USU Reflections 2016

No shortage of thoughts about USU floating around the internet. For me, it was one of the best tournaments I've been to in a long while. No I'm not some weirdo - I too was bothered by the delays, the cut round, the wording of that motion. Even in spite of all these things it was a debate tournament that made me feel like I did about debate years ago - that debate was a powerful force and that in spite of itself, or in spite of those who want it to be this way or that, it will provide quite a bit for the intellectual mill.  Here are my thoughts, in no particular order:

What is Debate? It's Old School

Gorgias called the study of rhetoric a "powerful lord" and a "pharmakon" meaning a drug/medicine/poison - which is what debate is. This metaphor is too perfect for debating, as we find USU members interested in debate as a medicine for their lives. With drugs, too much of something that cures can kill, and often a toxin can heal. In debate, we have a group of skilled pharmacists - herbal healers ready to apply treatment, or an opium den full of addicts who care nothing for the outside world, just provide that next high. We consider our role as "drug dealers," and how we can get the largest number of people to try our drug of choice - much better than what they are taking from the corporate media in terms of debating - and demand it in their lives, from multiple sources. The external view of USU is along way off though, as the internal disputes must be handled first. We need a clear grasp of what we are about, what we are doing at a USU tournament before we can move out into the community in a coherent manner.  A page from the Sophists: They created a market for debate and debate studies themselves out of a careful read of Athenian society and what was not there. We could do the same as an organization for college campuses.  But first, we need to figure out what's behind all that anger that comes out when, due to time constraints, a round has to be cut. Surely we aren't just upset about that?

Who Am I?

It was extremely weird how many teams that I judged wanted to call me by my first name, or use me as an example in a debate - "Steve Llano would say" - "Steve Llano believes" - I didn't ask around to others to see if this is a normal practice around the tournament, swapping "Chair" or "Speaker" for the individual in the address of the speeches. I always liked the address of the "Chair" or to the "House" or "Speaker" as a device to remind us that we are not addressing our opponents nor are we addressing individuals and their myriad preferences, but we are addressing the "House" - the community of those decision makers who, upon hearing our arguments, would find handholds in order to start a climb toward our ideas. Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca term this the "Universal Audience" and explain that this is the audience to which your arguments are addressed should you be speaking to a group of people that you can't quite fully see or know. Any debate audience is this way, so you would want to make arguments that could not be rejected as such by those people because the recognition of those arguments is a prerequisite to being thinking members of the audience. Addressing the "Speaker" means one is making arguments based on a cultural and rhetorical construction of "reason" (very different from Enlightenment or so-called philosophical reason) and one would assume one would be able to assent if one heard that argument, whether they disagree or not. Swapping to the individual, or the person, shifts debate into the realm of persuading the vanguard - those who are the model performers by which all others in the community align their decision making (eg: The US Court System and the Supreme Court might serve here).  By appealing to the person, one is going to appeal to their tastes and standards, and that erodes an art of appeal toward the Universal Audience. This is not bad; this is vastly different than what BP was like even 2 years ago. Are we willing to make such a shift? For with it comes a lot of discussion about what this or that judge likes or will accept, and we are more a court-system model of argumentation and not a parliamentary-system model of argumentation. The difference: The first appeals to individuals to judge the value of a discourse by a certain meter stick, a dead set of rubrics and standards that must be followed in order to preserve the legitimacy of the form, the second by the persuasive possibility of the discourse of a speaker, considering how reasonable average people would find ways to agree with it. I prefer the latter, but it seems many speakers might find easier paths to winning by appealing to who is sitting in the chair rather than the abstract "Chair."

Vocabulary Builder

I found so many teams using weird constructions of words to sound like "cool debaters" rather than just choosing to explain arguments to the panel in a way that is accessible and easy to meet them halfway. This is of course related to the increasing speed of delivery we see across the board in debate, but that aside, many speakers are grasping for terms they have heard about but don't really get - this is what Miyamoto Musashi says when talking about young samurai, obsessed with technique rather than just victory: "The flower has become more than the nut. Immature strategy is the cause of much grief."

I'm all about people investigating argument theory for insights into how to debate better. The texts are difficult, and there are no guides (yet) to this rich literature. Things like modality, performative speech-acts, and other theories are ripe for the taking to those who brave the wilderness of academic writing. However, what I experienced was people going for a short cut to sound smart. The most obvious example is the use of the term "counterfactual" to describe any argument that paints a picture of a world, effect, or result of an argument. This is very strange - a counterfactual argument is only when one is arguing in contrary to established fact, and it's a type of argument that one makes to persuade others by saying "Had you not done that behavior, X and Y would now be in your life" or "X and Y could have been avoided." People were using "counterfactual" as a synonym for "rebuttal" or even in one instance, as a synonym for "an argument that describes a situation." This merely makes debate look like a petty game played by those who are dilettantes, not good for University support. Instead, let's impress one another with how passionately and persuasively we can communicate complex ideas so that anyone in the University community could understand them. 

The second term of concern is "FIAT Power" - which I saw debated in 3 of the debates I judged out of 8 total. This convenience term from policy debate has no place in a format that purports to be persuading reasonable people, since they would be uninterested in adjudicating the limits of a theoretical construction one would use to say "wrong forum," or like a legal appeal to dismiss or strike evidence or testimony, and would rather hear the comparison of advantages no matter what the limits of the passed policy are. I would encourage debaters to come up with other ways of making these "move to strike" arguments for audiences, the easiest one being from daily life - most of the time people do not argue about how something will be done, or whether we will do it, but whether the move to do it will accrue benefits or harms - in short, most people's daily lived experience of argumentation is one where they use FIAT automatically. It doesn't need to be part of a decision on persuasion in a debate.  "Let's assume," one might say, "We go to the all-you-can-eat Burrito Bar for lunch. What happens? We will fall asleep in that meeting, or spend the afternoon feeling ill from eating all that wonderful cheese." Such an argument requires FIAT, but the speaker did not make the case for it or make an argument establishing the bounds of FIAT. The speaker just did it. It's a device from natural argumentation that people use all the time. Why can't we?

What Makes a Good Motion?

Herbal healers will mix medicine differently than Addicts will. They are both interested in the pharmakon for different reasons. And if you try to correct the addict, or take away her drugs, you get a very violent result. The herbal healer doesn't like being told they are practicing "alternative medicine" or "isn't a real doctor" either. This is the split on this last point, the split between these two attitudes.

Balance was cited to me as the only metric that makes a good motion several times after the Palestinian motion was set. While I agree that Balance is essential (for a representative argument of this position, click here), it is only part of a larger method that must be used when drafting motions. Fairness/balance is essential or people are going to quit debating really quickly. Luck of the draw getting the right position on a motion can't be the only factor, which is why I subordinate controversial and recent (so-called "above the fold" motion setting) to balance. But there's something very important left out of the consideration on motion wording, and that is access.

Motions have to be accessible to the group of debaters that are assembled to debate. Most of the time, principles like interest and novelty trump accessibility because motion setting teams are thinking of what interests them, what their experiences are like, etc. Although this is perfectly legitimate, there should be a voice in these conversations reminding everyone that the normal debate participant has not debated 10 debates on gun control, nor have they had the Israel/Palestine debate "a hundred times." This was the first time my students debated a Palestine motion (they loved it; they found it a great confirmation that they had been reading the right material and their practice had paid off) and it was the first time a number of people had debated it. Access means that novel wording might throw someone off their game, or make the debate inaccessible because the wording feels exclusive, or really disturbing in some way. 

To have a fair and balanced debate one must be able to access the motion emotionally and intellectually. Novel wordings, or wordings made to excite those who have been in debate a long time can thwart the principle of access. Care must be taken to give handholds, or ways in for those who are directly connected to the topics, ensuring they can see a place to stand for them. This would be the case with any motion - in debate our tools are the stuff of daily life; we play soccer not with a soccer ball (reserved only for such contests) but with the lives, hearts, and minds of those involved in serious conflict, controversy, and danger. Nobody wants to be told, "To win you have to kick your cousin's heart through that goalpost." This is how that motion was read by some people. Careful wording can access the novel debate, but novelty should not be the principle of wording (it can be a principle of motion generation however). I would like to see an order of operations for motion writing that looks like this:

1. Controversy

2. Balance

3. Accessibility

4. Novelty

This not only allows space for those who are in the 5 to 10% of debaters who make it their whole life and debate each weekend, but also helps those who maybe attend 3 to 4 tournaments a semester (the much larger percentage somewhere in between these two numbers). The controversy over the Palestinian motion was valuable in the sense that it showed us that our agreement on what a good motion looks like has a bit of equivocation in it, and it might be beneficial for the community to have a discussion about the norms of motion writing, what we value, and what we are about. What is this debating thing good for anyway? What do we stand for?

Doing In the Bin from the bar was amazing. Thanks for all who came out. I had a great time at this tournament and will be thinking about it for a while. An old blog post I had a look at before writing this conveys my excitement and awe that 125 teams attended USU. After this year's near 200 team tournament, I am eager to see how the USU tournament will make me wonder, think, and ponder next.