BY THOMAS WHITE

Seven months ago I stood in Lowell High School’s choir room. Ninety-something tired-looking freshmen stared back at me. Policy Debate had just made a nice speech, as well as half-a-dozen ocean policy related puns. Congress was up next. I had two minutes to tell these people why they, like me, should devote hundreds of hours of their life to Parliamentary Debate. What made it unique? What made it worth protecting? 

Seven days ago, I went to the Stanford Invitational. As the finals round progressed and both sides tried to argue that their advocacy would help Parli, the most interesting thing I noticed was that we really don’t seem to agree at all on what Parli is for. 

It’s an odd problem to have. We’re almost alone, in the realm of all activities, for not knowing. It’s been especially glaring to me over the past few weeks, as some parts of the argument on Facebook descended into something not unlike modern politics; both sides value something abstract, those things are different, and no amount of clever argumentation on surface-level issues is going to change anybody’s opinion.

[B]oth sides value something abstract, those things are different, and no amount of clever argumentation on surface-level issues is going to change anybody’s opinion.

This discussion has to happen now. No argument on improving Parli will ever get anywhere until we define the word “improve”; right now we’ve succeeded only in being divisive.

So let’s find a list of goals, in order of importance, that we can all agree on. I’ll go first!

Let’s start simple. Parli exists purely for the benefit of its members. Parli debates are not designed to find out the real truth of something. That’s what governments/philosophers/naive college students are for. Debates, after all, are impromptu and thirty-eight minutes long. Under those constraints, there is no topic in the world that we could fully analyze.

Parli is supposed to be fun for the people debating. But, honestly, people who enjoy debating generally enjoy it unless their environment seems very unfair or does not reward effort. So that’s something to keep in mind but not exactly pivotal.

Parli makes its members into better people. It does this by rewarding behaviors that we like with shiny plastic trophies. So when we change Parli, then, our primary goal must be to make sure that the easiest way to win coincides with the benefits it offers.

Parli makes its members into better people. It does this by rewarding behaviors that we like with shiny plastic trophies. So when we change Parli, then, our primary goal must be to make sure that the easiest way to win coincides with the benefits it offers.

What benefits are you referring to? How do we simulate them? I’m glad you asked.

1.       Changes to Parli must err towards simulating real-life debates, arguments and decisions.

Firstly, Parli teaches people how arguments work. It teaches them to parse reasoning and understand the comparative importance of points. It noticeably affects the way that they think, potentially for the rest of their lives. I’ve spent dozens of debates overstating impacts, but even I cannot verbally encompass how crucial and all-pervading this is, touching everything from a person’s daily decision-making to their biases, superstitions and manipulability. It is applicable to every part of life, and I mean that without exception.

This first point cannot be untangled from another: Parli teaches people how to express those opinions. Whether it’s through speech or writing, an idea is nearly useless unless you can explain, defend and promote it. Whether in a relationship or in front of a crowd, the ability to convince human beings of things (and stop other human beings from unduly convincing you), to make real progress in changing people’s minds, is just as important as having ideas. One of the most heartbreaking things I’ve seen is the extent to which smart people with good ideas can fail disastrously if they do not know how to communicate.

We accomplish this goal of Parli by making sure that the easiest way to win rounds is to be good at thinking and expressing those thoughts, in a context as similar to real life as we can make it. There are muscle-memory level skills, and they require realistic practice; just like no one trains for the World Series by playing tons of softball, no one should train for arguing in a context which will not seem immediately familiar later in life.

2.       Parli must err towards pushing debaters out of their comfort zone, unless doing so conflicts with Point #1.

There are speech and debate events in the world which exist as a forum for people’s ideas. There are organizations where kids can speak on something they like to talk about. Parli is not one of those places.

Parli does not care what you think. Parli does not care what you want. Parli will take away your freedom, and you will benefit from it.

For one thing, this teaches the skill of seeing the other side of an argument and pushing debaters past their biases and zones of comfort. That skill is actually more important than any specific world knowledge, because it can last an entire lifetime. Forcing debaters to repeatedly see the other side will eventually make that process more automatic and the people doing it more empathetic and conscientious. Debate has the potential to create the sort of people who hear a tired old theory and wonder if there’s more behind it, who listen to their favorite politician and nurture a seed of doubt, who understand why others do what they do and how to argue to actually change their minds.

Debate has the potential to create the sort of people who hear a tired old theory and wonder if there’s more behind it, who listen to their favorite politician and nurture a seed of doubt, who understand why others do what they do and how to argue to actually change their minds.

Pushing people past their old limits strengthens their argumentation skill such that they can adapt even to debates that they’ve never heard before. One of my favorite resolutions ever was at the GGSA Novice tournament last year: “If time travel were possible, this house would go back in time and assassinate Adolf Hitler.” Not because it was a perfect resolution, but because it faced debaters with truly new questions.

Some of the speeches stuck to what was comfortable, establishing a problem (Hitler was bad), proposing a policy solution (kill Hitler) and listing impacts (Hitler kills less people): this way of thinking works great, most of the time. Others adapted. Debaters explained chaos theory to me. They pondered the philosophical and scientific implications of time travel. They questioned whether the gamble of changing history unpredictably could ever pay off. They were struggling against their assumptions in a profoundly new territory, and it was wonderful.

How can we encourage this? I’m going to use a left-field example here: sonnets. They’re unusual and powerful precisely because they have such strict rules; they push poets farther to find an appropriate word than they might have ever gone on their own, because creativity running free tends to run for a while, get bored, then find the first available couch and check to see if E! is on. If debaters have control over their burdens, they will do what makes it easiest to win, what they’re comfortable with. If they don’t, through clear resolutions, judging and less expansive Neg ground (kritiks!), they’ll be more creative in the end.

Challenge and different points of view must come from the resolutions, and resolutions must be mandatory to debaters but subject to community sway in-between tournaments to keep them towards this goal.

3.       Parli should teach people useful information, unless that conflicts with Points #1 or #2.

Parli teaches in two ways. It gives people an incentive to research. It also exposes them to the nitty-gritty of arguing either side, teaching them not only the abstract facts of an issue but also the moral and practical questions around it that make it important in the first place.

In terms of knowledge bases that effect everybody, “world issues” is not a bad place to start for citizens of one of the world’s largest democracies. Not only will the debaters that Parli shapes eventually be carrying a ballot in their hands, but this will help them avoid being misled by the demagogues and manipulators that could otherwise control them. Many of those issues can eventually affect them personally, and the underlying conflicts of human dynamics and moral questions, understood better through a vast scope of examples, can likewise be applied to issues all throughout their lives.

Foreign policy debates are not the only ones that exist, however. And we have to make sure that not only do we hit a broad range of issues. Debates about philosophy have a place in debate not only because of their unique argumentative challenge (see Point #2) but purely because they are involved in our decisions throughout life.

Resolutions should be written such that it makes sense for debaters to research. They should cover a wide spread of topics, especially those we think need discussing. Crucially, though, knowledge does not outweigh the earlier two points. After all, a book club could provide it just as easily. What sets debate apart is the fact that it teaches people to understand and use arguments. And thusly, good practice arguing, or even challenging and unusual resolutions, should almost never be set aside in favor of knowledge.

That’s my list. Let’s work towards a compromise from there. Now that that’s out of the way, let me give you some examples:

I absolutely, unequivocally condemn resolutions which are structurally broken (violates Point #1 due to lack of prep and clash) without providing any other benefit in return. The resolution on “changing tax policy” is a good example. These debates should absolutely happen, but without needless mistakes.

That being said, as the director of Parli at Lowell I’ve written nearly a hundred resolutions this year and come to the conclusion that writing resolutions is really hard, and that our goal now should be to come to a way to insure quality preferably without just blaming the author. I’m very excited by the guidelines referenced below in Artem’s editorial; same would go for any sort of structural reform in the writing process. I also support the idea of modifying value motions to be about a specific policy or case to make the clash clearer, although I am a little concerned that that might bias resolutions away from more philosophical issues.

Debates on topics which are not “intellectual” are great as long as they pay for themselves in Points #1 and #2. Challenge and argumentation practice are ends-in-themselves. “Intellectualism” is not. Education is, but it’s also behind #1 and #2.

Finally, I absolutely disagree that we should move away from what have been called offensive resolutions. There are a few (“sexism vs. racism”) that are broken on a structural level (What do those words mean? How can we have clash with ground that big? Was there ANY Neg team that didn’t pick the ground “both are bad”?). Others, such as the finals round topic on governments restricting immigration from people who contradict their “values”, not so much.

I am the child of an immigrant. English is my second language and I’m a dual citizen. This is a question that affects me very personally every year, when I return to a country (Hungary) whose government is increasingly and explicitly rejecting “Western, liberal” values. Yet I believe that this is a debate that must be had and participated in by all, or it will be had in a boardroom without us. Right now, it’s a question that’s wracking Europe as countries try to deal with returning ISIS fighters. These debates, and others like them (i.e. race questions), are some of the most valuable and applicable knowledge we can have (Point #3). They certainly push our boundaries (Point #2). Our question has been “how can we end these topics”. It should be “how we can debate these topics without introducing broken ground, which in turn could harm Point #1”.

·         Let’s have unique actors and non-“net benefits” value criterions mandated by the resolution. Let’s debate how Russia can best control its citizens, or how Iran can best expand its power. They will push us into interesting, uncomfortable space (Point #2), increase the scope of debate and allow us to talk about issues, like oppression, which otherwise would have broken ground (Points #1 and #3).

·         Let’s use mandated Value Criteria to provide philosophical variety. Today we can debate fracking according to deontology; tomorrow we can do consequentialism. This reduces the need for prep-denying kritiks (Point #1), challenges people (Point #2) and makes division of ground more fair.

·         Let’s have more specific values debates with specified actors. Right now, we’re usually debating as “us” – the USFG, or California, or the UN, which tends to conflate “THS do x” with “x is morally right according to our standards”. Looking at another case example decreases hysterically offensive implications and adds a little antiseptic distance between the debaters and topic. For example, “France should turn away returning ISIS fighters” has the same ground as the finals (the resolution didn’t say always, so Aff only had to prove one instance), but is instantly more debatable.

·         Let’s fight the idea of a flexible Neg burden. If Aff has a hard side, let’s force them to take a side also. It decreases their room to wiggle to more comfortable ground (Point #2) and therefore challenges them a little more.

·         If the issue is really skewed, let’s debate a skewed example. Dictatorship is bad? What about Singapore? 

We can do this, people. We’re all creative. I’m sure you guys have ideas too.

You’ll notice I discussed kritiks. The goal of kritiks – challenging basic assumptions – is great. The methodology – denying prep and thus hampering argumentation, giving one team a comfortable standby to use, and splitting time between the kritik’s philosophical issue and the resolution’s practical one until neither is really debated – is not; it relies on debaters to do what really should be done by the tournament itself, and hopes that they will do interesting things instead of those that help them win. Their other goal, “to give students a chance to talk about what they’re passionate about” is a good example of something that sounds nice but should not be an end-in-itself, especially when weighed against Point #2.  

The goal of kritiks – challenging basic assumptions – is great. The methodology – denying prep and thus hampering argumentation, giving one team a comfortable standby to use, and splitting time between the kritik’s philosophical issue and the resolution’s practical one until neither is really debated – is not....

Finally, the debate between lay and flow debating is severely hampered by our lack of clarity on our goals. Let me show you what I mean.

One of the goals of flow debating is “rigor”; concrete reasons for voting. But rigor is not exactly the same thing as fairness. Fairness comes from debaters being able to predict what the judge will vote on. Yet for every lay judge who drops a team for not having three contentions (yes, I know of at least one), there’s a flow judge who drops someone else for labeling their Topicality as “very important” but not “a priori”. Replacing unstructured decisions with an effusion of structured ways to decide and criteria leaves judges just as able to vote unpredictably.

Flow debating purports to directly reward performance in the goals mentioned above. Debaters who are organized, impact strongly and have a diverse case should win, the logic goes. But just like many an aging aristocracy confuses the symptoms of quality (i.e. bowing, flowery titles, and strict rules of courtesy) with the reality of quality (not stabbing people to take their stuff), flow debating incentivizes goals one step removed from the originals. Debaters are told to have structure, so they live and die by their counter-standards; they are told to impact, so they impact to nuclear war; they are told to have many, diverse points, so they do an impression of a fast-forwarding DVR. Structure, impacting and diversity are means to an end, not the end in themselves, and should not be graded as such.

Censoring out the messy parts of real-life debate is supposed to achieve “purity” and therefore “better argumentation”, but purity isn’t an end-in-itself either. Real debate is weird and messy. No one, no one except debaters are rigorous in their real-world arguments. Real issues are always more complex than you have time for, and the artistry is in boiling them down enough to make a decision. Dealing with all that, practicing with it, is a part of good argumentation just as everything else. It does not mean that one must fight fire with fire; those who are rigorous and structured and impact well will do better. But in rewarding debaters’ behavior, we would do well to imagine them plopped down in the House of Commons with the cameras rolling. That’s how we’ll get to “good argumentation” the end-in-itself.

I do not mean to say that flow debating is evil, quite the contrary. There are legitimate tradeoffs: for example between allowing more argumentative complexity (with speed and flowing) when weighed against the harms of teaching people to speak like the rest of the world does, or stopping judge intervention (significantly increasing fairness) while teaching people that they don’t have to be worried about judge intervention (a major infraction on Point #1). Tradeoffs are fine. But I’m annoyed that we don’t really think through the tradeoffs that we make. 

So I obviously have an opinion, but I don’t purport to have the truth readily available to me. I want us to find the truth. And I’m scared that right now we’re drawing battle lines much faster than conclusions.

That’s why I think we need to refocus this debate a little. I’ve thrown my two cents in. Now I invite others to refute me; to go back to the basics and ask ourselves why we do what we do. I honestly believe that we can create something valuable out of this if we try. If we can’t or don’t, then I’m scared for our future. But I think we will.

We’re all smart people. If we compromise on the goals of this activity, stop leaving each other out of our reform groups and have a real debate, whoever’s Director of Lowell Parli next year can stand in that choir room with more confidence than I had, with a community behind them, with the knowledge that the activity we all love is strong.

We have six months till then. Let’s start now.


Thomas White debates for Lowell High School.