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LD's Final Frontier: In Defense of the Kritik (1 of 2)
LD’s Final Frontier: In Defense of the Kritik (1 of 2)
By Rodrigo Paramo
This is the first part of a series of articles on the K in LD. This article will give an overview of how a traditional kritik functions within the parameters of LD, provide a structure to follow for those looking to run them, and identify some problems within the community that must be addressed to make it a “k-friendly” environment. The second part of this series will cover more specific criticisms, provide a tentative solution to the backlash K debaters receive all too often, and expand on the benefits of a community that has welcomed the K.
As an event, LD is not one to hesitate when adapting arguments from policy: plans and counterplans are an attempt at replicating policy in a smaller forum, and the all too common theory debate nowadays is a pretty stark copy-and-paste of CX’s framework arguments. Even though plans, counterplans and theory all faced some stark pushback when they were first introduced into the activity, it has become a standard practice in debate rounds to see constructives structured with 3 minutes of pre-emptive theory spikes before any substantive discussion is had. Even stranger, a counterplan is no longer unheard of (in fact, it’s often paired with more theory to justify it). Why is the LD community so quick to accept arguments that impose more arbitrary theoretical rules on debate yet so unwilling to extend that same level of acceptance to the kritik? The answer is simple: not only do individual debaters view the kritik as a lower form of debate, a generic position they criticize for its ability to be read on every topic the community as a whole is largely unwilling to allow the kritik to spread because of the uncomfortable confrontations it will bring with it: a confrontation with the community’s status as exclusionary and elitist.
A discussion of the kritik in LD necessitates that the community as a whole is familiar with what exactly a kritik entails, and while I'm hesitant to draw a static definition between what does and does not constitute a critical argument, there are a few steadfast rules that every kritik should follow:
Every kritik should have a link to either the resolution, or the specific affirmative advocacy; the link allows the debater to justify the discussion, and this is where the kritik is often discredited. Critical debaters all too often utilize very generic literature to justify their kritiks, which presents critical arguments as a lazy form of debate. At this year’s Grapevine tournament, I overheard a conversation between debaters saying “the kritik can’t possibly be that hard because C.K. McClatchy won the TOC with nothing but 2 Wilderson books.” This reductive view of the kritik is one of the largest problems with LD, because it portrays K debate as requiring nothing more than carding postmodern literature and largely overlooks the amount of work that goes into understanding the argument and crafting a cohesive negative strategy.
Once the link has been established, the kritik needs a discussion of the impacts that the affirmative causes (typically a systemic impact that cannot be resolved absent the criticism), and it needs to provide comparative weighing analysis between the world of the kritik and the impacts of the affirmative. This impact analysis is especially necessary against very policy-heavy affirmatives that will go hard for “extinction first”, or very truth-testy affirmatives that attempt to prove the resolution true before the impact level is addressed.
The final element is an advocacy of some form: the alternative. Alternatives allow debaters freedom in that they range from being as simple as “reject capitalism in all forms” to more nuanced micropolitical advocacies, as long as their methodology is capable of solving (or challenging) the larger structures that the kritik indicts. The alternative is typically where the majority of the debate occurs, so it’s important that when a more generic criticism is being read, the alternative is contextualized either to the topic or the affirmative advocacy. Judges often find themselves unwilling to vote on positions they view as too generic, so a level of specificity on the part of the debater is crucial to ensure they don’t start the debate round at a disadvantage.
The last part of the kritik is where debaters truly get to make the argument their own: while the link, impact and alternative ensure that the substance of the criticism has been taken care of, these can only function as floating offense absent a weighing mechanism that can be utilized to evaluate the debate round. The weighing mechanism can take a couple of forms, depending on the critique and what exactly it is criticizing. A couple of the more common arguments are listed below though the list is far from exhaustive and innovative ways to weigh advocacies are certainly to be encouraged.
A traditional value/criterion or standard structure focused on “challenging [x]” (for criticisms that speak out against the marginalization of certain populations or against singular institutions)
Framework arguments that reconceptualize the debate space as a site for political activism (for micropolitical positions that view the ballot as a way of effecting change in the “real world”)
Role of the ballot arguments that view the ballot as more than a win and a loss, but rather as a way for the judge to endorse the alternative (almost every criticism works well with these arguments)
The structure for a kritik outlined above closely mirrors some arguments that already exist in contemporary LD debate, which raises the question of why judges are so hesitant to accept what is effectively a DA/CP combination simply because it draws from a distinct philosophical base. Allowing kritiks to be more publicly accepted into LD debate requires a movement that doesn’t paint the kritik as an esoteric, overtly dense argument, but rather invites others to join in on an argument that is all too often marginalized. Current critical debaters should engage in reading specific criticisms that show the kritik as more than just a generic last-minute strategy to ensure that the community stops viewing them as a lower form of debate, and they should stop painting the kritik solely as an argument that challenges debate’s structure. While kritiks can certainly allow for a challenge to the way debate operates in the status quo, they don’t have to; in fact, a majority of kritiks operate perfectly fine within the current structure of debate and don’t involve a dramatic reconceptualization of the debate round.
Adopting kritiks into the current paradigm of LD would not require much. Most topics within the last year have underlying assumptions worth questioning, a questioning that is overwhelmingly found in critical literature. The acceptance of kritiks would allow for us as a community to question these (topic-specific) assumptions while accessing a depth of research that remains largely untouched in current debate rounds. While debaters are quick to point to the kritik as an example of a generic debate position that kills topic education, it’s important to remember that resolutions go through extensive editing before they are selected, and by the time they are released each word has been deemed important to the meaning of the topic. When such time is dedicated to framing the resolutions, each word should be viewed as equally important.
For example, take a look at the September/October topic from 2012: The United States ought to extend to non-citizens accused of terrorism the same constitutional due process protections it grants to citizens. Every topic goes through an extensive editing process, and a negative that questions the history and formulation of the “terrorist” subject should not be viewed as less topic-specific than one that chooses to focus on due process protections. Debaters expecting to debate this topic should have a good understanding of terrorism to engage in quality substantive debate, and asking the affirmative to justify the assumptions behind the resolution is far from an outrageous demand.
Accepting the kritik allows for debaters to access a trove of critical philosophy that is typically excluded from debate rounds without sacrificing topic-specific education. The call to accept the K as a valid form of argumentation does not mean we sacrifice every other style of debate nor does it mean that debaters would be under any obligation to read the kritik. It does mean that debaters who choose to read a kritik would be able to do so without worry of predispositions against the argument lessening their chances of winning the round, and it does mean that critical debaters would no longer have to wade through pages of theory before they can get to the substance of the position. These requirements wouldn’t radically change the structure of LD, many rounds already occur wholly on the substantive plane without having to resort to theoretical abuse scenarios; expanding these to include critical philosophy can only help the community as a whole.
CONTINUE THE DISCUSSION AT VB3
Ed. Note: Rodrigo is a 2013 graduate of Reagan High School in San Antonio, TX where he competed in LD for 3 years and was a bid recipient at the Houston Memorial tournament. His senior year he competed in policy debate. During this time, Rodrigo and his partner acquired a bid at the University of Texas tournament and culminated his career with a finals appearance at the TFA State tournament. He currently attends the University of Texas in Dallas.