[eDebate] Rejecting the cult of fairness

Steven D'Amico stevendamico
Wed Nov 14 00:38:47 CST 2007


Thanks for this post, it's given me a jumping off points for a lot of
similar and divergent thoughts. Here's my reply:


Josh makes extremely compelling arguments about the intellectual value
of arguments that are traditionally seen as unfair. Rather than
arguing silly notions of fairness against object fiat and
constitutional amendment counter plans, Josh suggests we cut to the
heart of the matter, and call these arguments what they are:
academically foolish and not educationally productive.

I largely agree with Josh on these points, but offer the following to
further his point. His examples are two fold. On object fiat, he says
in think-tank circles people would be laughed out of the room because
the idea of responding to a call for a grand bargain with the
suggestion "well, Iran should just do it" is incredibly stupid. On the
con amendment issue, he likewise says in legal circle responding to a
call to overturn a decision with a constitutional amendment is

I guess the problem I have here is that Josh presumes the point of
debate is to mirror academic discussions. In the abstract I agree, but
it is amazing how once you've stopped debating for about two years how
your perspective on the point of the activity changes. Sure, when I
debated I liked to learn stuff. I also really really liked to win.
Josh, I'm guessing you really liked to win too. In fact, if I recall
correctly, you were pretty damn good at it. I also remember something
about a delay counter plan versus Dartmouth with a politics disad on
the China topic in an elim?

I'm not calling you out to be an ass, but rather to point out that
pedagogically it's very easy once we are out of the activity to reject
basic notions of fairness in favor of grandiose notions of educational
value. The impact to fairness, is quite frankly, "fun." When the
division of ground isn't fair it makes it harder to win, which
destroys what makes the activity fun and enjoyable. A parallel:

When I was young, I liked to cheat at shoots and ladders. When the
kids I was playing with weren't looking, I used to count certain
spaces twice, so that I could take the short cut paths and win. When
the other kids found out I was cheating, it was no longer fun for the
other kids involved. One refused to continue playing. I also got in
trouble with mom and dad.

So yea, if every round on the legal topic was plan v con amendment, I
bet people would have quit. And if every round on China was, China
does the plan, and if every round this year was Iran do it, I bet
people would quit. But it wasn't like that--because those counter
plans are cheating and people voted against cheaters.

But even if they didn't quit, the activity would still become a hell
of a lot less fun. Quite frankly, fun and enjoyment is an impact, and
a pretty big one in and of itself. Pleasure, fun, enjoyment, etc...
these are things that make life valuable and worth living. So sure,
people might quit, but we wouldn't have as much fun at tournaments...
at least not until Monday evening.

My point here is that, Josh you're right. people don't explain the
fairness argument impact well enough, and there is a far better
education argument to be had. I think you're wrong that fairness is
irrelevant. Fairness is what makes this activity fun, because it gves
us each an equal shot to win, and winning is fun. Losing can be fun
too, but I think winning is probably much more fun.

Finally, AND THIS IS THE IMPORTANT PART, I think there is one more
fundamental flaw here. You assume debate is to model academic
discussions. I agree this should be the goal, however, what's the
point? Policy debaters thus far refuse to engage policy makers until
after they graduate.

To quote Gordon Mitchell: "Perhaps the most idiosyncratic aspect of
the contemporary intercollegiate policy debate community is that by
and large it keeps to itself. Contrary to populist tradition of debate
as the quintessential genre of public discourse, contemporary
intercollegiate debate is an insular and specialized academic
activity. The research products generated by thousands of debaters
nation-wide are generally put towards a singular end: winning
tournament competitions." (Strategic Deception)

If we are truly to accept your paradigm of educational value as the
impact to these theory arguments, over the impact of "fun" and
"winning," I would contend we must first do more as educators to
connect the policy arguments we are debating with the "real" world."

I propose a radical suggestion.

At the end of this year--the most relevant debate topic of any in a
decade, the policy debate community hold a conference in Washington DC
to present the arguments and research discussed to policy makers.
Using the collective resources of the litany of debaters involved in
politics and think-tank work, we could surely work together to produce
a forum, and maybe even a journal, that chronicles our collective work
and presents it to real-world policy makers.

Let's invite politicians, think tankers, everyone we can, and share
the work we are doing with the world.

Until we do that, Josh, the impact of "fun" and "winning" will always
outweigh, "academic education."

On Nov 14, 2007 12:47 AM, Josh Branson <harobran at hotmail.com> wrote:
> Pardon my seemingly semi-annual long-winded edebate thought experiments that I conduct on edebate, but I've been thinking about this off and on and I think it's really interesting.
> My thoughts stem from both stuff I've read in law school, but also conversations I have every summer with Lundy and the kids in my lab.
> My thesis is simple: I think 'fairness' and 'predictability' and other theory impacts of that ilk are stupid and counterproductive in ALMOST EVERY INSTANCE.
> I. Fairness arguments conceal the inherent claims contained within them about the role of the ballot.
> I always find it funny when I push my kids during the summer about what the impact to fairness is. They always revert back to one of two arguments:
> A) the only reason people debate is because it's fair. If it's not fair, people will quit
> OR
> B) Fairness is key to good debates---without predictability, we won't have a way to meaningfully engage the other side's arguments. In depth debates good etc etc.
> These arguments have become such a part of debate orthodoxy that they are rarely questioned (except by some of the far left teams, which whom I also disagree about a lot of things). I have serious problems with both of these arguments.
> The first is patently ridiculous in most contexts in which fairness whines are employed. People do not quit because of conditional CPs. People do not quit because a team doesn't have a solvency advocate to their 2NC CP. People don't quit because the aff doesn't specify their agent. I won't pretend to know everyone's motives for doing debate, but annoying arguments I suspect rarely move someone to quit, and if they do, that decision is not really based on fairness concerns so much as I suspect it would be based upon the types of debate encouraged by said theoretical practice (more on that later).
> The second one brings me to my core point. I think the claim that 'fairness' is necessary to a meaningful debate is really code for a separate argument, one which would clarify our thinking if we were to make it explicitly. Most 'illegitimate' arguments ONLY create a situation of competitive imbalance under a certain framework of decision-making which ignores alternate conceptions of what we should be doing in debate. In other words, it's only 'unfair' if we accept a certain (and pretty stupid) way of voting, and I think it'd be much easier to cut out the middleman and just assert an alternate conception of decisionmaking.
> For example: this year, a counterplan that fiats Iran get rid of its nuclear weapons program would probably be met with howls of protest of abuse, 'object fiat', 'no literature,' 'can't respond to it,' 'no arguments against it,' 'impossible to debate,' 'unpredictable,' etc etc etc, every bad jargonish code word that we know. But when we think about it, why is that CP is unfair? Are there *really* no arguments against it? I agree, there are probably not a ton of persuasive arguments most of the big affs this year could make against an imagined world in which Iran voluntarily decided to give up its enrichment and heavy-water capability (US soft power and non-prolif credibility advantages notwithstanding?.that's not my point).  But think about what someone in a mainstream Western thinktank would say if someone wrote in response to a long and nuanced policy proposal for how the US should induce Iranian disarmament with the simple response 'Iran should just do it themselves! That would avoid any DA resulting from US action!' That person would have NO credibility. Why???
> Because the real problem with that proposal isn't that there aren't any arguments against it. The real problem is that it's a socially and politically USELESS idea to come up with. It doesn't really help anyone in the West's thinking about the Iran problem to say that Iran should disarm themselves. The fact that Iran should unilaterally abrogate their nuclear research is an uninteresting and unhelpful observation about the state of the world, whereas the determination of what the most appropriate US policy response to Iranian enrichment is one that is arguably EXTREMELY timely, useful, and beneficial to the American polity.
> So therein lies a pretty devastating argument against that CP that has nothing to do with 'competitive equity.' Voting affirmative to engage in a simulation of US security guarantees and various other incentives is a socially valuable activity, whereas voting negative to say 'the world would be better if the Iranian government moderated its nuclear program' is one that accomplishes nothing. And I think that this is the *real* issue that we're trying to get at when we make fairness claims. So why don't we just make that argument and cut out the intermediate crap?
> I think this can be applied to almost every theory argument. I think most judges would LOVE it if they never had to hear the words 'skew' or 'moot' again when hearing conditionality, yet it happens all the time. Same with consultation CPs, 2NC CP amendments, Aspec, etc. I think the implicit assumption of most of these arguments are similar. Does conditionality 'steal aff ground?' 'Ground' is another one of those slippery words that is often a substitute for actual thought. The core question regarding conditionality, in my mind, is whether or not forcing the aff to jump through the mental hoops required to navigate multiple if-then statements and (maybe) some contradictions is a valuable thing to do. That is the ONLY question.
> Whether or not this is 'harder' on the aff is something is so very very difficult to verify it's almost ludicrous that people vote on it so much. I know I found it easier on the aff when the neg did things like that---the most deadly strategy I thought was a really well developed and consistent neg position. I almost never read conditional arguments as I got better in college, and my last two years I had the best neg record in large part I think due to strategy and not necessarily in-debate skill level. But regardless of this, I don't think 'making debate hard' is an impact argument in and of itself. It depends on whether or not the 'hard' is good or bad. I And that depends profoundly I think on what you think the goal of debate is and what you think the act of voting represents. If I win the rest of my arguments in this post, then 'making debate hard' should be a completely empty statement.
> I could go through the iterations regarding other theory arguments, but I think you get the point. This brings me to my next point.
> II. There is no such thing as unfairness. If you respond to this and don't make an argument about the terminal value of debate, then you have not thought about this enough.
> Overlooking the issue of big/small school and coaching resources (another topic for another time), I think all teams start at the same point. Everyone has access to the resolution, everyone has access to the same literature base, and everyone has the same speech time to fill. Whenever one side makes a move, it closes some doors strategically and opens others. Your job is to find it. I think whining about unfairness is almost always lame and untruthful.
> Think about the classic unfairness arguments: [insert K team] is unfair because they don't have a plan we're ready for. You know, it's funny, but thinking back over my college debate career, I spent more time agonizing about and arguing with coaches over these far-left teams than I did the other top-5 quality teams. And, while I've said this before, I'll say it again: I think that exact process is one of the main benefits of debate. Forcing yourself to adapt to circumstances in which you're not comfortable, being made to alter your thinking on the run when you don't have  your same old stale blocks, when you have to make new cognitive connections and investigate literature bases which you are not familiar?.I think THAT is the value-added of debate. I've written about this extensively before, but debate does not train people to be policy experts. Hell, if I'd wanted to have a sweet career in the policy world, I would have been better served quitting debate and learning Chinese. I'm not going to repeat everything I've said previously, but, at least for me, debate taught to be more intellectually versatile and flexible than almost anyone outside of debate that I know. That is something I think is extremely valuable both intellectually (to the debater) and socially.
> And, you see, it's things that are 'unfair' that encourage this type of adaptation. Take yourselves off your theory clitche-ridden blocks for a while, and actually think about it,: how many things make it IMPOSSIBLE to win. None. How many things make it harder? A lot. But again, almost any time someone makes a good argument, it becomes harder for the other side to win. That's what debate is. It's about making things hard on the other side and not letting them make it hard for you. That's what learning is.
> III. 'Fairness' claims are bad because they contravene the idea of debate. If I'm right that fairness impacts really just conceal an assumption about what the value of debate is, then I think just directly making counter-arguments about the role of debate and cutting out the rhetoric of fairness is profoundly beneficial. I barely even need to point out that life isn't fair. I think it's way more helpful to conceive of theory arguments in terms of routing debate towards productive ends than it is to maintain some pedantic obsession with fairness. I think the rhetorical message kids should be getting is that they should react to what they perceive of as 'unfair' practices by adapting, not whining. Because, when we are honest with ourselves and take ourselves off our oft-repeated theory clich?s, is anything really THAT unfair? I can't really think of a single time in debate that would meet that test. I will tell you something though; right along with the shitty quality of evidence, theory arguments are at the top of the list of things that marginalize debate as a good training device. It's something that people outside debate don't really understand, and it's by far the most boring thing to judge, and, just as a matter of empirical observation, the people that do it a lot tend to be the laziest ones.
> IV. The bottom line: what the hell it is y'all are doing in this activity should be a question that weighs heavily on your minds.
> It already does in kritik debates. I think it should in policy debates and theory debates. For instance: last year against the Constitutional Amendment CP, I kept trying to wrap my head around what the real theory argument should be, because almost every aff-inclined person felt there was something wrong with it. Yes, there wasn't much literature on it, yes it used expansive fiat power to get around a lot of logical arguments. But instead of whining and saying that it's unfair, attack the problem at its source: knowing that a Constitutional amendment is a good idea isn't all that helpful. The main problem (obviously) with the amendment is that it's politically cumbersome and, in this age, almost impossible to get enacted. The reason that scholars talk about overruling decisions way more than amendments is that it's much more politically feasible.
> Why didn't more people try to impact that? It's not that the neg fiatting out of that argument is UNFAIR, it's that it just ISN'T PRODUCTIVE. Because even when the judge is weighing a plan vs a CP, we're not really comparing their enactments; what we really are doing is comparing the value of voting for one vs. the value of voting for the other. The anti-K people can complain at me all you want about this, but is what we're doing, whether or not you want to admit it. Straying from that simply artifically injects something else into debate---pretend all you want that the plan passes, but at teh end of the day, all you're doing is pretending. That doesn't mean you have to become a hippie and change the world through debate; I think there is a strong strong defense of simulation and imagining policy alternatives that don't depend on anything that radical or goofy. But make no mistake; reading the judge out of the equation is dumb. If you want to say we should pretend to be nuclear weapons policy makers, then so be it; I for one, LOVE to do that and think it could be valuable. But do not just ASSUME that that's what we're doing and then, intsead of defending it, whine when someone else tries to change the rules. If I could boil my point down to one sentence it would be this: instead of whining about things being unfair, defend your framework and say that the other side's is unproductive.
> I think once people take that idea seriously, debate will make a giant leap forward. It won't kill policy debate, it will make it richer, more nuanced, and more in line with a lot of the good academic literature that takes very seriously what the role of the author is in contributing to the larger scholarly debate on an issue.
> One final caveat: I still think topicality should be a voting issue. I don't feel like getting into all of that now, but I think topicality is good because constraining affs creates better and more valuable debates versus a world of unlimited aff discretion. I think people who frame it in terms of fairness are making a grave error. I bet people who have read this far can figure out why.
> Back to my law school hole. I hope this is interesting to at least a few of you.
> Josh Branson
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