Information Slips

I wasn't at Cambridge this past weekend, but from Twitter I could see there were a lot of information slides. Why are information slides becoming so prevalent? What function do they serve? I am afraid to say that information slides do not serve us well. They usually function to take attention and focus away from the valence of debate in all of its cloudy, beautiful inconsistency and give us a false sense of comfort and stability about some of the most exciting and controversial aspects to the art.

Check out this recent example of an information slide from the Huber Debates at the University of Vermont:


This info slide was from a motion that simply said "THW only issue transfer payments to people who vote." A good motion, but why leave in a phrase that doesn't mean much to the community? At this particular American tournament, why not change the term "transfer payment" into something more amenable to the audience of participants?

The question, and the start of this post, must seem pretty banal and pretty semantic. Of course the information slide is needed to explain to people a term in the motion that they may not understand. But the reason why an information slide was chosen over the idea to change speaks to how information slides are working us over, in dark McLuhan ways. I go so far as to claim that we end up serving the Information Slide rather than the slide serving the quality of our debates. 

The information slide serves the motion in this example as if it were some sort of liturgy that needs interpretation from the adjudication team. The motion is set up as an "inpenetrable" text that requires "interpretation" from the adjudication team. The tournament is providing the official interpretation of the motion - telling us what this debate is going to be about. In the same move, the scope of the debate is drastically limited. "Transfer Payments" is removed from the table as a site of rhetorical invention, or argument genesis. The reason the motion was not changed is that the motion is being treated as some sort of holy text.  That is, the motion cannot be altered: It is up to us to alter our behavior to properly debate (read: worship) the motion. The adjudication team serves as the high priests who offer the official interpretation to the masses, who then either take the sermon to heart and find redemption, or, well, you know the alternative.

Changing the term in the motion to "Government assistance" payments or perhaps "welfare payments" (since that's as specific a cultural use in America as Transfer Payment is in Europe, where I suspect this motion hails from) puts the debate in the hands of the debaters directly. The more of the motion that is available for the debaters to interpret, argue, and generate their own discourse about, the better. 

Why is this reaction so important?

Again - and this is becoming the theme of this blog - the competitive equity or competitive fairness of Worlds Debate is only valuable in as much as it can realistically simulate the difficulties of persuasion, argument, debate, and discourse outside of the tournament environment.  This is a careful ballance - think of motion setting as those tiny little humidity monitors under the museum glass.  We are preserving an artificial environment for works that need public display but cannot be properly accessed without taking them out of their natural environment. The motion is a key pedagogical tool in achieving this balance. One cannot screw only with the competitive elements of tournaments and believe one to be doing good work. When you tweak the gears of the competitive equity of a tournament, you hurt the soft parts. And the soft parts are where all - that is, every single benefit we tout about debating - come from.

Information slides are Information slips - they "slide" information into the debate, tipping the scales and throwing off the simulated public environment of the debate for something more liturgical. Our rounds are transformed from something open to something closed. From the public park to the halls of the Cathedral. This moves seems like it would be noticable, transparent even. But let me provide another example from the recent Huber tournament to support this:



Here we have the info slide before the debate "THW require men in countries with high HIV rates to be circumcised."

This slide makes a broad assertion of fact with no citation and no quote from any study. No journal is mentioned. It might even be too broadly stated to cite properly (I wonder if there is such broad agreement in medical journals about much). More importantly, this sort of assertion as an educational exercise wouldn't make it past the first round in a University class. I do think there should be academic standards of some kind in University level competitions, but I don't really want to take that argument too far. The reason is that going too far into the educational theory literature also creates a bubble world of a different nature, one where the measurable easily elides and trumps the "good."

It's not that I dispute the claim, I dispute the making of these sorts of claims before debates start in the first place. The reason is simple: You take the power from the debaters and give it to the false certainty of the text. Quite literally, the pinpoints of light on the powerpoint slide become the focus of debate instead of the fluid and indeterminate minds of the debaters.  What this slide does is state the nature of reality, then propose a debate. Access to argumentative topoi, such as the validity of science, the worth of research methods, the questionable nature of scientific truth claims all fall to the wayside as students appeal to the liturgical slide. A POI I heard in my debate was, "But the info slide told us this is true. How can you argue that it's not?" The Church has spoken!

The info slip turns the debate into a prisoner's delimma, where the debaters worry about the form of the incoming and outgoing arguments above and beyond what's appropriate. The info slip removes some of the most vital ground from the debate and teaches less invention and more deference to under examined ways of speaking and arguing in the world.

This is not unique to debate, or even to rhetoric in general. All teaching, matter of fact, requires some differentiation from the open world in order to make a safe instructional environment. Things have to be altered and mutilated just a bit to turn attention to what the instructor, or the class, wants to attend to for that lesson. So in a writing seminar, students sometimes write things that are a bit unrealistic so that time and attention can be spent on a particular element of the study of writing. Any course is like this. But those limits have to be carefully set.

Debate though, doesn't want to pay attention to the pedagogical half of things with info slides. Both of these slides were offered to clarify and with the intent to improve debate. But what they do is improve competitive equity, which hardly ever improves the pedagogical debating experience. What it does is remove the messier elements, or the elements that the adjudication team things are "beyond" the scope of the debaters to properly get, thus making the debate appropriately competitive. This clean up before the debaters even see the motion ruins one of the best things about debate - its inequity, its unpredictability, and the joy of the kairotic moment when opportunity arises from messy discourse. Nothing quite like not having any idea what the debate was about and reflecting on your 2 or 4 to make you really feel desperate about language's failings and how desperate we long to be in language, of language, language.

A good metaphor to the info slide controversy is the study of Casuistry, the practice of finding appropriate pennance for sin in the early Catholic church. Complicated questions of sin were resolved through an art that attempted to account for the everyday lives of people in the light of what Church doctrine deemed appropriate. A skilled Casuist could use words to assuage the suffering of people in the parish. This skill was incredibly important in making sure people kept faith in dogma. Unfortunately the training of Casuistry began to trump the application - creating strange contests where nearly impossible situations were created to test the technical skills of the casuists. These contests and their disconnection from applied religious practice was criticized to the point of elimination of the practice entirely in a formal sense.

As the use of info slides increases, we should study the history of the Casuists. We can learn from their lesson. Our contests are starting to bend this way. Check out this slide, dubbed a "situation slide" by the Huber tournament:



This is not an info slide, but it might be an early mutation of a future event that will trump Worlds debate. Reading this, and the corresponding motion "THWspoil the ballots," gives me a sense that we are in an experimental event. So much fact is declared here I wonder where the debaters come in to generate argumentation. How true is it that the party is "far right" or "racist?" What does it mean to "get caught?" How do we know the candidate is going to "win?" These are all topoi of argument that in natural language argumentation would have to be settled by the speaker(s) and disputed for a while during the course of the debate. The liturgical turn of Worlds debate via the info slide has set up something different - this is the playing field, and these statements are going to be interpreted as non-controversial by the debaters, and the debate will be built on top of it. Here the "artificial reef" of debating is replaced by the plastic castle in our debate fishbowl.

How ridiculous can it get? We see a fantastically horrifying example of the plastic castle phenomenon in a recent tournament where the info slide read:

You are the commander of an Israeli submarine in the Persian Gulf. It is the day after Israel was annihilated in a surprise Iranian nuclear attack. THW not use Israel's second strike capabilities.

This seems like a topic best suited to after-debate conversation rather than a motion. The question such a motion begs is who are we speaking to? Such a question, whether you find it interesting or not, is a question that is designed by and for an in group to focus on a particular mode of in-group communication. This sort of motion leads to role play, and psychological second guessing of people faced with events that at first glance seem more interesting or intense than other global crises, but rest assured: We have plenty of dire and desperate situations to debate about to keep us busy for years without having to make them up. Events that stem from non insular ideas make for much better debates and debate training as they ground the speaker in the acceptable, the lucid, and the culturally knowable - in short, they keep that idea of audience present.

If a motion is really cool and really interesting and requires an info slide to debate it fairly, it might not be a good motion. It might just be a motion that we as an insular community think would make a good debate. We need to be honest and congnizent as to which audience we are talking to and want to talk to. Do we want to talk to ourselves or to the public? How do we know if we are in the fishbowl? Is our simulation so good that we've duped ourselves as to the urgency or importance of this motion to audiences?

Debate is on the road to having a bible, and the pages will be written in powerpoint. Do you want to spend each weekend in Talmudic style debate over text? Or do you want to spend your time crafting texts for mutual investigation? Tailor of discourse that is accepted as true, or fashion designer? Celebrity chef or sous chef? The metaphor can go on and on.

We do not want a liturgically oriented community where the infoslide controls our event. If we want something like that, let's experiment - provide scholarly articles for the round 4 motion upon registration or have a keynote expert speaker give a talk during dinner or lunch. Make the information relevant, realistic, and of a high quality. Most importantly, keep that connection to how debate and discourse function in public spaces. Anything you get from debate that will be valuable will not come from rigorous, artificial practices born out of a fear that the competition isn't "fair enough." Eventually we are going to find our practice an institution with nobody at the helm, serving up events nobody wants to do yet spend hours defending because they have not known anything else. Every practice we introduce has consequences - some might call it karma - so we should use extreme caution every time we introduce a new practice.

Enhanced by Zemanta