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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
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.