BY NICK SAWHNEY
As many debaters know, we must not only look to the ends, but to the means with which we achieve those ends. The same goes for solving the present issues that plague many parli debaters. In his recent opinion piece, Thomas White provided three excellent standards with which to approach the reform of parliamentary debate; we must now look to the implementation of those standards and others like them. Simulating real life debates, leaving our comfort zones and challenging ourselves, and learning useful information are all incredibly important aspects to consider when looking to reform parli, but we should perhaps go even further in depth on the best ways to achieve our common goal.
Though Mr. White's suggested methods of implementation do have potential, there are several reasons that we might look to other methods as well. Mandating actors and non-net benefits weighing mechanisms take away from stimulating real life debates, because in real life we are not given specific viewpoints to look to: rather, we must consider all benefits and harms. If a debater feels like a different or more specific aspect must be weighed, then they should have the freedom to bring that forth and argue it (for example, should we look to utilitarian net benefits or deontological impacts?). In fact, having that freedom allows for even more educational debates, because the debates don’t only deal with specific or nuanced contentions and impacts, but also consider broader philosophical perspectives, allowing for Mr. White’s third point to also be satisfied. That freedom could also challenge debaters, putting them out of their comfort zones, since they would have to consider philosophical perspectives that they may disagree with. However, artificially forcing people out of their comfort zones is not the right answer, because it does not make debate any more beneficial to anyone actually in round. In real life, we aren’t pushed out of our comfort zones because someone mandates it, specifically for the purpose of making us uncomfortable. Rather, in real life, we do things we don’t feel comfortable doing because we feel like we must, because we are fighting for a higher purpose. My school fought against our district administration after our head coach was removed unjustly, not because it was comfortable or a challenge, but because it was the right thing to do. The challenge was a secondary effect.
Debaters can argue value systems and push other debaters out of their comfort zones if they so wish, through differing frameworks, but artificially mandating such a challenge would only take away from Mr. White’s first goal of parliamentary debate. Arguing framework and value systems when necessary would still teach useful information, as deontology and utilitarianism are things real world policy makers consider on a day to day basis, but more education comes from diagnosing when and why a value system should be changed on a debate-to-debate basis.
Most agree that resolutions comparing things like racism and sexism should not be debated, but even resolutions that invite racism indirectly should be avoided. While, on face, the government restricting immigration based on value systems (the theme of Stanford’s final round resolution) may not seem offensive, the implementation of that specific resolution in real life would definitely increase structural racism, since there is no way to objectively define whether or not someone meets a government systems “values,” except personal opinion and bias Debating such a topic does not simply push debaters out of their comfort zones, but rather forces them to advocate for attitudes which are inherently racist. Topics that invite racism, directly or indirectly, should not be perceived as appropriate simply because they push people out of their comfort zones, and artificially pushing people out of their comfort zones is pointless either way, for the reasons stated above. Using skewed examples to debate skewed resolutions is also not appropriate for the same reason: why should debaters be forced to defend skewed systems, when a more educational solution is to simply have more clarified resolutions? And, connecting back to Mr. White’s first standard of real-world connection, in the real world, we do not -- should not -- often find ourselves defending dictatorships and racism with skewed examples.
On to the next issue: kritiks. Kritiks are not arguments that exist to deny prep, or replace practical debate with philosophical debate. If a team bases their arguments on an assumption which can/should be questioned, nothing should stop their opponents from reading a kritik. Just as there aren’t any complaints against disads that a team’s plan may link into, there shouldn’t be complaints about teams reading kritiks, because they are simply arguments, which must be linked just as clearly as any disadvantage--- else they prove an easy win for the opponents.
Flow debating, despite the fast speaking and more complicated arguments, still does allow for all three standards suggested by Mr. White, without the issues of lay debate. Sure, in real life, debate is messy, but that does not mean that we should artificially stimulate messiness in debate for the sake of mimicking real life. Debate is first and foremost about making intelligent arguments, and organization is the best way to make sure each argument can clash with refutations effectively. The education gained from clash and intelligent arguments is worth far more than the simulation of real world debate by making it messy. Our adult lives will not be the same as our debate lives; we will never deal with multiple arguments or structured speaking times or counter-plans or any other features unique to debate, but in real life we will have to make organized arguments, we will have to propose organized solutions, and those are the skills we must learn from debate before anything else.
The methodology formerly suggested is one based on limiting what debaters can or cannot do in order to fix the issues presented, and limiting debaters by forcing them to argue with mandated weighting mechanisms or specific actors is not the answer. The education that we get from debate comes from the creative aspect of framing and making arguments. Limiting debaters to the ultra-specific framing that the resolution writers intend is only a vessel to restrict that creative freedom. If an individual team believes that the debate should only be framed in the way that Mr. White suggests, nothing is stopping them from reading theory arguments in order to frame the debate the way they want. Doing so is exponentially more educational for debaters because they don’t simply have set rules to go by, but must also justify their framing of the debate and make sure that they can defend it, something that once again relates to the simulation of real life debates because in real life we aren’t told exactly what we have to do, but we must make decisions and defend them. Furthermore, limiting debaters in such a specific and nuanced way harms parli’s legitimacy in the eyes of the NSDA, where parli is already seen as unworthy to be a national event.
We all can agree, however, that there needs to be change, there needs to be a solution to the issues that are present in Parliamentary debate. The three standards Mr. White sets, real life education, challenges, and useful information, can all be achieved without directly imposing limitations on what we can or cannot do in regards to the arguments read in round. The solution is simple: have better resolutions. Specifically, have resolutions written by people currently involved in debate themselves. I personally have struggled with writing resolutions for my team’s practice debates as well, and understand that writing good resolutions is difficult, but writing good resolutions is definitely not impossible. The resolutions at this year’s NPDI, for example, written by debaters from the UC Berkeley team with input from lawyers, or resolutions written by the POI advisory board, lend themselves to helping achieve the necessary factors for optimal parliamentary debates. For example, the resolution debated in the fourth round at NPDI, “The United States Federal Government should pass H.R. 1010, the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013,” allowed for real life debate simulation, seeing as the issue of minimum wage is widely discussed throughout the world. It provided the challenge of learning the nuanced issues of a specific government policy, and allowed debaters to gain useful information by promoting discussion of fair wage laws, something that will affect all of us once we enter the working world. Policy resolutions allow for the philosophical debate as well, because all policy debates have some form of moral basis, like valuing utilitarianism or deontology, which is completely open to debate in every round, through theory arguments, kritiks, or even simple counterplans and disads. Furthermore, making plans is a hugely important part of parli, because debating the direct consequences of a specific action provides more real world education than debating philosophy alone, seeing as in the real world we must consider the direct consequences of our actions before the philosophy behind them.
Parliamentary debate is far from the perfect debate, but improvement is a clear possibility-- and a necessity. By fixing resolutions instead of limiting debaters, parli can retain all the positive qualities it has now, while also gaining ground where it needs to. Fixing parliamentary debate is not something that can happen overnight, it won’t happen easily, and it won’t leave everyone happy. The outcry over the Parli Underground movement is one example of that-- and the frustration which leads to that movement is another. Just today, for example, I had a teacher tell me I was in his “bad books,” due to my participation in the movement. Others are also openly angry about this push for change coming from the community. But most debaters can agree, some form of change is necessary, to make parli the event it has the potential to be. We are capable of allowing parli to achieve that potential, but only if everyone in the community works together to move forward.
Nick Sawhney is a junior, has debated for four years, and is an alum of the 2014 POI Debate Institute at UC Berkeley.