Fairness vs. Critical Arguments by Shrey Desai

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Shrey Desai is a junior and is in his third year of debating at Saratoga High School. He attended VBI for two years and, most recently, was in the Novice Lab with Christian Tarsney and Mollie Cowger. He is the champion of the 2014 Western National Championships (Second Year Division), has qualified to the California State Tournament, as well as participated in elimination rounds of College Prep, Stanford, Cal, and other local tournaments.

More often than not, I see debaters pulling up their theory files when they hear a link, impact, and alternative chain in the negative’s speech, commonly known as a kritik (K). In their own speeches, they proceed to argue that the abuse generated from the theory shell is so significant that it should outweigh any offense garnered from the K debater’s distinctive role of the ballot. The role of the ballot, in this context, refers to the function the ballot serves in each debate round, i.e. should the ballot endorse the debater with the most offense or should the ballot endorse the debater that best resists oppression (this analysis is contextualized by debaters). Fairness and critical arguments are both pre-fiat arguments, which means that they precede the evaluation of “regular” offense, such as contention-level arguments. However, when fairness and critical arguments conflict, the relevant question that debaters ask is: which one comes first? This article will explore three reasons why fairness should come before critical arguments by discussing the importance of fairness and its conceptual implications in comparison to critical arguments.

First, the most important reason why fairness should come before critical arguments is because it is most pertinent to the judge’s obligations. Pay close attention to a ballot the next time you see one – tournaments often print something along the lines of, “The aff/neg is the winner because they did the better debating”, where the judge has to indicate the winner of the round. Therefore, the question here is whether fairness or critical arguments best cohere with the role of the judge. There are two reasons why fairness is better in line with the judge’s obligations. 1) The judge, as a gatekeeper to this educational activity, must ensure that debaters are on equal footing and can properly engage each other. Obviously, if one debater had ten minutes to speak as opposed to another debater that had three, there would be an obvious incongruence because the latter debater would not be able to develop his or her arguments as well. Similar fairness claims also apply to this situation because some strategies put debaters in a harder spot, so the judge must ensure that each debater has an equal shot at winning the round. Theory shells tell the judge that because there is sufficient abuse in the round, the judge should drop the debater as a proportional response to the loss of substantive engagement. For example, if the alternative of a K is not a post-fiat policy option, it would probably moot a plan’s offense because the aff just spent 6 minutes setting up a policy framework. This is problematic because it makes the aff restart in the 1AR, which is already tough considering the unequivocal time constraint. 2) If critical debaters endorse role of the ballots that encompass touchy subjects such as oppression, their opponent may feel extremely uncomfortable in responding to this argument in a proper, intellectual way. For example, the opponent would not have arguments such as “the evidence supporting their role of the ballot has no warrant”, or “resisting oppression is not a priority” because these arguments can be seen as repugnant, or at the least, unintuitive and unconvincing. If the role of the ballot of “resisting oppression” is advanced at the expense of qualitative ground for the other debater, the judge should side with the latter because in weighing educational benefits, judges ought to endorse the in-round impacts derived from excluding the other debater from the discussion rather than resisting oppression in some utopia that people have never heard about. Critical debaters would disagree and say that they recontextualize the role of the judge and their obligations, but this is irrelevant for two reasons: a) this violates tournament rules where they asked the judge to determine who did the better debating as per the current resolution; this can make the debate extremely unpredictable since the role of the ballot can shift from something like resisting oppression to winning Mario Kart and b) this violates common usage because the intuitive conception of debate shared by the majority of people is that debate is a clash between competitive philosophies or ideologies rather than a forum for initiating resistance or implementing Wildersen’s plan of burning down society; this is important because if debate prepares us to be social advocates, we should take our education to apply to important topics as governmental policies rather than impacts such as resisting oppression that might not spillover outside the debate community.

Second, fairness should outweigh critical arguments because it is a necessary gateway to evaluating critical arguments in the first place. Ask any debater why they joined the activity – you’ll get responses such as, “looks good on the résumé”, “I like to argue”, “winning is fun”; the element that all these responses have in common is competitive success. Therefore, competitive success is the biggest reason people debate and if people ceased to win rounds, they would probably quit the activity because it would be a waste of time and money. Fairness is crucial here because, if, for example, a debater always lost to a role of the ballot of “resisting oppression” because he did not have equitable arguments, he would get flustered and quit the activity. Therefore, fairness is conceptually a prerequisite to critical discussion because it allows debaters to engage each other on equitable footing before they can discuss important impacts such as oppression. Critical debaters might respond to this by arguing that relatively small losses of fairness do not outweigh huge losses of education, but this is untrue. If debaters cannot engage a position because of a lack of arguments or reciprocal burden structures, that would be a huge blow to fairness because it would give the other debater a head start in presenting their arguments. Fairness is also necessary to prevent chaos in the debate space because, if, for example, people started to rip up their opponent’s flows or continue their speeches beyond the time limit, debate would quickly turn into a jungle rather than a constructive space for the exchange of scholarly arguments. At the end of the day, debate is fundamentally a competitive activity, that must be constrained by rules, just as any other activity, like basketball or football. Without these rules to keep people in check, there would be havoc, which would ultimately cutting down on the benefits the activity is supposed to sponsor.

Third and finally, fairness should outweigh critical arguments because it has the potential to make critical arguments stronger and more effective. When there is abuse shown in a theory shell, one debater gets more benefits, therefore the presence of fairness equates to an equilibrium where debaters are on equal footing and can present their arguments without worrying about one side taking more than they are granted. Ryan Galloway, a professor of communication at Samford University, supports this claim by adding that, “When one side excludes the other, it fundamentally denies the personhood of the other participant”. This is just a snippet, but throughout the article, Galloway makes the argument that if one participant presents an important argument such as oppression in the round but presents it at the cost of the other participants’ engagement, e.g. if they present it in such a way that the other participant cannot respond to it, this is an anti-educational practice and therefore fairness would be a necessary check here to ensure that participants can present their educational arguments on an equal footing. Therefore, if debaters share the benefits and burdens with each other, they can engage in more productive dialogue and argumentation in contrast to the opposite of that statement, where one debater would reap the benefits. For example, a “fairer” role of the ballot would open up more avenues for discussion and also respect the personhoods of both debaters, creating more effective discourse and also providing tangible benefits for the debater that is presenting the critical arguments.

The purpose of this article is not to discourage critical arguments from proliferating in the debate atmosphere because I believe that there are oppressed groups and debaters that ought to have a voice in debate. Instead, the arguments presented in this article are centered on the fact that if the value of fairness in conjunction to critical arguments come into play, fairness should come first in a decision calculus because it is most consistent with the judge’s obligations, it controls the internal link to evaluating critical arguments, and also it makes critical arguments more effective.