Tag Archives: national high school debate

listening to the subaltern: concluding the jan-feb LD topic

With only a few weeks remaining on the national high school debate topic, “Resolved: It is morally permissible for victims to use deadly force as a deliberate response to repeated domestic violence.”, I wanted to conclude with a couple of observations based on comments and questions encountered with the cases my team has shared with the debate circuit.

We’ve run several affirmatives, such as our appropriation of Derrida’s “Beast and the Sovereign” that works through one of his last published works, engaging allegory, fable and other forms of storytelling to make serious questions about the integrity of the social contract so many accept without any question. We’ve engaged Levinas and Zizek in an examination of the site of ethical and moral construction, challenging the naive assumption that all individuals (or really any, for that matter) have access to universal notions for the pre-determination of the morality of a contemplated and premeditated act.

We’ve also engaged negative positions that, to confess, have been deconstructive rather than “truth testing” (a word we had to bend to have some chance of engaging the critical thinking of many who were misled in their education toward believing their metaphysics were unquestionable). By unconcealing and illuminating the centerings implicit in the resolution’s words “deliberate” and “permissible,” we brought attention to potentially undesirable and problematic epistemological and cultural packages that travel along with these signifiers.

What is common to each of the cases is that they tend to challenge the ~framework (let’s refer to this framing/enframing with the tilda to distance it from the commonly used term of framework that refers to a type of debate argument often found in policy rounds between critical and policymaker paradigms). Returning to LD after more than twenty years, I was shocked to discover a proto-religion had taken hold of the event I had loved and excelled within in high school. A new metaphysic of “Value & Criterion” had attained imperial authority and commanded over the interpretation of many a judge and debater, a doxology that emerged well after I had departed the mid-1980s high school LD scene. Some rather suspicious characters were found within this realm: Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Hume and a few others. While of certain historical philosophical interest, they commanded a presence within this frozen snowglobe of an event, delimiting that which was legitimate and acceptable to the sovereign form.

What was most curious was the rigor of its structuralist approach; I often felt as if I was back in undergraduate music theory being told that “all composers use figured bass notation and then a formula of rules they depart from in order to compose their music”… a claim that’s quite difficult to reconcile with the existence of the music of Charles Ives, John Cage, Witold Lutoslawski and numerous other composers I personally identified with. Realizing the significant pedagogical and epistemological harm that was being inscribed upon our debate community, we worked through elements of resonance and dissonance to introduce arguments that, as Deleuze was likened to say of his philosophical adversaries, they would recognize immediately as their own yet be horrified when they realized the extent of the mutation.

I’m pretty sure from some of the judge reactions we’ve had that we’ve been successful in this effect.

Subsequently, the general “theme” of our argumentation has been one where we’ve attempted to approximate a formalist construction (meaning “trying to make our argument look and feel somewhat similar to something the LD structuralists would recognize as ‘valid’, without utilizing their form; think of the proto-Ridleys in Alien Resurrection as a not-but-becoming-abject form approach). We’ve also attempted to create substantial instability in the framing itself (think of the black cat that walks past twice in the first Matrix movie, or the warping and bending of fields under stress). Stressing words in the resolution, shifting the intensity of the resolutional world from visual to infrared or ultraviolet, or moving the ontoepistemological center of the ethical-interpretive event (e.g. where is the site of the reading of the act, to which it can be determined to be ethical or moral) have been aspects of this ~framework stressing and bending, deterritorializing and reterritorializing. To those who have felt the worldview shift in the round, this is very much intended.

Behind this work across strata, there are a few aspects within the approach that merit clarification. I’ll address these around some of the recurring questions we’ve gotten:

Isn’t your case being parametric?
This was a puzzling question for me at first, as Jay can attest from my difficulty at first explaining why it is and isn’t. Akin to Derrida’s explanation that rather than claim the written word was not suspect (to the claim that the spoken is more true and pure than the written), Derrida’s analysis in Of Grammatology is instead to illustrate how both written and spoken word are troubled. Parametrics can only exist when one assumes there can be a totalizing universal that can then be sliced down into a parametric. On this level of believing in universalizations of the debate resolution, this is an assumption that goes unchallenged by most within the current structuralist LD paradigm, but by no means is an appropriate assumption to hold unquestioned. To argue that there are no universals and universal cases, however, is the easy and less-than-interesting answer. The more interesting discussion is the deconstructive analysis, which suggests that instead, ALL LD cases are parametric. To run a Kant affirmative on the domestic abuse topic is to reject 2300 years of Western philosophical tradition, save for a very tiny portion of the Enlightenment epoch, and construct a normative “worldview” from this myopic framing. This parametrization is even more violent when it is considered that we haven’t even included substantial bases of Indian, Chinese and other non-“Western” philosophical traditions (We enjoy debating Spivak and Sloterdijk for many reasons, one of which is the occasional reference to the Mahabharata and other epics).

When decentering from the epistemologies of certain dead white-male European traditions, it can be understood that a case based on Hobbes, Locke and Kant is exceptionally parametric. Our construction of ethics from the perspective of a viciously abused child is also parametric; in fact, one would suggest that from the perspective of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and Heidegger’s ontology, we’re going to have great difficulty constructing any reading of the topic through a case that is not parametric. Whether we’re intentioning through the construction of a young child or an dead philosopher, both texts attain precise phenomenological and epistemological coordinates, narrowing the interpretation through a parametric lens. Rather than claim the illegitimacy of the pervasive and nonunique parametric, the more intelligent question becomes one of comparative coordinates.

I’d briefly note that we could even have some etymological fun in examining the baggage that comes along with the word “parametric”, para: along-side, beside, beyond-or-past (paraphysics), by extension; metric: pertaining to a meter, measured. Of a certain ghost-like presence that isn’t before us, but a specter stepping along-side us in a haunting, taunting manner, applying measurement and scrutiny. When in the company of such judgmental spirits, I’m certain many a devious LD structuralist would rather avoid having their imperialist baggage inspected, their sins accounted.

You’re breaking rules by making us defend the entire resolution
This was a recent and most unfortunate interpretation. One of the core components of counterplan theory in contemporary argumentation and debate theory is the concept of a PIC, or plan-inclusive counterplan. In this argumentative analysis, a word of the resolution is tested in order to stress it and force its advocacy or defense. This is a vital test in both debate and poststructuralism; in the former, a problematic word may be covered over and its debate avoided, with assumptions generally accepted by the debaters often on both sides. In the latter, it’s often the grounds for exploring problematic centerings, biases and cultural-epistemological skews.

Consider a real world application: a new policy is being proposed by the ruling demographic that makes clear sense to those intending it to do good will. But due to a difference in cultural interpretation, a word in the policy may be interpreted differently and have devastating results when it is implemented upon a broader demographic. Would we not want to test certain words, especially when these words have had a history to leading to systemic discrimination, exploitation, and even subjugation, violence and genocide? This becomes even more vital when we’re discussing norms; the cultural interpretation of a word for the construction of a social value can hardly be considered universal in interpretation as the mere historical construction of a word’s meaning is intricately connected to the historico-social production that shaped its rough, resonant form. Words like “permissibility,” for instance, may seem neutral to dominant majorities but when encountered by a minority, is consistently associated with a sovereign who “insists on being the one who gets to permit.” Permissibility, obtaining a permit, isn’t a conscious concern for those who have their papers in order and have paid the sovereign’s fee. Words like “permissible” and “deliberate” are far from neutral and demand careful questioning, particularly when issues of ethics and morality are of our concern.

Once again, the more interesting exploration of the “rule breaking” question is not in the linear defense to the problematic charge, but rather how the charge is impotent while also pertaining to all negative cases debated. As each affirmative constructs an ontoepistemological world (a world conceptualized from a specific ontological coordinate within a framed manifold of epistemological potentiality), each world is an advocacy of a “truth” (or “meaningfully explanatory and predictive resonance of sufficient signal and limited noise”). Each word in the resolution is traced in a highly specific way – either intentionally or not – enveloping certain signifieds within its border while willfully leaving other signifieds out. Consider the resolution:

Resolved: All human beings should be protected by the state from death.

Should an affirmative be questioned on their advocacy of this resolution if their trace of the “human beings” signifier intentionally leaves out “those deemed not human”? Daniel Goldhagen’s important 1997 work Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust addresses this very tracing and suggests the definition of Jewish individuals as “rats, vermin, not humans,” as evidenced throughout generations of anti-Semitic German literature, may have profoundly contributed to the societal “moral permissibility” of allowing millions of Jews, Roma, and other peoples to be sent to their death. Is requiring the Affirmative to defend the evidence of a problematic trace fair grounds? Or rule breaking? And if it’s the latter, to quote a remarkable debate coach and friend Dana Christensen, wouldn’t we have an obligation to challenge and break these rules? I’d suggest there may be a more important debate regarding moral obligations underpinning the framing of debate rules if that were indeed the case.

Aren’t you cheating by not debating the resolution?
This infrequent question has perhaps been the source of greater disappointment than the rest. Hearing a few judges (not the majority, fortunately) repeatedly claim that “I think you’re doing shady things by debating these cases that really aren’t about the resolution” shows the failure of our academic project in debate more than anything. Consider that on the topic of women being domestically abused, raped and murdered, some in our LD world would immediately run to a handful of very dead, old white guys to serve as authorities over what is and isn’t moral. This observation was the very grounds for one of our cases, as we are quite certain that the first thing that pops into the mind of a woman or child about to be violently beaten and even possibly killed, is not: “What would Immanuel Kant say?”

Doesn’t this racing for the “Good Book” of the Enlightenment when faced with a contemporary crisis suggest the slightest bit for concern? Are we really that disconnected and insensitive to an other’s plight? Is this a snow globe of privilege and pedigree? If we have vital projects like Women Under Siege and remarkable artistic, poetic expressions from subaltern women through movements such as the RAWA in Afghanistan, how could one feel comfortable silencing these voices in our experience? Should LD become a “Dead White European Males Only” zone?

I’m certainly understanding of the remarkable contribution this narrow pedigree of thinkers provided for us; Deleuze, Spivak and Derrida (three of my favorite thinkers) repeatedly acknowledge their tributes to the work that they had done, but remarkably, continue the evolution of thought forward. The real statement made in that question is not an accusation but rather a defense: Why are you encouraging thinking in our debate experience when I was told that rote skills, memorization, and drills were all that was needed to succeed. Why are you intending to threaten my legitimacy by rendering me obsolete?

To this final charge, I am indeed guilty. As one aligned profoundly with RanciĆ©re’s pedagogical project, and working intimately in the world of systemic risk, I am firmly convinced that unless we advance our systems of learning to encourage and engage our young people with critical and creative thought, there is sufficient reason to doubt humanity’s long-term survival. The problems we face today are ones that memorization and rote drills cannot solve, nor “depth over breadth” approaches to a silo’ed education. Inter-and-multidisciplinary approaches, crossings of borders, infusions of poetry and aesthetics into science and literature, and continued engagements and challenges of the assumed frameworks, are necessary for our future generations to have a chance at resolving the problems that contemporary thought cannot reconcile.