Tycoons of Piety: On constructing a delineation between acceptable and unacceptable argumentation

Tycoons of Piety: On constructing a delineation between acceptable and unacceptable argumentation

Article by Rebar Niemi

A recurring and perniciously unresolvable discussion about debate is the question of what arguments are acceptable and what arguments are not. Norms of acceptability can be educationally premised, based on rules of common conduct in public (or private) secondary institutions, morally and ethically judgmental, or merely based on claims of fairness or the structure of debate. Often, discussions about where to draw the line between what is off limits and what is in play become heated and emotionally involved – leading to harsh divides between the “good” and the “bad” as well as the splintering of community solidarity.

I do not believe that I can solve this problem, nor do I have a specific bright line to advocate. Instead, I want to discuss what is problematic about some of the stances taken in the debate community from my own perspective, and the non-determinate mechanism that I personally use to sort potentially offensive arguments.

A little bit about my background in the grey areas of debate: I was one of the rare people who won rounds on both sincerely advocated pre-fiat arguments (such as gendered language), as well as counter-intuitive and skeptical arguments that in some cases advocated for the positive or neutral normative content of assumed wrongs like violence, extinction, and the violation of side-constraints. I am both empathetic to the claims that some arguments have logical conclusions that should simply not be allowed as well as the claims that free and open discourse should justify and protect the right to advocate counter-intuitive or controversial positions. I don’t believe I necessarily have a horse in this running, and although as a coach I remain a consummate games-player, I also believe in the responsibility of educators and competitors to higher causes.

My attempt to confront this issue will begin in the realm of debate argumentation and move into the psychological and social realms in order to better understand why there remains such a division between those who demand punishment in response to offensive argumentation, and those who defend its practice – more precisely the question Why is it the fact that people continue to believe some arguments are acceptable when others believe that their offensive nature is so obvious as to require no justification?

Divisions of [moral high] ground

Broadly and crudely construed, this discussion or debate primarily involves two main positions.

The typical position forwarded by those who believe in a hard and fast rule for delineating offensive arguments is something along the lines of

A: debaters are people who belong to a larger community/have some non-contestable responsibilities
B: these non-contestable responsibilities create an obvious and intuitive line between what is acceptable and what is not
C: arguments that fall outside the bounds of this line should not only be discounted, but actively intervened against and the debaters who run them punished in some fashion.

Now, this is clearly a very general description of something that can apply to a multiplicity of individual variants. Some believe that the ballot is punishment enough, some believe discounting the argument is sufficient, some believe that it is a community obligation to actively speak out against these arguments. But the question of what arguments fall into this category is murky. For example, on the recent 2012 Jan-Feb topic (It is morally permissible for victims to use deadly force as a deliberate response to repeated domestic violence), two commonly run and accepted negative cases seemed to forward exceedingly offensive and repugnant arguments to me.
The first was a very “stock” proportionality negative that would make ignorant and insensitive claims like “victims can’t kill their abusers because RDV isn’t severe or life threatening,” or “there isn’t a brightline for what constitutes RDV: it could be two slaps or 100 severe beatings.” Many teams who should know better ran arguments identical to these – I know because I judged them. I personally found the position to be repulsive, constituted by large assumptions, and primarily very ignorant of the literature on RDV, which outright denied almost every claim they made. This is not to say proportionality itself is offensive, but merely to say that deployment was offensive in its most common forms. The second commonly run position was an emotivist moral framework that argued it would be impermissible to kill because “victims will have emotional attachments to their abusers, so they’ll feel bad.” This is of course, a simplification – but the offensive content of the argument was equally clear in its actual incarnation. Again, the teams who ran this should know better – so why don’t they? And why did many not see the offensive or repugnant nature of these arguments as obvious in the same way I did?

The typical position of those who either do not believe in excluding arguments or do not believe there is a hard and fast way to identify offensive arguments is as follows

D: debate is valuable because of the freedom that students have content wise and strategically
E: the logically strategic or oppositional arguments to certain successful arguments are sometimes counter-intuitive, generate morally uncommon stances, or are otherwise considered to be sensitive or controversial
F: these arguments should be allowed in debates either for reasons of education or for reasons of fairness
ALTERNATIVELY, G: debate is merely a game and should not reflect on either out of round impacts or the “real world moral content” of arguments, which should be considered as amoral

At this year’s NSD, we had a series of Women in Debate lectures/conversations that produced a large volume of interesting questions. One of the implicitly recurring ones was whether argument content could contribute to the demographic makeup of debate as an activity. This to me is a very interesting notion, insofar as it could potentially point to a way in which we could make the activity more inclusive without extensive structural reform. However, even among those who forward the G conclusion, the question of what arguments actually do cross some line or affect people is again murky. Refer to my above example from the 2012 January-February topic: when I made the claim that these arguments were offensive, I heard from a number of coaches and students that not only were they not offensive, they were core topical ground that under no circumstances could or should be excluded from discussion.

I think that both of these positions are incorrect in some way. To begin with the second position, which argues for either a minimally exclusionary norm or a non-exclusionary norm, it seems obvious that there are certain arguments one can make that are not only blatantly offensive in their conclusions, but also function as denigrating discourse perpetrated by students who do not understand the issues that they refer to – and can certainly serve to make the populations that they do refer to feel excluded, directly attacked, or humiliated. The first position, which takes a hard line stance and demands either a social norm or a debate norm that punishes such arguments, seems to be defeated by a combination of the incredibly subjective nature of such a norm, but also by the fact that invariably the mechanism of punishment would filter through fallible and flawed people prone to their own miscalculations and interpretations. Imagine if you will that debate had a “death penalty” like the NCAA, which would be applied to programs that violated principles such as running offensive arguments. Who would be qualified to make the ultimate call? To what set of guidelines would these decision-makers be accountable?

So, I first will attempt to draw my own delineation – and then offer a number of solutions that are potentially workable and applicable to a variety of issues of this sort: not just offensive arguments, but also arguments that others perceive as unfair or uneducational for less controversial reasons.

Should debaters be responsible for what their arguments justify?

My strong answer to this question is NO. But my answer is a NO that refers to merely the abstract possibilities that arguments would justify.

The first problem is that this would be impossible while maintaining switch-sides debate. That would make us simultaneously responsible for both sides of the issue. I don’t know what the consequence would necessarily be, but it seems preposterous in the extreme to argue that I must have positions on both sides of a topic that are consistent with some external moral or ethical norm that I must justify them in relation to.

The second problem is that debate requires the ability to defend positions that have repugnant or offensive justifications. Imagine if you and I are having a conversation about the worsening quality of the United States as a nation. I say that what would be right is to deport and brutally suppress the rights of South and Central American immigrants so that we can focus on border security without worrying about the political consequences of collateral damage. Or imagine that I say we need to kill off 30% of the population so that we can improve the quality of life for the other 70%. These are both stances justifiable through one of the most popular ethical frames in debate – utilitarianism. The claim that utilitarian or consequentialist methods of aggregation are immoral and generate repugnant conclusions is common, but ignored. It seems ESPECIALLY by those who would make a claim to excluding or punishing other offensive arguments.

The third problem is that every possible argument is capable of generating an extreme logical conclusion, which can be taken to justify something horrific or immoral. Take the Kantian dictate that our worth as persons stems from our ability to confer value on other things/persons and our ability to reason. This easily can become “those who do not reason or do not have the ability to comprehend proper valuation do not themselves have worth – which means that violations against them are either positively moral insofar as they preserve those of us who can value/reason, or neutrally moral insofar as there is no way to justify an obligation or duty in regard to their defense.” There IS NOT a line we can draw here on what level of justification generated from an argument is offensive.

The fourth problem is that this is intervention in its highest form. If we value the equal opportunity of debaters to confront an issue and their opponent’s arguments, then I simply do not see how we can claim that some debaters should not have to make arguments against their opponents and win, while others can be winning the arguments and lose.

Should debaters be responsible for the deployment of their arguments?

My answer to this would be YES. So, my personal divide for offensive v. non-offensive is not based on what the argument justifies, but instead on how an argument is deployed in-round. Let’s take a common example:

Debater A runs a case that argues that moral facts are not logically justifiable, and thus that they primarily form vacuous statements or expressions of personal emotion.

Debater B argues that this would serve to justify the Holocaust, because saying that the Sho’a was immoral would not carry any logical weight.

In this circumstance, A has run a common skeptical scenario with a general application. B is attempting to draw a “logical” conclusion out of the argument that A has not forwarded.

Another example:

Debater A argues that overpopulation will lead to extinction, so oppressive governments that treat their populations brutally and ultimately reduce them signficantly are good insofar as they solve this existential risk.

Debater B argues that this would serve to justify the Holocaust, because National Socialist Germany would fall into the category of governments that were acting appropriately and contributed to preventing extinction vis a vis overpopulation.

In this circumstance, debater A has made the “logical” conclusion that B is indicting – B is merely pointing out that when applied to real world cases this conclusion would justify genocidal policies.

I think the distinction between these two cases is extremely important. One relies on a conclusion that was not made in round and requires multiple links of justification to produce. The other merely points out what the application of a conclusion means. To get from moral skepticism to justifying the holocaust, you at the very least have to say

-Lack of justified moral facts mean that moral statements should not guide behavior (itself a normative statement that the original argument would not support)
-If moral statements should not guide behavior then performing immoral acts is justified (again relying on a normative conception of the good/bad that the original argument cannot justify)
-Counter-factually we would say that THIS is the justification used to support the Holocaust

This type of argument by association seems inane to me. In regards to the common “skep justifies the Holocaust/other genocidal harms/bad things” debate, I find IT to be the offensive argument, not skepticism itself. In point of fact – as a non-practicing, pork-loving, extremely reform jew, I am exceedingly offended by the argument that X or Y or Z justifies or trivializes the Holocaust. Here is my argument why:

First, these arguments deny the REAL reasons the Holocaust came about. Moral and political reasons that were created by the environment in Germany post-WWI and the prejudices of certain people based on their own normatively charged world views. The Nazis were not nihilists – they believed they were doing the right thing for Germany and the world.

Second, alluding constantly to what is quite possibly the most tragic event in recent human history (and is for me the most tragic) as the ultimate result of high school debates is so trivializing and unbelievable that it makes my blood boil. HOW DARE YOU CLAIM THAT A 16 YEAR OLD SAYING SOMETHING IS EQUIVALENT TO THE DEATH, TORTURE, AND DEHUMANIZATION OF LITERALLY MILLIONS OF PEOPLE.

Third, these arguments are most often deployed by people who are NOT jewish or another afflicted group, do NOT experience prejudice and hate on a daily basis, and often make arguments that WERE used by the national socialists – namely a combination of Kantian claims about the worth of persons and utilitarian claims about how to best achieve the greatest good.

Fourth, skeptical and critical claims are crucial to dispelling the force and power of absolute normative judgments – which play a large role in almost all forms of persecution, exclusion, violence, and exploitation.

Fifth, demanding punishment and exclusion of certain arguments is the most fascistic viewpoint you could probably take on.

Now that I’ve completed my rant on this subject, I want to move onto a few different arguments that I would further make for the inclusion of “offensive” arguments in debate.

The argument from competition: “If you can’t beat them, you don’t deserve to beat them”

If these arguments truly are offensive, then they likely contain many false and easily criticized premises that can be used against them. Further, the most effective way to end their use would be to develop a set of damning and substantive (not theoretical) responses that you widely and freely publicize. False arguments that people learn the answers to do not win rounds, are not emulated, and do not become strategic necessities. This notion of letting “bad” ideas be defeated in the “marketplace of ideas” feeds into my next argument.

The argument from Free Speech: “I don’t respect what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

This is ‘Murica. And in ‘Merica, we let the KKK and all those other racists and hate groups exist and have their say. It is not a demonstration of good citizenship to exclude or censor viewpoints – ESPECIALLY if you disagree with them. I think “true-til” is offensive. I think kantian philosophy is offensive. I will defend the right of my colleagues and students to make these arguments til the day I die [leave the activity]. EVEN IF an argument generates an offensive conclusion, we should respect the right of the dolt or small-minded person who makes it to make that argument. This generates REAL opportunities for education. Some of the most educational and positive things that have happened to me in debate have come from my challenging and contesting the claims of others, not in round, but as a person – engaging in conversation with other people in a non-competitive environment.

The argument from blurring the lines: “This is the game – that is the world”

I think that it would be incredibly damaging to both students and educators to attempt to bring debate more in line with the real world. It is impossible to fully separate it from being a game, and I think acknowledging that it is an educational game – but a game nonetheless would serve us well. When we start to believe that debate is a reflection of the real world is when we start actually becoming desensitized to death, tragedy, and horror. I think that one of the main reasons I have developed a strong sense of personal moral honor and belief is that I never thought that the things said in a debate round were identical to the real world. I consider debate to be a sort of test space or even just a game world. Consider the evolution of the perception of video games. Whether legitimate or not, games have gotten more and more blame for real violence because of the fact that they have become more realistic and violent. In the past, when the delineation between games and the real world was stronger, no one tried to eat each other due to Pac-man.

The argument from psychology: “De-stigmatize and de-dramatize”

If our goal is to prevent debaters from actually believing in the “despicable” ends that their arguments may justify, isn’t the most proper solution to banalize and de-stigmatize these arguments? Any amateur psychology student can tell you that negative reinforcement and the denial of some object is almost assured to make that object more desirable both consciously and unconsciously. ESPECIALLY in dealing with teenagers, you think that stigmatizing and demonizing a certain way of arguing doesn’t make that method more attractive to those who want to buck trends, rebel, and shock people around them? I recently read a pretty fascinating article about the shootings in Aurora, CO – very near to where NSD is annually held. The article talks about how violence is produced by the fascination with and “addiction” to depictions of normative evil. I think this is very relevant to debate. The more we demonize and attach normative judgments to each other, the more we create a world where truly troubled and unhappy people can justify the most extreme actions by aligning themselves with “Evil.”
I hesitate to delve too deeply into the banality of evil here – but we should be careful to remember that those who commit terrible crimes or despicable acts rarely have as high-minded a justification as would be offered in a debate round. This is not to say that such justifications categorically are not “offensive,” but instead to say that the more emotionally charged our methods of handling certain issues, the more that rubs off on observers, competitors, and coaches.

The argument from deterrence: “Prolif solves”

If your goal is to competitively discourage “offensive” argumentation, then the most effective strategy is likely to abandon the moral high ground and develop counter-strategies that are not premised on appeals to out of round and non-contestable propositions, but instead on the competitive value of the arguments in question. I think this is likely more applicable to some unfair/uneducational practices than offensive ones, but I certainly thought I’d bring it up. I think college policy provides an obvious model where the explosion of possibilities has led to a multi-party detente, and a focus on resolving such issues through in round argument. Sometimes policy-making beats performance, sometimes performance beats the K, sometimes the K beats policy-making. But everyone has their own arsenal and ability to deter the arsenals of the other. Granted, these types of debates can be difficult to adjudicate – but ultimately debate is not supposed to be about the comfort of judges, and instead about the experiences of competitors.

The argument from disguise: “You’re masking real issues with your manufactured outrage”

I think getting caught up in these types of discussions and making them a focus is ultimately exceedingly counter productive and lends itself to the glossing over of much realer and more serious problems. Debate has a huge culture of privilege – and on top of that in many circumstances has real issues with betrayals of trust, both coming from coaches and educators, and also between students. The position that there are “right” or “truly moral” stances is most often taken by those with something to hide or something to feel wrong about. It is exceedingly pernicious to teach students that they are “right” and everyone else is “wrong;” and this is the behavior most often modeled by coaches and other debaters. The issue of women in debate is big – and this is a way of distracting from that. But what about minorities in debate, lower classes in debate, underprivileged regions in debate? Can we honestly feel good about “excluding those damn Nat-zis” when we are a community based largely on exclusion of outsiders rather than inclusion?

Another issue I’d like to raise is that these types of sanctimonious crusades against certain arguments are an absolute distraction from the larger structural issues in debate – the way the activity is run by select and non-democratic organizations, the way powerhouse schools and powerful coaches receive the benefit of the doubt even when they’re in the wrong, the way we would rather sweep under the rug than disinfect with sunlight. When numerous national circuit debaters and their coaches can be accused or found to be actually miscutting or otherwise distorting evidence, and yet simple apologies or their rancor in denying that there actually was a problem end the issue, can we really feel satisfied when we run some small-school student through the ringer for saying that moral statements are not facts? When success is nearly pre-determined if you hire enough coaches and attend the right schools and are the right gender/race/class, how on earth can we feel we’ve fulfilled our responsibilities as competitors and educators? Call me crazy, but I find cheating and structural inequalities to be qualitatively worse than making arguments with counter-intuitive conclusions.

Finally, I think that it is simply true that one should not speak from the viewpoint of others, nor should one crusade on the behalf of others who do not necessarily have the opportunity or ability to speak for themselves in the realm you operate in. One SHOULD crusade to give others the ability to speak, to let themselves be heard, and one SHOULD acknowledge the real feelings that they convey. But to co-opt and instrumentalize the experience of other people is something that seems offensive and repugnant to me.

Taboo t[r]opics of privilege

I say tropics because in addition to being a topic, privilege is a trope in itself that can be distorted, misapplied, and recuperated by those who engage in its deployment. Even in our attempts to deal with one form of privilege, we often end up deploying another. One thing that I briefly brought up at the aforementioned Women in Debate series at NSD 2012 was my feeling that multiple types of privilege contributed to and were modified by some of the latent sexism in debate. I spoke with a number of students and staff who felt similarly, but were surprised by the muted reaction to that claim. This reaction to me is not surprising – no one wants to admit that they have contributed to the problem in more ways than merely uttering a slur or excluding a person, and many in debate come from families and communities that have taught them that they “have earned and are responsible for everything that they have achieved/will achieve.”

To me, debate is a realm in which that statement should be true. However, I do not believe that it is. You will be a better debater (and that is what is important, according to the wording on ballots) not based on you and you alone – but instead because of what your parents can afford, what advantages you have had, and the connections you have. I think that the most important lesson I can bestow on many debaters is that they are NOT responsible for much of what makes them successful or unsuccessful. I think that the recurring obsession with what arguments are “offensive” or “morally repugnant” or “unfair” or “uneducational” teaches very nearly the opposite of this lesson: that privileged people should feel confident in their own moral purity and desert and should strongly and vociferously denounce the status of those who disagree with them and those who they find lacking.

In memoriam and conclusion

My personal stance is that no-one should have the authority or monopoly on what is legitimate or acceptable to do in debates. That should be up for debate. I think that pre-fiat or theoretical arguments that engage in in-round contestation are acceptable responses to offensive or unacceptable arguments, but only insofar as they do not rely on out of round and non-contestable mechanisms for decision or delineation. I think that judges SHOULD NOT use their own subjective preferences to limit the set of arguments that debaters can draw from or insert them into rounds, but only to inform how they subjectively evaluate arguments that are made in round and as guidelines for debaters seeking high speaker ratings and looking for commonly minded individuals.

I think that those who attempt to claim a monopoly on the righteous and the proper are most often those who are the largest offenders against other standards of evaluation that they choose to ignore in favor of their selected causes and crusades. I think that the notion that any one of us could set some determinate standard for what debate should be is preposterous, uneducational, sanctimonious, and arrogant. I think that the notion that we should teach the already privileged population of debate to be inflexible, dogmatic, and exclusive in their belief sets creates worse citizens, worse people, and ultimately a worse world. I think that constructing debate as if it was identical with the real world rather than an imaginary game-world that occurs within the real world is insidious and dangerous.

  • Quinn Olivarez


  • Anonymous

    Like this comment if you read it in Rebar’s voice.

  • Anonymous


  • Great article Rebar

    • Anonymous

      Great Rebarticle.

  • This is excellent.

    • Anonymous

      This article went hard in the paint.