The Right to Forget a Topic & Other Adventures In Debate Pedagogy by Stephen Babb

What if you just don’t feel like debating the LD topic selected for a given two-month period—or, as may be the case this season, for several two-month periods?

Let’s say you discover you’ll be debating a topic about a first-world problem like the “right not to be Googled.” And let’s say you feel compelled to discuss more pressing matters, or at least first-world problems that involve more egregious violations of privacy.

Those instincts clearly aren’t unprecedented.

Functionally, debaters avoid topics all the time. Motivated by strategic considerations or a simple research disadvantage, debaters re-center argumentation along axes of theory, generic criticism, philosophical abstraction and other tangents. They regularly make thinly-veiled attempts to avoid any meaningful position on the topic at hand.

They just aren’t very explicit about it. They rarely own up to their implicit assault on topicality, instead hoping the sheer weightiness of their claims (e.g. that some kind of oppression is very bad) overrides conventional constraints—and perhaps making vaguely plausible assertions that their advocacies actually fall within those constraints.

As a judge, I’ve never been very sympathetic to these attempts. Beyond the many reasons fair debates require mutual and prior knowledge of a common topic, I’ve always believed students learn more when forced to directly engage topics. They’re less likely to recycle arguments. They critically research a concrete field. They better understand what it means to make policy or decisions within that field. Fundamentally, this is what debate should be.

Usually.

Bad topics may change that equation, and it may be because of the very same educational objectives we associate with topicality itself. Paradoxically, the importance of topical debate sometimes demands we at least consider departing from the topic we’ve been assigned. Whether that official topic is a waste of time or itself a symptom of suspect underlying assumptions, the are probably instances in which we’re better off talking about something else.

And we should be completely honest about that.

If we’re here to learn things, why let a bad topic stop us?

It’s a position premised on the first-order role of education in the debate space. Ditching topics certainly creates some problems for competitive equity, but there are ways to solve those problems.

Making the most of this activity demands we at least try.

Primacy Of Education

The virtues of education are typically advanced in order to either defend (or challenge) the use of a particular kind of argument—e.g. a plan—or as reasons to constrain argumentation as per limits imposed by the topic itself. More often than not, debaters present educational interests alongside considerations of fairness—both described as “voting issues” in one’s average theory debate. Attempts to reconcile or prioritize their respective importance are generally awkward and superficial.

Some have adopted a rather dismissive approach toward the role of education in debate, while others regularly invoke its ostensibly powerful implications. At the end of the day, there shouldn’t be much doubt about whether education matters in debate. Despite the litany of clumsy arguments made on its behalf, one or two true arguments should suffice on this point.

Our discussions are shaped by rules and topics alike to be inherently pedagogical endeavors. We are assigned resolutions that are (hopefully) attempts to analyze current events or investigate salient philosophical questions. We don’t—for example—debate pop culture and entertainment issues, which would otherwise be sufficient for a purely “competitive” activity. The opportunity to learn about important things is etched in this activity’s DNA.

Much has been made about the educational institutions that “fund” and organize debate. While those arguments often fail to justify the normative relevance of debate’s origins and prerequisite support, there’s undoubtedly something to be said for the fact that students generally experience debate as a class or extra-curricular activity. You don’t sign up for it at the YMCA, and it’s yet to yield a professional, money-making counterpart (for competitors, anyway). Nor does it offer physical benefits you’d associate with sports.

Accordingly, I think it’s fair to posit that a social contract exists between students and their schools. Schools would neither permit nor accommodate debate were it not for all the good things it does (or can do, anyway). In turn, students are responsible for treating this activity like the learning opportunity it is. That’s the grand bargain.

When broaching the Aristotelian matter of debate’s ultimate purpose (or telos), the importance of education seems unavoidable for all but the most nihilistic outcasts. At the very least, we inhabit a community for which educational benefits are hardly incidental. We view research as both instrumentally valuable (from a strategic standpoint) and intrinsically important (as an educational tool). And we use things like classes, practices and debate camps as vehicles for instruction that is both practical and—to some students’ chagrin—purely intended to enlighten. In short, while education isn’t the only reason for the debate season, it’s much harder to maintain that it doesn’t matter at all.

Unfortunately, reaching agreement about the abstract importance of education isn’t very helpful.

Especially when both sides of a theory debate make claim to some kind of educational advantage. There may well be countervailing educational interests at stake, and there also may be important differences about how we conceive of education itself.

Pedagogical Best Practices and The Organic Alternative

To whatever extent there are legitimate reasons to deviate from an official topic, those reasons are rooted in a particular set of pedagogical beliefs. I think there are a few core principles that would sometimes support the rejection of a topic:

  • Students better internalize ideas and information when they’re relevant to that students’ lived experiences or interests. While it isn’t possible to cater to everyone’s peculiarities all of the time,  our topics should make at least some attempt to engage a demographic of educated young adults. And that probably precludes topics about the intersection of historical preservation and property rights.
  • Our discourse should promote portable skills among students. That would naturally encourage topics that explore potentially relevant policy and decision-making. Overly abstract topics—e.g. whether inaction in the face of injustice makes someone morally culpable—aren’t especially conducive to practical skill formation. Absent some real-world application, they aren’t of much philosophical or critical use either.
  • Dialogue is more productive when all parties are fully invested in it. It stimulates research interest and a willingness to actually adopt firm advocacies. Given our expectation that debaters spend significant time investigating things like organ donation, we shouldn’t be surprised by the proliferation of theory debates and other departures.

So in a perfect world, I think debaters should coordinate with one another before tournaments (informally or otherwise) and agree upon alternative topics. Some (perhaps most) debaters won’t agree to such an arrangement—especially at first—but I suspect many would enjoy the far more democratized and organic distribution of discursive power. It would almost certainly take some time before our community culture adapted to the notion of explicitly “non-topical” debates, but there’s no compelling reason those attitudes should persist. At the end of the day, we should find ways to accommodate conversations debaters mutually prefer.

Empirically, they’ve found ways to have those conversations either way.

Even if debaters eschew attempts to strike agreement on a different topic (instead preferring to advance a non-topical position against an unsuspecting opponent), they could still premise their position on the pedagogical merits of talking about something else. Critical arguments often hold that conventional rules (i.e. rules implied by the demands of competitive equity) are themselves constructions designed to perpetuate a systemically flawed or inequitable status quo. If we’re already willing to ignore a topic for the sake of micro-political intervention, why aren’t we willing to champion conversations that are simply more educational? In both instances, the fundamental gesture is this: Discourse matters, and it involves trade-offs.

Let’s make the most of it.

I can imagine a number of practical barriers to what amounts to a radical decentralization of topic selection, but I also suspect there are viable solutions. If we’re serious about milking this activity’s educational virtues for all their worth, perhaps it’s time to explore some of those solutions.