[eDebate] thoughts on hicks and greene and switchside

matt stannard stannardmatt
Thu Jun 14 17:27:50 CDT 2007


If it is indeed true that debate inevitably produces other-oriented deliberative discourse at the expense of students' confidence in their first-order convictions, this would indeed be a trade-off worth criticizing. In all fairness, Hicks and Greene do not overclaim their critique, and they take care to acknowledge the important ethical and cognitive virtues of deliberative debating. When represented as anything other than a political-ethical concern, however, Hicks and Greene's critique has several problems: First, as J.P. Lacy once pointed out, it seems a tremendous causal (or even rhetorical) stretch to go from "debating both sides of an issue creates civic responsibility essential to liberal democracy" to "this civic responsibility upholds the worst forms of American exceptionalism."Second, Hicks and Greene do not make any comparison of the potentially bad power of debate to any alternative. Their implied alternative, however, is a form of forensic speech that privileges personal conviction. The idea that students should be able to preserve their personal convictions at all costs seems far more immediately tyrannical, far more immediately damaging to either liberal or participatory democracy, than the ritualized requirements that students occasionally take the opposite side of what they believe. Third, as I have suggested and will continue to suggest, while a debate project requiring participants to understand and often "speak for" opposing points of view may carry a great deal of liberal baggage, it is at its core a project more ethically deliberative than institutionally liberal. Where Hicks and Greene see debate producing "the liberal citizen-subject," I see debate at least having the potential to produce "the deliberative human being." The fact that some academic debaters are recruited by the CSIS and the CIA does not undermine this thesis. Absent healthy debate programs, these think-tanks and government agencies would still recruit what they saw as the best and brightest students. And absent a debate community that rewards anti-institutional political rhetoric as much as liberal rhetoric, those students would have little-to-no chance of being exposed to truly oppositional ideas. 
 
Moreover, if we allow ourselves to believe that it is "culturally imperialist" to help other peoples build institutions of debate and deliberation, we not only ignore living political struggles that occur in every culture, but we fall victim to a dangerous ethnocentrism in holding that "they do not value deliberation like we do." If the argument is that our participation in fostering debate communities abroad greases the wheels of globalization, the correct response, in debate terminology, is that such globalization is non-unique, inevitable, and there is only a risk that collaborating across cultures in public debate and deliberation will foster resistance to domination?just as debate accomplishes wherever it goes. Indeed, Andy Wallace, in a recent article, suggests that Islamic fundamentalism is a byproduct of the colonization of the lifeworld of the Middle East; if this is true, then one solution would be to foster cross-cultural deliberation among people on both sides of the cultural divide willing to question their own preconceptions of the social good. Hicks and Greene might be correct insofar as elites in various cultures can either forbid or reappropriate deliberation, but for those outside of that institutional power, democratic discussion would have a positively subversive effect.We can read such criticisms in two ways. The first way is as a warning: That we ought to remain cautious of how academic debate will be represented and deployed outside of the academy, in the ruthless political realm, by those who use it to dodge truthful assertions, by underrepresented groups, of instances of material injustice. In this sense, the fear is one of a "legalistic" evasion of substantive injustice by those privileging procedure over substance, a trained style over the primordial truth of marginalized groups. I prefer that interpretation to the second one: That the switch-side, research-driven "game" of debate is politically bankrupt and should give way to several simultaneous zones of speech activism, where speakers can and should only fight for their own beliefs. As Gordon Mitchell has pointed out, such balkanized speech will break down into several enclaves of speaking, each with its own political criteria for entry. In such a collection of impassable and unpermeable communities, those power relations, those material power entities, that evade political speech will remain unaccountable, will be given a "free pass" by the speech community, who will be so wrapped up in their own micropolitics, or so busy preaching to themselves and their choirs, that they will never understand or confront the rhetorical tropes used to mobilize both resources and true believers in the service of continued material domination. Habermas?s defense of the unfinished Enlightenment is my defense of academic debate: Don?t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Instead, seek to expand this method of deliberation to those who will use it to liberate themselves, confront power, and create ethical, nonviolent patterns of problem resolution. If capitalism corrupts debate, well, then I say we save debate.
 
stannard
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