morality of the victim’s act: thoughts on the 2012 jan-feb lincoln-douglas debate topic

Having judged the January-February 2012 LD topic at Blake a few weekends ago, and being asked to provide topic analysis for some in our debate community, I’ve assembled the few thoughts below to provide some possibilities for exploration. Given the resolution:

Resolved: It is morally permissible for victims to use deadly force as a deliberate response to repeated domestic violence.

Let’s first take a look at some of the opportunities a quick and informal topological analysis of the resolution provides. Typically when encountering a new resolution, I like to “chunk it apart” to look at conceptual areas. For instance, this resolution seems to present at least four large chunks:

morally permissible: we’re talking morality, again, sigh. Rant on this NFL ontotheological bad habit later.
victims: broad and open to considerable interpretation as we’ll discuss.
deliberate deadly force: not accidental, in rage, but premeditated.
repeated domestic violence: note the repeated frequency; definitions of domestic violence will be important

As mentioned, I tend to first chunk a resolution and then deconstruct off of the conceptual chunks. I’ll then push the interplay further; e.g. what does one chunk’s interpretation effectuate with respect to the others. In the prior resolution, I chunked it into triads and ended up examining “left chunk” “middle chunk” and “right chunk” debates, and did analysis on the first two tournaments to see where the focus appeared to be. Because LD debate is an extremely normative practice, meaning judges interpretations mean much more than your creativity (as we’ve seen from Blake ballots indicating we dominated the technical debate, but the judge just refused to believe in our underlying premise), you will want to monitor how your reading of the resolution resonates with how the circuit tends to norm it. LD is particularly hostile to experiments and interpretations outside its highly hegemonic normative doxology.

Chunking and Deconstructing
Ranting aside, let’s play with this resolution’s chunks.

1. Morality: An early decision we have to make is how we’re going to handle the concept of morality. I will rant again here that the NFL has no business imposing theological concepts upon what should be a secular practice. Debaters have no business preaching, nor do they want to be preached to. Any sufficient reading of moral theory will provide the grounding into theology. Subsequently, we avoid this problem and interpret morality through a poststructural reading as “ethics” (Todd May, an Anglo-American analytical philosopher who has crossed the bridge repeatedly into the Continental world, with respect by both, deals with this particular issue carefully and competently). So, we tend to understand that we’re making a determination of ethics through this re-reading and will be prepared to defend this interpretation through May or others. Because of the capacity for a rather toxic, otherizing debate, I recommend that religion simply be left aside in debate as it only serves to polarize, divide and will never persuade or convince.

2. Victims: The resolution expects us to talk about domestic abuse victims. We have a bit of latitude to play here but I’d strongly encourage us to think about the profound normative shaping the LD community tends to have on its tolerance (or the lack thereof) in interpretations. In CX debate, squirrel cases, parametrics and radical interpretations may have a judge shaking their head partially in amusement at the courage of the team running them and daring a topicality and framework challenge, but it’s usually left to the debaters to define. Rarely is this tolerance and respect for interpretive creativity permitted in LD. LD has established norms and forms and you’re expected to comply; variance either invites judge hostility or rejection. It’s unfortunate, given the mountains of pedagogical theory and research that shows this very reaction to be quite damaging to the educational process. But deal with the reality and be prepared for its consequence; my own interpretation has been to push the edges a bit but recognize we have a Luddite audience with very little tolerance for new forms. I’m reminded of a former Omaha Symphony conductor who said he’d love to perform much more contemporary literature, but his audience would hang him. So he’d play a bit of what they wanted to hear (Beethoven, Mozart) and occasionally push their ears a little (Shostakovich, Mahler, Stravinsky, which was 50-100 years old at the time and still considered too edgy and avant garde; this should help one understand why much of the LD practice in Minnesota hasn’t yet evolved past Immanual Kant’s philosophy which is amusingly treated as contemporary and theoretically relevant, rather than historically curious).

So with your victims analysis, you’ll want to resonate as it’s an easy place to find commonality with your judge and their restrictive normative and interpretive worldview. Children, women and other diminished individuals in domestic power relationships are givens and are likely to do well with the majority of the judging community. I’d particularly love to see this pushed, but wouldn’t advise it before other judges. Victims in other minoritarian relationships are particularly interesting topics: the subaltern (ala Gayatri Spivak’s remarkable thinking), victims in same-sex abusive relationships, and other more difficult terrain is intellectually interesting but again, may move you out of your judges comfort zone. To think of the big stick cases, I’d suggest women victims of male abuse is the most accepted interpretation, followed by children (this coincides with what I saw at Blake; children were actually quite rare).

3. Repeated violence to the victim: Shifting the topic order (since we need to talk about this next in my analysis), we need to understand what defines the victim as one. You’re going to need to think about this and draw some brightlines as there is debate on this interpretive ground. Do I have to actually physically abuse, or is verbal abuse ok? What about the threat of abuse? This represents some rather fascinating ground, but again, your judging may not go there with you (we brought a Lacanian negative that deals with a worldview of psychology that is quite predominant outside the U.S., and explains that even with the killing of an abuser, the site is constructed in the victims head and the killing will never remove that site of violence; killing is not an alt. Judges hated it and refused to engage it as a possibility). Using the “What is a typical middle class teacher/educator interpretation of what would be abuse” model, you can and should look for a big stick interpretation here. Beating the holy crap out of someone, leaving the bleeding, breaking limbs, cigarette burns and all the horrifying imagery seems to meet the threshold of the normative readings of the resolution; repeated incidents appears to be key.

4. Deliberate deadly force: You’re going to need to think about whether actual killing is part of your case conception, or merely the right. Much of the debate I’ve judged on this topic so far merely insists it is a right that shouldn’t be taken away, but doesn’t go so far to necessitate it. That’s probably an intelligent debate and literature definitely supports it.

Chunk Interplay
Looking at the interplay between the chunks and looking toward the effectual intolerance of the general judging normative practice, I’d suggest that you have at most a single degree of freedom in your case construction, necessitating the remainder of the chunks fall firmly within the norms. There’s not a lot of reason to push the edge on chunk #4 (deliberate deadly force), nor with #3 (repeated violence), you probably can and should stay safe and work with a morality=ethics interpretation given the community doesn’t seem to want to debate theology (except when it does via ontotheological philosophers which might explain Kant’s popularity in Minnesota), and this leaves you with an independence on the victims interpretation. This becomes a sort of plane that the case would want to function and resonate within.

Again, this is how I’ve read the topic. Play with the technique, theory and interpretation and engage in your own dérive (make your own detour!). I’ll continue based on these assumptions and share a bit of what I’ve seen in judging.

Case Assemblages

Let’s talk about some actual case constructs, both ideas I’ve played with as well as a few seen and judged:

I. Feminism
Remarkably, this topic has seemed to be somewhat open to a feminist aff strategy. I’ve judged it at Blake and feel that at a minimum, a third-generation feminist grounding will probably resonate well on the topic, depending on how traditional your feminist authors and their associated movements tend to register with your judge. You will probably have little difficulty with a liberal feminist interpretation. Given a single degree of freedom, lock down to a conservative reading on all the chunks except victim, and then construct the victim as female against a violent individual or system, and interpret the ethical justifying calculus through feminist theory. This is actually an intelligent and conservative debate on the topic. Before most judges, they’re unlikely to reject it given most actual human beings with intelligence and compassion tend to recognize feminist issues as legitimate. With a critical judge, there are some remarkably interesting debates to be had here.

Liberal Feminism: Many of the policy Fem K files will have decent materials here, and you’ll probably find a few LD files around too. I’m far from qualified to speak to this tradition as it is usually the object of structuralist and identitaritarian criticisms from the postmodern and poststructural schools (ask a liberal feminist if she recognizes a genetically and anatomically configured male to identify and construct their gender as female-in-male-body, but then elect to engage in “lesbian” relations with genetically-female bodies, and you’ll find extremely rigid structures that reject these constructions and demand anatomy of males fix their gender constructions).

Anarchist and Radical Feminism: This is a remarkably interesting terrain and connects strongly with the right of the victim to use deadly force. You’re probably facing an uphill battle with mainstream judges. I’d love to judge it (and there may be something coming out from us on this interpretation…).

Black Feminism: Another wonderful plateau that I’d love to see debated; it advances thinking that has tremendous pedagogical value. Uphill climb, though perhaps a little less than the anarchist and radical “tradition”.

Postcolonial and Third-World Feminism: This plateau requires two degrees of freedom, per my topic analysis. You’re going to have to open the interpretation of the victim to a broader and more abstract subject, such as Gayatri Spivak’s subaltern. You’ll also need to deal with the abuser and quite likely (re)construct it as a structural, systemic violence, to which the subaltern should have a moral(ethical) action of deadly violence against it. This is a complicated case and very uphill for most judges. It’s also in the area of poststructural postcolonialism that I tend to stay up night reading, unable to put down, and would freak out if I were to judge it being run well. If you’re marginally curious about this area (or even a decent human being and want to read something all decent intelligent human beings should read, then check out this short but necessary journal article by Spivak, called “Can the Subaltern Speak?“. Hint: This is where the concept “black women don’t need to be defended from black men by white men” originates).

Postmodern Feminism: Running Butler, Haraway and others from this “tradition” will probably work well in front of a critical-receptive judge. Strangely, the mainstreamer judges don’t seem to accept concepts such as gender being constructed, and they are quite often oblivious of the presence of biopower’s productive influences on social systems, structures, language, discourse, etc. Foucault, Derrida, Lacan and others have much to say in this greater resonance to postmodernism but is a fierce uphill climb before all but the receptive.

(concluding the section on feminism, I’ve absolutely neglected a great deal of thinking, including tremendous thinkers like Irigaray, but ask you to take your own dérive and create your own path here; it is a responsible and remarkably ethical debate to bring, even if you do end up with close minded judges in the end).

Child Abuse: This is a good plateau for a non-critical topic, with literature ( and scribd) that deals with issues of children killing abusive parents, children with schizophrenia (linked in some research to this abuse), etc. We debate a case in this area and I think it provides for an intelligent big stick, given that we have to ask how we construct what is moral and ethical. As a poststructuralist, I do all I can to help people in society become aware of the myth of the universals they tend to believe protect them from the monsters out there (when actually, as Sloterdijk observes in his just-translated masterpiece Spheres: Bubbles, the opposite is quite true. Humans who believe in universals for protection are much like the baby chick that is born out of the shell, sees the chaos and complexity of the world out there, and rejects it, shoving its head back into the shell that had such unifying simplicity. This lasts until the fox walks up to an oblivious chick with its head hidden in the shell, ass stuck up high in the air, and chomps the little chick down for dinner). In our interpretation in this area, we look at where ethics (morality) should be interpreted. Do you want to be a sick universalizing bastard and condemn a little child as immoral and going to hell because she or he didn’t consult Immanual Kant’s three critiques and deem what was the moral universal before lashing out after being violently raped the 30th time? This approach seems to resonate, though I’d encourage you not to copy, but dérive, explore, play and make the idea of “where is the morality being constructed?” your own. An opportunity for this follows.

Prostitutes, drug addicts and other social “undesirables”: Society has a lot of people it tends to look the other way when they get violently abused. Throw-away people, as some might deem. Approached ethically and sensitively, this provides for a powerful debate that any judge with a pulse would feel like a total asshole for rejecting. This is tremendously important to note: you don’t approach these topics with trickery, nor with a will to win. You approach them because they are stories that need to be told, in spite of our preference for not noticing them as we step around them on the city streets or drive past them as they suffer in a rural trailer. Is a woman forced into prostitution morally just in striking back when she’s violently and repeatedly abused? Are you a debater willing to stand up for someone most others refuse to even think about? In this case, I think the key again is to look at “who is the moral judge” – by creating this kind of debate, it becomes disgusting to impose some dead white European like Kant and his preachy, problematic universals. “Well, you’re not moral because you didn’t consult Kant.” Ugh. You don’t have to dislike Kant to see problems with this rationale.

So far, I’ve talked about chunks and cases. What seems to matter more on this topic is the ethics-within; attributes of the plane that the debate is constructed within. A conversation I had during the Dowling tournament with Millard West head coach Fred Robertson seems to be relevant to this meta-debate discussion.

As we talked about the new January-February topic, and my disgust in having yet another “morality” topic (per the rant above on its appropriateness in secular debate praxis), Fred shared an interesting observation. Per my recollection, Fred said something to the effect of “You know, the last topic was a disappointment. It’s a serious issue and I think the framers wanted to see an actually discussion of the topic, but instead they got mostly theory debates. I’d love to see someone just debate the resolution.” If you know Fred, he’s a remarkably intelligent and compassionate human being that wants to see the best for people. I thought Fred’s analysis on the old topic was impeccable: I’d see 70% of an affirmative case arguing pre-empts, standards for the Neg, and a dozen other setups for a theory debate, and then with less than two or three minutes, a shell of an affirmative case.

I felt that Fred not only had a point, but that perhaps there were others out there that agreed with Fred. I thought I sensed that in several other coaches and judges in our region and recommended that we try to actually debate the resolution on this very serious topic. At Blake, this feeling was very much validated. There is a tremendous opening for running narratives, telling stories, or setting up a basic case debate and being prepared to demand the same from the Neg. No theory trickery; this is a real issue. But to do this, you have to be original. You don’t need complicated theory arguments or difficult philosophy; actually, I’d suggest those work against you in this approach.

Factoring the Personal: A Warning
I do need to discuss a complication on this topic which has to do with individuals personally affected by the topic. In the Iowa circuit, we have the case of a debater who is a victim of domestic abuse and has made tremendous progress in moving forward from it. You need to approach this round and your opponent with compassion and care and not make this a personal topic, ever. You may not know that someone debating abuse in the abstract might actually have been (or is still being) abused. You don’t know that the very evening after the debate concludes, your opponent may face the possibility of going home to encounter these abstractions and universals in the very real manifestation of violence in their household.

It’s for this reason that I am strongly angered with anti-ethical advocacy of any sort and don’t respond to those games (I’ve encountered a “rape is constructed in the victim’s mind” argument once in cross-x debate on a negative argument made by two novice boys at an Iowa tournament in policy three years ago, mocking a sensitive and responsible case two girls were running, which resulted in zero speaks, a loss, and an ejection warning. These are always interesting things to have to explain to a fellow head coach; usually they agree with the consequence).

That said, the extreme cases are fortunately rare, but we need to acknowledge that in the case of abuse, it’s less rare. You need to approach each round with an ethics of compassion and care for your opponent and be responsible enough to not construct polarizing situations that may wound and hurt.

Intending not to end on a minor chord, your case has a capacity to create a meaningful moment of real discussion and exploration. Approached as an exploration of the difficulty of the minoritarian subject embodied within the resolution, you have a tremendous opportunity to construct and share a view into the phenomenon and experience of that other. I’ve been particularly critical of some of my judging colleagues for their apparent unawareness in the consequentiality of their normative practices, but would also acknowledge that their behavior is nonunique and quite consistent with the broader societal experience. In spite of that uphill climb we might face when intending to debate more aggressive thinkings, I have found that most of the LD judging community intends to be decent, compassionate human beings. If you approach the debate in a commensurate manner and bring a creative, thoughtful and sincere discussion, you’re probably going to do just fine. Don’t be about the win; let the win occur when it finds a resonance and a thoughtful debate.

I’d engage questions in the feedback area if you have them. Good luck debating and don’t be afraid to write that second case on something less common, for that rainy day you encounter a judge who might just love to see it debated.


One response to “morality of the victim’s act: thoughts on the 2012 jan-feb lincoln-douglas debate topic

  1. “… Society has a lot of people it tends to look the other way when they get violently abused. …”

    Interesting article Chris Kraus posted …

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