A Young Person’s Guide to Managing Critical Thought

One of the greatest challenges to a high school debater who wishes to evolve to the level of a true varsity is an internal challenge: handling the mental barrier which precludes the effective handling of critical thought. This barrier is particularly problematic for policy and Lincoln-Douglas debaters in that it restrains their advocacy, causing their arguments to be noticeably insincere. In close rounds, this superficiality results in a loss, as the judge will more carefully measure the consistency, quality and integrity of the debater’s advocacy presented.

Judging competitive rounds, I’ll frequently observe this problem, such as a debater mishandling a Heidegger kritik by running competing arguments in conjunction with the kritik that horribly conflict with the philosopher’s underpinning message, or in opposing debaters trivializing the thought of a Baudrillard or Zizek as “unintelligible crazy crap.” Both cases indicate a problem in conceptualizing the critical argument, finding its coherent place. Yet in discussions with these debaters after the round, a more fundamental problem lurks below the debater’s conscious mind and prevents comprehension of the philosophical idea, in spite of their better efforts. It is to this barrier I speak.

The Conscious Objection to the Kritik
On the surface, kritiks are strange arguments. Consider my team’s experiment with the running of post-humanist philosophy (Michel Serres “The Parasite” on the Negative, and our Kurzweil, Young and Garreau “Transhumanist Manifesto” on the Affirmative) at policy debate novice nationals. Opposing teams refused to engage the arguments seriously, disparaging and trivializing significantly serious and worthy philosophical thought*. Judges that claimed to be tabula rasa lied**, imposing personal preconditions that rejected even to the point of refusing to flow our arguments (and mind you, these were “national circuit” judges, not soccer moms). Some have described the critical affirmative as “rape of debate,” even when a policy option is presented. Our rejection to thought-that-challenges is substantial.

The curious thing about this visceral, emotional rejection of thought-that-challenges is in its obvious and apparent dishonesty. If we took a moment to reflect upon why our current policy-of-self /is/, we would trace each meme that defines our worldview back to philosophy. How do we encounter consumerism? Do we embrace a work ethic? Do we want that new iPod? Should iPod music be free or should we have to buy them from recording labels? Should I cheat on that test? Is a little bit of plagiarism acceptable, especially when everyone else at school does it? All of these thoughts operating within our personal worldview and through our society’s policy are derived from the instantiation of specific philosophical thought. The very fact that we have the concept of a teenager that continues in an educational program, exempt from the workforce, is a relatively new and radical thought as opposed to the experience of history. Merely one-hundred years ago, teenage debaters would be in the mill or in the fields, toiling away through the identity of non-child. Teen, as a concept, did not exist***.

Yet we find it difficult when we handle these philosophical ideas. Indeed, we respond to them with the primitive response of “fight or flight.” Reject the challenging thought outright in its legitimacy and otherize it, or run away from it, quitting critical argumentation or even the activity itself.

The Unconscious Objection to the Kritik
Lurking beneath superficial objection is a conflict within the debater’s self-identity. Numerous critical arguments encountered in the policy and values debate world challenge the culture from which the debater originates. Baudrillard will question the legitimacy of American foreign policy and the integrity of our news media in the portrayal of it all as nothing but war pornography. Zizek will invert Christianity’s compassionate message of “turning the other cheek” into an expression of a greater violence against the Other which can never be overcome. Heidegger, if approached more than superficially, may challenge the way we define ourselves in the world, and Derrida will challenge our very capacity to understand.

To the unprepared, these ideas will cause problems. If approached with significant, sincere intent to comprehend, yet carried out without prior preparation, they can damage and shatter the debater’s worldview, resulting in visceral rejection even of debate itself. Or the other extreme can occur, radicalizing the debater’s thought toward the encountered view at the expense of the connection of existing culture, relationship and community. As either extreme is highly damaging, most debaters address the problem through the formation of cultural immunities: they create antibodies that kill off questioning thought and protect the identity-that-is.

A Third Alternative
Instead of the binary fight-or-flight choice of identity-shattering comprehension versus numbing rejection of critical thought, a third alternative exists which allows for deep comprehension without significant risk to the debater. To explain this concept, we first need to lay some information theory ground through the appropriation of posthumanist analogy.

Borrowing from the technology sciences, the concept of a computer operating system kernel is useful for our third-way model. As the mind of the computer system, the kernel controls the management of memory, execution of tasks and jobs, and interaction with interfaces to its user, others (networks) and its own body (hardware). Operating system designers originally created kernels that were thick or fat, loading them up with great volumes of technology culture. These kernels were good at operating within their specific region, but had great difficulty when appropriated to unanticipated realms. For instance, these fat creatures were great at running a personal computer and serving up web pages, emails and office documents, but they performed horribly when asked to fly fighter jets, run soda vending machines or route traffic on the Internet. They named these fat and singular-purpose (singular-culture) entities Monolithic Kernels.

An alternative approach to the monolithic is the Microkernel. This technology being is one which is exceptionally lightweight, bringing only a bare minimum of technology culture and corresponding baggage. As the kernel is a space within which instructions, definitions and culture require protection (in order to prevent against challenges to its fundamental integrity), this lightweight version places the core of identity within a tight package. All the other stuff that might be occasionally needed but wasn’t absolutely critical to the kernel’s existence and identity was placed outside, in objects called Loadable Kernel Modules (we’ll refer to them as Loadable Modules)

For the varsity critical debater, the microkernel paradigm provides a powerful solution to comprehending formerly dangerous critical thought without jeopardizing the integrity of identity. Interestingly, this transition begins immediately with the very recognition that one can have a microkernel, as this discovery immediately partitions the mind of the debater and defines two spaces: that which is core-to-identity (and thus within the Microkernel), and that which is external-to-identity (and thus a Loadable Module).

For those that have read this far, congratulations! By conceiving of the mere potential for defining your thought in this manner, you possess a microkernel. The memetic infection is already complete. (This instant solvency should suggest something of the power of information theory and memetics to the critical debater).

Hacking Yourself
From this point forward, the practice becomes one of identification, categorization and application. A good example of this process is as follows:

  1. Identification: What beliefs do I have? In every day life, when I make a decision (even the most inane, like “how much mustard should I put on my hot dog”), what values do I express in that decision? Where does that value come from? Is there an underpinning philosophical believe I hold that creates that value?
  2. Categorization: For each of the beliefs I have identified, is this belief something that is incredibly foundational to my existence? If I discarded it, what would that mean to my definition of me? How would it affect my connections to others in my life that are meaningful to me? Considering that each belief that is put into my microkernel, I become more and more unwieldy and inflexible, can I define my self in a most minimal form and allow the rest of my identity to be held as a Loadable Module, to which I invoke and execute when I need it?
  3. Application: For all else that is non-core and external to my microkernel, can I identify it and package it in Loadable Modules? For instance, if I am both an athlete and a debater, I am sure there are times where my Athlete culture is not needed in the debate world, and am even more certain that my Debate culture is problematic in the Athlete world. Likewise, I would probably not load my CriticalDebater module at church or at grandmas and argue Nietzsche. I recognize that while I behave as different persons in these different environments, these are all Loadable Modules which I can load and unload as needed. They do not affect the microkernel-that-is-me.

As one can observe, there is substantial utility in creating a protected microkernel that shields identity, while creating the framework for loadable modules to be invoked as needed given the appropriately self-determined circumstance. In my case, the approach has allowed me to seriously evaluate post-modern, post-anarchist, deconstructionist, existentialist and posthumanist thought at a deep and serious level, while remaining intellectually consistent and true in self-discourse. That I’m a Kierkegaardian-influenced person of faith is not jeopardized when I load modules of those who question the very core of Christianity, for instance. As a loadable module, I’m able to examine the critical thought, utilize it for the local condition (e.g. evaluating a debate round, making a business risk assessment), and then if and only if I choose, appropriate small parts of it to my microkernel should I find that thought to be foundational to my core.

With application and practice using the existing topography of one’s self experience and cultural package, our daily engagement with reality allows us to reinforce this microkernel paradigm. In our experience at home, school, work, debate and elsewhere, the following questions help us refine the paradigm:

Q: What modules do I have loaded right now?
Q: Do I run them all the time, or in certain circumstances?
Q: If I run them all the time, is it possible I’ve made this part of my kernel and monolith-ized myself?
Q: If I don’t run it all the time, what places do I find myself running it?
Q: If I shut them all down and only had my microkernel, how would I behave in this environment?
Q: Do I have loadable modules that I don’t like? Nervous or troublesome behaviors?
Q: Can I segment and control or sever those undesired loadable modules?
Q: What new modules can I download (from culture, books, community) and play with?

The last question is a particularly powerful one as it provides the framework for evaluating critical thought. Consider the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari in their deeply significant work, A Thousand Plateaus. Can I create a new module, call it “D&G World” and begin to populate it with their ideas? Should I study Marx, can I create a Marx module, populate it with my Marx studies, and then load it to play with?

In loading/unloading these modules, we find that the greater our definition and precision of our modules, the more utility we gain from the use and combination of modules. For instance, Deleuze describes that he took the worlds of Marx, Freud and Nietzsche, loaded them, snuck up behind them and accosted the ideas (recoding the modules) and created entirely new offspring through the process.

It is through this approach that the debater can deeply engage critical thought and gain comprehension, load and unload, examine, play and torment powerful ideas without risk to identity.

Next Steps
Understanding that the approach prescribed here merely opens a door and gives one a less world-shattering method of seriously engaging critical thought, the practitioner should realize that this is merely the beginning, the first room in the world of memetics, information theory and other wonderful applied ontological practice. For the critical debater that wants to take this practice further, especially in the outward application of these techniques to their advocacy, I strongly recommend the reading of Unruh and Wilson’s “The Art of Memetics,” currently available for PDF download and well worth the inexpensive order directly from the authors. (Warning: memetics is an active practice of information theory and strategy, and subsequently will introduce the student to powerful capabilities that capable of both positive and negative change.)

Long-Term Application
A final comment regarding the utility of this paradigm is necessary. By developing the capacity to load and unload specific perspectives and worlds-of-thought, you will develop a skill that has tremendous utility as an analyst, especially in strategic spaces. Numerous professions greatly desire this capability. In my own profession as an information risk manager, this paradigm has helped me to uncover numerous major risks to my employer that had been previously undetected. Those who proceeded me in examining the risk environment used monolithic and inflexible thought paradigm, e.g. that of an auditor/examiner, or that of the system/network administrator. Through both world-views, the risks that existed were invisible from their vantage point. However, an accomplished hacker or criminal organization would potentially uncover that hidden risk as they characteristically do not approach a system from a typical vantage point. By evaluating the environment through multiple paradigms (via loading the corresponding modules), the risks became immediately clear.

This skill is equally valuable in forecasting consumer behavior, creating corporate strategies specific to potential future scenarios and carrying out countless other applications where the assignment is to either assess the status quo from a nonstandard vantage point, or to anticipate how to design an system for a future environment we haven’t encountered yet. In fact, its utility is relevant toward any situation where we wish to examine our environment (past, present or future) from any other vantage point than the one we’re presently in.

Postscript: One final comment that didn’t make the original posting is very relevant. Many will find that this paradigm and approach will greatly accelerate the process of engaging, comprehending and applying new areas of thought. In educational and professional environments, we’re often asked to take on a new assignment, evaluate from new view. When seen through the lens of “adding another module” and then using the existing framework to apply and test, one can rapidly bring on new capabilities. The microkernel approach embraces “framework reuse” which greatly speeds one’s effort in engaging and utilizing new areas of thought.

* The Transhumanist Manifesto addressed the pending end-of-humanity as we know it through the realm of the Singularity, actually affecting each and every one of us should the increasing body of work addressing this potentiality be true. This topic is by no means obscure, having found increasing popularity on NPR and other mainstream sources. Contrast this to the significance of an imaginary single space-based solar satellite proposed by a high school debater using fiat to an end that will never actually occur. In a sense, critical affirmative vs. policymaker inverts the reality of discourse, where the only absurd and silly argument in the room is the pretend policymaker plan. Fiat makes for unreliable cars and even less reliable discourse.

**There are two types of tab judges: Those that have preconditions (and thus are not tab), and those that lie. For a more honest alternative, embrace the information theorist paradigm and embrace preconditions, subjectivity of position and noise.

*** Actually, we don’t even need one-hundred years of history to find this truth. My very own paternal grandfather left home at age 13 and crossed the country hitching freight trains to work sheep ranches in Montana in order to send money home to his mother and his sisters during the Great Depression. I enjoy reminding my children of this fact when they’re less than eager to help around the house (a rare occurrence, I should add).

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