All Illegal Drugs Should be Legal: The Motion Debate Review for January

The last Motion Debate in New York city was the first to include an expert on the topic as a speaker. This was really wonderful in terms of giving the audience a great perspective from a professional researcher and advocate on the topic. But it throws into question the idea of the role of debate in society - one that has been wrestled with many times over the history of debate pedagogy. Should public debate include experts in the field of debate and should they be treated in the same way we would non-expert debaters: Given the same time constraints, side constraints and the like.

When I think about this I think about many examples of experts taking part in debates and refusing to follow the constraints or limitations of debate based on their expert status. This didn't happen at The Motion, primarily because the speaker was not a professor. I find university professors to be the people who are most incapable of following the rules of debate, probably because in their classes or in their daily life they are used to being the ones who set those boundaries and limits, and they determine who gets to speak and who doesn't. University professors are also a particular kind of expert that might not be suited for debates. The reason why is that their expertise is captured within a fidelity to field and mostly to other experts and to a perfection of a scholarly form or scholarly endpoint. Very rarely do professors act on the feeling to engage publics, and when they do they might consider it a one-way interaction. At least this is what scholarly training for academia leans toward.

An expert, even a Ph.D. who is not and does not go that route is most likely to be familiar with general audiences and be more comfortable meeting the constraints of the everyday world. Publication for them is a difficult and limited process involving many barriers, as opposed to scholarly publication which is fidelity to form. In debates such experts are much more comfortable speaking in such restrictions because the world is "such restrictions."

I think in this debate the expert put on a clinic in how to engage publics with complicated research in order to show how to draw a conclusion in terms of policy. He also put on a clinic in debate as well, showing very clearly how debate is about selection and audience, not getting it right, establishing definitions, or connecting ideas to grandiose truths about government or economics. It was great to hear him patch the information into clear policy recommendations for the audience.

That being said, I am not a fan and probably won't be of having experts debate. This to me seems to diminish or destroy debate as a source of knowledge in itself. For example, Intelligence Squared, the highly popular expert-based debate podcast, features experts debating where debate simply becomes the dressing to expert discourse. Most expert discourse within the debates has no distinction from expert discourse in other forms such as long form journalism, interview on TV, or the like.

Debate is like an envelope or a box for intelligence squared to re-present expert discourse in a novel way. Nothing unexpected or new arrives, we get just what we expect from these performances. The experts sound and act like experts and speak on the motion on the side that their expertise pushes them toward. The audience is simply asked to consume this discourse in a novel form but there's no demand on the status or structure of knowledge, no real engagement in what constitutes the terms of the motion. One finds what one wants to and expects to find.

What about a modification to the Intelligence Squared formula where we pair an expert with an amateur, someone who is self-directed or taught in that field. Andy Merrifield's book The Amateur, argues very persuasively that the amateur is not in opposition to the expert, but a necessarily compliment to the expert. The amateur's knowledge is not inferior to the expert, but different. Each person on her own would be hard-pressed to find the whole picture, but persuaded on their own that they know more than their compliment: The expert is certain that the amateur does not know enough, or the right way; the amateur is convinced the expert is blinded by the rules, regulations, and isolation of the university.

Pedagogically this is a slam dunk to pair experts with student debaters as everyone benefits in some way, except perhaps audiences who will tend to bend toward the voice of the expert as a default. This is why I would rather have experts comment on debates that are conducted by regular folks who care about the topic and are interested in it. The question of debate knowledge comes to the front. Without the typical props of expertise or statistics or monologues, but just logos, just words. The expert can then express surprise that the discourse fell into the norms of expert conversation or that it touched on elements of the "professional" conversation without having that background. The power of this comes from demonstrating how conversation in a reason-giving format of discourse can produce an equivalent, if more open or more pluralistic, discourse as the experts can when talking. The locus of authority in what to believe comes from the people, or the audience, instead of the expert, which might worry people. But what should worry people is how expertise, as a discourse, is designed to eliminate alternatives to its own official articulation under the guise of progress. Thomas Kuhn has detailed this in science, but it follows that most fields would be the dual adoption of a method of research and knowledge generation, and a method of knowledge policing and defense.

So debate with laypeople for assembled audiences, however they manifest, will be constituted as subjects and with their corresponding agency by the rhetoric of the speakers. That rhetoric should be unpropped by expert convention in order to reveal the constructed nature of knowledge. Then we have another set of tools, another approach to evaluating knowledge when usually we are not asked to evaluate knowledge at all, but claims, and usually just asked to learn how to accept expert discourse while merely entertaining other discourses out there.

So with that, what did I think of this debate?

No term describes intercollegiate debaters better than "trained incapacity," that wonderful ideas from Thorsten Veblen fleshed out by Kenneth Burke. A trained incapacity is when one's training to do something well eliminates the appropriate or effective interpretation of a situation or phenomena. The over-determination of good training leads us sometimes to make the wrong decision, which reveals our fidelity not to getting the read of the situation right, but getting our loyalty and piety toward our orientation or perspective right.

The training of debate which is the curriculum of the tournament, the contest alone, is responsible for all the strange asides and front-loading of the intercollegiate debater speech. The first speaker on the affirmative spends about 3 minutes telling us what the debate is about and isn't about - as if the audience wasn't there to make those determinations based on the arguments they hear! The debaters in this debate are speaking the holy language of the debate tournament. They see the word "debate" and believe that there is but one operation available. They believe that they are there to win the debate by conducting an appropriate debate, by definition. This is opposed to the perspective that one is not there to win or lose the debate but to provide reasons and persuade. Intercollegiate debaters are persuading, but they are persuading themselves that they are "doing it right," that they are doing debate correctly, meeting the needs of debate, not the audience, and conforming to the requirements of the contest alone.

One of the strangest things about intercollegiate, or tournament debaters is their reliance on the vernacular of the tournament as an inventional resource. That is, they use particular phrases as pauses in the speech so they can come up with the next argument. Examples would be "What we tell you on our side of the house," "The other side of the house wants you to believe," "What we bring you today," etc. Many times you can hear them refer to one another by the names imposed by the tournament, "government" and "opposition" which made for some pretty funny sentences. My favorite is near the end of the debate, where the speaker on Opposition says: "Government wants you to believe that government can't provide solvency." Another great one is, "Thanks to our opposition the government." Maybe these things don't mean that much, but I believe them to be clear evidence of where the speaker's attention lies - it's with the abstract ideal of a tournament speech, that debate is something to aspire to, to reach for as an ideal, instead of the view of debate put forward by the rhetorical tradition: Adapting and presenting one's reasons for the audience to help aid them in understanding.

"we on the government side," is something that no public speaker should ever say. But the problem is that the curriculum of tournament debating puts perfection of its arbitrary methods as perfection in argumentation. The things that are supposedly required at a tournament to be a good speech are only a good speech in that venue. One of the other odd things that they did was seem unable to talk about the issue without talking about problem-solving, or the opposing team's arguments as unable to fix the problem. For example, one speaker on opposition mentioned decriminalization in a point of description to help orient the audience to his point of view. The next speaker in favor of the motion spent a ton of time talking about how decriminalization doesn't work, missing the point entirely. The opposition speaker was pointing out how one doesn't need to criminalize people in order to deal with the issues of drugs. Affirmative/pro side heard "decriminalization" and launched into arguments against it, as they have been taught to do by the tournament. There are no statements in tournament debating that are not identities that must be attacked.

Again the discourse of the expert had the best nuance and best articulation of what persuasion looks like. Take a complicated set of data and put it into (and onto)the terms the audience understands. Instead of being there to instruct the audience what to think about drug policy, he was there to offer interpretations of research for them and explain how he drew his conclusions. Contrast that to the collegiate debate approach, which is often an instructional capacity. Intercollegiate debaters often will speak to audiences as if they don't know what the valuable arguments and topoi are, they often will speak at length about the value of rights, or the role of the government. This instructional mode might come from the requirements of winning debate tournament rounds, but it could also come from the idea that debaters have special access to what debate "ought to" look like, that the form of debate in the everyday is not "true" or "real" debate and they have to do extra instruction to make sure the audience understands how to evaluate the debate.

Experts should be debate commentators on issues they know something about, and I also think this probably extends to so-called debate experts, those whose experience with debating comes primarily from the limited world of debating contests. The curriculum there is not one aimed at public audiences. The curriculum is aimed at winning tournament debates. The technical mastery here might have some value, as well as the time competitive debaters should spend reading about issues comes in handy, but I think it's better as commentary for the audience and the debaters rather than the material of the debate. Of course you have to agree with me that the function of debate goes beyond eristics or making a decision, but lies more in the realm of questoning whether the capacity to make a decision has been met.