O-Rez: A Resolutional Debate Manifesto

Debate began with good intentions of seeking truth through argumentation, employing the clash of ideas. Just as the ancients had discovered its nature, man immediately began forgetting this very understanding of truth, venturing down an unfortunate and problematic path. In Plato’s time some 2400 years ago, man’s detachment from one form of truth and embracing of the other was already evident. As philosopher Martin Heidegger explained, man before Plato and Aristotle’s time had recognized that there were two significant forms of truth:

  • truth as the determining of the correctness of statements
  • truth as the unhiding of beings/entities

Man has mostly forgotten the latter. Heidegger writes of this at length in The Essence of Truth (lectures given in 1931-32). We see this same definitional challenge in other practices where man attempts to derive truth, such as the world of corporate governance, risk and compliance. While we claim to seek the truth by sending in a battery of auditors armed with checklists containing carefully crafted statements derived from best practices and standards committees, we only find correctness to them in our exercise. Later, when the company is found to be a sham, its financials cooked (Enron, Worldcom) and its models flawed (Long-Term Capital Management), we realize we never knew any meaningful correspondence to the Being that was the assessed company. We condemn the auditors and blame the shifty executives, but fail to recognize our own complicity in this illusion. Our efforts seek no illumination of the entity of interest; they seek correspondence to statement. We are Plato’s shackled prisoners, confounded by the distorted shadows on the wall.

Why this matters in our lesson is that debate has also become infected by this disease. When the era of modern debate began, circa 1880, we too were already beginning down the wrong path of forgetting the latter definition. At that time, debates would be around a resolution. Often, resolutions would be selected right before a tournament and one side would Affirm and the other side would Negate that very resolution. In this era, an appropriate judging paradigm was that of the hypothesis tester. The judge saw his/her role as taking the arguments provided, evaluated through the clash of the round, and identifying which whether the affirmative had sufficiently demonstrated the resolution to be more true than false, as measured against the negative’s arguments. A walk through Laycock and Scales 1904 debate theory book, Argumentation and Debate, illustrates this resolutional focus.

Arrival of Plan

This style of debate continued in a quite pure form until the 1930s-40s, where “plan” debating about policies began to advance. Debaters were more interested in acting as political system agents. Understand that this advance corresponded with the post-war era of American exceptionalism and the emergence of the cold war. Policy-wonkism was in, technocrats were elite and administrators like Eisenhower and McNamara were heroes.

Naturally, debate changed with the rejection of the Administrative Man, the rise of the counter culture of the late 1960s-early 70s, etc. Extreme speed “spread debate” emerged, accelerating the extension of policy debate into the realm of the inane. Debate dereferenced strategic dialog and the quest of unhiding beings, and became almost exclusively focused on the correctness of statements (flows). New forms of “tabula rasa” technocratic judges emerged, claiming an allegiance to a clean slate, just as long as that slate was parametric, fragmented, partitioned into technical arguments only the technocratic elite could comprehend, and determined through precise rules of flow. Truth as unhiddenness was lost.

A typical 1980s debate consisted of flow technique: counterplans ascended, rule and theory debate became predominant and plan statements became exceptionally narrow (“parameterizing”). What was once called a squirrel due to its unsportsmanlike obscurity (e.g. arguing that the sale of mannequins to Western European nations should be banned, under the resolution “Resolved: The United States Federal Government should significantly curtail arms sales to foreign nations.”) became the norm, ceding 99.99% of the resolutional space for the tactical advantage of limiting and focusing opposing arguments. The obvious result, given a negative deprived of predictable ground, was a world of generic disadvantages, counterplans and theory debate. Additionally, the acceleration of the round through spread and the increasing focus on technical theory arguments gave rise to a debate technocrat’s language of acronyms, forms and elite culture norms.

The Black Swan Arrives
Kritik arose in this land of dispair, representing a postmodern pronouncement of the state of things. Indeed, kritik declared that even the very resolutional statement “Resolved” was now in question (“are we really?”, see Asher Haig’s remarkable Kritik books, available at kritikbook.com). The clever policy world of fiat was deconstructed, placing fundamental questions in the room, even before fiat’s consideration. Instead of a judge using fiat to pretend the plan is passed upon signing the ballot so that all of the nuclear wars and genocides can occur and a final tally be tabulated, Kritik debaters often argued that not only was fiat a foolish delusion, but in-the-room experiences were greatly more relevant than any imaginary post-fiat construct that all knew would never materialize. While some can attribute pre-fiat arguments as having a remarkable correspondence to the ascent of me-centric generations, a greater explanation is that parametric debate had reached its extreme ends. Indeed, the transformation of debate that filled auditoriums with spectators and sported high school teams with two or more dozen varsity debaters to an activity with classrooms devoid of spectators save for the participants themselves signified that terminal point in parametric debate’s run.

Kritik opened up some really interesting discussions about just what we are debating. As the grim reaper of parametric debate, kritik raised the forgotten question necessary to our return to truth. Kritik challenged the participant and judge who was distracted in technocratic seekings of correspondence between fiat-derived conjectures through flow-based statements. In rejecting fiat, kritik declared that the fictional truth evaluated through the parametric world of tab-trained technocratic elites was worthless in anything other than its own perpetuation.

Naturally, the parametric world was not eager to die. Indeed, the Institution of Policy had become a proud one, training and promoting its elites and protecting all challenges from outside. Framework, typically a unwarranted rambling of one-line attestations from the Institution of Policy’s own elites, became the default response to the kritical challenge. Tab-trained judges, while professing a blank slate, would correctly interpret arguments through this framework lens and render ballots that preserved the institution’s hegemony. Framework became a last-ditch effort for the Institute elites who had nearly killed the sport, barricading the castle doors to hold off the surging critical hordes.

A notable experiment was conducted at Novice Nationals in Iowa City this year through the running of a holistic resolutional advocacy affirmative case based on information theory and transhumanist philosophy, to which self-proclaimed “tab” judges voted it down consistently and granting a low-points win to the opposition with comments like “You’re the better team but without framework, I don’t have a way to give you a ballot” and “You won on all the arguments, but this is nothing more than Baudrillard sh*t that I can’t evaluate” and “I had to give the negative a ton of extra latitude because there was no way they could have anticipated this case” (when the case was the advocacy of the resolution itself, something that should not be a surprise at the end of a season, even to the most nuanced and experienced of framework debaters). Even statements such as “You’re doing kritiks wrong – they’re all pre-fiat but your arguments don’t work that way. You have to tell me if you’re pre or post fiat so I know where to weigh things” were illustrating of a judge seeking correctness of statements, not truth. A mere consultation of 80 years of debate theory would have given simple guidance on how to evaluate those rounds, and a judge from 1904 would have little difficulty in handling the debate. How is it that today’s “clean slate” judge is so remarkably lost without his exhaustive collection of preconditional technocratic baggage, unable to evaluate the most simple of cases: we advocate the resolution as true?

Where do we go from here?
Kritik’s arrival (and the corresponding empty participation of the policy form) pronounced an inevitable transition in landscape, a literal third parasite of noise scaring away the Institute’s parametric parasites feasting upon debate’s rotting carcass. Recognizing its call of the question of the form of truth evaluated, Heidegger’s advice of the return to the unhiding of the Being examined is prudent.

Using the Institute’s own weapon against it, framework’s defense is most illuminating as to where we must go. The Institute attests through the Religion of Framework that we may have an outlandish world where nothing is agreed upon. The critical debater engages us with harmful philosophical thoughts, the Institute’s debater argues through technocratic PolicySpeak at incoherent speeds of noise and little signal. Both critical debater and Institute delegate argue that we are inherently lost as there is no common ground. This premise is false, and it is a point we may find for re-engagement as we illuminate the appearance of the arriving posthuman debate. Indeed, we do have common ground. It stares us in the face as dereferenced symbols, their meaning long lost, as we refer to an affirmative and negative. What is to be affirmed or negated? Of course, the resolution! As Asher Haig begs the question “are we resolved,” I argue that we indeed agree to affirm or negate the ground defined by the resolution that all parties, including the judge, have agreed to see debated. This is our minimal ground, and sans material intervention, a return to the unhiding of the truth or falsehood of that resolutional statement is a very good place to begin our post-framework exploration.

Preliminary Theses
Note: To suggest that any list here would be comprehensive and free from error would be the greatest of performative contradictions. Subsequently, this list is presented as incomplete, prone to error, and requiring of further illumination through argumentation, debate and trial.

  1. A candidate judging paradigm worthy of discovery and illumination is that of the Information Theorist: As observers involved in the distorted human world of signal/noise, we employ our information discovery methods through the witness of the unhiding and illumination of the argument through clash in a manner similar to that of the hypothesis tester, yet with the recognition that we are not scientists measuring in a quantifiable, error-free gaussian universe. Instead, we are limited observers in a quantum, distorted dimension complicated by noise.
  2. Policy defines the independent variable of what form our resolution will be in, not the dependent variable of how we will debate it: Even the world’s greatest econometrician is unable to control both sides of the equation. Our debate, which provides a policy statement as the input, may be evaluated through policy concerns, philosophical issues and in-round kritik, not to mention the inevitable coefficient of error we must include. A subsequent equation may be that the function of a policy debate round: RFD = a + POLICY + PHILOSOPHY + KRITIKAL IN-ROUND DYNAMICS + error
  3. Holistic advocacy is neither absolute in resolution domain coverage nor minimalist in scope: Avoiding the theoretical extremes explored in CEDA examination and subsequent abnormal constraints upon the debater, holistic advocacy instead denotes the debate over the resolution in a form that is inclusive of the modality of thought. This modality may include policy, philosophy, critique and other not-yet-anticipated forms. It is up to the debater to determine through his/her advocacy whether his models are representative of the resolution, in a form that would prove the resolution true or false, and up to the judge to evaluate this test. Subsequently, while a parametric plan representing 0.000001% of resolution space is most likely to be problematic and unable to project the truth/falsehood of the whole resolution, no debater should be held to a requirement that 100% must be advocated. A sufficient model that demonstrates truth of the resolution statement should be our goal.
  4. Posthumanism and information theory will reform the landscape, creating new mountains and oceans we can’t yet anticipate: By recognizing debate’s role in the uncovering, transmission, distortion and correction of information through the process of attaining knowledge, and realizing our own role as embodied information and transmitters of memes, new areas will be emphasized while others set aside. Will extreme speeds be recognized as impeding signal and increasing distortion and noise? Or will we recognize it as data compression and evolve methods to protect the integrity of message?
  5. Post-modern debate will continue to be de-emphasized: Postmodernism’s reaction to the realization that technology and reason will not result in mankind’s utopia has expended its utility. Appropriate as a mechanism for detaching us from our connection to the prior, its message is increasingly dated. Its nihilistic tendencies grow less and less relevant, signifying debate’s dated leisure suits and mood rings.
  6. We will leave the Matrix of the blank slate: We have been deceiving ourselves in the myth of tabula rasa by alleging there are but two sides and a “neutral blank slate.” This is impossible. There are no empty tablets floating above the room to which the arguments get perfectly recorded. Our debate has noise — unflowed arguments, lost points, interruptions, and error! Indeed, we cannot forget the arrival of the third parasite at the conclusion of every round — the ballot that chases away our participants feasting away on resolutional scraps on the policy table. Our reality is that the judge is affected by noise/static in the signal of the debate and thus may never have a perfect blank slate. The judge also has countless preconditions, biases, emotional responses, thoughts, distractions, and is far from an innocent, pure and impartial observer. We must engage and include this dynamic in our going-forward model, including our judge in our theory of information exchange.
  7. Every good movement needs a catchy name: While apologizing for the technocratic tendencies of applying exclusive labels, it is recognized that “holistic resolutional debate” is rather clunky and certainly problematic for speed rounds. The nickname “O-Rez” (where the O symbolizes the holistic nature of the resolution) is subsequently offered.

This all will take time to uncover. Curiously, the initial faultlines for this grand fissure trace themselves back over twenty years, to a pronounced debate about debate that was carried out by the CEDA theory grandmasters. Articles presented in CEDA’s journal, Contemporary Argumentation and Debate, carried out by Jeffrey Bile of Southern Illinois University, David Berube of University of Vermont and later University of South Carolina, Arnie Madsen of Northwestern University and Robert Chandler of Illinois State University, explored the dimensions of holistic and parametric debate. Even earlier micro-faultlines were felt in the early 1980s in the murmurings of senior and retired debate coaches of pre-parametric spread, predicting its path would lead to an unfortunate end.

It is the intent of this manifesto’s author to encourage illumination, unhiddenness and the revealing of the fuzzy entity we call debate. It is intended to challenge the status quo, as any true debater would value. It is intended to scare the rats off the Institute of Debate’s table, demanding the technocrats who have allowed debate to depreciate to its current state to re-engage the question of its purpose. As debaters, we are a remarkable sort, tinkering with memes in the ideal information theorist’s laboratory. Each round witnesses an ascension of an island of order in a sea of chaos (Michel Serres), only to see it melt back into the sea moments after rendering the ballot.

Next Steps
Usable briefs and supporting theory, especially the reference to the value of holistic debate, are in development and will be released to the policy debate community during the week of the Nebraska Debate Institute camp. The author of this Manifesto will indeed be participating and debating, and it can be expected that the first instantiation of this argument in in-round form may very likely make its appearance there. As we say in the risk management world, we eat our own cooking.

This manifesto has been in process over the past year, and owes credit to many individuals who helped provide for its uncovering. Dr. Otto Bauer, debate theorist, Northwestern University debater and Air Force Academy coach in the “pre-spread” era, Dana Christensen, coach and policy pioneer at Millard South (Omaha NE), Ian Lee and David Robinson who so remarkably delivered “Finnigan’s Wake” which, if slowed a bit, would have been remarkably easy for a 1904 resolutional judge to evaluate and vote for, and all the other great participants in our north-central circuit information laboratory, are all folks I owe thanks to. To Sean and Jay, for being true pioneers of the Information Theory Debate Paradigm – you two were the first. May policy evolve and find new strength and vigor. Please engage these ideas, challenge them and employ them to make our laboratory strong. The door of posthumanist information theory represents a whole new era for policy debate. May I have helped in merely illuminating the door that awaited us.


One response to “O-Rez: A Resolutional Debate Manifesto

  1. Initially, sorry for the late response, Jamie. I was busy at camp and didn’t have much free time. I’m home now though.

    Regardless, your proposition is interesting, although I think I would have to disagree with portions. I’ll play the devil’s advocate:

    First, I think that essentializing critiques as “pre-fiat” or “postmodern” is problematic, since a majority are probably neither.

    Second, I doubt that many old-time judges would’ve voted for the Finnegan Wake aff. I think you’re probably unjustifiably glorifying the old times. Debate today isn’t perfect, but I think a lot of progress has been made, and I’m much happier to debate in today’s environment.

    Third, I think that distinctions between how much of the resolution has to be defended in order to qualify as representative of the resolution as a whole is incredibly problematic and probably arbitrary.

    Fourth, I think that a plan-based conception of debate is superior to a resolution-based conception of debate. Advocating a plan doesn’t have to be an affirmation of the resolution or a way to prove the resolution true, but the plan statement itself can be about what must be proven true, and the resolution just sets the boundaries (“limits”) of what plans the aff can chose to defend.

    Regardless, I think the whole debate about debate regarding plan or resolutional focus is incredibly interesting, and something which probably isn’t though about enough. If you would like to debate (or discuss) the merits of each model, I would be more than happy to engage in that discussion with you. I think discussions like these are good for debate.

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