What topics are off limits for debate?
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This question comes up with great regularity. Attend a few debate tournaments, talk to a few people, or join a debate mailing list. Sooner rather than later this issue will arise.
Most famously and recently it surfaced on the British Debating list, over an advertisement for a tournament that included the phrase, "From the people who brought you the topic This House would carpet-bomb Mecca!" Many wondered if such a topic should be permitted, or if banning it would be a blow to their neoliberal sensitivities about open argument and open engagement.
Less famously and more recently, I had this discussion with a colleague over the motion this house believes that in some cases the state is obligated to racially profile.
My colleague was incensed. There was no way for any government team to win other than to defend racism. And racism has no conceivable defense. As educators, we must make sure that we write topics that don't force people to argue for reprehensible claims. He felt the topic was the same as saying, "This house believes that in some cases genocide is acceptable."
What was most interesting about our argument is that it took place mostly during adjudication of a round on this topic. It really highlighted for me two opposing ways that one can view competitive debate: Either as a dialectic exercise in truth seeking, or as immersive practice in the discourses of the swirling world.
I think my colleague has a point - we must be attentive to the motions we write and use at competitions. But the petitio here is a big one: What sort of attention should be given? We should keep order, but order that benefits whom? For the order and discipline of the cattle drive does not benefit the cow.
I think, and the round before us proved, that one could defend this motion without offering a robust defense of racism, or better yet, any defense of racism. I always think debaters are clever, and can come up with myriad ways of propping something. I think the litmus test for good motions is very simple - is it something that people on the street would recognize as controversial, current, and important?
I think what we must remember about the World's format is something very simple - it is a conservative format. It will always be a conservative format. By "conservative" I mean that it will always be attuned to, dependent on, and reliant on what the hoi polloi are arguing about. It will always seek the normative dimensions of argument. So if within the public there is a debate about racial profiling and its limits, it is not up to us to dismiss this argument because of our metaphysical conceptions of good argument. Argument's good or bad quality is not discernible with a tuning fork. It will not resonate with the Truth. All we have are peoples' experiences and ideas. And we must teach people how to adapt and adjust to those myriad ideas. Worlds debate is conservative because instead of theoretical innovation, it chooses connection and contact with non-expert audiences. The format chooses to be more in line with what passes as controversy and contentiousness at an everyday level.
Compare it with American policy debate, where theoretical innovation frequently outstrips the audience's ability to understand it fully. The format makes huge sacrifices to allow such things as the rise of the critique and the topical counterplan. The rules exist in such fine detail so they can be broken, so that innovation can occur, and most importantly for my argument here, so that the norms of persuasion and argumentation can be bent and violated. It is the quality of that violation, in resonance with the situational articulation of the "rules" of debating, that form a kernel of persuasiveness for the judge. We could say, from a psychoanalytic perspective, that policy debates are won by the team that provides the most perverse pleasure. But that might be for another post.
I think the difference between a crazy motion - such as carpet bombing a global holy site, or pro-genocide - and a difficult, but appropriate motion - racial profiling - comes down to the question of audience. I believe that many people could benefit from a clever and well articulated defense of racial profiling. Being a semifinal debate, the audience will be composed of thoughtful students. If they hear a complex and complicated defense of racial profiling, which, in my sense of things would have to include a nuanced definition of what that consists of, they will then have a nice model to compare to the public arguments in favor of racial profiling, which I feel will most likely be racist. They are now well-prepared to critique and critically examine those poor arguments that, unlike any and all debate utterances at tournaments, actually go into the policy-making process. It is the audience that is our aim and object here, and Worlds debate, in its conservative sensibility, must always start with whatever issues or whatever controversies are current for that audience.
I'm not suggesting pandering here, but perhaps I am suggesting Sophistry. The Sophists understood that argument's value derived from the audience. Step away from the audience and you are creating something else. Something not argument, not persuasion. Something that might just be for you. Fast forward a few years, and your brilliant Opening Opposition speech might be void of meaning. Argumentation and persuasion are desperately situational, and desperately of the moment of their deployment. They have a quick expiration date, and they don't keep well. The Sophist is the person who recognizes this, and also recognizes that any good argument is not determined as such by allowing access to Truth. Instead, good argumentation is that which allows audiences to weigh argumentation via their own experiences, ideas and thoughts in order to see the possibilities of the other side. In something like debate, the eristic - or argument for the purpose of winning - might be seen as trumping this sophistic philosophy. But the eristic often serves this likelihood model, especially since we have four teams struggling for a first. The variety and depth of the argument is something that comes out as a result of eristic motives. This creativity certainly means that defenses that go beyond the public read - "racial profiling is simple racism" - will emerge. We benefit from such exercise, and from the additions of complex discourse to an issue that suffers from such discussion in the public.
In the end, my colleague and I decided to disagree. I think the point where I realized my work was cut out for me was when he said, "The only way you can win with a motion like this is just pure rhetoric." What else would we use? For debate is one of those places where we buck up against the terrifying realization that all we really have is language, our words are not enough sometimes, and important ideas are often silenced by our own incompetent articulation of those very ideas. What activity could be more valuable than this? Being slapped in the face with the weakness of your own words, with the implications of the words you introduce, and the sad fact that language, often thought of as our special tool, quite often tools us out, especially when the stakes are high. Strategy, as understood in Eastern thought, is the only functional antidote to such realization. It is you, and only you, that stands in your way. Use yourself to overcome yourself, and find victory.