Policy Debate – Part 2 – “Critical” Arguments

Debate 2 – “Critical” and “Policy”

In a comment about my last post, David inquired whether “formal debates leave room for disagreements about the *value* of certain consequences C, in addition to disagreement about whether enacting a certain policy P would have C? So in formal debate would a team ever concede that enacting P would have C, but take issue with the claim that C is bad? It would be very interesting if these types of more fundamental normative disagreements were also a part of debate, but I suspect this would require an altogether different kind of argument, more in line with argument in moral philosophy than argument in public policy.”

The answer to this question is yes – but David’s suspicion, that this would require “an altogether different kind of argument” is also correct.  Let me try to explain.

For a long time, Policy Debate was about the consequentialist advantages and disadvantages of proposed plans.  At different times from the founding of the activity in the United States in the early part of the 20th century, through the 80’s and 90’s, the particular way in which such advantages and disadvantages were discussed did shift and evolve.  One of the things I’ve often wondered about was whether anyone had ever attempted a comprehensive history of such things – all I’ve ever really been exposed to is lore and oral history.  Debate coaches love to tell stories about “back in the day”, and I do get the sense that there has been a lot of change.  Still – everyone generally agrees that consequentialist disagreements presented to a judge modeling the role of a “policymaker” was the dominant paradigm all the way through the early 90’s.

Which is not to say moral objections didn’t find their way into such debates.  As a way into understanding “critical” debate, I’ll describe how this generally happened (and still happens, but only rarely): a team will advance an argument which will be labeled as a sort of “deontological decision rule.”  To use a trivial (but popular example): let’s suppose the affirmative teams proposes a plan which involves redistributive taxation, say, to fund a new national health care system.  The negative might argue that such a plan should be rejected, by arguing that all encroachments on negative liberty need to be rejected by policymakers.  They might argue for this rejection on consequentialist grounds, but the advancement of the terminology of a decision-rule presupposes at least a rule-utilitarian defense of the maximization of liberty.  They might even develop a sort of Kantian framework which argues that one should always do right, regardless of the consequences of doing so.

In such circumstances, it’s natural for the affirmative to respond by pointing out the irrationality of ignoring specific consequences to specific courses of action based simply on the upholding of moral rules.  What often ensues then is an argument about the relative merits of utilitarian and deontological decisionmaking.  The thing is, in the context of public policy, it’s pretty tough to win that a deontological decision calculus makes more sense.  Sure – policymakers sometimes take moral stances, but the fact that they’re making an individual legislative decision (instead of, say, a decision about how the basic structure of society ought to be oriented) , and also the fact that they’re making a decision as a policymaker whose decision will affect a wide variety of people means it’s tough to motivate the rejection of consequentialim in this context.  Most criticisms of consequentialism, after all, criticize its most bastardized forms, trolleys, removed kidneys and all, and it’s just tough to persuade a policymaker that consequences don’t matter in a day-to-day situation.

It’s also tough to weigh consequentialist impacts against deontological ones – you’re just comparing apples and oranges at some level – at what point does, say, averting economic collapse become a good enough reason to reject individual economic freedom?  That’s a tough question to answer without somehow placing the deontological aspects of the decision into consequentialist language (i.e., rights violations tend to lead to failed economic systems) and even if they tend to, that doesn’t mean that a plan of redistributive taxation instituted to prevent the collapse of the United States health care system, for example, becomes a bad idea, just because in the long run, such actions tend to do such things.

Even if none of the above persuades you, it’s just an empirical fact about judges judging debate rounds that they tend not to vote for deontological decision-rules.  And since debaters want to win rounds, they’ve tended to shy away from a full-throated defense against what we might call “act-deontology.”

So what’s a would-be moral objector to do in the face of an intuitively morally or otherwise normatively problematic  argument made by the other team?  Enter “the Kritik,” a form of argument that seems to have originated in the early 90’s, just as the academic preference for “multiculturalism” and “critical theory” reached its peak in the United States (after all – most high school debaters are coached by college debaters, and college debaters are college students – stuff trickles down).

I’m told debaters named this argument after the German concept of the same name (i.e., the word appearing in the title of Kant’s three Critiques).  “Kritiks” are probably so named because a lot of them are heavily influenced by Frankfurt School-style Kulturkritik.  The style of argument is fairly difficult to explain in the abstract – in fact, many (including the author of this post) think this style of argument is ultimately incoherent as method of responding to an affirmative plan, but it’s commonly enough presented that it merits discussion.

Consider the following concrete situation:  The affirmative team presents a plan – say – “the United States federal government should substantially expand federal funding of primary and secondary education in the United States.”  Suppose further that, in the portion of their speech that makes the case for why this plan is good, the affirmative speaks the following words: “one reason why the federal government should increase funding of education is because right now, N’s can’t read or write very well, and when they can’t read or write very well, they tend to riot and destroy urban areas” (where “N” is the commonly used derogatory term for African Americans).

Now there are obvious problems with such an argument, not least of which is probably that it’s patently false as an empirical assertion.  But there is another intuition about such an argument – namely, that the person speaking it ought not to speak in such a manner, regardless of the truth of the claim, and that such a team ought not win a debate even if their consequentialist claims are proven true.  In short, a “Kritik” is an attempt by the negative team to construct an argumentative framework which would provide an organized and systematic way to persuade the judge why the affirmative should sometimes lose because of a “speech act” in which they engage, and not just because the policy they have proposed would be a bad idea to enact by policymakers.

To develop this argument, the negative begins by drawing attention to the rhetorical situation of Debate, and reminding all involved of the artificiality of the “policymaker” paradigm.  After all, it’s only a model – not reality.  The judge is not really a “policymaker”, he or she is a judge.  All five people involved in the debate, and any audience members, while they are generally assuming the role of policymakers, are really, actually, truly, academic debaters at a debate tournament.  And, the argument goes, there are responsibilities that each speaker incurs simply on the basis of this aspect of their situation – they are responsible for their speech-acts, the negative argues, before they are responsible for proving that the plan they have proposed would be a “good idea” were it accepted by policymakers.  The way Kritik debaters generally phrase this is by alleging that “representations come first” – the connotations of given speech-acts deserve to be considered, and so do the real effects those speech acts have on the discourse community, before we should enter the somewhat “imaginary” realm of policymaking.

Of course, most kritiks are not as obvious or unproblematic as the above-described  “N Word Kritik.”  In fact, such a scenario really never occurs (the by-and-large wealthy members of the bourgeoisie that generally participated in Debate are nothing if not well-trained to avoid surface-level displays of overt racism) – it’s just an easy-to-understand analogy.  Most of the time, the connotative “representation” which the negative calls into question is something much less cut-and-try, like the following example:

a)      The “link” – The affirmative case speaks about ‘terrorists’ as irrational actors whose hatreds are described without context or an understanding of the root cause of the conflict in which they are participating.

b)      The “impact” – Such decontextualized descriptions of terrorist violence provide the rhetorical pretext for the war system of which we are all a part, and the actions of which culminate in the unending wars of the security state.

c)       The “alternative” – The judge should vote negative to initiate a process of deconstruction which will contest the war system in our own discourse community.

It should be obvious that such an approach owes a lot to various 20th century schools of “critical theory” – the Frankfurt School, Foucauldian analysis, Critical Legal Studies, Feminist International Relations, Critical Race Theory… and of course, just like in academia, there is a lot of controversy in the world of Debate about such arguments – to wit:

–          Should the affirmative team really be responsible for defending the “representations” (what philosophers of language call the connotation or sense) of their words, or only the denotation of those words themselves (i.e. the reference)?

–          Why does the rejection of those representations necessitate the judge voting negative?  Why can we not reject those representations and then resume the roleplaying, going on to discuss the policy-level consequences of action?  And if the affirmative still proves that their policy is a good idea, despite their unfortunate selection of representations, shouldn’t the affirmative win the debate?

– What is the difference between connotation and denotation in this context?  Isn’t the truth-value of policy-level claims also “representational” in nature, in way that means the affirmative arguments deserve more weight than the proposed “critical” framework would give them

In spite of all the consensus that exists among Debaters, this is one of the more divisive issues – so much so that when debaters are preparing for tournaments, and filling out judge preference sheets (they generally get to rank the judges they would like to have in order of their desirability), this is the biggest question asked: “Does [insert judge name] like kritiks?”  Some teams like this style of argument, preferring the philosophical/critical-theoretical approach it represents, and some teams do not, preferring to focus on the empirical “policy-making” game.  Since teams want to win, they want judges who will agree with their preferred style.

Some people see this as such a fundamental rift that it’s basically unbridgeable.  Some judges will just always think “yes, representations come first” and others will always think “no, representations are largely irrelevant”, and, try as each side might, they will not dislodge this prejudice.  Some judges (most in fact) are somewhere in the middle – they would prefer the debaters not make such a strong distinction between “representations” and “policy.”  They would rather that if a debater wanted to win an argument based on representations, they implicated them in terms of policy consequences – and then, of course, we’re back to something like rule-utilitarianism.

Kritik debaters often use phrases like “serial policy failure” or “error replication” to make the argument that, for example, reliance on “terrorism” discourse tends to produce bad and ineffectual policies (i.e., the war in Iraq), which provides a “policy-level” reason to reject the affirmative.  But then, affirmative teams often reply the way act-utilitarians have always replied to rule-utilitarians (mutatis mutandis) ­i.e., “while it may be true that in general, use of ‘terrorism’ discourse tends to produce bad policies, that does not mean that the specific policy we have suggested will necessarily fail, especially if we can do a good job proving that, in this specific instance, there really are people who are usefully labeled as ‘terrorists.’”

And so the really tough act of persuasion begins – can the general argument that “terrorism” discourse is bad be contextualized to this team’s specific use of it, in a way that shows that their policy will be bad, or is it too general of a thesis, and one that ought to be set aside in the face of the affirmative’s claims of greater specificity?  The very best kritik debates turn on this question, and there, an irreducibly dialectical/persuasive aspects of both sides’ arguments really wins the day.

And that gets towards David’s other question – what makes a debater good at debate?  Establishing argumentative context for abstract considerations is a huge factor – and that applies to “policy” debates too.  In fact, the whole “critical” vs. “policy” distinction tends to be overblown, at least in my opinion.  After all, do not the policy-level arguments in favor of a given plan also have connotative content?  If the affirmative convinces the judge that, were that judge a policymaker (which they’re not) they should enact that policy – wouldn’t such an act of convincing have effects on a discursive community as well?  And aren’t those worthy of consideration?  There is no particular reason why the sorts of things critical theorists tend to talk about ought to have presumptive preeminence vis-à-vis consequentialist considerations, at least not in the abstract.  That’s up to each individual debater to demonstrate, whatever their preferred argumentative strategy.

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2 Responses to Policy Debate – Part 2 – “Critical” Arguments

  1. David says:

    Very interesting, Josh. Thanks for such a thorough response to my questions.

    A serious suggestion: you should consider writing the first history of debate in the US. Write a proposal and contact an academic publisher! I suspect every high school in the country with a debate program would buy such a book for their library, making you rich beyond your wildest dreams.

  2. Josh says:

    It’s not a bad idea. Though I’m guessing, as with all other such things, that someone has done so already, but who knows? It would definitely be fun, which means even if it wasn’t even published I would still enjoy it. How do you think one would go about starting such a project?

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