The Myth of Debate Truthiness by Jake Nebel

In “Tycoons of Piety,” Rebar Niemi warns against blurring the line between debate and the real world. I would warn against just the opposite: pretending there is such a line.  
He writes:

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.

This argument is interesting, but I think it is guilty of equivocation. Thinking that debate should be “more in line with the real world” isn’t to say that the things you say in a debate round are identical to the real world. The view is just that the arguments you make in debate are about the real world. So, when a debater says that domestic violence doesn’t hurt anyone, or is morally awesome, you are making a claim about domestic violence. If that claim is false in the real world, it doesn’t take anything extra for it to be false in a debate round. Truth and falsity are just truth and falsity. There is no special “debate truthiness.”

Rebar might object that this view doesn’t account for the current state of debate on the national circuit. If that were true, then I would think the current state of debate on the national circuit is out of whack. When someone argues that affirming would lead to nuclear war, they are making a claim about what would happen in the real world if we implemented the affirmative advocacy. If the other debater shows that actually (i.e., in the real world) nuclear war would still be highly unlikely, then this defeats the other side’s claim. The other side can’t just say, “No, you misunderstand! I meant that, in the debate world, there will probably be a nuclear war.” There is no separate debate world — I don’t even know what that would mean.

Rebar might respond that there is a clear difference, since the aff advocacy is not implemented in the real world. We’re evaluating a hypothetical world in which the aff advocacy occurs, which may or may not be the actual world. Isn’t that the point of fiat? Correct: the world of the aff (or neg) advocacy may or may not be our world. But the hypothetical world we evaluate is the same as ours in all respects except for the advocacy and its expected consequences. It’s the closest possible world in which we do the advocacy. Closest to what? The real world.   

In any case, this objection may be irrelevant to fundamental moral principles, which many philosophers believe to robust over possible worlds. If Scanlon’s contractualism is true, it’s not just true in our world. It would have to be true in all possible worlds, because it doesn’t depend on any contingent feature of our world. What contingent change could cause Scanlon’s contractualism to be true or false? Similarly, what could cause morality to be one set of principles in the real world, but an entirely different set of principles in the imaginary world of the aff? Or for the Holocaust to be wrong in reality, but perfectly permissible in the debate world? Morality doesn’t change in this way.

Why is this imaginary line bad? In short, it leads to bad arguments. It encourages debaters to think (incorrectly) that the truth value of a claim is irrelevant to its quality in a debate. It also gives people an excuse to say unjustified things that offend real people in our community. If you claim (without argument) that domestic violence is good because the victim deserves it, and your opponent is a victim of domestic violence, you shouldn’t expect to be let off the hook of a pre-fiat objection on the grounds that you weren’t talking about real victims of domestic violence. Because you were. What else were you talking about — the fake ones?

Ditching the imaginary line between debate and the real world doesn’t mean that you can’t run interesting arguments with surprising conclusions. Academics make interesting arguments with surprising conclusions all the time. Are they making claims with the special status of academic truthiness, or claims of an imaginary academic world? Their conclusions can’t be true behind the ivory tower but false in the real world. If you believe (as I do) that debate is best when it best reflects and uses the academic literature, then this is an additional reason why the imaginary line is bad for debate.

To clarify, here are some things I’m not claiming:

1. My claim isn’t that debaters have to show that their claims describe reality perfectly, just that they’re more accurate than their opponents. But “more accurate” means more accurate description of the world, not more accurate description of something else.

2. I am also not claiming that the judge should vote for whichever side’s arguments best correspond to what the judge believes about the real world. My view is compatible with judges not inserting their knowledge of the world at all. My point is about the best understanding of what debaters are doing when they make arguments. When debaters claim that something is true, they’re claiming that it’s actually true — not that it’s sort of truthy in a debate-specific sense.

3. I’m not claiming that real-world education is an important theory impact. It probably is, but that’s not supported by the argument I’ve made here.

For those who believe in a special species of debate truthiness, I raise the following questions: What is the “debate world”? How is it different from the real world? How could a debater claim something to be true of the debate world but false of the real world? 

[We discussed some of these issues a bit in earlier comments, but I wanted to create a separate thread for this issue.]