Rejecting the "Righteous Four"

Doing some last-minute preparation before our departure for New Haven in the morning for the Yale IV, which generally involves printing out maps, train schedules, hotel confirmation numbers and tax exemption forms. Prepping for a tournament is pretty easy after doing so many so close together - one of the things about adjusting to BP style is the run-up to the big tournament happens in the fall, since Worlds is held over the Winter intercession. This means spring is lighter in feeling, even though the U.S. Nationals is an important tournament. But it's not the same as the October-December blast of tournaments. In policy debate, the run-up ends either in February/March, when the regional qualifiers for the NDT are held, or CEDA nationals, or perhaps both depending on your preferences and your orientation to and within debate.

One big difference was pretty clearly pointed out to me in a couple of conversations I had surrounding the Hart House tournament at The University of Toronto. This was a fabulous tournament, but a few American debaters started a conversation about how wrong it was that they might have been forced into taking positions they found morally offensive. They were ok with losing though because their arguments were "right." I call this idea the "theory of the righteous four."

This theory postulates that it's not only fine, but morally acceptable to get ranked a four in a debate where you, by virtue of your position on the table, had to say or engage in argumentation that you find morally or ethically objectionable from your own political views. If you (rightly) refuse to engage, you will get ranked four. But that's ok, because you are on the side of justice, rightness, virtue, and many other noble truths in life.

When I first came to coach in the Northeastern U.S. in 2001, I first encountered this idea. I found it baffling - a bizarre at best, unhealthy at worst conflation of speech in debate and personal politics. The best description I mustered to myself at the time was that it was a simple logical fallacy - substitution of effect for cause - that made people think, "because she's saying this she must believe it." But surely, only the most rank amateur would believe such a post hoc. But there were a number of students around the circuit that would say to me during the criticism, "Don't you dare indict my voice." The conflation of debate with personal advocacy I found then to be confusing and dangerous, and I believe the same thing now.

First, it's a fallacy - probably a good idea to reject "effect for cause" reasoning. But the more critical claim at work here is the political function of a debate tournament. If you believe that debate is important because it is one of the last places where every idea can be treated on its merits with fair, critical evaluation then you have to accept, I think, that occasionally you will have to inhabit ideas that are not your own. These ideas are not always better ideas than your own; they can easily be ideas that you have had, or that you entertained and rejected on ethical or moral grounding. But either way, you should still embody them again, and in a manner that is not a straw dog, but a serious, strategic attempt at defending the idea.

The reason why is in service to debate as a whole. Good ideas glimmer more when the light of their alternative is present. Better, more persuasive accounts of thoughtful ideas can be crafted if someone smart is taking the other, more insidious side. Everyone benefits if a fair, persuasive attempt to represent all appropriate (read: kairotic) arguments are attempted in the debate. Relevancy and attention to nuance must be considered as well. In the end, the benefits of debate are extended when the debate is handled for the sake of debate, and not individual personal politics.

Here is what happens under the "righteous four" model - all of the discourse in debate shifts to the left. Instead of developing insights into argumentation that has a large representation in the public, the discourse becomes about "out-lefting" one another. If nobody will inhabit the "reprehensible" ground, then no chance appears for understanding why an argument we believe to be a priori "evil" would ever find assent. I would also suggest that those who refuse to take up objectionable positions within debates ensure a future of assent to those same reprehensible positions - they intellectually disarm all participants in the round from valuable defensive practice against such ideas. Just because you don't prefer a certain weapon doesn't mean that you should forgo training in how to defend yourself from that weapon.

A great example of this is the recent Hart House IV final round - This house would not contact undiscovered human populations. After a fairly good proposition case was established, the Opening Opposition speaker stood up and did something incredible - the first words out of her mouth were, "Madam Speaker, we kinda like exploitation." Brilliant. Is it because it's offensive? Because it's rejected by modern conceptions of the good, liberal politics and the like? Is it because it advocates violence and mayhem and that's cool? Not any of these. It's because it is an argument that is both relevant and contains the potential for great intellectual investigation within the context of this debate.

The debate was framed around the idea that contact, historically, leads to exploitation. I think it is intellectually responsible in the service of debate to offer the idea that exploitation is a situational term. Politically, this loaded language can do a number on an audience. It is up to the skilled debater to give it the nuance and articulation it needs to become a believable point. Is it really exploitative in all cases? Is the connection definitely solid? And in which instances would we prefer "exploitation" over the alternative of no contact whatsoever? These are the major clash points that arise from entertaining an idea that many, especially those in the academy fields of anthropology, sociology and others would find to be a repugnant position. Everything hinges on the definition, and the nuance of the speaker in establishing that definition and its limit.

Unfortunately, the speaker backed off of pursuing this line of reasoning possibly due to the laughter and reaction of the audience. But it's a shame she did. I think they could have won with a careful analysis of what this means, instead of the fear of a neo-liberal "bad word" can generate. "You said a dirty word" is not that persuasive a reason to reject someone, unless you are a High School teacher.

In certain debate communities, such as NPDA and American Policy debate, you can find regions where people do occupy ground where, if the audience is unskilled in the basics of debate practice, their personal view might be mistaken for their advocacy. I think we in the BP community want to provide the same excellent tradition of switch-side argumentation that these other communities have provided. Avoiding the sentimentally nice idea that "I lost because I refuse to compromise my principles" is a very important step in the service to much larger principles of intellectual rigor, argumentative development, and persuasive realism - all of which serve the members of the community in their development not as political radicals, but something much better: Moderates who critically examine public discourse and are not afraid to entertain the idea that they might not know it all, they might need more information, and more time might be needed to figure out what's best - all of which work very well in the service of pluralistic democracy.