Parachutes are not for Reasonable People

JGSDF parachute(696MI)
JGSDF parachute(696MI) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sorry for the delays in posting, I've been very sick, and finally just getting this one out. More to come, more frequently, especially during and after the USU Nationals this weekend.

I love learning something new. 

Upset after losing a debate that he "shouldn't have," the debater comes into the tab room to tell the CAs about a terrible chair. At the end, he requests a "parachute."

I'm still quite new to BP, and my experiences so far in it have not given me any indication to think that BP, as it was characterized to me years ago, corrupt and filled with manipulation of the tab to get the "desired" result - that result being the teams that are supposed to win appear near the top. I get judge rankings, and I understand why they exist. But nothing had prepared me for this. A parachute is a request for a judge that "gets BP" for a team that is not doing "as well as they should be doing" in the tab.

It seems reasonable to assume that a competition decides who is good or bad on that particular day. But if one has a positivist conception of "being good" - that it is out there and attainable at all times given one's skill - then parachutes make sense. We can't have reality manipulated. Debate tournaments are meant to expose the properties we know are deep in the minds, brains, hearts, etc of those "good teams" or "good speakers."

So it was met with shock my equating "parachutes" with "tab manipulation" - for the tab had already been "manipulated" because a "good" team had been hurt - they were not where they "should" be.

If one takes the Aristotelian view, that excellence (Gr. Arete) is not an act, but a habit - one finds a very different view. One could certainly not be excellent after just one action. One has to cultivate it, work on it, dive into it, practice it. It's something one does, not something one is. And it's always up for grabs. This is the spirit of competition, that makes tournaments challenging and fun - that you could really lose or win it all.

But in the debate universe it seems enough that one was a World's semifinalist, or a champion, or even if they do very well at certain tournaments for them to be able to request alterations of reality. When a team requests a parachute, they are requesting the poor judge - a judge they are calling bad at the total act of judging - be assigned to other teams in the tournament. Seems a bit contradictory to me. Why would one want to be a champion of a tournament where the other teams you might compete against were chosen to meet you in elimination debates by "bad judges?" It is definitely not the Aristotelian view of excellence. It is the view of debating elites that their valuable property has been taken from them by some lower form. Justice requires the returning of their stolen property.

Debate creates some of the most committed positivists I've ever met. They believe good is a property that once earned, it's yours. It's not something that is determined by situation. They believe particular arguments are good - like magic words, when they are uttered, the spell is cast. Speaker, audience, and situation do not matter. They also believe that speaker scores can be known outside of any context: "82? I've never spoken an 82 in my life!" If you are good at arguing, you are good at arguing. Period. Not much space for the fluid nature of things in this worldview.

This perspective is dangerous in the extreme, and things like parachutes - apparently commonplace enough to where nobody bats an eye at such a request - are a threat to debate's legitimacy.

The notion of parachutes reveals another side of the rhetoric of the reasonable person, that of smokescreen for a vanguard presence in BP debating. Under the rubric of reasonable person, both in the meta and the micro, a vanguard of elitists can comfortably hide, trading spaces on the board in an eternal lateral competition to see which of the chosen will emerge on top this week. This process must necessarily remain invisible at the same time that it is apparently transparent. The CA system, and the emergence of things like parachutes - meant to ensure the vanguard’s membership roles are maintained - are systems of power maintenance that exclude those that don’t meet the requirements already being designated as “good” by an accidental system of privilege mixed with some luck and some ability.

Parachutes are the privilege of an elite class, who really "get" debating, and painfully have to suffer through preliminary rounds on their way to the coronation. For it's ok if they lose then, because the other teams present also "get" debate, and they are worthy. The vanguard is always crowned a victor, and the membership gets to universally celebrate. Parachutes are the police, the justice system, meant to right wrongs done to one's personal property - being good on the tab. They are meant to make things right again.

Some might say that parachutes do not do any active harm to the tab, and, on the contrary, positively repair injustices done in the tab by judges who don’t know how to judge BP. Parachutes do active damage to not only the tab of the tournament where they are deployed, but they do damage to debate itself on the meta level.

If we assume that parachutes are only deployed in situations where the judge is objectively bad - or bad in the opinion of the vanguard on the basis that they “don’t know what they are doing” - the parachute moves this judge away from other vanguard teams and into the realm of the teams that are not vanguard members. This serves to create artificial ballast for the vanguard at that tournament. 

Additionally, if the judge was truly “unreasonable,” that judge should be removed from the tournament or given some guidance on judging from the tab. Perhaps that judge could be placed as a wing with a CA for instructional purposes. This would not happen in most cases, because the judge is probably reasonable - just not “debate reasonable” - the judge does not think in the way that the vanguard thinks about debating.

This also actively removes a “good” judge from a room they were assigned to, and places them in a room to support a team that “needs help.” This skews the rotation of the judges, taking away one that the CA team agrees is good and giving that person to the team that they all agree is “good” - or at least, better than the results so far would indicate.

A tournament has plenty of wiggle room for the “bad call” - although most of the time I would argue the “bad call” is anything but that. Often, we find a “bad call” lining up against our (dangerous) expectations as to who “should” win a particular matchup. This upends the entire idea of having a competition - if the teams that are perceived as good can walk into a tab room and ask for a parachute, why are we wasting so much time on these tournaments? We could just start them at the semifinal, after the registration concludes.

On the meta level, the reasonable person standard, what makes BP attractive, powerful, and enjoyable, is eroded by parachutes. There is no such thing as a “good” team being harmed by “bad” judging - either the judge is unreasonable and cannot judge anymore or needs assistance, or the judge does not judge in the manner ascribed by the vanguard. This choice of identifying the judge erodes the idea that reasonable people are the paradigm for judging. It is possible, and it happens all the time, even at high levels of government that reasonable and well-informed people - often times experts - disagree on a decision or on a call. But this does not mean that the next meeting is populated with people who see the world your way. Any organization that ran its meetings that way would not last long.

If a team is doing very well in a competition, and they are doing better than they are supposed to be, why do CA teams not issue “lead balloons” - assigning a poor judge to their next room to ensure that their performance matches up to expectations? (There is no doubt I would abuse this request for my teams, if I felt they were hitting a streak of luck). Actually, the effect of the policy of the parachute is to do just this - condemn the rooms without name recognition or vanguard elite membership at the competition to cycling through the supposed bad judge round after round. This is a fake tournament, meant to distract the plebeians while the “real” teams deal in "real" arguments, at their cocktail party before the final.

Defense of a vanguard is setting up a dilettante organization in BP tournaments where self-reflexivity on argument quality is minimized, and most concern about argumentation is the judge being in harmony in his or her RFD with the key changes suggested by the speakers. They develop a hyper-inflated view of "good argumentation" that in reality only appeals to a very narrow-band audience of people. Contrast this to the reasonable person standard of judging where teams must be incredibly self-reflexive about argument selection and development, where an elite interpretation of the motion is not at play. Teams under this rubric have to consider and reconsider what it means to be reasonable, in many different situations. They can never be comfortable saying "this argument always wins." This is healthy. This produces a capacity for critical judgement. There is little capacity for critical judgement engendered in an event where one continues to make boutique-style arguments in front of a very limited, and selective audience of experts. One might win the tournament, but at what price? 

The reasonable person standard is in line with all argumentation theory and research done since 1950. The parachute vanguard mode is old philosophical understandings of argument, pre-World War 2. The idea that one can summarily dismiss the audience because one's arguments are "right" is what a parachute is. This sounds painfully out of date in a postmodern, postcolonial, hyper-individualized world where we have access to vast amounts of information. 

Parachutes save the vanguard, but what about the reasonable person? The most valuable aspect of BP has been its tie to the non-expert, non-professional audience. Constructing and supporting a vanguard - the ones who "know" - gives us the servile audience, or the student audience. If one is placed in a position of "knowing less" or being beneath someone's brilliance, one listens to that speaker differently. The reasonable person standard is meant to check this - it's meant to ensure that all speakers must notch what they say against a universal audience (in the Perelman & Olbrects-Tyteca sense) the reasoning that would be acceptable to good minds, not to a specialized elite, or an expert.  This puts the judges where they should be - arbiters. This places teams where they should be - appealing to the judges. Once you start making distinctions during the tournament about whether one team can actually be beaten or not, that is the end of the reasonable person guideline. 

The vanguard see themselves as reasonable, but they see their way to it as the only way to be reasonable. There are many approaches to evaluating an argument. We can revel in this, study it, and reflect on it, or we can try to stomp it out and homogenize it. Tab manipulation, parachutes, whatever you want to call it eliminates a very large portion of how to think about persuasion and arguments, delegitimizes competitions, and spells the end for BP as an inviting and engaging format. 
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