Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Death of College Debate, "White Privilege" Edition


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's hard to get much worked up over this. By your own account, HS and collage debate are just the sophist minor leagues anyway. Aren't "Observe as I reinterpret the topic to be something for which I prepared and my opponent did not", "I will now accuse my opponent of being evil for taking the position assigned them in the hopes that they become flustered", and "Here is an anecdote that implies you cannot question my argument without questioning my worth as a human being" all classics of the debate genre? How long does it usually take for any debate tourney to turn into a meta-debate about the rules, with the losing side adopting the pose of the wounded seeker after truth? If these new kids find rap lyrics and dashikis* to be more effective on the soft minds of debate judges than irrelevant Thucydides quotes, club ties, and the threat of GLOBAL THERMONUCLEAR WAR, then more power to them. This ain't logic class.

*What is this, a Tom Wolfe book?

3:16 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...


11:19 PM  
Anonymous Jim Bales said...

How is this different from Ronald Reagan's actions in the 1980 Republican Primary Debate, paid for by the Reagan Campaign and offered under the auspices of the Nashua Telegraph?
(See the fourth paragraph of this section of this article.)

Reagan arranged to pay for the debate to justify excluding all candidates save himself and GHW Bush. Reagan then invited all other candidates, but did not tell Bush that he was doing so. (In that case Bush refused to take part until Reagan backed down.)

Reagan's behavior seems to me to be in the same spirit as Mr. Lee's behavior. (From the Atlantic piece linked) "At one point during Lee’s rebuttal, the clock ran out but he refused to yield the floor. “Fuck the time!” he yelled."

Certainly attacking the premise of the resolution and attempting to shift the discussion to what one considers the more pressing issue is a far more legitimate tactic than either Mr. Reagan's or Mr. Lee's attempt to change the rules on the fly.

And, given that I believe that much of our public debate is, in fact, based on faulty premises, I'm hard pressed to fault students from questioning those premises in their debate competitions.


12:23 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


Sooo...Reagan is our standard now?

Yeah, college debate was already dead, for reasons I've bitched about before. The mindless, loony arguments applied to every plan, the screaming and spitting... Especially the turn to sophomoric po-mo pseudo-philosophy. This latest nonsense is just another small step down the road to perdition inspired by the po-mo crap.

Eventually they'll just form another debate league that y'know, **debates*, and leave the new stuff to its own devices as a kind of forensic performance art or something.

8:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I wouldn't say that this is a step closer to the doom of college debate. The doom is here in debate's lack of concern with truth-directed argument, and is where we have been for a long while. If debate has devolved into a bullshit contest, then basic fairness requires that black culture inflected bullshit get equal consideration with the old WASPy bullshit.

I don't think debate really can be reformed. The tendency toward nonsense is structural. Consider: the resolution on the table is a proposition. If you believe that propositions have an objective truth value, then debate is powerfully unfair, considered as a sport. Arguing in favor of a true proposition is just a hell of a lot easier than arguing against it. This is a true even if the resolution is a proposition of unknown, but more or less probable truth value. The only way debate can be a fair contest is if you either don't believe the proposition to have an objective truth value or that its truth value is sufficiently unknowable as to confer an advantage to neither team. In either case, what is the point of sticking to truth directed argumentation?

This is one reason I think that model UN and model Congress are generally less corrosive to the character of participants than debate. You can assign players balanced, differing sides of differing interests, not differing "facts".

2:07 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Yo, A,

Great points IMO.

I guess I think that debate, done within some very strict parameters, really can be valuable... It's always had a lot of bullshit in it, and it has a tendency to breed intellectual dishonesty, IMO (because, as you note, its goals are divorced from the truth).

But I'd hesitate to conclude it's irredeemable...

I also never thought of the shrieking and lunatic canned cases etc. as in any way WASP-inflected...

But, anyway, I absolutely agree that this latest stuff is just another step down the road to perdition...and debate is well down that what's one ore step?

8:50 AM  
Anonymous Jim Baled said...


My apologies -- I wasn't clear :-( Let me try again.

Do I think Reagan's standard is the correct one? No.

Do I think the level of public political debate has fallen below Reagan's standard of 1980? Yes

Do think college students are aware of the standards of our current public political debate? Yes

Am I surprised that students might emulate what their nominal role models are doing in the current public political debate? Sadly, no.

However, I think that it is not necessarily gamesmanship to question the premises of a resolution. I think that, in fact, it is at times of critical importance to question the assumptions behind a position.

I fear that the article conflated the question of gaming the rules (including attempts to change or violate the rules) with the effort to question the premises behind a resolution.

Hopefully this is clear!


10:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's a small proposal: Change the format of debate to be more in line with the debates of the (Christian) monastic past, when propositions under debate were shared doctrines, and one side was always arguing explicitly on behalf of the devil or "the fool". Have the teams take part in a two part match in which one side, then the other, is made to attack a generally accepted, but historically assailable truth. Team A defends the proposition that the earth orbits the sun, then attacks the proposition that the earth is round. (One would want pairs of similar propositions in topic and obviousness in order to be fair.) Each team gets the chance to use all the usual tricks of the debating trade, explicitly as rhetorical devices, and gets a chance to use explicitly truth-directed argumentation to defend against the same tricks. This would get participants the chance to show off their rhetorical and logical skills in the same venue and sharpen their argumentative skills, without effectively building conceptual relativism into the game.

10:26 AM  

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