AN OUTSIDER’S MANUAL TO KRITIKS

Part 1: Three Role of the Ballot Arguments

Intro

It seems like we’ve gotten to a point where the largest ideological divide in the national circuit can roughly be approximated by divergent views of Kritiks[1]. In elimination rounds especially, many judges are considered instant losses if you’re a framework debater hitting a K debater, and vice versa. As schizophrenic elim panels demonstrate, judge preferences for K debaters conflict almost completely with judge preferences for non-K debaters.

To state the obvious, this must be due to a lack of common understanding, and it’s reasonable to speculate that this results from each side’s echo-chambers. My aim with this series of articles is to bridge the gap a bit, which hopefully will help increase the responsiveness of arguments on both sides of the aisle such that rounds will be resolved on the merit of a debater, not on judge paradigms[2]. To that end, I’ll try to straightforwardly explain Kritiks for debaters who find Kritiks to be as fuzzy and bizarre as I did all the way through senior year.

Background: Kritiks as Moral Arguments

Suppose you’re a judge. In the middle of cross-examination, one debater goes full-racist: a diatribe so overtly hateful and filled with the worst possible racial slurs that everyone feels physically uncomfortable.

It seems morally compelling that, as a judge, there’s really no good reason to contemplate giving this debater the win (I feel uneasy even considering possible reasons not to). Given this, we could conclude that a judge shouldn’t care about the truth or falsity of the resolution if one debater has demonstrably been racist. We’d feel the same way about a game of monopoly: the traditional rules and objectives of the game stop mattering much at all to us when there are overriding concerns to deal with, perhaps that one player is brutally heckling another player about her life decision to become a LARPer (either kind). In the case of an overt racist, we’d feel that addressing their racism matters more to us than the traditional rules of the game.

For this situation, we can already imagine one debater using the above logic to justify why a judge should vote on the following Kritik:

  1. Link: You said the n-word
  2. Impact: The n-word is horrifically racist because… [insert card]
  3. Alternative: Reject my opponent in order to reject the usage of the n-word by Whites.

To explain, the link is what your opponent did. The impact is why it’s bad. The alternative is what should be done instead[3]. These are the three parts of a Kritik. Usually there will be another part under the alternative, called the Role of the Ballot, which, as the name indicates, is an argument about why the ballot’s role should be changed to addressing the opponent’s awful discourse.

We don’t usually see indubitable Kritiks like “the n-word is bad” in debate rounds, so commonplace Kritiks could extend this analogy to less overt forms of oppression, e.g., when a debater endorses without qualification a racist author like Kant. Contemporary literature on race universally agrees that racism is largely perpetuated in subtle and institutional ways, and that our repulsion to overt racism is a defense mechanism that lets us continue to believe we aren’t racists too. If we ignored this sort of racism, we’d actually be propping up the very same system of white supremacy we were repulsed by in the original example, the same racism that we agreed should cause us to judge differently[4].

This moral argument for the Role of the Ballot is never explicitly made, but it is constantly appealed to. To claim one’s opponent is dripping in white supremacy leaves quite a bold impression on the judge about their moral obligations to not vote for that debater. When these Kritikal affirmatives outline in vivid detail the staggering severity of oppression certain groups face, they’re not wasting time on empirics their opponent would never contest; instead, they’re investing this time to persuade the judge to suspend judging-as-usual and instead realize the gravity of the moral imperative to address racism, sexism, ableism, and so on.

This line of reasoning pumps a bit of life back into its endearingly dull-witted, older brother: “we’re people before we’re debaters.” It is a solid and intuitive way to teach Kritiks to younger debaters who’d otherwise hit a steep learning curve and daunting jargon. Moreover, this moral argument for the ROTB could arguably co-exist with the narrow conception of jurisdiction defended by Branse and McGinnis because it can admit that the rules of LD normally dictate truth-testing, but that the importance of these rules give way when more pressing concerns arise. This argument has its limits and disappointments that I’ll outline in a later article. Still, it’s useful to state the unstated so we can understand the positions at play and develop our own.

The Standard Role of the Ballot

The argument above is a Role of the Ballot (ROTB) argument because it’s a claim about what the ballot should be concerned with – namely, sending a message that racism is unacceptable.

The standard role of the ballot is a bit different. For debaters from non-kritikal programs, it might be useful to think of a standard role of the ballot as an appeal to an education voter. This isn’t an unfaithful reading given how often you’ll hear references to the judge’s “pedagogical obligations” or carded evidence discussing how classrooms should operate. Critical education, like all other education standards, has unique benefits: it makes debate more accessible, allows us to make immediate differences to make the world a better place, and so on.

To read charitably, a standard ROTB takes this form:
1) The judge is an educator.

2) As educators, judges have pedagogical obligations to make the world a better place.

3) X makes the world a worse place because I won that X is bad in this debate round.

4) Debaters endorse mindsets when they argue for them in-round.

5) To make the world a better place, the judge should punish bad mindsets endorsed by one debater by voting them down.

6) This impact (and no other) should decide the ballot, so the role of the ballot is to “reject x” or “create strategies to defeat x”[5].

The comparison to education voters illuminates a few disparities in justification. Kritiks a) don’t justify why the judge is an educator, rather they just assert it; b) they don’t explain why the correct response is to drop the debater, rather than give a harsh scolding, drop the argument, or one of any other possibilities[6] and, c) they don’t explain why X is exclusively the only impact worth evaluating[7]. While few are satisfied with the justification education voters receive, it’s borderline absurd that Kritiks are accepted without even the rudimentary levels of justification found in education voters. Of course, K debaters could easily justify the six above premises, but it’s important to note they almost never do. Instead, they almost exclusively focus on the value of the education their Kritik provides.

Sometimes it genuinely seems that K debaters don’t realize the commitments they’re tied to. For instance, a crucial point of divergence between a truth-testing ROTB and a Kritikal ROTB is whether the judge is an educator or a referee, but this is rarely addressed by K debaters who almost entirely rely on arguments that already assume – but never justify why – the judge is an educator who should try to make the world a better place.

The best K debaters typically understand the commitments their Role of the Ballot ties them to, but just rarely choose to justify those commitments. Judges should take “no warrant” arguments more seriously against Kritiks that entirely omit explanations for why the judge is an educator or why we should drop the debater.

The Praxis Role of the Ballot

As I gather, K debaters and judges don’t actually endorse the standard ROTB, although it’s often the argument they advance and vote on. Recall that the standard ROTB requires the judge to punish bad mindsets endorsed by one debater. The following problem is simple but challenging: there’s no reason these judgment-calls about mindsets would change based on the arguments made in-round, unless judges were genuinely undecided and easily persuaded each round. It couldn’t be possible for these judges to actually endorse the standard ROTB since one judge could never vote on Wilderson in one round and Curry the next. The same restrictive logic would apply to the arguments that debaters advanced: K debaters could only ever read one position unless they sincerely changed their mind about the best method to stop bad impacts. As it seems, this means the two ROTB’s discussed so far – the moral ROTB and the standard ROTB – hit a major road bump.

This is fine, though, because I think acknowledging this disjunction actually creates a more viable ROTB as follows:

“As educators, judges have pedagogical obligations to make the world a better place. Using debate as a platform to discuss ways to resist [oppression/other bad impacts] is better for the world than determining the truth of the resolution. That’s because critical education is the best form of education: a) it can transform the lives of disadvantaged students who’d otherwise find debate pointless and irrelevant to their lives[8] b) it is immediately applicable to the real world as we navigate our way through different power structures and ideologies daily, whereas there’s only an absurd off-chance we happen to become policy-makers. Generally, judges should vote on the flow since flow debate ensures debaters exercise research skills and in-round thinking, making them better advocates for real world change. Likewise, debaters should be allowed to experiment with different positions because of the intellectual dexterity and research incentives that a moderate form of switch-side debate provides[9]. Since this is what debate should look like, we have to drop the debater, because otherwise debate wouldn’t transform into the forum for critical education it should be; the ballot wouldn’t be the incentive it needs to be in order to motivate research and deep thinking about these issues[10]. Thus, the role of the ballot is to vote for the debater who provides the best method to reject bad impacts like oppression.”

This seems to solve many problems of the standard ROTB, namely lack of warrants and the inter-round consistency problem mentioned at the start of this section. Because this version of the ROTB emphasizes praxis[11], it’s not that the judge or the debater actually endorses one method as true. Rather, the claim is that it’s a good norm for judges to generally vote for whatever method is won in-round[12]. (Obviously if every round came down to judge paradigms, that’d be a fairly terrible activity w/r/t education.) Admittedly there still isn’t much justification for the claim that the judge is an educator, but we can address that concern later.

Again, it’s worthwhile to remember that most K judges and debaters probably agree with the above outline of a ROTB. The problem is just that this isn’t the actual ROTB voted on in debate rounds. This can only be remedied by asking judges to evaluate what’s justified in the standard ROTB, rather than what they wished it justified. This disconnect is undoubtedly a source of confusion between the two sides in this debate.

For outsiders, this outline might help explain otherwise inexplicable claims to “reject the flow.” Imagine Stephen Douglas emerges from his grave with insanely good tech skills for a person, let alone a zombie. It’d be fantastically wrong to believe voting on Mr. Douglas’s arguments would somehow make the world better merely because they were won in-round. While it’s good as a general rule to evaluate the line-by-line, because it ensures critical thinking skills and research that constant judge intervention would otherwise decimate, this rule can’t justify pure submission to the flow; some arguments are too poor quality and repulsive to vote on even if they’re conceded. When a debater claims you should reject a part of the line-by-line, they seem to be appealing to arguments of this sort. Clearly this argument hits a wall if the judge doesn’t agree that some part of the flow is awfully warranted or repulsive, and that’s precisely why this appeal to ignore the line-by-line persuades some judges and not others.

Summary

Let’s do an inventory check of the three Role of the Ballot justifications outlined so far. First, we have the moral argument, which takes the compelling example about overt racism and tries to extend our reaction to covert racism. Second, we have the standard ROTB, which claims that the judge should promote education by punishing bad mindsets and endorsing preferable alternatives. Third, we have the praxis ROTB, which claims that the judge should use the competitive nature of debate to incentivize research and deep thinking on issues related to critical education. It’s worth acknowledging that this strict division between the three ROTB’s isn’t exactly organic. Often times the standard ROTB is coupled with vague moral appeals, which is meant to bolster the significance of the educational value their Kritik offers, since it prevents such bad impacts in the real world.

Both the first and second ROTB justifications failed, not because they aren’t true for a subset of objectionable behavior, but because they fail to justify the much loftier ambition K debaters have when claiming the judge’s view of objectionable behavior should depend on arguments won in-round.

The praxis ROTB doesn’t need to claim the judge actually endorses an argument won in-round, because critical education is instead maximized through a semi-flow-based model of judging where, for the purposes of judging, the judge treats (plausibly non-offensive) arguments won in-round as true. This last ROTB rarely makes its way into debate rounds despite seeming to be the actual beliefs of many K debaters and judges.

 

[1]              To explain the title, I debated for MVLA, a team for whom the abbreviation “K/” on practice round flows signified another Korsgaard card, not a Kritik.

[2]              Lack of responsiveness might be the single most frustrating thing about judging Kritiks. Imagine a LARP round where the aff reads 5 advantages and then the neg reads 5 disadvantages. Both sides keep conceding these arguments, so the judge struggles to find the least arbitrary RFD. I feel like this is half of the K vs Theory/Substance rounds I judge: the aff reads 5 reasons Kritiks always come before anything, the neg dutifully reads their team’s 5 reasons Kritiks suck, and both wonder incredulously how their opponent has any shot at winning with all those damning concessions. Then the judge has to find the least arbitrary way to vote off vacuous, non-comparative “prerequisite” weighing and no one is happy. If you’re a debater, you should be frustrated with yourself for that outcome: you let the round become a coin toss by not engaging your opponent’s arguments.

[3]                      If you’re familiar with LARP, then you can think of a Kritik as a disadvantage to a mindset you endorsed coupled with a counter-plan that avoids the problem. So your response to a Kritik takes the same form as a response to any counter-plan with a disad to the aff. Link turns, impact turns, and permutations are all still strategic responses, although some may be more tenable than others given the particular K at hand. For a more in-depth primer on Kritiks, check out this article by Bob Overing. http://premierdebatetoday.com/2014/12/08/debate-for-all-intro-to-ks/

[4]                      It goes without saying that this logic applies to any form of oppression obviously, as well as any bad impact. Racism is just a convenient example.

[5]                      Debaters would do well to practice generating responses to each of these premises, and then responding to those responses.

[6]                      It’s worth noting that the unjustified assumptions in a ROTB are justified by the education voter. If you want to contest the K, avoid reading an education voter or the deterrence argument for drop the debater. This argument was made (and subsequently overlooked) in Moerner’s article from 2011. http://nsdupdate.com/2011/10/09/competing-interps-and-the-rvi/

[7]                      If the role of the ballot is “disrupting Black ontology,” for instance, it’s unclear why feminist impacts wouldn’t also matter since both ultimately link back to oppression. Extinction might also press the point effectively. If the negative rejects the resolution, then they endorse a mindset that causes extinction, which seems like a bad thing worth punishing. And if Kant is true, the aff could leverage a perfect duty with almost certainly conceded pre-emptive weighing. This problem generalizes to virtually any argument that one debater gets right that the other gets wrong; how could making false arguments ever be an okay thing for a judge to endorse?

[8]                      See Eli Smith’s article from 2013 for a more nuanced perspective on this argument. http://vbriefly.com/2013/09/06/20139a-conversation-in-ruins-race-and-black-participation-in-lincoln-douglas-debate/

[9]                      The difference between switch-side debate and the praxis ROTB is that, under the praxis ROTB, debaters don’t have to defend positions they sincerely believe to be morally awful to defend.

[10]                    Note that this isn’t just a deterrence argument. The claim is arguably more modest than that: if the ROTB is right that debate as an activity should transform into an arena for political praxis, then we’d merely be ignoring (or dropping) arguments that don’t operate underneath this ROTB, such as a priori’s that trivially prove the resolution true but offer zero educational value for changing the world.

[11]                    I use “praxis” in the similar vein that Chris Crass does In “Towards Collective Liberation,” where Crass explains:

“Anarchism for me, however, is not a strict orthodoxy of beliefs. We can draw a lot from the anarchist tradition to help guide us forward, but a good amount of what I think we can learn is from the failures and shortcomings of anarchist politics. I believe in a praxis-based organizing approach in which we develop our analysis and strategy through a process that combines education, practice, reflection, and synthesis, so that our ideas and practices are evolving. While I draw from the anarchist tradition outlined in this chapter, one of the goals of this book is to break down ideological barriers in anarchist and radical politics that limit our ability to have a praxis-based organizing practice that encourages us to evolve and grow. Far too often, maintaining a correct line of what is and isn’t radical leads to political conformity in Left activist circles that stifles political and personal growth and leads to a culture of insecurity and infighting based on proving one’s radical credentials. This culture of “more radical than thou” isn’t welcoming, supportive, sustainable, healthy, or successful in achieving our goals.”

Admittedly, it may be a bit contrived to apply the same logic to debate, where there is no practice in the sense that Crass uses, but debate rounds do offer some vehicle to test the power of certain arguments since those positions tend to win more. In that sense, praxis in debate involves testing out arguments and going back to the drawing board to improve, modify, or abandon those positions; all this helps a debater’s belief system and advocacy skills evolve.

[12]                    Premise 4 in the Standard ROTB seemed somewhat tenuous before, but this line of reasoning side-steps those issues. It’s irrelevant whether the debater who links into the Kritik genuinely endorsed the link into the Kritik, as is the case when the link to the Kritik is the resolution. For the praxis ROTB, it’s no longer a question of genuine (i.e. out-of-round) endorsement; instead, we just have to motivate a more reasonable claim that it’s educational to force debaters to be able to defend the ideological assumption they make in-round.