BY JOEL JACOBS

Carla Ho and Eunice Jung,  in “A Policy Underground: on Parli Community Outgrouping” (parli.org, 11/17/15), discuss some hostility they’ve encountered as policy debaters competing in parliamentary debate, and hostility to the theory arguments they run, such as kritiks.  I’d like to address the latter.

Ms. Ho and Ms. Jung write, “All arguments are valid. No argument should be dismissed as not worthy of listening to, nor considered ‘toxic’ to parliamentary debate. All forms of debate, including parliamentary, are places for knowledge and self-empowerment, and it is especially important to take advantage of educational spaces to discuss kritikal and structural issues in the status quo.”  I disagree. Many arguments are invalid.  Some are logically flawed.  Some are offensive and harmful.  Any argument is at most appropriate only in some circumstances: you would not argue about nuclear strategy with a three-year-old or a mentally ill person, or perhaps even your mother (if your mother is anything like my mother).  I’d like to explain why I believe that kritiks—arguments that do not engage the resolution on its own terms, and attempt to shift the discussion to a theoretical topic with, at best, only the most tenuous connection to the case or resolution--do not belong in high school parliamentary debate.  My objections to kritiks and other generic arguments fall into three categories: rules, fairness, and education.  

Rules

First, under CHSSA rules, “Participants represent the advocates for and against a motion for debate (also known as a resolution or topic).”  A kritik, by definition, is not really an argument for or against the resolution, but an attempt to step outside of it, and conflicts with this rule.  Unlike other forms of debate, high school parli rules also dictate that each side has twenty minutes to prepare for the round.  In my experience, teams who run kritiks generally prepare them well in advance of the announcement of the topic, based on reading thick books, meticulously planned organization, anticipating potential responses, etc.  This is against the spirit and letter of the rules.  In the words of the guide to parli on the CHSSA website, “Parliamentary debate is extemporaneous debating on topics that change from debate to debate.”  When a team runs (over and over again) a preplanned kritik because they find Marxism interesting, because they want to talk about feminism, etc., they are moving the event away from an “extemporaneous” one to a prepared one.  

This objection obviously depends on a belief that rules are important.  Without them, the event loses its identity and legitimacy.  If the supposed importance of the kritik really trumps the rules of the event (as the kritik typically asserts), then there’s no logical stopping point: why limit speech times?  And the same reasoning would justify one football team advocating Marxism while the other tries to move the ball down the field, because moving the ball down the field has no non-illusory real-world impacts (like the Aff plan).  But that would be silly, because a football game is not the place to discuss Marxism.  The rules define the activity.  It’s fine to advocate rule changes in the appropriate forum (chatting with your coach, or on a rules committee), but not in the middle of the contest.

Fairness

The structure of parli renders kritiks especially unfair to the opposing team.

In parli, running a kritik creates two unfair imbalances, time and evidence.  First, the team running the kritik spends its prep time prepping the kritik, but the other team spends its prep time in the dark about the kritik and preps the arguments central to the resolution.  The kritiking team is essentially nullifying the prep time of the other team.  In fact, since a kritik can be run with a fig leaf of a link to a resolution or case, it’s really unlimited prep for the kritik team, and zero for the other.  (Again, I want to emphasize that my argument is quite specific to high school parli: even APDA parli would pose fewer obstacles, since Gov teams can run whatever they want, and Opp teams never have prep time.)  And when the proposition team spends its first constructive discussing the resolution, and the opposition team runs a kritik and makes the round about the kritik, the opposition effectively gets 20 minutes of prep + 19 minutes of speech time, whereas the proposition gets 0 minutes of prep + 12 minutes of speech time to deal with the kritik.

Compounding that unfairness is the fact that kritiks tend to be very detailed and evidence dependent, and thus cry out for written “blocks.” In policy debate, teams carry extensive blocks into rounds that contain responses, with evidence, for many possible arguments.  Research time is not limited, so you can research the resolution, you can prep the specific cases of your rivals, and you can prep the kritiks they run.  So you write blocks for them all, and have them with you always.  In parli, you can only bring your handwritten notes from prep time into the round.  And of course, there’s no in-round prep time or ability to do on-line research in the round.

This creates an unfair structural advantage for the team running the kritik.  Without looking into their hearts and knowing whether they’re running the kritik because they love the theory, or because they want to capitalize on the element of surprise, the practical effect is that kritiks win a lot of rounds because of these structural advantages, and the element of surprise--not the strength of the arguments.  Which is especially ironic given that kritiks often rely heavily on rhetoric about the value of discourse; they actually undermine discourse by forcing a debate on a topic that the other team is not prepared for, and may not want to have (and the tournament did not choose or announce).  

Education

My education objection has four parts: (1) parli is a poor forum for meaningful discussion of complex theories; (2) topics selected by tournaments are more likely to be educationally valuable (and fair) than topics selected by a given team; (3) it is valuable to have debate events with distinct identities; and (4) running kritiks amplifies the existing uneven playing field by making team resources even more important.  The first point about education is that if you’re serious about discussing abstruse theory, a parli round is not a good forum for it.  Parli resolutions are designed to be amenable to 38 minutes of short-notice discussion; dense and sometimes obscure economic and social theories that try to deconstruct our entire belief and communication systems are not.  If you value discourse (and kritiks usually say they do), then you should want meaningful discourse of the theory--the kind you have in a classroom over the course of several weeks or months, among people who have all read the book.  In contrast, the format of parli debate promotes superficial and tactical discussion of dense theories.  

The second point about education focuses on the incentives of the people who choose the topic.You may not like every resolution written by a tournament committee, but at least they’re written by committees (usually experienced coaches) who strive for clarity, debatability, and fairness.  Kritiks are not vetted by anyone other than the team running them and are run for only one reason: that one team wants to run it (and probably thinks it can win with it).  I’m sure your particular kritik is profound and quite debatable, but allowing teams to run kritiks also means that insipid or obscure kritiks are allowed too.  And this concern cannot simply be dismissed by saying that if a kritik is stupid, the other team should be able to beat it.  It may be too obscure for the other team to be able to respond effectively.  It may be based on evidence for which the other team (understandably) doesn’t have counter-evidence.  The kritik may be well argued but trivial.  Or the team may luck out, and get a judge who is so tabula rasa that he will accept the notion that the moon is made of green cheese, because the argument is made with more technical skill than the response.  (“You had no card, and you didn’t impact the argument as clearly as they did…”)  Besides, even if a stupid kritik is eminently beatable, that does not salvage the educational value of a round that should have been about an important policy question, but instead was turned into a round about the stupid kritik.

Third, injecting kritiks and other policy features into parli undermines the uniqueness of the event.  A bit of history is in order.  For many decades, policy debate was the only common form of high school debate in America.  Debaters spoke slowly, and the event emphasized logic and persuasion along with evidence.  Then policy became faster, more flow-oriented, and more substantively agnostic, or “tabula rasa.”  It became an increasingly insular and peculiar game in the 1970s and 1980s.  So in the 1980s, Lincoln-Douglas debate was developed as an alternative, for students who wanted an event with more emphasis on logic and persuasion, and less on technical flow skills and evidence.  

As we all know, as policy debaters moved into LD (call them ambassadors, carpetbaggers, or adventurers; it really doesn’t matter), policy norms spread as well.  And for the last couple of decades, being a nationally competitive “circuit” LDer has meant being able to speak fast, employ policy-type technical skills, and run and beat kritiks.  The LD “alternative” is less of an alternative than it was intended to be.

While some people inveighed against the trend and tried to turn back the page (two-time LD TOC winner Jason Baldwin wrote brilliantly on this subject), others in the debate community worked to create new debate events that would offer the meaningful alternative to policy that, they felt, LD no longer offered.  Hence, Public Forum and Parliamentary Debate were invented and promoted, with the explicit mission of being more persuasion oriented, more accessible to all, and less focused on “insider” technical flow skills.  In response, thousands of students who preferred that sort of debate chose Public Forum and Parli over Policy or LD.  And now, we have two slower, less flow-oriented events alongside the faster, more flow-oriented ones. Tactics like kritiks, however, tend to homogenize all debate forms.

The question is not what type of debate is “best.”  We all have personal beliefs on that point, but my argument is that the ideal situation is having a variety of options that are distinct from each other, so as to offer meaningful choices.  Even if you can make a compelling argument for Taco Bell (and I’m not sure you can), it’s pretty tough to argue that all restaurants should be Taco Bell.

Finally, the “policyization” of parli also creates barriers to entry for schools with fewer resources.  If your school has a big team, a long history of debate, and a full time coach, and/or families with resources to send kids to debate camp, ultimately, it’s possible to make kritiks and theory part of the curriculum, so that team members are better prepared for them.  But if you’re a fledgling urban team without those kind of resources, it’s much easier to jump into an event where students are simply expected to speak intelligently about current events than one where success requires flowing a spread about Foucault, using debate jargon, and not dropping any subpoints.  That is why policy debate has had declining participation over the decades and these other events are growing: debate events that look more like real world discussions are more accessible for most high school students and programs.

Conclusion

At bottom, “all arguments are valid” rhetoric, and its cousins (“all ideas are worthy of discussion,” “run it and let the judge decide”) are not a substitute for an unvarnished assessment of whether certain tactics make a positive contribution to the activity.  You would not lie in a round, even if other side couldn’t beat it, or even if the judge accepted it.  So, if I’m right, and kritiks caused harm to parliamentary debate, then debaters shouldn’t run them, and judges shouldn’t vote for them.  

A good first step would be for tournament directors to be more explicit about following statewide high school standards for parli--in this case, the CHSSA rules.  Since, as explained above, kritiks violate CHSSA rules, tournaments should instruct judges that kritiks are not allowed under CHSSA rules, and therefore not allowed at the tournament.  Instead of encouraging judges to create their own standards by submitting personal paradigms, they should educate judges about the the importance of using uniform high school standards when judging high school events.  (And refrain from using judges who cannot or will not follow tournament standards for the events they are judging.) 

Debaters and coaches who believe that kritiks have a place in parli are free to work to change the rules. Until that happens, the rules should be applied uniformly; parli debaters should debate the resolution, and judges should (as the rules mandate) decide which team argued for or against the resolution more effectively--not a wholly distinct one chosen by one of the teams.  This is not a “Policy Debaters Keep Out” sign on the door of Parli; it is a plea to respect what is unique about the event when you come to visit.


Link to Facebook discussion may be found here


Joel Jacobs is a former high school and college debater, former debate coach, and current parli parent.