[eDebate] Debating debate

Kevin Sanchez let_the_american_empire_burn
Mon Nov 12 10:58:31 CST 2007

the immense respect i have for debaters who willingly put 'the W' in
the backseat in order to question their own participation in
legitimizing practices of marginalization and inequality requires me to
express solidarity - even if wholly unneeded... and so i reply below to
the critical posts of ross smith
and jason jarvis


ross curtly asks (of the original post,
"correlation 'creates' disparity?"

don't get cute. you know that teams with more money can
afford more resources - e.g. can hire more coaches. this in turn
correlates to more team success, which also sets a 'feedback loop' in
motion: more success => more prestige => more money => more resources => more
success... at this point we can safely leave chicken-versus-egg
hair-splitting aside.

r : "What evidence did you use to 'find' that Wake debaters are 'functionally 
turned into machines'?"

well 'turned into machines' reads more as an evaluative claim than a
strictly descriptive one; however, you can find support for their
opinion in how 'primarily card-cutting assistant coaches' are sometimes
spoken of : "that ross smith [or whomever], he's a machine!". this
discursive attribution informs how debaters model their behavior. (see,
for instance, how jason jarvis refers to "the benefits I personally
received by *being forced to cut cards*" (asterisks mine) -- many would
consider that a 'machine-like' notion of pedagogy.) 

obviously, it's a matter of emphasis, as both research skills and
critical thinking skills are necessary in constructing solid arguments.
question is, which skill-set does the activity currently privilege, and
do the choices made by coaches and debaters - indeed, what their very
conception of what rational argument is - strike an optimal
balance? ... so would you entirely disagree with the claim that debate
its current state overemphasizes 'mindless, repetitive tasks' - by
which i simply mean bulk-scanning for keywords and inserting tag-lined
snippets into predetermined position-templates?

r : "...Or [did you] just sit around and 
talk to each other about how your perspectives agree with one another's?"

is that really so much worse than the practice of 'automatic negation'?
... after all, a debate is only a formal comparison of positions, and
it takes great talent to agree with someone well. -- a talent greater
than i could muster in this conversation for instance.  =P


jason jarvis offers us an angry diatribe that connects this round at
wake forest to the 'myopia' and 'self-centeredness' of the entire
american policy debate community. his warrants seem suspect. he argues
that in other debating societies you're not allowed to critique the
format inside the round; therefore, the "authoritarian and unforgiving"
rule-structures in tournaments elsewhere make the agreed-upon
objections of the illinois and louisville teams appear "silly". 

whether non-american competitors would be shocked by the liberality of
this forum, i can't say. yet i think i can rightly ask, even if true,
why should it matter?... or put differently, if tournaments here are,
in fact, more 'flexible', why shouldn't participants *use* that
flexibility to - as they see it - advance the educational mission of
the activity?

and there's the rub. jarvis doesn't think rounds like these *do*
advance education. so he'll need to spend more time refuting the
educational value of these rounds rather than relying on an illogical
step: i.e., this shit wouldn't fly in other countries, so it shouldn't
fly in 'spoiled brat' america. if less privileged people elsewhere are
going barefoot, i will not feel guilty for wearing shoes. i will feel

further down jarvis proceeds with similarly faulty lines of reasoning.
he states that "resource inequality is a fact of life everywhere", that
"debate, in this case, is just a microcosm of the
rest of life", that "refusing to debate wont change it". yet isn't
there still value in expressing our disapproval of inegalitarian
structures *within those structures*? these debaters (and judge) didn't
'refuse to debate' in the sense of quitting the activity. they simply
refused to assign a winner and a loser and thus reinforce the notion
that winners deserve to win and losers deserve to lose. they chose to
put a scrutinizing spotlight on (in-round, argument-based)
marginalization and (out-of-round, institution-based) inequality.
theft, corruption and cheating-to-get-ahead are also facts of life
everywhere, and in this regard, debate is also a microcosm of the rest
of life: but how we respond to such ills says something about who we
are, regardless of whether we're in a position to snap our fingers and
accomplish total change. 

note again that the supporting premises - the ways jarvis frames his
argument - are completely irrelevant to his ultimate conclusion, since
i don't think he'd suggest that the struggle for equality is futile
because inequality is inevitably 'just the way things are' -- so the
crux again becomes, are rounds like these acceptable attempts at
educating participants?

here's where we get to an actual argument: "In fact refusing to debate trivializes the activity as a whole and
the struggles of debaters globally as it ignores the overall resource
inequality between American debate and the near universal lack of
resources for debate at most schools outside the US. Louisville, for
example has a budget that debaters in China, Korea, Japan, Thailand,
Singapore, Malaysia, Slovenia, etc, etc would drool over. Am I supposed
to believe that this isnt a privilege for them? Most international
debate societies are student run, and very few have strong functioning
budgets that support any travel at all, much less even one coach. Most
of the debaters I meet from other countries, particularly in Asia pay
their own way to tournaments, or they dont go at all. A change in your own goals for what you plan to get from debate
seems a lot more useful than your critique. Do you want education? new
and interesting friends? or trophies? I'd suggest that an overt focus
on the last one will likely be the least valuable thing you can
achieve. I'd also point to the success of MANY debaters from smaller
programs that success is possible."

there's two valid lines to unpack in there: (1) rounds like these
trivialize debate internationally. (2) if garnering trophies is the
least of your concerns, then (a) the successes of smaller programs
should satisfy you, and (b, by implication) why are you concerned with
resource inequality when you should only be concerned with having
resources enough to get a good education (which you have in droves, far
beyond those of your international counterparts). so (1) is
trivialization and (2) is <educational> sufficiency before
<competitive> equity.

(1) relies on a hazy 'internal link story'. do debaters in other
countries perceive what american debaters do, for one? do they actually
scoff at the absent recognition of 'how good we have it here'? and two,
even if they did scoff after hearing about a round like this, why
should that affect current practice? is there some impact i'm missing
here - will american debate lose funding from overseas sources? will
chances at building international debate exchanges/forums be hindered
based on non-decisional rounds at american tournaments?... if so, i'm
willing to listen and reconsider my views {... but the following line
of reasoning seems forever doomed : mister ross lives in a country
where he can choose between three different kinds of gum. mister jarvis
lives in a country with only two kinds of gum. mister ross thinks that
he should be able to choose between four or five different kinds of
gum. mister jarvis thinks that he should be able to choose between
three different kinds of gum. mister ross has made himself 'silly' and
'trivialized' mister jarvis's struggle.}.

(2) relates to competition awkwardly, and possibly contradictorily. if
winning isn't what debate is about, then why oppose rounds like these?
what's uniquely bad about talking for a couple hours and then flipping
a coin for pairing purposes? ... i'm assuming jarvis must posit some
value to competition (perhaps its role in motivating education, for an
example), and if so, then i assume there's value in making competition
as fair as possible. once i'm given that, the idea that resource
inequality hinders the fairest competition possible follows pretty
naturally, as does the idea that we should do whatever we can to level the playing field.

let's provide a concrete dimension: if you as a debater in a smaller
program look over at debaters in a larger program with huge back-files
and multiple card-cutting assistant coaches, then you might reasonably
conclude that no amount of research on your part would have an equal
chance of winning against your more privileged neighbors -- that's a
de-motivational factor. or you might choose to focus on more generic
arguments like anti-statist kritiks or topicality -- that's a
de-educational factor (to me, anyway). of course, you might also work
your ass off, and meet with unlikely success. yet the admirable dedication
of a few debaters hardly means we should give up on making things
better for all the rest. ...and if, finally, one looks around and finds
oneself embedded in such a situation - fraught with de-motivational and
de-educational factors - then one might take a round off trying to win and
instead agree to exercise one's privilege in "highlight[ing] the
necessity for change".

j : "If you can't find value
in an activity that is the shining social example of free speech then
maybe you have missed the whole point."

these debaters have found value in the activity. they're a shining example of precisely that. it's you who has missed the point.


kevin.sanchez at gmail.com

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