Just Beyond the Echo Chamber

echo chamber of the Dresden University of Tech...
echo chamber of the Dresden University of Technology (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
THB it is unacceptable for CA teams to set motions at debate tournaments if there is a high probability they would be making competitors debate about topics that they have had traumatic personal experiences with.
This motion was the final round at the Pan-Pacific tournament just held last weekend. I believe this motion is ample proof for my larger claim I've been advancing this year - that debating is currently situated in a discourse of domination and control, one that sees the competitive tournament as its sole reason to be, as the only function of debating, and also aims all concerns of the participants in debate to ultimately be about itself, and it's value as graphed against itself. This motion is an excellent example of this discourse at work - and it indicates an effect and a direction we should go as a community if we want to start addressing the major issues facing BP in the world today.

See here how the motion's value comes from its controversy and immediacy within the competitive debating community, full stop. The values of controversy and immediacy are long held in debating, competitive or otherwise. Audiences like hearing rhetoric that steps-up to rhetoric's time honored function: Offering reasons when knowledge is incomplete; offering propositions in the face of contingency, need, and lack. But in this case, the value of debate has been left outside the debating chamber. The door to the echo chamber has been shut, and the vast majority of the imagined debating audience has been left outside. We are debating to ourselves - we are a vanguard, excluding and claiming we are the people, in one move. This is exceedingly dangerous, and I hope this is the last time that we see a motion about debating as such.

This is not the fault of whoever set this motion. This CA, or adjudication team, is deserving of some sympathy actually. Some compassion. When I read it, I see a person or group of people who really deeply desire for a conversation about the quality, nature, and direction of debating. I see people who are lost, who don't know where to have this conversation. And I see them picked up and forceably moved by the discourse of competition debating to place their concerns in a tournament round - no, in the final of a tournament, because that is what the debate discourse demands is the serious, important place. This motion is a perfect example of how all concerns about debate - what it does, what it can be, what it teaches, what the point of it is - are funneled through a paradigm of the tournament as the end-all, be-all place for any productive debate work or thought to occur.

The problem is that once you are inside the echo chamber, it feels like it's the world. You're cut off. In debate, this echo chamber is quite dangerous, as we've brought all of our warped conceptions about what is controversial in the world in with us. We tend to manufacture controversy out of things that we think are cool in here. Whenever smart and well- read people bring up an idea or something to talk about within the echo chamber, the first thought of the listeners is - "That would make a great motion!" Or worse: Everyone strips the topic down to how it would function as a debate motion, and the whole conversation revolves around that. The tournament dominates all functions of debate and debaters, and all roads lead to it. We conveniently forget that the reasonable person - our rubric for evaluating competitions, by the way - would walk away from most of the controversies we set, including this one. It's reasonable not to attend to a debate that you feel is made-up. There's no anchor to anything outside of the echo chamber population.

Just outside the echo chamber is also not a good place to be. Clamoring for a view inside, to try to get the door open, to hope to get a glimpse of what is "really going on" - this attitude also infects academia, and it's disturbing in both places. People want to chat about the echo chamber in order to make the echo chamber better. Cracks are quickly patched up, and discussions are held about how to make the echo chamber bigger, or more diverse. "We don't have the right types and numbers of people in the chamber!" someone shouts. People scramble to determine how to add seating.

Collected just outside the echo chamber is not where we want to be as a community of debate practitioners. I suggest that we need to strive to be beyond the echo chamber. What does that mean?

Life, just beyond the echo chamber involves discussion about controversy, rules, issues, and other things - including oft-hated pedagogy (the only thing that keeps me in debate, even if most of my readers don't understand why). These conversations must be planned, they cannot be casual and they cannot be between the same few people. They have to be orderly, and they have to be welcoming. They have to be within sight of the echo chamber, so we can understand what we are up against. They give us perspective, they show us the giant world surrounding our little bubble, instead of the distorted, twisted, and distant world seen through the refracted light of the echo chamber. What's important and controversial in here doesn't matter one bit out there. We have to be aware of that, and use debate's limited form and function as a place to start a larger conversation about and with the world outside. Currently, the tournacentric discourse has us in blinders, thinking that all issues and all concerns must be, and are best addressed, by and within the tournament scene. We struggle to expand debate to make it more realistic. What we should do is highlight and discuss the limits of the echo chamber. From there we can see what the next step for people concerned about the world might be.

In American debate, this conversation happened beautifully for many years within the scholarly journals of the NCA and other forensics societies. In debating cultures where there is no faculty presence, and there may never be, this conversation happens on social media, in forums, and whatnot. The Monash Debate Review is a fine start, at least in its current form, and it's what I start with when I imagine life beyond the echo chamber. These discussions should be grounded in literature about argumentation, social issues, controversy, speech, communication theory - but they are grounded. They are grounded in something other than, "They ran a motion similar to this at Oxford" - which is about as deep a reference you might find in current motion discussions. Life just beyond the echo chamber is where the discussion about the chamber takes place, without a timer, and without the artificial conditional limits of the tournament on top of it. Why we think this is the prefered forum for all important discussions - even motion setting - is one of the strangest things ever. If something is an important topic people should be talking about, having it as a motion for 8 or 16 people to debate to determine a winner of a competition is the most counterproductive choice you could make, next to keeping it quiet.

If people do wish to debate the level of personal controversy a motion should contain, or how much the adjudication team should weigh the fact that motions about rape and abortion most likely (and very sadly) touch the personal lives of those in attendance at the tournament, I think these discussions should take place, should be vigorous, and should be well-grounded in the relevant literature from the relevant fields about trauma, affect, and communication. But placing it as a motion - as cute and cool and as clever as it sounds - allows us to feel as if the discussion is taking place. This is another real danger of the echo chamber: The feeling that we've addressed and dealt with something that probably shouldn't ever be finished. This extends to many motions, considered by CAs and adjudication teams as tired, old, and worn out.

A competitive debate round is as much a discussion as a Wikipedia entry is a dissertation. It's a start of a germ of a larger idea that must be developed over time, and must be developed openly, and measured by high standards that are intersubjectively agreed upon no matter the specifics of one's training (This is why in doctoral exams, candidates must have a committee member from outside their field. We not only discourage this, but when it happens, the echo-chamber chair smirks and explains to the outsider how debate "works"). Having a debate on something is not, and never will be, the same as discussing it. It can spark a conversation, but in our current discourse of domination and mastery, that conversation quickly turns to one of merit and skill - "If I was closing government, I would have said . . ." - and the moment of purchase is lost. The tournament makes sure all roads of conversation lead back to it and it alone.

On the issue of inclusion and diversity - nothing could be more related to this issue than motions like this. Could there be a productive connection here? Could it be that motions that were thought out beyond the limits of being "cool to run," grounded in a long, productive, professional discussion about the nature of argumentation and communication, with citations to the excellent research out there on such questions, raise the number of minorities and women interested in attending more than one debating tournament? Our inward focus, constructed by and for ourselves, might not contain any material of interest to those who don't look like the current members of our community. Grounding motions in things other than what we like - or what's within arm's reach of the echo chamber - isn't good enough for attracting diverse participants. To be diverse, we must attract the diverse. We do that by including as much of the world as we can in our events, tournament and otherwise. Manufacturing controversies or having motions that are just about ourselves do not hold the interest of reasonable people. Yes, there are reasonable people who have never heard of debate, never touched it, and have no idea that an extension needs three elements to function properly to win a debate. They are attending to persuasion, claim, and proof - very reasonable, and there are a ton of them out there in the world, much more than there are ex-debaters.

Diversity cannot hope to appear at our competitions through our current "playground drug dealer model" of hoping that they come to one or two and get hooked, becoming customers for life. "Don't worry," we say, "as the product gets more pure, the high will be so much better." We begin the processing of argument into something beyond that nasty street mix. In a pure form, it has no impurities. It is exactly as we think it should be. It's so pure, it's almost nothing. There are no particulates in it other than debate itself. It is so pure, it cannot be anywhere but here in front of us. And when we take part in it, we must wonder what it is that we are taking part in. Sanitized, pasteurized, free of anything objectionable to the tournament biology - this motion is the most pure debate product imaginable. As Slavoj Zizek writes in The Fragile Absolute, when we drink caffeine free diet Coke, what exactly are we drinking? We are consuming a product where all of the elements that gave it its identity - uncertainty, impurities,etc (in the case of debate) - have been removed in order to improve that identity through purification. In debate, our motion writing practices attempt to extract anything deemed unhealthy to "good debating" - imbalance, uncertainty, too many good arguments for one side (!), etc. All elements that give debate its flavor and nature, and we want them gone. What exactly are we making here?

Our practices of tournaments should be more than just about the tournament. They should be more than just about the rush one gets from the stimulant of competition. They should be showcases of the power of debate pedagogy - transforming people into amazing thinkers and speakers, ready to reach out to whatever audience they are in front of, and do their best to move that audience toward an idea with only their words. Sounds a bit romantic, but it's also incredibly true. Speaking persuasively never loses importance. Inside the echo chamber, or just outside it wanting to be in, one only attends to the rhetoric that appeals to the vanguard audience.  You can make the vanguard audience smile. This vanguard wants nothing more than to stand in for something more broad.

The vanguard is not welcoming - it is a meritocracy that does not recognize privilege. The vanguard thinks anyone could join it by being successful, but they set their own changing standards of membership. The most dangerous mistake you can make in practicing rhetoric is to substitute the vanguard for all audiences. When one conflates argumentation that appeals to the vanguard as the normative state argumentation should take in the world, the set up is perfect for the debater to dismiss any and all non-conforming argumentative discourse as unworthy. Debating outside the echo chamber is malformed. "Oh," we exclaim, "If only everyone had access to debate training! We could fix this!" But negotiation, argumentation, and deliberation has been working away much longer than formal debating has existed. Things are fine with argumentation - many scholars are exploring how this works, using their lives to do so. But we ignore any idea of adapting to how those people do it. The vanguard imagines itself as reasonable people, not the way it should be, that the vanguard invites reasonable people into the echo chamber to judge, participate, and comment. No, you have to prove you are reasonable by mastering the esoteric act of a judging test. Prove you are reasonably vanguard!

Our vanguard is sort of out of touch as well with what makes a persuasive argument. There are national and global conferences every year about argumentation - and they are full of paper after paper displaying how persuasive argumentation does not fit the standards of reasonable and rational thought, no matter the culture, no matter the field. These papers never get old, because human affairs never get old. Living just beyond the echo chamber means understanding debate's limits, and how it might be best as just an introduction to the messy, irrational world of argumentation, reason, and - something we don't' really discuss that much -  the evil uses of  'rationality' as a justification in human affairs. Life just beyond the echo chamber means recognizing cool speeches and cool topics are only such because they are perceived that way by a very low bandwidth audience.

But the tournament for tournament's sake discourse is a steam roller, going at a quick pace, and not anywhere near out of steam. We can't really blame individuals, the situation is ours. As Michel Foucault writes, a group of signs can be seen as a 'statement' not because someone said them, but because "the position of the subject can be assigned." [1]  It's not because someone made a motion that was bad - it's not that simple. This motion can be recognized as such because it reveals very clearly what the role of the debate participant must be - that of tournament focused, that being as a subject of the tournament, as subjected to the tournament. Your words are for the tournament; your arguments exist at the tournament's pleasure. Since we are placed in the position of the tournament subject, it only makes sense by the logic of this discourse that our most important issues would become debate motions in order to be properly addressed. One cannot address concerns about a practice unless the language of those concerns is recognizable and articulated by a proper subject, who emerges with the power to speak and be heard precisely because the space for such an act was laid out by the discourse. In other words, one never speaks alone. One's speech, in order to be known as such, must follow the rules laid down by the system of rules for meaning that appear from noplace in particular.

 This discourse - the one that allowed this motion to be set - for it was not some CA or group of people, but the dominating discourse that makes tournament debate valuable - is the perfect storm. It meets all of the qualities of a good motion, tested against an actual controversy within the debate community itself. This is what I mean when it is graphed against itself - it appears to be an amazingly important topic, because the standard of an amazingly important topic is set by the discourse from which this motion arises. This is similar to Jacques Lacan's model of perfect pleasure - "A mouth kissing itself." But nobody wants that - it's disturbing and disgusting. It's better to have two mouths kissing - less sanitary, less sterile, and lacking in perfect pleasure - but we keep wanting to do it, again and again. The pressure to remove impurities from debate actually kills the vibrancy and diversity of debate because there's less and less room for people to see themselves as a potential subject within our practice. They don't see a spot for themselves. A mouth kissing itself is hardly invitational to others.

If tournaments did not dominate the collective debating imagination, this question would not exist, nor would it be a controversy, nor would it be a controversy that a CA would believe meets the standards of being a competitive debating motion. How does this motion, in any manner whatsoever, reach toward a reasonable person? Or a rational voter? Or whatever malleable, imaginary audience we like to concoct being a witness to these persuasive speeches?  This motion discards the very standards of judging BP debate in totality, since no audience of reasonable voters could be assembled to judge the arguments. We could very easily assemble an audience of reasonable debate practitioners to judge it - in fact, we do that for every motion, don't we? But we understand that we are discussing something more than just ourselves here. The guidelines for judging you'd find at most tournaments indicate a desire to speak beyond the echo chamber. I suggest we follow them, and get a healthy distance so we can place issues like the one in this motion into a discourse other than the one that extols the tournament as the best thing, and the everything.

[1] This is from Michel Foucault's book The Archaeology of Knowledge (New York: Pantheon, 1972), 95.
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