[eDebate] Rejecting the cult of fairness

Josh Branson harobran
Wed Nov 14 11:59:42 CST 2007

Steve, good stuff. 
1. The value of fairness: winning/fun? 
A) My framework for debate exalts the role of winning. Fairness is dumb in a lot of instances because it teaches people to be whiners rather than winners. If i'm correct that making debate 'harder' (however we define that ridiculously vague concept) is beneficial, then rejecting fairness is consistent with a move that celebrates winning at all costs. Think of it almost like guerilla warfare; I think that people should be "able" to do and say almost anything in debate, and people should do precisely as much as they can get away with. Of course, there is an old maxim I learned from Lundberg that applies: everything that generates a strategic benefit for you also incurs a strategic cost. If you run stupid delay CPs, you are vulnerable not because it is 'unfair' but because a good team should be able to decisively beat you on the perm. If you run Iran fiat away their nukes, you are vulnerable to precisely the arguments I made in my last post. If you run 3 conditional CPs, you are vulnerable to a smart aff that will exploit your own argument underdevelopment and implicit contradictions. I remember one time when I broke a new aff against a really good team, and they ran 2 contradictory conditional CPs and 2 contradictory K alts in the 1NC, and ended up losing because of it, and not because it was unfair, but because they made strategic sacrifices that were exploited. 
In other words, we all know that winning is fun and losing isn't. But the funny thing is, Steve, the same number of wins and losses get handed out at every tournament no matter what arguments get made. 'Fairness' does not make more people win, it just distributes those wins differently. So the net level of 'fun' is inevitably the same. The question is which method of distribution is better. There's also just the problem of differing tastes. I know a lot of people that LOVE consultation CPs. So while getting rid of them might make me happy, they'd make others unhappy. How do we resolve this question? It seems to me that without getting inside people's heads and measuring overall 'fun' levels, that your impact framework is self-defeating. The more sustainable way to do it is just to say everything goes, and on-balance over the course of a season, everything will balance out (you'll be stuck debating consultation sometimes, kritiks others, DAs others). 
B) Am I being hypocritical? 
Yes and no. I do think that our roles change after we leave the activity, and that is a natural and valuable thing. When I was in debate, you're right, I cared about winning and only winning. But, as I said before, I think that this is what makes debate valuable for participants. The principal value of debate is NOT the substance of the arguments we engage in, because in all honestly, a lot of the time the arguments we engage in are crappy (bad evidence, contrived DAs that you can't even dream of bringing up in 'real' discussions etc.) The value-added that debate provides versus engaging in other activities is the radical unpredictability of the debate environonment. For me, the most fun and challenging part of debate was mapping out our meta-tourament and meta-season strategy; deciding on argument choices against specific teams, trying to gauge how they'd respond, and then reacting and adapting when they failed to respond in the way we'd anticipated. Sometimes you do get a strategy that you anticipate and that you've destroyed in pre-round research, and you win. That's great, and those situations are all threads in the larger and complex tapestry of a debate season. But what are debaters good at in general after they leave? They are versatile, they are able to see arguments from multiple perspectives, and they are able to adapt themselves to new situations. Are they, in general, going to be Iranian nuclear experts? No. 
So I think focusing on winning while you are in the activity is what you should be doing. Sure, other people have other motives, but I've long suspected (although can't prove) that people who claim that other motives are predominant are lying. But let me be clear, the focus on winning is not the terminal goal; the focus on winning is only good because it generates other good benefits, ones which couldn't be generated as effectively without the competitive drive. BUT, once we leave the activity, I think our roles do and should change. For me to be concerned with winning right now would be irrelevant. The only value-added us debate alums can provide is to try and improve the activity. No, I don't expect kids to stop caring about winning. I don't think any argument I've made requires them to. 
So yeah, I did read a lot of pretty bad arguments in my debate career. I think most people do. The way to begin to weed these things out is to train people to defeat bad arguments, not to try and censor them through some ill-defined communitarian 'fair division of ground' rule. 'Bad' arguments are 'bad' for reasons. Let's start more systematically figuring out what those reasons are. 
2. Should debate model the academy? 
I'm not sure exactly what debate should model. But I do think that the question should be debated a lot more than it is. Maybe it should model the academy, maybe it should model the policy wonk community, maybe it should model the government, maybe it should model the activist community, maybe it shouldn't model anything. But these are arguments that don't just influence kritiks; these competing models profoundly impact how we should debate CPs and DAs and theory arguments. A lot of fairness arguments I think presume that debate should not model anything, or that, if anything, as Steve puts it, it should model children's board games where cheating should be punished. I think these implicit assumptions should be made explicit and debated.  
You quote Gordon, and it's hard to argue the factual point that debate is insular and self-contained. But, as I've said repeatedly, I think there is a value there that debate still promotes, even in its contained and insular world. Surely that value can't 'only' be fun, simply because there are a ton of things that people could have fun doing....why is debate better than anything else? 
My main point is confusing but important: Steve conflates the motivation for making theory arguments with their terminal impacts. I agree, fun and competition are the motivations behind theory arguments. Believe it or not, I don't care a ton about whether or not Constitutional amendments are politically utopian and whether or not voting for them is socially productive. But that doesn't mean that the 'impact' to the theory argument can't be substantive in nature. My reason being this: I think it's a productive discussion when we debate the substantive merits of a claim that one should vote to imagine a world without Iranian nuclear weapons versus the substantive merits of an imagination of a US security guarantee. I think it raises a lot of issues that are worth exploring. I do not think, other the other hand, that it's really that productive to say 'your CP is unfair, we don't have literature, voting issue.'  I think both arguments try to get at the same underlying issue, but one dresses it up in the language of fairness, to which there are conceded DAs. 
My last point: if I'm right about the power of alterate decisionmaking frameworks in being a good answer to a lot of dumb theory arguments, then it solves your 'quitting DA.' If substantive arguments provide a good deterrent to and answer these 'abusive' strategies, then there won't be a net increase in bad arguments under my world. In fact, I think there's a pretty decent link turn to your argument, because I think if people had hit on these alternate conceptions of fiat earlier in the year last year and invested in them against the Amendment CP, that would have been a far greater check on them than were people's fiat abuse arguments. I think that through clearer thinking we can eliminate a lot of bad arguments in debate, and we can do so in a way that makes people think harder about what it is we're really trying to accomplish. But surely 'fair division of ground' can't be what we're trying to accomplish. 
3. Should we make recommendations to policymakers? 
I think that's a great idea. I've actually talked to some of my friends about it; somebody with more experience than me should try to set it up, but I think that would be a really cool way to end the year, where somebody formally sits down and writes about the lessons we've learned across the scope of the topic and any innovative suggestions that may have been revealed through our process of debate, and then present it to people that matter. I think that would be really cool. 

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