What that judge was smoking

So the nature of democracy is you have to make a unitary choice — yes to this one, no to that one — that cannot express your full range of preferences. Instead you have to weigh the opposing sides’ views together with the importance of those views to you — if you agree with Bush on Iraq, and Kerry on health care, the question is which matters more to you, Iraq or health care?

Judges make evaluations in the same way. A speaker speaks, and the judge must list a rank from best to worst, without ties, or award the debate to one side or the other. Hundreds if not thousands of factors can weigh into these decisions, some honorable and some not. Ultimately the judge is making a judgment of “did I believe you, or did I believe another, more?” But belief is composed of so many things. Aristotle’s ethos, pathos and logos can be divided and subdivided many times.

Here’s the thing, though; naturally kids will tend to mimic success. They look at the people lined up and getting their trophies and TOC bids, and want to be them. The first step is mimickry, then; figure out what they do, and mirror it.

Some things successful competitors do are the reasons why they succeed. Some things are the features they succeed in spite of. Often times students have a difficult time telling the difference, though. I see a bad habit of a good kid echoed in the years that follow, as everyone becomes convinced that that’s the formula for success.

I think that’s where we get things like the horrible delivery in LD and extemp. Extempers don’t talk like people do; their sentence construction is convoluted, their delivery too fast, and their thoughts made ever more unclear by it. Good extempers tend to sound impressive, but are often so unclear as to leave the judge with a slightly uncomfortable feeling that they don’t quite know what just happened.

LDers are much the same; the regime of RFDs and flows constantly leave the debaters with the sense that their impeccable logic games win them or lose them every round. However, I saw rounds at the TOC that were more or less determined by one debater having insufficient tags or clarity of structure to convey their thoughts, and quite qualified judges missing things that could have turned the round.

These things should be rookie mistakes. But they’re common at a high level. What’s worse, kids will resist attempts to coach away from them, since that’s not how its done. I’m ready to claw my eyes out the next time a child asserts to me that “The Judges” won’t like something because it doesn’t fit with their idea of the event.

Kids are naturally conservative; they won’t go against what their community defines as “legit”. They’ll blame The Judges and fear The Judges, but they really fear each other. When students vote, in Congress or in round robins, they’ll always go the safe route and vote for whoever Should win, never mind who actually did. They will routinely be shocked at the “illegitimate” results of rounds they did not witness.

So that plugs into what camps teach about structure; that anyone who doesn’t follow Our Style is somehow illegitimate, since it gives kids a club. It also gives kids an easy way out. Thinking deeply, and expressing those thoughts clearly, is very difficult. It’s also the thing that unites all the kids who do well, and separates them from all the kids who don’t. They may have a certain structure, and a certain analytic approach, but at the end of the day the ability to think and communicate those thoughts are what make the difference.

But that’s hard to do. So there are a lot of lazy kids, who want that brush with glory and prestige on the cheap. So they aim for substructure and approach, which are easy to learn and perfect. They miss the real point, which is intelligence and clarity. I don’t have much time for kids like that. Then there are other kids who have either intelligence or good fluency, and never seem to develop the other trait; they coast on one ability without making much of a dent in the other. They do better than the first group, but never as well as they could, since they’re not working on the right things.

Basics are boring, and magic forumlas are sexy though…


So the last theme was complicated enough that I stopped halfway through. Walter Lippman’s Public Opinion, a fascinating book really. It makes a sham of our democracy, for one, because it asks the fundamental question of democracy: what are we voting for when we pull the lever?

In our system, we’re wrapping a lot of different preferences into a single choice.  We vote simultaneously for a person, a party apparatus, and an ideal or set of ideals. Some people vote based purely on what they think is the personality of the leader in question; so and so is a “good honest guy”, while the other is “shifty and sleazy”, which are calculations the average voter is in no place to make.

Another voter will vote based on the competence and the positions that the candidate takes, the platform and ideals, or the ideals and the notions of the party that he takes. But usually the character issues trump these things, which leads to all kinds of non democratic outcomes. A person may believe politically in the Republican Party’s ideals, but if they were a voter in one of the many districts in 2006 where the Republican was tarnished due to scandal and corruption, they had little choice but to vote Democrat anyway. And it happens in the other direction too, though not much of late; you have to have power to have corruption, and until recently the Dems had neither.

So what does it mean for someone who is a bona fide conservative to vote for a Democrat because their local Republican stole money from casinos or came onto a Congressional page? It surely doesn’t mean they’re voting for a liberal social policy, or for an end to the war in Iraq. It means their choices on ideology, on logos, were circumvented on ethos and pathos. Aristotle comes back to bite us. So sometimes we end up with policies we don’t like, because the bastard who did speak for our ideas was too awful to vote for.

One of the benefits of parliamentary systems is they avoid a lot of this. Each individual party member is less of a figure on their own right and more of a direct representative of the party. You vote for the party, not for the person, and not even sometimes for the Prime Minister, who is chosen by the party. That means if they Labour Party in Britain decides that Tony Blair is personally a liability, they can dump him, as dump him they did. Wouldn’t the Republicans love to dump Bush right now and replace him with someone more appealing? But they can’t, because in our system we vote for the person, while in Britain they vote for the party.

The sad part is, our system was set up that way on purpose. Washington in particular was wary of parties and political associations, and thought they were inimical to good democracy; they actually thought it was better, or even possible, to vote for the character of the person and leave ideological questions aside. Of course, the electorate then was a small, wealthy connected group of men, while today it’s a huge diverse mass of different citizens. But, Washington was wrong even in his own time; parties formed and solidified maybe 10 years into the lifetime of the Constitution, and never would wither away.

So we’re left with a system that awards mandates to all kinds of undesirable things, because that’s how it works. Is that democracy? In a direct sense, of course it is; the people’s will does get expressed. But on key questions, decisions are routinely undemocratic, where the vast majority of people’s preferences do not get expressed, because there is no option to express them in the system, or because the issues at hand are outweighed by other issues. If the American people were voting on solely health policy, they would have voted for Kerry in 2004; but they voted first on Iraq and security. Why, then, does Bush’s preferences on health care policy get to win out? That’s the problem with our system, and with our democracy.

So how do imperfectly expressed preferences have anything to do with what I said yesterday? That’ll be tomorrow’s post.

structure, substructure, restructure

I’ve always been fascinated how structure, of all things, becomes the rallying cry for divisions in extemp . I guess I’ve caused one of them, by pushing and shoving new approaches and ideas along. However, I didn’t really do that and commit to layering so much because I wanted to create a new extemp orthodoxy, but because orthodoxies in general are silly, and the current one was especially so.

Unified analysis is this notion that you should take a question, answer it in a vague way, and then give three independent answers to the question. That way, if one of your answers fails to convince, the other two still stand. You’ll notice that it’s anything but unified, but that’s a digression. It was also The Way to do extemp not too long ago.

I find it dissatisfying for a lot of reasons. The actual answers given tend to be weak and vague, things like “The United States should deal with human rights abuses in China by taking decisive action” or “Hillary Clinton can be elected president by appealing to key groups.” That doesn’t make much sense to me; the central notion of argument is a thesis, and with such a vague, wishy-washy thesis, the answers always seemed to fall short of what they could be. There’s no hope of evaluating whether you’ve answered the question completely or correctly this way; you’ve given me three reasons why you’re right but without weighing them against reasons why you might be wrong, I’m left fundamentally dissatisfied. And unimpressed.

So. Where’d this come from?

I tend to believe part of the structure wars come from camps. Camps are hard in extemp; you don’t get to deliver the student a finished product at the end. In interp they wind up with pieces, in debate they have cases and cards; in extemp there’s not much you can leave them with besides skills. And skills are much harder to teach in two weeks than producing a cutting. So camps, needing to show something to be viable, have had to come up with a Product, and I believe that UA is driven by this. UA is a good way to make a bad, or mediocre speaker appear to be better. They aren’t actually analyzing the question better, but they’re a lot clearer, and clarity helps a great deal. So it helps the kids reach another step, and that helps the camps.

The nefarious part comes when camps teach their doctrine as holy gospel and the only truth and reality. That, of course, is bull, though it does help the camps along; if a given camp is the only purveyor of the One True Way, then surely you need to attend it. So it enforces rigidity and bad dynamics in extemp. Students tend to fear breaking out and trying something different, since they’ve been told in no uncertain terms that faulty substructure in extemp will lead to the downfall of our civilization. Or at least that judges will tune them out and fail to consider whether they’re, you know, smart or correct or such. It doesn’t happen because of vile conspiracy, just aimlessness that finds a formula that works, I think.

What’s funny about it all is that judges could care less. The purpose of structure is clarity; if you have clarity without distinct structure, all will be well. If you have structure, but your thoughts are unclear, UA will not save you. But students care a great deal, since if there’s anything that a high school student wants it’s to be part of a club. And if there’s anything a high schooler fears, it’s to be singular in a way that opens you to criticism from the circle of peers they admire. For extemp dorks, that’s other extemp dorks; they know the quarterback isn’t going to like them, but they’ll be damned if they lose face before the other prep room denizens.

So we teach them how to analyze at my camp, sure, and we do teach a specific structure. But we’re careful not to make it gospel, and we’re careful to listen to other styles. I suppose that means we don’t sell the snake oil well. That’s fine by me.