LD’s Final Frontier- In Defense of the Kritik (2 of 2)

LD’s Final Frontier- Critiques of the Kritik (2
of 2)

By Rodrigo Paramo

10/12/13

This is the
second part of a series of articles on the K in LD. While the first part
focused on an overview of how the K functions in round and justified its
compatibility with current LD norms, this article will focus on the benefits of
kritiks as a way for competitors to create a more accepting community and a way
to tap into an area of philosophical thought that is too commonly disregarded
in LD today, as well as examining common arguments against allowing the K to
flourish in our community.   

Note: After
the first part of this series, some concerns were raised about the conflation
of postmodern philosophy with the kritik as an argumentative form. I feel it
necessary to clarify that though there are distinctions between the two, this
article makes arguments supporting the proliferation of both throughout the LD
community.

Allowing for the kritik to be
a more communally acceptable practice will be an uncomfortable process: for
every debater who criticizes capitalism, we’re likely to see one who criticizes
the debate space as unnecessarily exclusionary. This is not something to run
from. Opening debate as a space more willing to accept critical argumentation
is the first step in a long road towards allowing debate to become a homespace
for individuals who are typically marginalized from the activity and from
society at large. Critical debate gives a voice to the voiceless, and the road
we will have to tread to challenge exclusionary norms is one best traveled
together: allowing the K to propagate in LD allows for the voiceless to create
coalitions within the community and makes it harder to deny that exclusion
exists. If nothing else, the kritik allows us to take the first step towards
engaging in a more inclusive, more educational activity.

I’ve judged 18 rounds on this
topic and I find that I learn the most from, and find myself most engaged in,
the rounds that move past the omnipresent theory debates and instead engage in
an intellectual discussion over feminine empowerment, the biopolitical nature
of the state, or the problems with democratic thought. I also find that not
only do these debate rounds require intervention on the part of the judge much
less frequently than those that appeal to subjective conceptions of fairness
and education, at the end of the round I feel like I’ve truly been a part of
something that matters. Even if we can’t come to a fool-proof solution for
oppression within the time constraints of a debate round, engaging in these
discussions as high school students provides a space for debaters to gain
knowledge about the world around them and be exposed to the realities of
oppression they might not otherwise understand. Ensuring the community is aware
of the benefits of critical debate would go a long way towards alleviating some
of the tension critical debaters encounter when they try to present a kritik as
a viable strategy.

For a lot of debaters, a weekend tournament is an escape from the harsh realities of everyday life. Much like the population at large, there exist segments of the debate community who must deal with abusive home lives, struggles with their sexual identities, psychological disorders, and/or ostracism in their academic environments (this is just a surface level list of some of the more common issues students have to experience and is by no means exhaustive). I speak from experience when I say that for these students, the debate community allows a sanctuary, a place where for 2 days a week I (and others like me) could speak to political questions without having my voice immediately shot down, a place where my sexuality was not immediately discarded as a phase that I’d eventually move past. In its purest form, the community has the potential to be a safe space for the oppressed.

Unfortunately, my personal
experiences with the community as an accepting place do not extend to all
debaters in my position: I was privileged enough to attend a high school where
my coach taught me about kritiks and encouraged that the arguments I read have
some personal significance. For all too many debaters, the kritik is a foreign
concept that they’ve been dissuaded against because it tends to lose more than
it wins. They’ve been taught that the kritik kills debate, that it’s just
another generic argument to avoid topic-specific education. The problem with
perpetuating these falsehoods is easy to identify. The kritik is an invaluable
tool not only to allow individuals to engage in a process of self-discovery,
but also to learn about the topic from previously masked viewpoints.

It’s important to note that
accepting these discourses does not mean they would be held to a lower standard
than other positions currently accepted in the debate space. While in the first
part of this article I addressed traditional kritiks existing within current
models of debate, I recognize that these arguments about personal experience
would require some changes to current LD debate and I do believe that these
debaters would have to justify those changes. Accepting that arguments about
personal experience and oppression within the debate community are valid does
not mean that every debater who mentions structural injustices should win the
ballot. It simply means that debaters who wish to speak out against these
systems of oppression should be given that opportunity. While they should still
have to justify those discussions within the debate space, and the role of the
ballot in those rounds would be up to the competitors, these arguments would
not immediately be discounted as attempts to circumvent resolutional
discussions and would instead be recognized as discussions that may have a
place in LD debate.

Debate forces debaters to
defend both sides of a topic without care to who the debater is, or how the
topic intersects with their personal experiences. This is where the gateway to
discussions about personal oppression begins to open. As a community, I am
comfortable saying we wouldn’t force students to defend a resolution that
stated: Resolved: Slavery is a morally permissible economic system. Yet topics
continue to be chosen which put debaters in positions where they have to defend
systems that historically clash with their identities.

For example, the upcoming
November/December topic places debaters in a position where affirmative
debaters will likely have to defend the criminal justice system as a desirable
system, even though that same criminal justice system is often viewed as being part
and parcel of a system of institutional racism. African-American debaters I’ve
spoken to in the last weeks feel uncomfortable being forced to defend a system
that historically disadvantages them, but if they want to participate in the
community for the next two months, they have to find a way to engage with the
topic substantively that does not force them to defend their own oppression. If
they justify their approach to the resolution, why should we as a community
tell them that those arguments are not allowed within LD debate?

Yet these debaters are often
told that a debate round is the wrong forum for discussions of oppression
because these discussions force opponents to either advocate that oppression is
good or to forfeit the round. Such a reductionist approach of critical debate
is damaging to the intellectual discussions that could potentially occur if
these rounds were more readily accepted.

For instance, at the
Greenhill tournament I saw an affirmative that discussed structural oppression
against the feminine body in Pakistan, and provided a policy option for how to
resolve this. While a plan is a strange format for a kritik to take, it drew
from a similar literature base, critiqued problems within the status quo, and
provided an alternative to rectify that. The negative in this round did not
simply forfeit, instead she provided an alternative methodology to combat
oppression with a different starting point. The possibility for these rounds to
occur provides a compelling reason for these discussions of oppression to be
more readily acceptable.

This round is a poignant
example of how kritiks can effectively increase topic-specific education past
common debates that barely skim the surface on Kantian deontology or cost
benefit analysis. The realm of philosophy that is well suited for a critical
framing allows for a discussion of the topics from previously ignored
perspectives. There’s no shortage to what critical philosophers are willing to
criticize, and opening the debate space for these arguments would resolve a lot
of the theoretical arguments commonly raised against the kritik. The kritik
allows for an increase in the quality of the ground debaters have access to, no
longer limited to generic frameworks such as consequentialism or deontology.
The amount of work that goes into molding coherent kritiks ensures a depth of
research and subsequent discussion, skills that extend past debate rounds into
the world around us.

When faced with advocacies
that have a more tangential link to the topic which instead discuss the
personal experiences of the affirmative, the negative would still be able to
garner offense in the round by providing alternative starting points and
methodologies for these discussions of oppression. Though it is very true that
a debate round will never provide us with a concrete solution to global
structures of oppression, this should not deter debaters’ willingness to engage
in these discussions. One of the first steps towards combatting oppression requires
community awareness of it. Kritiks (and again, the literature traditionally
associated with them) provide a mechanism to begin communal dialogues that
would otherwise get glossed over. It is more than possible to engage in
discussions of oppression without collapsing to morally repugnant advocacies,
and though for some it might require breaching new territory, I believe this
confrontation with the contrasting forces of oppression and privilege are
important for students in this activity to understand the reality of
marginalization that some members of our community experience on a daily basis.

Another common argument
against personal discussions is that a competitive activity provides the wrong
forum for these positions. While debate is a competitive activity, it is also a
community, and he value of the community should not be understated.
Perpetuating norms that preclude certain branches of philosophy from entering
the debate arena necessarily excludes those debaters who fall victim to
structural injustices outside of the debate community. If the only value in
debate tournaments were the trophies you could win there, cafeterias would be a
lot less crowded at tournaments and far less cross-country travel would occur.
The reality is that debate as an activity draws large parts of its value from
the friendships that it fosters across the community, and telling individuals
that the arguments that hit close to home shouldn’t be allowed in the debate
space does them, and the community at large, a disservice. Our community is
strengthened through the inclusion of other voices, and for some bodies that
inclusion can only come about if we allow them to speak about their experiences
as they relate to the topic, or as they relate to the community at large.
Competition does not necessitate ignoring the realities of oppression; rather,
it means that the way dialogues of oppression are presented is integral to
their success.

Simply put, the kritik (and
the philosophy often tied to it) allows for individuals to engage in new debate
practices that open spaces for previously unheard perspectives. Debate as a
competitive activity should not frighten us away from allowing non-traditional arguments
into the debate space. These arguments would still need justifications much
like any other position, but they would no longer be immediately subject to unnecessary scrutiny. Allowing these discussions to occur in debate rounds
would go a long way towards ensuring that the home space the community is for a
lot of us does not find itself drawing exclusionary borders. Only a willingness
to engage in these discussions can truly break down structural barriers to an
inclusive community.

Some last
notes for Debaters looking to read the Kritik:

First
and foremost, even though there may be a lot of big words and complex
rhetorical structures in the books that Ks are cut from, young debaters should
not be discouraged from delving into the world of the K. The largest reason for
this is that oftentimes the literature that people do read a lot of
(traditional deontology, contract-based frameworks, etc) are as complex as some
K literature and people only rely on them because debaters have been delving
into this literature for a long time so it makes sense that you’ve had more
exposure to it over the course of your career.

While
debaters are often taught that tricky positions will squeak out easy wins by
extending a single piece of evidence, kritiks provide their own strategic
advantages that make them just as viable. A lot of K frameworks supersede
normative questions of the truth or falsity of the resolution, which provides a
competitive incentive for debaters to read the K. Speaking to debaters reveals
that many of them choose the easier route of truth testing/theory because it
makes winning rounds easier compared to the K where debaters have to muddle
through complex framing questions and extend all parts to win, all while
combatting largely nonresponsive arguments from everybody’s AT [insert author
of the K] files. The reality of the
kritik is that it does take a lot of critical thinking to execute it properly,
but that’s not a reason to be dissuaded against it. When structured properly,
kritiks can provide strategic advantages against most any position.

My
final note is that though the kritik can provide challenges for debaters to
jump over, there are rewards to be gained from it. The TOC champion this past
year was pretty damn kritikal, and the NDT/CEDA champs were K debaters as well.
As an argument, it has been proven to work, and if LD just needs a reason to
adopt it, I hope this article can resolve residual doubts about the kritik as a
viable strategy.

Shout out to
Jordan Durrani for his input. Couldn’t have done it without you.