Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Bizarre World of Policy Debate

I coach an ethics debate team during the school year, and enjoy it tremendously.  Watching a team dig down into the intricacies of a case, and seriously responding to a resolution or question, taking into account possible objections is something like watching a piece of art in production.

From time to time our team takes in what I might describe as refugees from the more typical and widespread debate competition type labeled "policy debate."

Refugees assure me that the format is bizarre. Initiates maintain its sublimity. To give you a taste of how such a match goes, here is some vid.




What are they debating? Haven't a clue, but the YouTube description mentions something about (Schwarzwald) Marty Heidegger. 

Supposedly, as is typical in traditional debate formats, there is a specifically worded resolution, teams research it for months, show up for the competition, one team argues in favor, the other against. Judges look at the quality of presentation, and the degree to which teams support their positions, score, and a winner is determined.

So, as you can see, teams come armed with document laden laptops or dead-tree equivalents (boxes full of supporting documents) and aim to shove as much information into their allotted time as possible given human vocal anatomical restraints. There is a typical back and forth, teams anticipating each other's best arguments, and pre-emptively dealing with them.

There are apparently a few national organizations that run these things. One such organization is called "Cross Examination Debate Competition"  A local team won the 2014 Nationals.  The topic for debate this year:

Resolved: The United States Federal Government should substantially increase statutory and/or judicial restrictions on the war powers authority of the President of the United States in one or more of the following areas: targeted killing; indefinite detention; offensive cyber operations; or introducing United States Armed Forces into hostilities.

Nice juicy topic, eh?  So, how did the final round go?  Here is video of the complete thing. You'll have to move forward to the 45:30 mark to see the presentation for the affirmative which begins the round:





The Oklahoma team had earlier beat the Georgetown Team (round starts at 30:43):



The Towson team won the championship.

You needn't watch the entire 8+ hours to see that the two championship round teams departed from traditional debate competition format in several ways.  In short, you can make out three basic things in the rapid fire delivery:

They did not debate the resolution as stated, departing from it very substantially.
They dropped the N-bomb many times.
They used music/rap.

If you look at the Georgetown round, you'll see G-town stuck to the more traditional P-debate presentation style, silly as it is, and attempted to bring the round back around to the stated resolution.  The Ok. team had rephrased the resolution to read, in the words of one of the Towson team members "Oklahoma stood resolved that “War Powers should not be waged against niggas” At one point, you'll see an Ok team member move over the Georgetown side and point out rather forcefully that they did not address the revised resolution. Invasion of space is OK with CEDA apparently.

The Towson team member goes on about the final round, and the Ok team:
Within their affirmative they flawlessly used songs by Lauryn Hill as well as poetry and Hip-Hop to not only performatively restrict presidential war powers but also to exemplify the violence that is caused by the “legitimate” use of war powers being waged against Black people. Furthermore, they highlighted the atrocities that happen to our communities through things like anti-blackness, racism, white supremacy, and police brutality. My words could never accurately sum up or even contain the essence of their performance.
And on her team's negative case, she has this:
Now being as though we are two Black girls from Baltimore, our task seemed rather difficult (to negate the affirmative), after all we experience those same violences and threats to our existence on a day-to-day basis. So we took a very unique approach to their argument, pulling on literature from scholars such as David Marriot, Eve Tuck, K. Wayne Yang, and Alexis Gumbs. Our argument was that we should not present scenes of suffering within the academy (which is what we claimed the affirmative did) because the academic machine will become a spectator that merely feeds its libido by consuming pain narrations.(Tuck and Yang) Furthermore we said that when we tell narrations of pain and suffering to black youth as a means of survival, this inhibits their political imagination because they can only envision similar violences happens to them. Marriot says that this allows for the smooth functioning of whiteness because there is never a moment where we can envision ourselves existing despite the intentional targeting and killing of these communities that exist on the margins of society. We said instead we should mirror what Alexis Gumbs calls “a black utopian political imagination” or a “politics of survival” where we can envision ourselves living and existing in the world; where we can “challenge the gospel of individualism”. We said that instead of retelling narrations of pain, we should focus on a better future and that we should embrace futurity through telling narrations of survival.

Well, not surprisingly, this competition garnered some attention. The Atlantic had a story concerning, as did the Weekly Standard.

These criticisms, along with others, prompted the very earnest president of the CEDA to post this video accusing authors of such critiques of being motivated by racism:



So, you have a split in the "policy debate" community, some schools arguing that the whole thing has devolved into an uncivil performance-art sham copy of real debate, and willing to form splinter groups, others making charges of racism. From the Atlantic:

But other teams who have prepared for a traditional policy debate are frustrated when they encounter a meta-debate, or an alternative stylistic approach in competition. These teams say that the pedagogical goals of policy debate are not being met—and are even being undermined. Aaron Hardy, who coaches debate at Northwestern University, is concerned about where the field is headed. “We end up … with a large percentage of debates being devoted to arguing about the rules, rather than anything substantive,” he wrote on a CEDA message board last fall.

Critics of the new approach allege that students don’t necessarily have to develop high-level research skills or marshal evidence from published scholarship. They also might not need to have the intellectual acuity required for arguing both sides of a resolution. These skills—together with a non-confrontational presentation style—are considered crucial for success in fields like law and business. Hardy and others are also disappointed with what they perceive as a lack of civility and decorum at recent competitions, and believe that the alternative-style debaters have contributed to this environment. “Judges have been very angry, coaches have screamed and yelled. People have given profanity-laced tirades, thrown furniture, and both sides of the ideological divide have used racial slurs,” he said.

To counter this trend, Hardy and his allies want to create a “policy only” space in which traditional standards for debate will be enforced. However, this is nearly impossible to do within the two major debate associations, CEDA and the National Debate Tournament (NDT), as they are governed by participants and have few conduct enforcement mechanisms. For instance, while CEDA and NDT’s institutional anti-harassment policy would normally prohibit the term “nigga” as it was used at the recent Indiana University tournament finals, none of the judges penalized the competitors that used it. In fact, those debaters took home prizes.

14 schools expressed interest in sending debaters to Hardy’s proposed alternative tournament, scheduled to occur last month. But after word got out that a group of mostly white teams from elite universities were trying to form their own league, Hardy and his supporters were widely attacked on Facebook and other online forums. Ultimately the competition didn’t happen, purportedly because of logistical issues with the hotel venue. Nonetheless, Hardy wrote in an email that a “toxic climate” has precluded even “strong supporters of ‘policy debate’ from “publicly attach[ing] their name to anything that might get them called racist or worse.”

Meanwhile, in the debate world my team deals with, the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics has been sponsoring "Ethics Bowl," U of Az. Eller School Marymount MD and Katz School of Business U Pitt hold business ethics case competitions each year. There are additional venues as well. We at the academy held our first annual Military Ethics Case Competition this year. In short there have been ongoing and very pedagogically profitable endeavors of this sort going on for many years. None of them have the silly features of "policy debate."

No rapid fire delivery, no pop/performance art, no (intentional) straying from the topics at hand, no fluid judging standards and above all, actual argumentation and analysis, not motive mongering, argument ad hominem or bullying.

I would suggest to all those teams that are frustrated with "policy debate" to move on. You have plenty of alternatives. It sure doesn't look like fun, and there is limited real-world applicability for so much of what you do, (auctioneer maybe?) The only valuable experience you seem to garner is research. Heck, you'll learn to research with E-Bowl, or Ethics Case Comps, just as much as you do with policy debate.  These are all voluntary organizations. If a majority of your organization wants to go this route, there is precious little you can do about that.

You can leave at any time, and choose to associate with others, or create new organizations. You'll no doubt, be carped at by those you leave behind.

Man up. Deal with it and move on.