A Dirty Little Secret, Both Sides

Why is there no official, or even pedagogical statement on the value of switch side debating from either the NDT, CEDA, or any other large debating organization?

Perhaps it is because switch-side debating is a cover for teaching conviction and engaging in truth-seeking, something that debate can clearly be used for, but is not debate at its best. This rhetoric takes the form of "students have to explore both sides of a controversy" while at the same time, regular tournament practice has students arguing the same arguments on either side of a debate, for years. In fact, the choice not to participate in switch-side debating is seen as a noble act, giving stronger credence to the claim that their advocacy and arguments are authentic, not meant to win a debate, but meant to precipitate actual change.

The dirty little secret of contemporary debate is that switch-side debate - taking a side you don't necessarily personally hold and arguing for it - doesn't interest anyone anymore. The most compelling interest for it is as a foil so one can advance arguments. The switch-side investment or performance is the starting point for a causal link that indicts that speaker. The speaker is someone who has "chosen" to not participate in debate's norms in order to prove an important point about the political nature of debate and how neutral it appears. This has become so boilerplate that many debate programs teach it as beginning strategy to those first learning how to participate in tournament debating.

The value of switch-side should also be considered for what is being dismissed under the rubric of this current trend.

Switch-side debating is meant to divest the individuals participating in it from personal conviction on an issue.

Switch-side is crucial in a pedagogy that encourages debaters to focus on the structures and suasory power of rhetoric and argumentation as it is, tabling the truth or factual nature of the information researched for the claim. It is the one place where this happens in an education system that is largely read, at least in the US, as arbitrary and unpredictable, a game where the rules are constantly changing, and no student wants to be the one to ask the question that provokes the teacher to change an exam or a final requirement in some way.

In a totally arbitrary system of judgement, like higher education is currently perceived, the personal and the political are totally merged. Junior faculty are divested from experimental advocacy and writing at a time when they are best poised to do it. Senior faculty are too invested in the university system to use their tenure appropriately - to investigate and challenge the norms that are related to the hows and whys of the system that now their comfortable, permanent employment depends. Instead, they offer shrill critiques and indictments of large systems primarily due to the fact that they are so well insulated. A more careful, well researched, and damning critique of such systemic processes, seen as possible indictments of the university, could doom a junior faculty member.

We see something similar with those who refuse to participate in switch-side debate. The requirement to argue on different positions on a question is the evidence they rely on in order to argue that the entire system is flawed, biased, and laden with ideology while appearing neutral. Whatever flavor the argumentation, the structure of it is somewhat similar - it all depends on the requirement that debaters are forced to argue on opposite sides of the question from time to time. This move catapults these teams into the center of the most competitive, most admired, and most duplicated strategies in the entire debating community. In short, like the university, the railing against the system is conducted by those who are at the center of the benefits.

The value of switch-side debating is something that the majority of those participating in debate are fairly uninterested in today - the power of words and the ability of rhetoric to shape reality. Many of those participating in debate are much more interested in truth-seeking, and campaigning for a fundamental truth that they have discovered through means unrelated to anything but preparing for the tournament and thinking about the topic. The debate itself is rather procedural, for in essence, they are using it as a forum to refine discoveries made elsewhere - little difference between that and the layperson's view of debate.

Alternatively, embracing switch-side removes focus from truth and onto the appearance as such. Debate becomes a place for the study of the invention and reception of truth - or tropes, topoi, whatever you may wish to call them - the containers that make truth recognizable as such. Investigating the shape and power of the containers of what is believed to be true is an incredibly important study, and makes debate one of the most powerful disciplines in the university. Anyone can acquire facts and information, and anyone can use ad bacculum or popularity appeals to get that information over as truth to a community of like-minded people, such as the American debate world. But being able to broadly discuss, identify, critique, and replace the tropes of truth in broader society is much more valuable than the acquisition of resonant information. The reason being that one day that resonance with truth will fade from that information, and those who did not study rhetoric will be left holding the bag. Adaptability is the watchword here, and switch-side might be a good way of teaching it - not because of the thin, rather non-existence scope of adaptability in tournaments (most judges are very much alike in decision-making compared to the variety one gets from a public audience) or the precision that form of adaptation teaches, but the broader and more difficult question of reformulating treasured facts into other things, things considered valuable for a variety of listeners. What contemporary debate offers is akin to a specialized type of biochemistry, possibly focusing on one or two types of bacteria. What I am suggesting with a switch-side focus is the re-emergence of the art of alchemy - transmutation of the worthless into the valuable, and vice versa.

Switch-side does not teach this directly, but teaches it by numbing the thrill of the possession of truth by forcing students to throw it away at each instance in order to prepare for the next debate. Human nature what it is, debaters will turn toward possessing the next best thing - the forms of persuasion, which opens the door wide for the keen debate teacher to begin the lesson in earnest, showing how the formulation of truth is indistinguishable from the possession of what is believed to be true.

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