[eDebate] Hester's Harrisonization

Mitchell, Gordon Roger gordonm
Fri May 1 22:45:36 CDT 2009

Michael Hester's adroit deployment of Vonnegut warrants lionization, if not canonization. In case you missed it, Hester coined the neologism "harrison bergeron effects" to describe "artificial constraints intended to create balanced ground which end up skewing debates down alleyways where AFF solvency has built-in inadequacies, with the overall effect of mediocre debates."


Kurt Vonnegut fans will catch Hester's reference here, but for those who haven't had the pleasure of reading this funny, incisive and dystopic short story:

"Harrison Bergeron, the protagonist of the story, has exceptional intelligence, height, strength and beauty and thus has to bear enormous handicaps. These include headphones that play distracting noises, three hundred pounds of weight strapped to his body, forty pounds of birdshot around his neck, eyeglasses designed to give him headaches, and a rubber ball on his nose, black caps on his teeth, and shaven eyebrows to hide his beauty. Despite these societal handicaps, he is able to invade a TV station, declare himself emperor, strip himself of his handicaps, then dance with a ballerina whose handicaps he has also discarded. Both are shot dead by the brutal and relentless Handicapper General. The story is framed by an additional perspective from Bergeron's parents, who are watching the incident on TV, but because of their handicaps and less than average intelligence, cannot concentrate enough to appreciate what occurs nor remember it."


Hester's metaphor ventures an explanation for lesser quality debate on the recent Indian Country and courts topics - in striving to maximize the TRANSACTIONAL MERITS of the respective topics, framers resorted to "Harrisonization" - strapping on all manner of clunky linguistic accoutrements in a bid to equalize debating ground. But just as Harrison Bergeron's scintillating talents were quashed by this process in Vonnegut's story, so to can jury-rigging wordplay compromise the CONTENT MERITS of a particular topic, starving affirmatives of solvency literature, for instance.

I wonder whether Harrisonization might also erode a topic area's PUBLIC MERITS, especially if one considers Nancy Fraser's distinction between "strong" and "weak" publics as a clarifying principle. For Fraser, strong publics (e.g. the voting electorate, lobbyists) are directly tied into the institutional decision-making apparatus - they participate in activities that involve both opinion formation and institutional decision-making. In contrast, weak publics (such as civil society associations and the intercollegiate policy debate community) participate in deliberative practices consisting exclusively of opinion-formation and not encompassing institutional decision-making.

As a weak public, the intercollegiate policy debate community (operating in its tournament mode) would NOT seem positioned well to call for passage of particular policies by institutions (a mode of action more akin to Beltway lobbyists bringing "strong publicity" to bear). Instead, in Zarefsky's terminology, the community is involved in "testing the resolution as a hypothesis" through a rigorous, collective and cooperative method (the debate season). But whereas Zarefsky's original formulation of hypothesis testing yielded judging paradigms appropriate for utilization in single contest rounds, this "weak public" sense turns hypothesis testing into a collaborative, collective project oriented to maximize the public merits of the year's debating resolution, with the fruits of that labor shared with interested wider audiences. 

The Bruschke results website and Wake caselist wiki provide glimpses of how digitally pooled knowledge products from a season of intercollegiate debating can have extraordinary public merit. The broad and deep panorama of many-sided argumentation turns Protagoras' notion of "dissoi logoi" into polloi logoi - a rigorous, systematic inquiry into multifaceted dimensions of a pressing public policy issue. Topic area choice and resolution wording bear on the prospects for development of debate's "weak public" role in this vein, hence the potential perils of Harrisonization deserve careful consideration.

Gordon R. Mitchell
Associate Professor of Communication
Director, William Pitt Debating Union
University of Pittsburgh
CL 1117, 4200 Fifth Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
Phone: (412) 624-8531
Fax: (412) 624-1878

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