The Dosing of Debater: A Radical Remedy for Serious Sickness
By Bill Shanahan, Wake Forest University
1988 - Retirement
on the Titanic
"The following essay is written In the conviction that anarchism, while perhaps not the most attractive Political philosophy, is certainly excellent medicine for epistemology and for the philosophy of science."--Paul K. Feyerabend
Paul Peyerabend diagnosed a dangerous disease insinuating itself into science In the middle part of this century, intellectual stagnation. Stagnation of the sort that threatened to destroy the very fabric of science as a way of knowing. Feyerabend believed those engaged in the practice of science had become so ingrained in their specific approach to science they were no longer willing to consider any other viewpoint. The particulars of Feyerabend's claims against science are not relevant to this discussion, nor his attitudes regarding "political" anarchy. Still, a Feyerabendian solution might offer a cure for the malaise affecting competitive debate today.
Before proceeding, clarification of key concepts might prove useful. Feyerabend refers to science as an epistemology, as a way of knowing. Epistemology can be defined variously. For our purposes, epistemology refers to one of the ways In which an individual gains knowledge about reality. This definition of epistemology contains several basic assumptions (e.g., the existence of individuals and of reality). The veracity of these assumptions remains to be seen. Nonetheless, the definition provides a beginning point for a discussion about the nature of debate. Refutation of the assumptions simply enacts the danger of blindly adhering to any one cosmology, or world view. I choose cosmology as a descriptive of the whole web of high-level background theories which make up an individuals perception of reality. World view is too limiting conceptually, focusing on the existence of a world. Cosmology, instead, shifts the focus away from "the world" and allows a focus on world, individual, or something else. I will develop and define the "Feyerabendian solution" throughout the article.
Debate often is an epistemology for debaters, especially debaters who stay with the activity for a long time. The epistemological function of debate refers to the ability of debate to shape and influence the way in which individuals gain knowledge about reality. The very nature of "truth" and "facts," and how they are obtained, implicated in many ways by debate. Evidence occupies one of the cherished spots in debaters' theories of truth. Disputes are resolved by calls to authority in the form of published comments about the dispute. Credibility is questioned according to for whom a publication is written. Institutional affiliation is often the sole determinant of an individuals integrity, or lack thereof. Disputants sometimes construct "stories" from the evidence and the truth of the stories is evaluated by impartial judges according to a variety of idiosyncratic methods. Other times, disputants neglect to create and/or convey any type of explanation and the idiosyncrasies of the judges are magnified. One of the commonalties of these idiosyncrasies, however, is still the emphasis on appeals to written authority in deciding for whom to vote. Although debaters do not believe necessarily the specific truths of a particular debate, methods of achieving truths are entrenched.
The methodology of debate--the prescriptions according to which a debate transpires, or even the desirability of such prescriptions--involves many aspects. First, the existence of prescriptions or rules is assumed. Participants come to a tournament expecting to, and expected to, adhere to a body of methodological precepts. A lack of methodological precepts is rarely, if ever, even considered.
Second, debates occur in a methodologically rigid (i.e., time limits for speeches determined by the debate community with its strong reliance on tradition and expediency as a method for resolving disputes; topic adherence for several ostensible reasons: tradition, legal analogies,1 axiologically based arguments2 and various other western based rational explanations3,4. This rigor is so ingrained in the activity that a more flexible methodology is not entertained by participants and tournament administrators.
Next, calls to authority carry epistemological weight when evaluating arguments; that is, evidence is the major tool for establishing truth in a debate round. While certainly not a "rule" of debate, the reliance on evidence is not likely to be reduced at any foreseeable point in the near future. My argument here is not that reliance on calls to printed authority is either always desirable or undesirable. Rather, nearly universal, unquestioned acceptance of the need for evidence by participants is not intellectually healthy. Debaters and judges at least need to examine debate's emphasis on these calls as epistemologically superior, even if examination results in a reaffirmation of the need for evidence. The act of examination enhances participant decision-making by maximizing personal autonomy. Autonomy is essential to the development of a healthy intellect capable of guarding against the insidious and destructive intrusion of hierarchical dictates.
Next, argumentation is the focal point of advocacy in most debates. Other persuasive appeals available to the advocate are all but ignored, resulting in a conceptual distortion of advocacy. Debate participants often approach non-debate situations from the same advocatory perspective: rational argument is the most effective persuasive appeal. Unfortunately, individuals without similar backgrounds do not adhere to the same persuasive theories. How many times have you been involved in a discussion with a non-debater only to have the conversation abruptly terminated with words to the effect of "I won't argue with you, you're a debater?" The label "debater" lingers with an a most palpable distaste on their lips. One could simply explain this reaction away with some elitist rationalization such as an unwillingness or inability on their part to just listen. Actually, displeasure with "debate" tactics is due to a different way of viewing reality. Many people simply are not persuaded by argument and even less so by nebulous references to evidence. Persuasive diversification better equips individuals to deal with cosmological different, not inferior, groups of individuals.
Last, the array of cosmological assumptions underlying debate are accepted almost without question by the debate community vis-à-vis a non-critical call to tradition. Debate on both the high school and college level has donned cosmological blinders. Debates have been conducted roughly the same fashion for many years. Formats have changed nominally. Although specific practices may have changed (e.g., speaking rates, division of speaker responsibilities, amount of evidence introduced), debates are basically policy discussions5 based on some type of rational6 decision-making. A potential result of this cosmological quiescence is a concomitant effect on critical thinking skills and debaters' subsequent subjective assessment of debate, "That it [debate] developed far more than any other experience your [former NDT participant respondents to the Matlon and Keele questionnaire] critical thinking, research, and advocacy skills.7,8,9 Even a brief report of the results of that questionnaire is extremely revealing. Debaters, at least former NDT participants, believe the ends of debate are critical thinking, research, and advocacy. Yet, critical thinking occurs only within the constraints of a specific cosmology. Such a narrow interpretation of critical thinking is symptomatic of the malaise affecting debate today. Debate has become so enmeshed in its own cosmology that critical thinking no longer involves the questioning and comparison of cosmological assumptions. Instead, critical thought is permissible only within the framework of a particular cosmology. Advocacy is hampered by a similar conceptual narrowness. As mentioned earlier, advocacy for debaters entails argument. If a desirable end of debate Is advocacy, perhaps debate should cull a more complete advocatory reserve from which debaters can choose. Research as a goal obviously is an outgrowth of the evidentiary focus of debate. Research was not set out as one of the aims of debate. Instead, debate became immersed in the epistemic function of evidence and, as a result, pointed to research skills in order to justify that immersion. Research skills may indeed be a noble aspiration for debate. Debaters should, nonetheless, determine the desirability of this aspiration. Cosmological quiescence inevitably ends in intellectual stagnation and stagnant pools are often the breeding ground for dangerous diseases.
Cosmology consists of an interwoven, Interdependent assemblage of high-level background theories (e.g., epistemology, axiology, methodology). Alteration of one theory directly implicates other theories in the cosmological web. Restructuring one's axiology, or value system, might include an epistemic change. For example,
If research were devalued as an end for debate, evidence might not be the primary method for resolving disputes. Similarly, If fairness were not revered by debaters, new arguments in rebuttals might not be prohibited. If debate were a truth-seeking enterprise, Interaction by the judge might become a necessary part of debate's methodology. Manipulation of any of the cosmological threads of debate sends vibrations throughout Its entire cosmological web.
Debate is in need of a good cosmological shake. The stagnation referred to earlier has reached monumental proportions. Debaters are inculcated into the debate cosmology through a diverse system of classes, summer workshops, tournaments, propoganda,10 and the subtle insinuation of practices between and among levels of debate. Inculcation of young debaters occurs from the very beginning of their exposure to the activity. Rules are dictated. Appropriate dress and decorum is prescribed. Acceptable in-round practices are delineated. Inexperienced, as well as older, debaters are chastised and penalized for non-conformity. New ideas are viewed with distrust and often blocked by hierarchical dictates from governing bodies. Intellectual freedom is, on one hand, praised and encouraged, while rules are promulgated and implemented to effectively prohibit that freedom. Examples of these rules include restrictions on revelation of decisions by judges, designation of certain arguments (such as topicality) as "voting issues," and interference with the decision by judges to examine evidence after a debate. No level of debate is immune to this virus that attacks the intellectual capacity of an individual. Rules are not the sole impediment to cosmological enlightenment, however. A lack of vision is plaguing debate. Participants are unable to see beyond the present incarnation of debate. Debate itself is inflicting this myopia. Debate desperately need a dose of cosmological medicine.
Before proceeding to a description of one particular brand of that medicine, I will offer a justification of debate as an appropriate recipient of said dose. Debate is a risk-free environment. There are certain competitive risks, of course. Teams might lose ballots. Compared to the difficulties associated with cosmological alteration in the real-world,"11 competitive risks are less than compelling. Debate allows for the suspension, and subsequent examination, of reality. We are able to consider the implications of our choices in a vacuum, without the fear of reprisals from outside sources. The decision to adopt a non-scientific approach to medicine involves many risks, from scorn to physical well-being. A rejection of rationalism as a guiding force in everyday affairs entails a great deal of uncertainty (perhaps by definition) and potential turmoil. Debate provides an excellent forum for testing cosmologies, virtually without risk.
As demonstrated, cosmology can be bound by rules. Such cosmological bondage stifles Individual creativity and autonomy. Individuals develop more fully when allowed to question the assumptions and underpinnings of their reality. Beyond this questioning, Individuals must be allowed to choose a path appropriate for them. Without this choice, intellectual activity becomes empty and stilted. Cosmological bondage does more than just prescribe and control individual action; it affects the very nature of critical thought. The intellect is conditioned to accept hierarchy and proceed according to acceptable norms. The havoc wreaked is monumental. Debaters function at tournaments as if on auto-pilot. They engage in routinized recitation by rote. The mechanics of their routine have been etched in stone long before they even heard of debate. Debate is complacent and should shake off the cosmological bonds presently preventing It from tapping a vast reservoir of potential.
Some of you probably are still not convinced that debate is sick, reasoning for the desirability of debate's cosmology over all others. Such reasoning though understandable, is intellectually unacceptable. Dogmatic adherence to a specific ideology is dangerous, especially when the adherence is a result of inheritance rather than choice. There is no correct cosmology. Cosmologies are Individualistic and dependent on many different factors. Culture, heritage, education, socialization all converge to determine one's cosmology. Cosmologies change over time as a result of external influences, age, perspective, and countless other forces. Claims for or against a particular cosmology are usually the result of individuals who adhere to a particular cosmology applying standards from their cosmology to a different cosmology. This cross-cosmological comparison is difficult given the often incompatible nature of cosmological standards. Comparison is possible on an individual level; caution must be exercised, though.
Alteration of the cosmological web by manipulating its high-level background theories allows for comparison by contrast. Debate has provided us with an excellent backdrop for such a comparison. As I have mentioned, familiarity with debate cosmology is extremely high. So, alteration of that cosmology instigates an immediate and observable reaction which can be used to ascertain the desirability of these changes. Although the problems associated with cross-cosmological comparison still exist, the immediacy of the alteration provides the participant with experience with which to make a comparison. This experience will certainly be affected by the participant's original cosmology. Exposure to different cosmologies, however, serves as a basis for making a decision regarding the vast array of options open to an individual. Freedom of thought is at least enhanced to some degree by this exposure. Removal, even for a brief while, from a particular cosmology allows for more Impartial decisions. Inflexibility and a refusal to even consider alternate cosmologies impedes an individuals capacity for free thought and critical thinking.
I have regaled you with the abstract, philosophical underpinnings of my approach to debate for long enough. Next is a concrete expression of a possible dose of cosmological medicine. This dose will be called cosmological nonarchy.13 Cosmological nonarchy is a non-hierarchical approach to debate methodology. The goals of this approach are both judge and participant freedom. Participation rather than prescription is the underlying guidepost. Nonarchy does not call for an absence of rules. Instead, participants should determine the need for, nature and extent of methodological rules. I, the judge (as opposed to I, the jury), initiate this methodological change. Among its components are: a fifteen to twenty minute consensus-building period for determining the methodology of the round; an explication of judge expectations including a delineation of the de facto methodological approach to be used by the judge (not a methodological prescription by me for the participants) in the event of a failure by the participants to reach a consensus; self-imposed prohibition from flowing (i.e., feverish writing rather than cursory note-taking) in rebuttals by the judge; de-emphasis on appeals to written authorities as a means of settling disputes; increased emphasis on debater participation in judge decision-making (e.g., a request by the judge for summary statements from each team at the conclusion of the debate, including judge interaction; immediate intercession by the judge upon perception of debaters' casting ethical aspersions at the moral integrity of their opponents or the opponents' support material; a brief interchange of participants' thoughts on the outcome of the debate with a notation of the negatives, affirmatives and judge's decision--winner or loser--on at least one copy of the ballot); and a shift away from emphasis on a strict technical approach to decision-making (as evidenced, at least in part, by lack of flowing). This methodological approach would only be initiated in preliminary rounds when judge strikes are available and teams have been informed about my preference prior to decisions on strikes. If the debaters unanimously agreed to reject initiation of these changes, I would probably accede to their wishes. Such a drastic alteration of methodology would probably require tournament approval. A two hour time limit might be offered to obtain tournament approval since one of the obvious fears would be delaying the tournament. Cosmological nonarchy is just one dose among many.
Breaking the surface of stagnant waters often releases odorous gases. A willingness to bear the temporary discomfort associated with the release of these gases is necessary in order for cosmological alteration to work. Alteration of this sort is best suited for a bottom up method of change. Hierarchical attempts to alter debate's cosmology should not be discouraged. Still, effective remedies for an illness of this sort (that is, imbedded in the cosmology of the activity) are best administered by those most directly affected, the participants.