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Debate's argumentative culture is broken. Here's how to fix it.

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Debate is broken. This is a cultural problem; it is not due to the proliferation critical theory, tedious framework debates, or performance debates. There is no one ‘group’ or ‘style’ that sanctioned the slow decline of debate. The broken nature of debate has thoroughly infested every style and league of our activity.

It is a structural problem – the strawman culture of debate. This is about form, not content. A strawman is the construction of an artificially weak representation of your opponent’s argument. It is rather easy to recognize a strawman argument inside of a debate round: they misrepresent your argument, their arguments don’t link, you blow it up in the next speech.

It is rather difficult to recognize strawman arguments in form due to how strategies involve inside of our ‘culture of debate’. Murray once made a comment about the evolution of K-debate: cap-K’s were once overpowered and they became ubiquitous, anthro-K’s followed after policy debaters adjusted to the cap-K, and then afropess arguments became the overpowered critique.

Arguments not introduced because they are truthful or strong. After developing a new argument, your opponents are woefully unprepared. Debaters will not develop strong strategies against new arguments until those arguments have proven themselves and become replicated by others. The marginal advantage of reading our new argument declines as that argument becomes ubiquitous. 

Essentially, arguments follow a growth curve. Very few new technologies have true potential; however, early adopters reap massive rewards when a technology succeeds. The marginal advantage of a technology fades as more people adopt the technology. 

We have adopted strategies that constantly simulate innovation without ever innovating.



1)   The original symptom: information overload. Information overload was the first symptom (and it has been critiqued by many debaters). To adopt to constantly changing strategies once policy debate 'speed up' and stockpiling massive back files of poorly constructed and understood research became ubiquitous, we lost our ability to truly engage in the macro-issues that debates talk about. Policy debates by top teams can be an impressive display of intelligence but the most important issues are never explained. For traditional policy styles, let's name a few.


Below is a few examples of major issues with how we debate 'policies'.


  • A total lack of economic knowledge. Almost every internal link chain in any sort of 'econ' advantage or disadvantage is a double turn. For example, on a recent topic, there was a common disadvantage that read like this:

    UQ: Economy on the brink
    Link: Plan saves US consumers $XXX billions in dollars because they don't have to spend their money on Y.
    Impact: Nuclear war

    My problem isn't with the horribly short-sighted financial news articles that were used to establish uniqueness (hint: a CNN article saying the S&P was down and employment number missed expectations is not an argument that the economy is on the brink). It is with the horrible link chain.

    For example, lets say the disadvantage claims that the plan will adversely impact the health of Americans. Americans will spend $300 billion dollars at hospital because of the plan. On its own, this sounds like a massive disadvantage. However, this also means that the plan would sacrifice $300 billion dollars in economic activity and almost certainly trigger the link chain. This is the classic 'broken window' argument: breaking a window is destructive but it is a net positive for the economy in absolute terms.
    • Purely superficial explanations of foreign policy. After reading through the speech docs of the most successful policy debaters from this year's NDT, all I found was vacous discussion of issues that do not impact the thinking of real-world policy makers. Even if you assume that their link chain is 100% fallible (and if the plan does not pass, we will be extinct), debaters do not touch issues that world leaders consider.

      What are the true issues driving US foreign policy? There aren't more than a half dozen real 'issues' but let me explain one of the most important issues that debaters have never touched:

      I'd venture to say that one of the most important foreign policy concerns is the Bretton Woods II agreement, whereby the US dollar became the world reserve currency. Combined with the interbank lending market, this created a system where the United States can print unlimited debt at no cost. The United State's adversaries #1 long-term objective is to disrupt this system.

      Russia insists that de-dollarization is a top geopolitical priority (listen to their treasury secretary, it isn’t a secret). China has a strong interested in making sure that the United States does not control the global economy going forward. A few countries have tried to escape the dollar system by trading their resources (oil) for other forms of currency: Venezuela, Iran, Syria, Lybia, and Iraq. 

      Almost every argument about the military, arms trades, trade, and our economy touches this topic. It is a truly irreversible impact scenario, with potentially dire consequences, that almost certainly triggers any econ/hegemony/political scenario.
  • Fiat and the stunning refusal to consider financial consequences. The ‘spending DA’ is laughed off, for good reason, because it is pathetic. Deficit spending bad is not the argument. Rather, there a few distinct arguments that are never mentioned:
    •  The Appropriations Committee. Our politics DAs are actually sadly underpowered. Policy debaters should read a book (at least) about how political capital is mobilized to allocate finances.
    •  Fiscal policy. The true impact of deficit spending isn’t some economic crisis scenario. There is a real debate right now between economists on whether there is much of an impact to deficit spending at all (due to our reserve currency status). Many argue that we should be spending (and printing) trillions of dollars because of the lack of inflation which may be necessary in order to inflate away debt from US consumers. This is all about interest rates, inflation, and other topics that debaters have no understanding of. However, this is currently the most important domestic issue debate among those in power bar-none. 
    • Pension & Social Security crisis. Corporate lobbyists don’t support pro-life and pro-immigration policies because they have a distinct value system. It’s because of growth. They’re really worried about this. Population growth (link: your immigration arguments) is the biggest variable in economic growth. Growing our population matters a lot right now because a. social security is underfunded by trillions and will collapse by the end of the 2020s and b. pension plans are underfunded by (maybe more) trillions and are collapsing as we speak. The median age in the US is 65, as of this year. Our country is retiring and the financial consequences could bring the whole system down if we don’t find a solution.

Policy debaters have refused to learn more about the deep, hard-hitting, macro trends and issues that impact decision makers. In doing so, they have created their own strawmen arguments, shuffling cards around that skirt any semblance of actual ‘policy debate’. This is to their detriment: any debater who understands the greatest issues facing decisionmakers will be able to construct extremely strong arguments. 

This is the great fool’s theory at work: I don’t need to write a good argument because no-one else is writing a good argument. Resulting in a time-consuming race to the bottom, where we cut cards to justify arguments that don't matter, we avoid making the hard-hitting arguments that do matter.


2)   Critiques - when both sides left the library. For most of my debate career, I described myself as a ‘K-debater’ because I thought this style was more… critical. You engaged deeply with the literature in order to formulate your arguments. As my debate career progressed, I found that successful K debaters rarely dug deep into the literature. They copied the habits of policy debaters, throwing around the same tired arguments.

A K (including performance) team is likely to hit the same dozen arguments every tournament. There is little incentive to expand your knowledge base. Originally, we could place the blame on policy debaters. They didn’t want to engage, they just read framework. However, that explanation is woefully inadequate. It is rather rare that I hear a substantive K debate. 


Here’s a few of the symptoms (don’t get Focauldian on me about my rhetoric or you’re symptomatic as hell). 


  • K debate has become a game of constant ducking and weaving – the attempt to insulate yourself from the risk of confronting an argument.Nearly every debate is littered with no-link arguments (‘not my philosopher’, ‘not my performance’). The reason for this is simple: as debate strategy has evolved, we have learned that the smallest advocacy is the best. You want a small aff and you want a PIC/PIK. We construct strategies that seek to minimize the possibility of an actual argument occurring. This is not truly strategic: it is just laziness. Another example of the greater fool’s theory at work. If you care about the literature, you should construct ironmans and not strawmans. Build the strongest possible version of your opponent’s argument and then attack it. Almost certainly, your execution will be more efficient, persuasive, and explanatory if you adopt this habit.
  • The best K-debaters don’t ‘know the literature’. Your favorite author probably cites the intellectual giants of the past. Most prominently, Hegelian thought has taken over the debatosphere. As an example, if you read any ‘critical’ literature and you are not reading some postmodern strategy, you’re almost certainly reading a concoction of neo-Hegelian thought. Every time I have explained this to a debater (competitors, teammates, and those who I have coached), they were surprised. The explanation is not brief and requires an adequate knowledge of philosophical history. However, this is the root of abysmal K-debate. Debaters refuse to break arguments into their component parts. Sure, people will read tired Wilderson answers to every race argument. That isn’t what I mean.  The obscure critical theory we use is borrowing arguments from the least-obscure branches of philosophy, yet we don’t engage with it.
  • Fighting fire with fire. Debaters engage in three strategies when confronted with the K. They either 1) duck and weave 2) go ‘farther left’ 3) read T. ‘Farther left’ often means more obscure (busting out the PoMo or finding a link chain to your favorite identity arguments). This isn’t necessary. 

    Why? Your critiques rarely have any new ideas; they are just repackaged ideas. Find the source of those ideas (as discussed above) and find answers to those ideas. Those answers will likely be much more persuasive and concise. They will link to overarching tropes present in your opponent’s literature and criticize the authors that your opponent cites. If you need some help with this, leave a comment and I’ll share some secret (very well known – outside of the debate world, at least) books.

Debate's competitive culture has morphed it into an activity that is too focused on short term-ism to actually engage in productive debates. Debaters develop strategies, starting with their research methodologies, that focus almost completely on avoiding true confrontation. New debaters are overwhelmed by the breadth of knowledge they must learn. Inevitably, we all miss the forest for the trees. Our strategies evolve to avoid this breadth and never include any depth in the first place. After leaving debate, you will have to relearn how the world ‘actually works’ outside of debate.

The ideologies that we discuss are no joke. 
Many of my friends have faced incredibly tough periods of mental illness that began shortly after their time in our community. Their worldview was profoundly impacted by the discussions that they had during their time as a debater. We discuss ideologies that are meant to motivate revolutions and convert others into ideologues. Discussing these ideas is fine, if that discussion wasn't substantiated in the current form of debate. Debate left me less willing and able to confront these ideas because I falsely believe their power, after learning their power inside of the competitive vacuum of debate. I worry that our failure to properly interrogate the ideas that we discuss will have a larger impact on our community members.  Many of the ideas that we fail to challenge inspire feelings of helplessness, resentment, and nihilism. We should teach each other how to confront the worst elements of ideology, not how to unwillingly embrace it. 

We have commoditized knowledge in the most painful way possible. We don’t search for meaning or truth but for strategies that minimize the chance of us having to justify the truth. When we read the literature, we do not value the process: we only value the end result (vacuous, empty research). If debaters figure out how to buck this trend, they will almost certainly gain a great advantage. 

After graduating college, I don’t know if I will continue to coach or participate in debate. However, a part of me feels an obligation to do my part in repairing our broken culture. If sufficiently motivated, I may begin by releasing some files that cover some of the discussed issues.

This deeply saddens me. I suspect debaters drastically overestimate the influence that our community has. Our circulation of knowledge, no matter how vacuous, eventually elevates that knowledge to the public discourse. Countless times over the last decade, I have heard ‘debater’ arguments and lines from ‘debate’ literature that I thought I would never hear outside of our bubble. This is how our community’s irresponsibility spreads: vomiting vacuous discourse that we have not truly contemplated nor contested. 

Ultimately, the death of debate is a tragedy. Debate is dead, and we have killed it. We have created an activity that avoids the very purpose of that activity; debating. Our research habits, our strategies, and our speeches are all constructed to avoid debate. 


Edited by KimJongUn
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I like this post. I largely agree with it and admit any disagreement I do have could be considered exceptional.

One way to potentially mitigate the race to the absurd is through topic selection. There is a lot of hate toward narrow topics generally, one in particular that comes to mind is the college healthcare topic, derided as the "single payer" topic because the wording was fairly narrow to primarily that aff (I'm not talking down to you, explaining to the high school members). However, because of limited scope of affs to read, DA's, CP's to read, etc, I judged some in-depth case debates. Even with critical debates I judged, there was a lot of depth to the history of healthcare and discussion of the details of how it's operationalized now. Watching the Democratic primary "debates," I was simultaneously angry at the sheer lack of depth any candidate could get into on healthcare issues (we're in debate, we know a minute is enough to answer cost of medicare for all questions with 5+ points) and in awe thinking of debates I had judged at even the novice and JV level that had significantly more meat of discussion to them because of a topic that lent itself to case debates because of the structural constraints to be had. I can think of a number of debaters who at 18 or 19 years old could have given better responses or outright shown up people vying for the presidency. A lot of the evidence on that topic was fantastic as well. Admittedly, the healthcare topic may have been the goldilocks topic for timeliness and social pervasiveness. 

The information overload is a good and bad thing. The expectation of ridiculously high levels of research also has the effect of leading to deeper discussions on singular issues. Debate before computers became the norm valued analytics more highly (which is good and a skill that would be useful to deconstruct frankensteined economics arguments like you mentioned), but it by nature privileged spin over research. While I think the former is better for skills development, the latter is better for knowledge. Of course, this isn't to say that you're wrong. The move by a lot of teams is to just horizontally spread rather than vertically spread, moving to the absurd outskirts of the topic. A lot of teams 

A big downside like you mentioned is mental health, which matters far more than any kind of skills development or pedagogy. It's not just the ideologies, but the absurd work commitments necessary to succeed are extremely stressful. For anyone who wants to be competitive, doing debate work is at the forefront of everything. If the average pace that people consider the goal for card cutting is 5 cards an hour (varies), you're looking at something like 10-20 hours to pump out a new DA (a bit less if you have backfiles to cover the impact section). Could you do that in a week? Sure. But you also have classes, sleeping, eating, and some kind of recreation to do in there as well. Not to mention other debate-related activities; gotta do team meetings, practice speeches, speech redos, etc etc etc. God forbid you also need to have a job to get by, sounds like someone is gonna miss out on going to district because they let debate slip and couldn't get some assignments submitted or they let school slip and their GPA has them ineligible. 

There is a good example of a squad that knows how to do more with less. University of Mary Washington keeps a small squad, but manages to be nationally competitive by a) having stellar coaches and b) honing in on a few core arguments that they develop continually, focusing on depth and the substantive strength of arguments. Admittedly, they  adhere to the policy side of debate, but they've kept themselves above the proliferation of "gotcha" arguments.


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Although I disagree with most posters who claim that "debate has been destroyed," I must say, your dedication to providing us with informed, rational information is like a breath of fresh air.

Take an upvote.

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5 hours ago, debategirl52 said:

@JSamuel why are you down-voting my comments? wth is your problem? 

You double triple posted, and your posts said literally the same thing.   Just edit your posts.

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20 hours ago, JSamuel said:

You double triple posted, and your posts said literally the same thing.   Just edit your posts.

I think the technical term is a triple double.

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