Debate Topic(al) invention and iteration

Looking at the college policy debate resolution makes one thing very clear: The national community of debate practitioners in American policy debate have no interest in bringing in audiences for their debates. This is a debate practice that is solely and totally focused on itself.

Resolved: The United States Federal Government should substantially increase statutory and/or judicial restrictions on the executive power of the President of the United States in one or more of the following areas:
• authority to conduct first-use nuclear strikes;
• congressionally delegated trade power;
• exit from congressional-executive agreements and Article II treaties;
• judicial deference to all or nearly all federal administrative agency interpretations of statutes and/or regulations;
• the bulk incidental collection of all or nearly all foreign intelligence information on United States persons without a warrant.

The elements of relevant national debate appear here to the layperson in the same way that academic debates always have – “I can understand debates about the nature of angels, but what do the heads of pins have to do with anything?” But it’s definitely not for normal people. The complexity and logic-gate structure of the topic means that the community wants to debate many different topics at once. Or it means they would like the illusion of many topics at once so they can continue to work on and argue the same arguments they have been using for the past few years. Neither is a good practice for the standard definition of the role of debate education.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Can it be defended? I think so, in the same way that most university courses, particularly at the higher levels in various majors, are also not for the general public. The university is teaching specialties which require matriculation through a particular path of classes in the right order to make sure that you “get it.” It’s defensible if the model you want to emulate is the model of the contemporary university with the pathway and the credits and the benchmarks and all that. This topic looks the part of some sort of genetically modified comprehensive exam question for Ph.D. The monastic, completive life is a good one, where a small community of like-minded practitioners gather together to help one another’s practice. Nothing wrong with it.

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Although I sound argumentative and negative, I think that the collegiate policy debate community in the United States can do whatever their voting members wish to do (they will no matter what I write here, don’t worry). After all, they are the only ones attending, listening to, writing, and participating in the debates that will be held on this topic. In fact, there are multiple controversies in the past with policy debate that ensure that few debates, if any will be transmitted or recorded to audiences that are other than the people with a direct stake in the debate. Not the people the topic is about, the people who are debating and judging the debate happening in a college classroom early in the morning or late at night on a weekend.

I’ve always found debate to be attractive even though it is rife with fresh problems every day. One of the ways that I have always been able to return to debate after various absences and times away is because of this idea that debate takes up a position in “loyal opposition” to the standard schooling practices. That is, it keeps those practices from becoming the sole function of the institution. There’s some counter-discourse and practice going on under the auspices of the machine, even if it’s a small group.

 Jacques Rancière from medium.com

Jacques Rancière from medium.com

The most important thing debate clubs and teams can do is engage with publics. This should happen under the sign of universal teaching as defined by Jacques Ranciere. The sign of universal teaching is when the only things you need to garner understanding are (at the minimum) two human brains, a text, and a conversation. I also add pens and paper to the mix or perhaps a computer (but no social media while you are laboring under the sign of universality, ok?). Rancière argues in The Ignorant Schoolmaster that the “old master” idea of teaching is structured in a way to keep old relationships alive at the expense of new ones. Teaching becomes a practice of “getting it right” in the eyes of the master who knows. What the master knows is that which secures the system. Teaching under universal equality means you have to say “My brain is as good as your brain.” A tough thing for many to say, and tougher to actually believe, but the faith in this statement – that two people can look at something, some text, and then figure out what it means together isn’t that far fetched. Of course you may already be saying, “That’s what happened to me when I got into debate! I knew nothing and teamed up with some other new kid and we read a bunch of stuff and figured it out!” Exactly. That part of debate practice is really one of the best parts. But was that topic written to encourage a breadth of research and investigation? Or is it deep cover to run the arguments from years ago, arguments that might be interesting and fun, but are more hand-me-downs to newer participants? Re-iteration of the re-iteration of another seems odd in an art that is based on invention for the situation and the audience. 

Topics like this one are frustrating because they are perfectly irrelevant in their relevance. They remind me of that science-fiction trope where one character is out of phase with the rest of the characters on the show: They’ve slipped into a pocket dimension, they are out of sync with time, etc. They shout and shout but nobody can hear them; characters walk right through them. “There has to be a way to communicate with them,” the character vocalizes for the benefit of the viewer. And then we are off to some weird technological stuff or alien stuff that allows a rudimentary form of contact to happen. Debate reminds me of this but instead of working to contact the aliens, they are just sort of dismissed. “Let them walk right through you, we have important stuff to do.” If there is a public debate, it’s conducted under the sign of old mastery where the debaters instruct the audience mostly about the quality of their questions, and how “real debate” doesn’t examine or look at the things that a normal audience of curious people would seek out given the same topic.

The public audience matters because it too is the sign of equality. That is, the gold standard for intercollegiate debate should be to get very deep in the research, construct really amazing arguments, and then deliver those in a meaningful way for publics who will form opinions on them. It’s actually a much better model of academia than academia has right now. Actually, it’s a model of public intellectual, or a rhetorical influencer. The trick though is to get around the idea of what real debate is, and think instead of debates as texts that must be lit up by the universal teaching, the sign of equality.

The audience member has a brain just like you do – although it’s popular now to laugh at the public (as it always has been) and say they don’t really understand what’s going on. This is also the rhetoric supported by so-called journalists who work for the mega news networks. The entire audience of millions of people watching CNN are led to believe they are special group who are the only ones who really get it. Same with academic departments. Same with the university. Perhaps debate can be one place where we practice the model of universal teaching? That is, we, together, can figure out what this text means. Let’s give it a go. I have faith in your human mind. Have faith in mine.

The topic also seems to hint at a desire that might or might not be there among those who supported it to have numerous rotating topics throughout the year. I think that this move is inevitable, as debate in all forms is succumbing to the pressure to be more about itself and less about one topic for a whole year. Most practitioners have abandoned the idea that debate is about the topic in any substantive form. It’s about how you can riff familiar chains of argumentation off of the topic in an interesting and surprising way. If you have a regular rotation of competitions to attend, this helps greatly as there is never a huge surprise in evidence, information, support, research at any competition. You have heard these arguments for years if you are a judge. The only question to be resolved is who did better with it this time? This can be a riff off of the topic, but often it is a riff off of something someone said in the debate.

I’m sure that the American intercollegiate debate community will have a great year. I really think they should do what they want. But there are some considerations the topic brings to mind that speak to another form of debating, another aim of debating that might get lost in the continuous return to the demand to preserve a collection of utterances instead of generating new ones. Debate was always fun when the notebooks are clean. New ideas, new plans, new stuff to go get and read, all of that. Most of the fun I’ve had in debate is filling that empty page with interesting text that I’ve heard or read about a topic that I really knew very little, if anything, about. The universal teaching, the sign of equality: Both are things that make debate not only in a position critical of most education, they allow debate competition to serve as practice for minds engaging other minds under a sign of equality, a prerequisite to any form of democracy or republic.