Some Notes about Critiques in LD by Scott Phillips

Like many concepts that have filtered over to LD from policy, many concepts about critiques seem to have suffered from the game of telephone that got them there. I want to address three specifically that have been grinding my gears while judging and coaching this year.
1.Kritik impacts and “fiat”. Fiat refers to a debate practice where we imagine the affirmative’s change is implemented and ignore the likelihood that it would be implemented. It is extremely unlikely that the current congress would approve spending trillions of dollars on asteroid mining, so in policy debate on this year’s topic the affirmative gets to ignore the “would they” question in order to focus on the “should they”. In a policy debate where an affirmative says we should explore space or mankind would go extinct, and the negative objects to the gender exclusive language the affirmative used (mankind) negative debaters ran into a problem- the impact of human extinction dwarfed the impact of using hurtful language. In order to get around this the negative came up with a variety of tricks that have been bundled together under the banner “pre-fiat”. The term pre-fiat is used as a catch all to refer to impacts that occur to the people in the actual debate, not hypothetical people in a world where the affirmative plan was implemented. When the affirmative doesn’t have a plan it should be self evident that the language of pre-fiat is useless even if the concept still is. If the affirmative has no plan then what is the negative trying to accomplish by making their impact a “real world” one- since there is no “fake world” impact to compare it to who cares? Pre-fiat is what I would call a “trick”- its an unevidenced theory argument about what the debate is about- “ignore the aff, not real”. In order to respond the aff would have to make a theory argument about what the debate should be about. I think most would agree the last thing LD needs is more theory. Instead , a superior way to get at the same concept (some impacts are more important than others) would be to read evidence making a philosophical or logical case for WHY those impacts are more important instead of using theory to try and exclude the other teams impacts.

As an example, the best K debate I have seen in LD this year has been carried out by various disciples of Theis who read a critique of the social contract. In these debates the affirmatives were all very similar in arguing:

-the social contract is the basis of morality
-domestic violence violates the social contract
-therefore self defense is morally permissible

These cases did not advance an “impact” claim as it is traditionally understood- i.e. they did not say that using the social contract stops war, or even that viewing self defense as acceptable would deter domestic violence. When reading their critique the negative debaters read evidence about the role of academics vis a vis academic colonialism. This evidence basically framed the role of the ballot as being about resisting dominant schools of thought that have been influenced by/formed by racist assumptions about the world. Many people when discussing this K with me after I voted on it like 50 times would say something like “lol hobbs is a racist is a vi?”. That is not what is being argued however- that characterization is more equivalent with the cheap shot theory description above- someone did something bad, real world, vi. What the neg was saying here was about how the systems of enlightenment thought the affirmative relied on themselves relied on several racist/imperialist assumptions about the world- and since these assumptions were false the conclusions enlightenment thinkers drew from them are most likely also false- BUT even if they are not false academics should err against using them/err towards resisting colonialism. Using evidence to create a role of the ballot argument in this way is not only less cheap shotty, but also much harder for the affirmative to answer.

This could be its own post but I will address this quickly
If you say normatively X is good, the other team cannot respond to that with a theory argument. So if you say “it would be good if debate resisted colonialism” you have not imposed anything on the other team. At its base, theory comes from imposing things- you impose a nib/T interpretation etc. This is why many theory arguments that object to normative statements are stupid- if the normative statement is bad you can refute it, not object that it is unfair. So saying debate SHOULD be about resisting colonialism is different from saying debate IS about that- the later is open to theory objections because you have tried to bypass the debate about desireability by imposing your version of the round.

2. The alternative- as the name suggests this part of a critique is something the negative traditionally offers as a different way of addressing the problem identified by the affirmative. If the affirmative says “we should send troops to Sudan to stop genocide” the neg might say we should intervene nonviolently. In this example the aff has advocated a specific policy action, and the neg responded with an alternative policy action. In most instances the neg will not be so direct, instead of reading a “cp esque” alternative they will propose something more abstract. The classic example of this is the global/local distinction- the negative would argue the affirmative focuses on global problems that we as debaters have no ability to address directly and that fixating on these global problems causes us to ignore real world issues all around us that we do have the power to address. Instead of discussing what the government should do about war we should discuss how we individually contribute to global violence and how we can reduce that committment- instead of thinking about humanitarian intervention in Africa reduce our consumption of luxury goods that contribute to the outbreak of conflict (oil, blood diamonds etc).

This all makes a certain amount of sense in policy- the affirmative is advocating a government action, and the critique is usually objecting in some way to looking at the government as an important (if not the most important) source of change.

In LD this train goes off the tracks because the aff is rarely defending anything so concrete, yet judges expect the negative to have some kind of alternative. Requiring the neg to have an alternative begs the question “alternative to what”, if the affirmative is not defending anything other than abstract notions what are judges requiring the negative to provide an alternative for? To give an example our squad has run into problems with this year let’s look at the critique of the word victim. The negative argues use of the term victim is bad because it reduces peoples identity to actions taken by another person denying their agency. So to boil this down

“Calling X a victim produces bad consequence Y”

Many judges after the round have said they thought the negative needed an “alternative” that “solved”. This raises two questions- alternative to what? and solve what?

If the “no alternative” argument is “you need a different word to call them” this should only be a winning argument if:

“Impact of not having a word > impact of calling them a victim”

I.E. the question of the alternative has to be a weighing question- not a “burden” question. Having an alternative is only necessary for the negative if it helps them outweigh the affirmatives impact. When the affirmative doesn’t have a pan or read policy advantages, the question becomes what exactly is the negative supposed to be outweighing? Very few affirmatives on this topic read an advantage and advance a solvency claim, so why is the negative expected to make a solvency claim?

3. I like philosophy but I don’t like critiques…. wat? A decade ago when people discussed kritiks in policy the aff would respond by going “lol wrong forum go do LD”. Now in modern LD with the silly focus on meta ethics somehow critical literature has become passe. “your card about colonialism being bad doesn’t explain WHY colonialism is bad it just says death occurs not death is bad” etc. Many debates become a race to see who can point out the most skeptical objection to the other side by one upping them with which way “nothing is provable/normatively desirable” causes the judge to vote. This trend is really dumb in the abstract, but it is also a really dumb way to disprove/answer critiques. The reason is simple- the problem critiques have is that they are too skeptical- they deny too much of what people really believe about the world. Hence when a policy team debates a K they will deride postmodernism for being ivory tower “theory” that has no relation to doing stuff -“practice”. These are the best answers to postmodern critiques somewhat because they are true but more so because that is the evidence people write to answer postmodernism.

When you read a meta ethics aff you can’t really make these arguments because you don’t do any concrete practice. This means you can easily be out radicaled by a pomo K. It would go something like this

Aff: “Self defense is always permissible because no self can never rationally will non existence of the self”

Neg: There is no self (holism, schlaag, foucault)

There are lots of great answers to K’s of the subject, unfortunately given the position the aff staked out in the AC they can’t make any of them (i.e. pragmatism).

How does this all come together? Many LD debaters and even more LD judges have commented/written in their philosophies over the course of the year that they dislike pomo style k’s but enjoy “philosophy” or meta ethics. This is a totally arbitrary and self serving distinction. You are basically saying ” I really enjoy hegemony debates but I don’t like when the other team reads heg bad”- how can you say you enjoy 1 branch of philosophy but not the other branches critical of it? More importantly it locks LD debate into a dying branch of the university- metaethics- totally arbitrarily(just search metaethics and turtles all the way down). Metaethics is like broccoli- it is probably good for you and should be eaten from time to time. But no one wants to eat it every meal. It’s a side item. But once you throw out the convention that its a side item and make it the main course you can’t have a logical reason for excluding the other sides.

  • "how can you say you enjoy 1 branch of philosophy but not the other branches critical of it?"Easily…there are lots of good reasons for thinking that lots of what's placed under the heading of postmodern or Continental philosophy is simply not good philosophy–poorly reasoned, written by people largely ignorant of the fields they're "criticizing," reliant on empirical generalizations not supported by anything resembling real empirical research, and dependent for any appearance of intellectual sophistication on equivocation, misappropriation of terms, bad analogies and poorly cashed out metaphors.I'm also curious to know the basis for your assertion that metaethics is "a dying branch of the university." As a philosophy student, albeit one who doesn't do a whole lot of normative ethics or metaethics, and the evidence available to me points in exactly the opposite direction–metaethics is enormously active right now, with a number of live questions on which vigorous debate is taking place, and a glut of new people are entering the field every year.Actually, I can't imagine what it could even mean for "metaethics" as a whole to be dying, unless the philosophical community just woke up one morning and forgot what it learned a hundred years ago, that if you want to think in any clear and rigorous way about what's morally right, morally obligatory, etc, you have to first figure out something about how moral language works and what moral phenomena, facts, properties etc are really out there.There are plenty of criticisms of particular trends in metaethics, and in contemporary analytic philosophy generally, but the best ones are coming from within the field itself, and from the sciences, not from jumped-up lit crit, "humanities" and cultural studies figures who wouldn't know a rigorous argument if they accidentally wrote on (e.g. in monkey-writing-Shakespeare fashion). Just claiming that pomo authors are too concerned with "theory" and not enough with "practice" seems like a utterly terrible response (and I'm not sure how the fact that "that is the evidence people write to answer postmodernism" would indicate otherwise). If theory is inconsistent with observation, or doesn't make clear and testable predictions (both criticisms which could be leveled at almost any of the pseudo-psychological or sociological drivel coming out of the Continental tradition), that's one thing, but just the fact that someone's *doing* theory, which might be somehow abstract or esoteric-sounding, or might tell us to do things radically different from current practice, isn't a meaningful criticism, it's just whining.Also, to the extent that real academics bother to "answer postmodernism" at all, that's not the answer I've ever seen them make. See, for instance, Sokal and Bricmont's book for a pretty funny run-down of just one aspect of the absurdity of some of the folks broadly associated with "postmodernism".Anyway, that's just my thoughts on one part of the post, the rest of it looks pretty interesting. Oh, and I should probably note that (a) what I'm saying above is not meant to apply to *everything* in the broadly Continental tradition (e.g., semiotics)–it's specifically directed at those parts of it that either try to do *normative* philosophy, or make descriptive claims about human society and psychology–and (b) I'm most emphatically not saying that all philosophical work done in the analytic tradition is brilliant, rigorous, on-point and tightly argued. Much of it is very, very bad. But some of it is good, and at least asks what are plausibly the right questions and tries to go at them in a way that's clear and tightly reasoned.

    • Jamie Saker

      Much done in the "Continental tradition" vs. the "analytical tradition" are done at completely different levels, for different purposes (the comment that the former is "critical" suggests perhaps that one has had a shallow experience with it). As one who works in both worlds in an academic and professional capacity, I can suggest that both are invaluable in addressing rather different topological spaces. In a rather simplistic manner, the latter is useful in model construction, based on extremely unrealistic assumptions but necessary when we need to build and play with models (e.g. see Rawls commentary on the futility of his own work in any application to the "real world"), and the former is quite important in evaluating epistemological, ontological and hermeneutical problems inherent in those very assumptions made to construct those little snow globes.Taken together, they're an incredibly vital model for examining the micro and the macro and I'd suggest that there is an increasing trend in the poststructuralist community in particular that is clearly beyond the critical focus of the postmoderns, subsequently valuing the methodologies and philosophies found in both traditions. Some of the more interesting work is subsequently being found in cross-tradition approaches, occasionally also crossing borders into contemporary conceptions of aesthetics (e.g. interdisciplinary/multidisciplinary work that one might find across the arts, both theory traditions, and applied environments of political, social and economic realms such as that found in the current workings of Rancire). I'd just encourage judges to keep an open mind to debates that utilize philosophy to illuminate potential problems in our thinking, as well as debates that advance models for constructing solutions at either macro or micro levels to move forward from those problems. Getting trapped in the theology of a tradition is limiting intellectually and professionally.