take with it – then the argument would hold. But in a world where debaters are constantly inventing rules mid-round and accusing their opponents of violating them – when the violation comes ahead of the interpretation – it’s impossible to settle on actual norms. It’s further impossible when the educators are removed from the question. Judges are admonished not to intervene, which means we’re unable to use the debate round as a platform to help establish those norms and get past most of the frivolous theory out there.   Theory can never reach an actual answer in the round; if we did, the debaters who rely on it would just move the goalposts.

Theory has no impact debate. Education and fairness are rarely sketched out arguments, but instead are watchwords, talismans invoked but not explained. Rarely are LD theory impacts actually tailored to the violation; instead they are rote incantations with little value beyond their ritualistic necessity.

Theory is impossible to judge, and to train judges in.   Without a reference to the rest of the world, there’s no way a judge can gauge theory arguments on anything other than crosshatched tallies of argument quantity. I can tell you whether an economic argument or a moral one has internal sense; I cannot do the same of theory arguments. Debaters complain about random outcomes to theory debates, and then those same debaters become judges and understand – now only too late to run something else as a debater.

D, of course, is the impacts.

Theory hurts fairness, freezing the debater without money or resources even further by pinning debates on esoteric nonsense that give automatic wins to those who invoke it. It makes preparation infinite, as you can never prepare for the invented rules of your opponent. It excludes people without the time or the inclination to learn material that never will be useful again.

Theory hurts education. It displaces topical debate, a lot of it. It displaces substantive non-topical debate, too. It lets negatives who haven’t prepared enough get away with using it as a filler. It prevents both sides from having to think about responding to novel arguments, to engage in the crucial skill of applying evidence and reasoning in a way they hadn’t thought of to answer a new position.   It encourages frivolous affs who know full well nothing will be extended.   And it reduces the numbers of debaters, and even programs in LD in the first place.

The last impact is a personal one. If theory keeps being a dominant part of LD, then LD will cease being a dominant presence in my life. Among the many major impacts is a minor one – it’s boring me to tears. I’ll coach something else, if at all, and even recommend that Lexington stop doing it. It’s a waste, of time, effort and money, to play in this self-referential sandbox. I’m not sure why I do it even now. If it lasts much longer, I won’t, and I’ll steer others away it as well.   It doesn’t help matters that next year’s policy topic is one I am really interested in and have technical expertise in.   This minor impact becomes major because I’m not alone in feeling that way.

E is the alternative. OK, so this just became a K.   You’re going to have to cope.

Without some theory, we go back to the land of eighty three NIBS, of floating advocacy, of made up evidence, or whatever else got us started down the path.  But the status quo means the solution has become worse than the illness. So we require means to keep the limits without the excess.

So I propose we add one rule to theory that can sweep aside many others: every interpretation should be warranted with a card.   Before a debater may run theory in a round, they should first justify the interpretation and standard on real grounds in public writing, or have a coach do the same.

That solves many of the harms above. It allows for rules to be fleshed out in an open arena, devoid of the competitive pressures, time limits and necessity to vote a round entails. It could be two competing theory interpretations are both wrong – a judge still must vote for one of them, but in an open forum, the audience may easily reject both.   Therefore, bad rules or norms can be winnowed out. A good proposed norm will stand the scrutiny of many voices, while a harmful or spurious rule will quickly grow a list of arguments against it.

It allows for adult participation in the argument. Adults have no voice in the course of a debate, which is proper – but adults should have a voice in the formation of norms, which itself is the curriculum of debate in a real way.   If theory must be cited, then a coach can generate those citations, or argue against them as easily as a debater.

Publication is no bar to anyone; there’s essentially infinite space on the debate web, and few of the sites aren’t looking for content. Getting a coherent theory article published should be possible for anyone. And once online, they become a resource to those who can’t afford the tuition and travel of camp; a debater can self-educate on theory, and prepare for a circuit tournament from a local league. Theory cards would have to carry the same citations as any other, and the ground and impact level debate would be already developed within those cards.

About the only harm is that it would limit what you could do in a round when something truly bizarre and objectionable emerges. In that case, you might lose a round – a somewhat less serious harm than debate practices eating at the very fabric of the event.   Or, you’d have to think about the arguments raised and the parallels to evidence and theory already established – which would, incidentally, be a critical educational goal of debate in the first place.   Independent thinking isn’t so bad, once you get used to it.

LD explained to Policy

I wrote the below as a missive to a working group of college debate coaches who are exploring alternatives to their standard resolution style.  In the past, policy resolutions have taken the form of “The US Federal Government should < do X >”.  One theory of how to resolve the ongoing dispute between traditional and critical/performance squads is reworking resolutions; agent-less resolutions such as we use in LD are one proposal.  Since we have direct experience with those, I wrote the below to give some words of insight of how resolutions and debates play out in LD.  I’m posting it here because it may be a somewhat useful survey of the current state of LD debate.

How LD agentless resolutions work in practice;
or,
How we learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.

In LD, the agent can be ambiguous because the topics are based around questions of value and morality, not of the benefits and harms of actions.  The topics are therefore descriptive, not prescriptive: they do not mandate an action by the agent even when one is present, but instead describe the moral status of an action or value.  You see the word “ought”, with its moral connotations, more than “should”.  We get “is just” or “is morally permissible” a lot too.

There is no inherency; the aff need not change the status quo, as the resolution is an assertion of moral status.  The affirmative merely has to prove that a topical interpretation of the affirmative side is moral or just or whatever – that interp can exist, and be debatable, entirely in the status quo world.  Therefore, we have no standing negative presumption in LD; the aff has no burden to change the world.  The status quo, in a sense, is defined by who wins the debate.

That does not mean that plans do not exist in LD; they’re simply not necessary.  Most LD rounds do not feature plans or concrete advocacies, though many do.  A plan in LD functions as a concrete example of an affirmative advocacy; an aff can assert that if a government enacted a given plan, and can prove that plan would be 1) topical, 2) moral, and 3) plausible (solvent), then the resolution can be said to be true.  But a parametric aff is just as likely to say that “They’re doing X in Denmark and it works fine and is moral” as a ‘plan’ which exists in the status quo.

The concept of fiat in LD is much the same; I can assert the government does X and Y in order to see what the outcomes are like, and judge the debate on the results.  But fiat can be descriptive: “this thing Montana does?  It’s awesome.  We should all try it.”

Framework

Typical LD debates can usually be decided in one of two ways, as long as it’s a post-fiat debate anyway.  First is a utilitarian debate where the impacts are weighed against each other by risk & magnitude: the kind of stuff that you guys know fine.  We refer to this as the “util debate” or less formally “the LARP”, aka, LD debaters conducting “live-action roleplay” of policy debates.

The second is what we call framework heavy debates, which is not what you call framework.  Our framework is the value/criterion, or standards: the lens through which the judge weighs impacts.  We don’t assume a body count is the only way to go; deontological standards that speak to the value of the lives lead, not simply the number of lives saved, are common in LD.  I refer to it as “Deontology: Because some things are worth dying for.”

As an example, in one debate I judged at the TOC, the affirmative conceded the framework should be equality; whichever side produce the most equal outcome wins.  The affirmative world was more desirable in a number of ways in a utilitarian sense; more people had better lives etc.  In the negative world, everyone had the same rights as the *worst-off* people in the affirmative world.  From a utilitarian perspective, the aff world is a no-brainer; everyone is at least as well off as they are in the neg, but some are even better off.  But given the conceded standard is equality, not overall utility, the negative easily won the debate.  The more that aff read impacts that uniquely benefitted one class of people (in this case, juveniles appearing in the criminal justice system), the more offense the neg gained given the standard.

The underpinnings for a lot of frameworks come from philosophical literature, both traditional and modern; in particular the Kantian principle that for a right to be a right, it must be universal, weighs heavily in a lot of framework debates.  The framework debate is typically conducted through analytic reasoning; we don’t especially care about the authors and their qualifications.  Typically LD judges will want carded warrants for empiric claims, which rest on technical matters requiring expertise, but look primarily to the analytic logic of framework claims. Students will often simply write framework justifications themselves.

Frameworks are often justified with competing stories about how either rights in a society are derived or agreed upon by different voices (Habermas, contractualism, social contract theory), or how one framework is a necessary precondition to the other, and thus supercedes it.

Deontology can outweigh strict utilitarian calculus in a number of ways; the main one reduces to saying that life in a strictly utilitarian world is at some level not worth living, as many may be enslaved to benefit a few. Another is that the utilitarian world cannot guarantee a stable and just society, since the calculus of strict utilitiarianism can change quickly (and is impossible to calculate in reality), so by ignoring rights you create further risk and harm to humanity down the road anyway.  Rule consequentialism attempts to address this by putting the utilitarianism one level up, saying you adopt moral rules based on the outcome those *rules* have on society; so if a society that bans slavery is more just & happy for more people, you adopt that rule and ignore the corner instances where slavery may nominally benefit many and only hurt a few.  It has answers and criticisms based on individual consent, and round and round we go…

Many debates are conducted exclusively on the framework level; the debaters will concede each others’ terminal impacts and instead solely pin the debate on which standard prevails in the round.  It is also accepted that terminal defense is well possible; we have little ‘there’s always a risk of X’ type stuff in our world.  The link level of the debate is therefore more contested as doing so is a more viable strategy than in your world; that reduces the presence of ridiculous impacts of the form “If the immigration bill does not pass WE ARE ALL DOOMED.  DOOMED!” outside of LARP debates, which is y’alls fault anyway.

Pedagogical impacts: the good the bad & the ugly

The good:

LD does a much better job than policy of teaching debaters to see and understand the whole round, not just each flow as a separate organism.  A holistic understanding of the round is critical to framework centric debate, as often times a single logical observation can devastate an opponent’s strategy and lead to a victory.  At its best, this can lead to a very elegant and precise style of debating that encourages sharp reasoning. LDers who run mutually contradictory arguments pay a steep penalty for it and learn quickly not to; we don’t wring our hands much about being merciless to conditionality.

That effect is aided by the shorter length of our rounds; an LD debate is 13 minutes of total speech time and 3 minutes cross ex from each debater. Decision times are therefore much shorter too; judges, too, are often able to keep the whole rounds in our heads, and we read few cards: if the logic isn’t on my flow it’s not on the round.  It is very rare that reading a card changes my mind about a decision; I read only to verify not clarify.

We pay for this benefit by exposing ourselves to the dreaded a-priori spike, where squirrely debaters will sprinkle a dozen ten-word observations into their cases, read them at half the speed of light, and if their opponent drops one of them, that spike will explode into half the 1AR and all the offense.  There’s unease at this approach; it feels like cheating, but it’s hard to draw a line between it and legitimate smart observational debate, and is hard to control without blatant intervention.

Because of that focus on seeing the whole debate, hypotesting (we call it truth testing) is alive and well in LD debate.  There are more comparative  worlds (aka, offense/defense) judges than truth testers, but not hugely so. I’ve judged many debates on a truth testing basis because the debaters argued successfully that I should.  The logic of hypotesting fits moral questions better.  We’re far more likely to debate whole-resolution as well; our resolutions are shorter and more precise anyway, so parametrics aren’t always necessary.

Or stock negative is not a DA – those exist, but aren’t universal – but a general NC, which has its own framework and contentions and impacts, and is in every way simply a shorter (for strategic reasons) version of what an affirmative for the converse of the resolution would look like.  LD resolutions can nearly always been inverted (and sometimes are for competitive balance) and still be perfectly debatable with the same prep.

The bad:

LDers do not produce nearly as much research as policy debaters.  Our files are smaller and more general; our backfiles tend to consist solely of frameworks and theory arguments.  When our debates touch on something policy kids debate a lot, we gleefully will raid your backfiles, and not feel bad about it either.  Our stock material tends to be denser, and more likely to come from books and long articles; our kids are correspondingly worse at finding quick sources that reflect the real world and current news.

Last minute updates aren’t a thing; the date of evidence carries little authority when weighing a moral question; we don’t even tag the year of most cards in our debates.  If something was immoral during the golden age of Athens, it may still be immoral today, whether or not the Senate passed the immigration bill last week.  That may be a good or a bad thing depending on your point of view.

The ugly:

The odd LDer will come along, read y’all’s wiki, and start running politics or 50 states or international relations DAs, but they tend to do a really bad job of cutting them, even by the awful standard of these arguments.  “My evidence is from 2001!”  “Well, good for you?” Thankfully said LDers do not tend to win many debates that way, and back off from it after a bit.

LD is currently in the midst of a festival of really bad theory debates. You are blessed in that you have no idea just how bad I mean when I say “bad”.  Theory is run as a strategy.  Rules are being made up left and right, and everyone’s suddenly a cheater.  Some kids roll with files full of mutually exclusive interpretations and little else.  However, this is a recent trend in LD, and I think (hope!) it’s going to be backlashed away. It probably has more to do with high schoolers being dumb than it does with the nature of LD topics.

Competitive balance

One major impact of that is that LD debate tends to reward a different type of program.  Policy is like MLB baseball; it rewards resources and systems. The stable of 30 people in a war room cutting last minute updates to the politics debate makes a difference.  Specific case-negs to every last aff likewise matters.  Therefore, the same handful of programs that have figured out how to assemble, run, and pay for such operations play at a high level year after year in traditional policy debate; I’m looking at the list of past TOC and NDT winners and seeing a ton of repeats.  Sometimes Tampa Bay pokes through; but usually it’s the Yankees or the Red Sox.

LD is more like the NBA: it tends to reward individual talent, not systems. Plenty of LDers can and do succeed without large operations behind them.  A superstar can trump all; last year both non-advancing TOC semifinalists came from a program that did not exist 3 years ago.  Sure, Greenhill won, but they hadn’t in many years; the list of historical winners is much more diverse in LD than policy.  The only school to ever win back to back TOCs was the same student winning twice.  Kids can compete at a high level with just themselves and maybe a college student coach to help them out.

An effective coach can hope to qualify kids every year, but would not dream of putting together a run of champions year after year the way GBN and Westminster or Northwestern and Georgetown aim to do.  A successful LD program operates by exposing kids to debate, enabling them to travel and compete, and giving them advice and teaching along the way; we can only hope some of those kids thus exposed really get it and go on a run.

Our tournament experiences tend to be more civilized as a result; it’s not necessary to stay up until 2AM cutting updates – though we sometimes do so to cut answers and new strategies if the stuff we rolled into a tournament with crashes and burns.

You might think that LD’s propensity to reward talent instead of resource intensive card operations, its openness to single-debater programs, and the centrality of critical & philosophical literature to our debating all would lead to far greater diversity and perspectives in our world.  You would, to our great shame, be wrong.  LD is largely a rich white boy’s game.  Gender imbalance is about as severe in LD as in policy, and poor treatment of young women has been a recurring issue in the last few years.

Curiously, the gender imbalance used to be not nearly so bad; when LD was conversational speed and more philosophical, often eschewing evidence altogether, in the late 90s, LD in the Northeast at least was dominated by young women.  Nobody knows where the causation lies there.

We have infinitesimally few African-American or Hispanic debaters.  There are few to no serious efforts to remedy that.  A rather uncomfortable incident happened a few years back when an exception was made by the TOC to allow a debater into the field without a bid.  Some of the mitigating circumstances he claimed to justify his inclusion were arguable, but all the same I believed him deserving to compete, and he cleared at the tournament.  But his mere presence in the field and the controversy around it painted a huge target on his back, and lead to an ugly backlash in the community, carried out in person and online.  This wasn’t ever resolved so much as outlasted, and there has not been a prominent Black debater at the TOC since, two years later.

It is well possible to run critical positions with a heavy reliance on the literature of race and identity issues without violating topicality or the norms of LD.  A great number of our topics focus on protecting minority rights, the criminal justice system, and equality issues which lead very naturally to a discourse on racism.  Last year’s most succesful debater spent the entire Jan/Feb topic (which is used at the TOC) talking about racism.

In sum

It’s well possible these lessons/features won’t translate into college policy if it adopts agentless resolutions.  Our shorter format helps in this style of debate: A moral debate is dense, but tends not to be that sprawling; if a moral question cannot be expressed and debated well in 13 minutes each, I’m not sure it can be debated any better in 35.  Our times are flawed at the moment in a way that favors neg debaters, but that’s more allocation than amount.

In college debate, longer times may actually cause rounds to run off the rails; I’m not sure that a policy-format debate with non-agent moral topics wouldn’t be vulnernable even more to the hidden-implication spike type arguments, more tricks and games, and more muddy and insoluable questions. We get plenty of the latter, and it’s hard enough to work through 32 minutes worth of it.

One challenge is that the definition of intervention in a world without an evidence focus can be cloudy.  Some judges, typically younger ones, will swallow just about anything wholesale that either debater asserts.  So, rounds can be won or lost on something that’s totally incoherent and just asserted.  If you say “I don’t understand that and can’t vote on it” some think that’s intervention, though I think it’s “judging.”

But I love the pedagogical results of LD and always have.  It teaches sharp logic and encourages students to question the fundamentals of the world around them.  It keeps asking why.  And it changes, a lot, which mean as a coach I get to keep learning, too.  There have been at least four radical shifts in style and material since I saw my first LD debate in 1994, and the next one will probably happen soon.  Not for us, seventeen hundred condo debates.  For a while we mimicked your world, but for now we’re pulling away from that; but perhaps we’ll go back to it, or do something entirely different.

The silent

There’s a kid on your team.  He’s a sophomore who did really well in his novice year.  He came close to breaking at a finals bid tournament last week; just missed on speaks.  He’s active and engaged in practice, and helps his teammates out.  He loves debate, signs up for every tournament, and helps his teammates cut cards and write cases.  In brainstorming sessions, he’s the one you have to restrain, to give others the chance to participate too, even though his ideas are admittedly usually better.

Today, that kid doesn’t speak.  His parents are divorced after three years of his mother using too much makeup to cover the marks.  His father is wealthy, but his family now struggles to get by, because his mother chose safety over prosperity.  She didn’t do it on her own account; she only mustered the bravery to leave when the father started to hit her son, too.

Debate was his outlet, his way of expressing himself.  Now he can’t open his mouth without risking tears.  So today, he is silent.  Tomorrow, he will drop from the next tournament; sorry, something came up.  Next year, he’ll be one of those kids who just lost interest, or had other priorities.  It happens all the time, nothing to be remarked on.

There’s a judge at your tournament.  She’s a senior in college.  She is a highly preferred judge who is regularly on deep out round panels.   She’s smart, gives good critiques, and usually the debaters she drops feel they were fairly treated.  And, like one quarter of all women her age, she was sexually assaulted.  It was at a party on campus two years ago, and was by her own boyfriend.  She told few people, and had to keep her assailant’s name private, for fear her father would be sent to jail after murdering the bastard.

She sits in the back of the room, listening as negative debaters accuse those who resort to vigilantism of moral cowardice and rights violations, because they need to cover the flow.  She listens to affirmative debaters argue that she is irreparably irrational and so should not be held to moral account for her subsequent actions.  She barely pays attention, because for the fifth round in a row, she is mostly trying very hard to not break down.  She’s not concentrating on the topicality debate; she’s thinking of that ex boyfriend, and wondering if she shouldn’t have spoken his name to her father after all.

And in the RFD, she is silent.  She has nothing to say.  Even the winner comes away baffled.  She uncharacteristically begs off judging early.  After this tournament, she will never judge LD again.  She’s graduating college, getting a real job soon; it happens, all the time.

Domestic violence is a crime that silences people.  Victims cannot bear to speak of it.  Family are your closest people; closer than friends, than colleagues, than anyone else.  We tend to protect our family’s confidences; and abusers hide under that protection, using the shame of breaking family trust to tie their victims down.  Victims carry guilt, and self-blame; they fear that leaving would break the family, that it would ruin their children’s lives for their own selfish needs.  They fear that even speaking out will cause the world to reject them, and their own extended families.  It often does.  This crime is silent.  Even when these long nightmares do end and people escape, the silence continues, because speaking of it at that point only stirs up memories of that shame and fear.

This topic is therefore as undebatable and harmful as the mosque topic; it asks some people to take positions that they simply cannot bear to take; and puts up for debate an area that the game of debate is ill suited for; the emotional content is too high, and the intellectual content overwhelmed by it.  But this attack is crueler still, because the targets are concealed, and may wish to stay so. You don’t know who that sophomore boy is.  You don’t know who that college judge is.  They are silent.  Millions of adult women, and more than a few men, walk around with this burden.  Millions of children grew up in houses that are homes in only the barest sense of the word.  If your team is large enough, it includes some of these children.  If your team is small, and fortunate, nonetheless your next tournament will include some of these children and judges.

But unlike most Muslims, the last group a debate topic called out in this manner, you cannot tell who they are, and you cannot even fairly ask.

The topic asks us to consider if domestic violence is so horrible that cold, deliberate murder, the ultimate immoral act, may nonetheless be a permitted response.  If deliberate murder is even possibly justified by domestic violence — and if it isn’t, how is this debatable? — why are its many victims, millions in number, supposed to keep their emotions in check while debating?  Deliberate murder is possibly in bounds, but hysterics because switch-side debate pits you against yourself isn’t?  And how can people make objective decisions, both in strategy and in judging, if their subjective pasts are so strong?

What happens to the kid who at age 10 dreamed of killing his father to rescue his mother, and now must excoriate his most private secret dream whenever he flips neg?  What happens to the college judge who felt so wrong in her impulse to seek revenge that she stopped herself in a supreme act of will, but now has that choice yanked out into the spotlight by an affirmative case?  And how can you ever know if the person in the back of the room, or across the table, isn’t that sophomore boy, isn’t that college judge?

Does the judge have an obligation in the name of debate to disclose her personal story?  Do you think she should put it in her frigging paradigm?

I know that sophomore boy.  I know that college judge.  Their details are masked, but their stories are true.  I know dozens others like them, inside and outside of debate.  Very few will speak out for themselves.  It’s not worth coming out as a victim and branding yourself with that shame publicly to make a point in debate.  So this topic, too, has silenced them, and banished them from an arena where there should be no silence.  We won’t notice them, because they will remain silent; drift off, leave debate behind them; they will appear to be part of a normal pattern.  And next year, we will again bemoan that few girls do high level debate, and wonder why not.

This issue isn’t about the circuit versus locals.  This uneasiness isn’t about wanting the targeted killing topic.   I’d trust a monkey with a dartboard to pick any of the remaining ones gladly.  It’s not about me; I’m not a victim, my parents never even argued much, much less hit each other.  There has been domestic abuse in my extended family, but not repeated; it was ended quickly in the one case I know of.  But I also know this topic will silence voices, silence debaters, and in doing so, just add more suffocating layers to the silence at the heart of the crime itself.  I want no part of it.

 

 

 

PFail

I dislike the NeoNov topic for nearly the same reason as I was appalled by the OldNov topic. It removes the particular offensiveness, which is positive. But it’s also unfortunate in some ways, because we’re left with a topic I find undebatable, but which now lacks offensiveness as a builder of consensus to forge our own. The Northeast was never going to debate the old one anyway. I would have preferred the resolutions we were tossing around to substitute over this dreck.

Why don’t I like the debate about debate? I don’t much like the debate about religion, actually.

The province of debate is fact. We derive rational debate from observations of the world we inhabit and share. A debate must begin by agreeing on basic axioms and common evidence; the argument is over the implication and meaning of those facts.

The province of religion is faith. Faith is often unrelated to fact. An act of faith is not always derived from logic, reason or observation. To believe in a religion is an act of faith. To believe in no religion is likewise an act of faith. And acts of faith are personal, ineffable, unexplainable, and therefore undebatable. In faith, I’m right because I’m right. You can be right too in a different way. But your rightness does not invade mine.

So there’s no common ground on questions of faith, unless you already agree. Without an accepted common ground to start from, there can be no debate; only argument and anger. In ancient times religious disputes were settled by war; in modern times we skip the wars and also skip much of the resolution too, by virtue of the fact that we leave the unbelievers alive. It’s progress, certainly, but doesn’t bode well for conducting religious debate.

Abortion is the first example of the resolution everyone avoids. Extempers drop topic slips about abortion faster than Regis LD judges drop debaters running kritiks. And there’s a reason why. Abortion is a question of faith. We have no clear definition of life that draws a logical and universal bright line between a fetus and birth. If you think a fertilized egg is a human life, you do so on faith. If you instead believe that the line between an actual human life and a potential one is crossed much later, you too do so on faith, even if you are a person without religious faith, since you have no better rational justification for your bright line than the pro life person does.

One’s views on abortion are therefore derived from a determination of faith. That’s why it’s the classic undebatable topic. That’s also why it has proven intractable in the poltical arena. The language of public debate is rooted in reasoning and logic, but the question of abortion is based on neither. Both sides believe what they believe very strongly, and they spend a lot of time arguing it, but no one is ever convinced.

Debate on abortion is therefore unproductive, and potentially hurtful. Debate over religious identity and religion can be worse.

A few folks have emerged from LD to weigh in, mostly in a patronizing sense of “Oh, this is easy, you PFers don’t know how to argue this, but we sage LDers deal with this type of argumentation all the time.” Of course, LD has its own issues, talk about an event without a rudder. But anyway, the popular LDer claim appears to be that simply running “religion is altogether bad”. Muslim students thereby need not engage in arguments that essentially group them together with terrorists as a virtue of their religion and culture. Instead, they can very ecumenically dismiss the value of all religion, and thus avoid the attack on their own particular group.

Here’s the thing. Religion outweighs everything to the religious. Those without faith tend not to understand this point, because in most cases atheism is much further down an atheist’s priority list. And the one thing that faiths cannot tolerate is repudiation. Faiths are belief systems; if they permitted routine denunciation for something so trivial as winning a debate round, they would not exist. Arguing “religion bad” in order to win a round would constitute apostasy to a faithful person; turning one’s back on God. It’s not an acceptable alternative.

One coach argues that refusal to take that option, renders the religious unable to debate both sides of the original topic. By being unable to debate both sides of one highly irregular and poor topic, the religious are proven unworthy of participating in debate at all. Is the tent of debate to be so small that it accepts only those who value it above all else — only those who, shall we say, worship at the altar of the ballot? I’m sure some of the irreligious would claim that religion and faith is a matter of choice, so people aren’t necessarily excluded from debate by that; they can choose between debate and their religion. But choice of religious belief is not so simple, and certainly not so casual. Some may say it is not a choice, but an imperative.

Yes, students should see the many sides of political ideas and rational arguments. I believe firmly in switch side debate. But faith is not an idea, and it’s not an argument. My political beliefs affect your lives; because I vote. That makes them fair game in the public arena.

My religious beliefs do not directly affect others; I disclose to very few what they even are. They may affect others indirectly, should they affect or control my political beliefs; but at that point, you can argue against those political beliefs and need not know the religious ones to do so. Debate should remain on the latter ground, and not touch the former. Or we’ll be repeating this November affair often.

Therefore, I affirm.

I’m not going to judge these debates. It wouldn’t be fair to the debaters struggling to overcome the topic’s limitations to also overcome my own objections. I’m probably not going to coach it much either, for the same reason. Thankfully I wasn’t scheduled to judge or coach it anyway; I’m only attending two tournaments on November’s topic, and I’ll be tabbing both.

Can’t wait for December.