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Debate and the Virtue of Intellectual Integrity by Adam Torson
Intellectual integrity denotes a commitment to the honest pursuit of truth through openness to evidence, ideas, and the criticisms of others. It prohibits the subordination of truth to expediency or personal gain, and requires us to be on guard against self-deception and short-sightedness. It requires a balance between the courage of honest conviction and the humility to recognize that our conclusions must always be uncertain and provisional.
Practiced with intellectual integrity, debate can be a powerful vehicle for personal growth. It encourages the self-reflection that helps students to cultivate a mature inner-life. Conscience is little more than an honest internal dialogue – the ability to critically reflect on one’s own thoughts and actions. Openness to opposing beliefs requires appreciating what the world looks like from someone else’s point of view, which in turn fosters humility, perspective, and tolerance. I think that many of us credit debate as a formative experience precisely because it taught us the virtue of intellectual integrity.
Intellectual integrity is also indispensable in cultivating a sense of civic virtue. Our public life is plagued by sophistry and mindless line-toeing. Politics is treated like a spectator sport, and we engage only if we are enthralled by the spectacle. Intellectual integrity is a bulwark against citizenship devolving in this way. One with intellectual integrity is willing to be persuaded by reasoned argument rather than held hostage by ideology or tribalism. It requires suspicion of convention and to be more than a mere political dilettante or pseudo-intellectual. Above all, intellectual integrity bars credulous acquiescence to demagogues and mediocre apologists. By careful examination of the challenges we must face together, debate can foster a mature sense of connection to our many communities. We must recognize the burden of stewardship that comes with the opportunity to work with gifted young people.
If what I’ve said rings true, then the debate community is obliged to embrace intellectual integrity as one of its core values. We aspire to be a community of thinkers and learners, and this goal is conveyed not simply by what we teach in the classroom but by the practices we deploy. I encourage the examination of those practices through the lens of intellectual integrity.
Against Purposeful Obfuscation
Too often in debate, strategy devolves into sophistry. Debaters utilize a series of tactics designed only to muddy the water, to obscure a fair evaluation of the merits of their arguments by either judges or opponents. This includes the distortion of evidence, e.g. by reading cards out of context so as to make it seem that authors using terms differently actually intend the same meaning. It includes evasive or overly ambiguous explanations of arguments, designed to allow debaters to shift their positions in the rebuttals. It includes impossibly dense and blippy analytical frameworks with contingent standards, layers of unreasonable spikes, theory bait, and other tricks hidden throughout.
These tactics are inconsistent with an ethic of intellectual integrity. The rules that we set up to make the debate game intellectually rigorous are exploited to separate us altogether from a meaningful contest of ideas; the tail wags the dog. A student deploying these tactics hopes to win not because he marshals the most compelling argument, but because his opponent makes a superficial error or his judge is too embarrassed to admit that he didn’t properly follow the argument. We hope that the practice of dialectic contestation will help us to challenge or confirm our beliefs on important personal and political questions. Strategies of purposeful obfuscation, on the other hand, turn arguments into mere instruments of power - ways of manipulating the circumstances to contrive a favorable outcome. These strategies are disingenuous approaches to thinking through the topic because they are fundamentally unrelated to the residual quality of the arguments. That bad arguments could reliably beat good ones should strike us as a very strange outcome in any debate event worthy of the name.
Against Shallow Argumentation
There are too many cases whose purposeful design is not passable as genuine intellectual work product. Arguments crafted by non-expert high school students can only hope to approximate scholarly work, but that does not excuse an entirely unrigorous treatment of the topic.
Most familiarly, these include cases whose only strategic logic is the speed at which they are read. I am a believer in the merits of fast debate, but when that tactic is used not to develop arguments more deeply but to increase the sheer number of disconnected, weakly warranted blips on the flow, it ceases to do anything that remotely resembles the realistic justification of arguments.
Similarly familiar are debaters who refuse to defend a topic-relevant advocacy. It seems most reasonable to me to interpret debate resolutions as normative. We evaluate the topic in the hopes that our conclusions might affect our choices in the real world. Many cases take such a rigid, formalistic approach that any connection they have to our lived experiences goes out the window. These tactics are virtually identical to what is commonly called “the pivot” in Presidential debates. When a candidate finds a question unpalatable, he simply creates a superficial connection to another topic about which he is more confident. The tactic is designed to avoid engagement on difficult or controversial issues and instead fall back onto clichés and stock-phrases – the opposite of intellectual integrity.
So-called “democracy” cases are a good example. These positions include a framework about the importance of democracy and then arguments purporting to prove that one side of the resolution is ‘what the people want.’ On the surface, these cases generally misrepresent their framework authors and deploy extremely low-quality offense like cable news network polls. More fundamentally, they turn what are essentially normative topics into uninteresting descriptive questions about which there really is no meaningful objective answer. It is a perversion to suggest that a belief in democracy could be an excuse to not debate the merits of an issue and instead defer blindly to some arbitrary snapshot of public opinion. Even more disconcerting (but for essentially the same reasons) are so-called “sovereignty” positions, which posit that because the state must be sovereign we should simply do whatever it wants. Nobody actually believes that, and it abdicates the basic role of argument in a democratic society. Yet, we’ve built an argument culture that consistently gives these positions a great deal of credit.
Similarly, many debaters routinely deploy extremely dense and esoteric philosophical positions to avoid substantive, topical debate. There are many times in debate rounds when I can see the virtue of a very well developed debate about highly specialized philosophical questions. Philosophy debate is a critical part of thinking rigorously about the relative importance of impacts. That said, it’s hard to imagine that whether the U.S. should implement a universal healthcare system (for example) routinely turns on whether motivational internalism is a legitimate constraint on validating moral theories. In response to a poverty relief case that purported to save 18 million lives per year, I once heard a debater ask incredulously, “What framework does that link to?” You have to be taught that there is a credible argument that makes 18 million lives per year an irrelevant impact – I doubt very many people come into the activity with that sensibility. By necessity every argument makes unwarranted assumptions, but we have somehow imposed an enormously high burden of proof on our most plausible intuitions. Philosophy debate is great, but what currently passes as philosophy debate is often a deeply misguided approach to the topic.
Finally, many debaters abuse theory in precisely the same way. On many questions LD is in the midst of a theory quagmire, so I guess seeing more theory debate is to be expected. I do believe that theory has an important role to play in developing our community norms. Nevertheless, we all know that debaters too often deploy gratuitous theory which can’t plausibly advance the interests of fairness or education one iota. This is another pivot: avoid the topic by changing the subject. It’s time for all of us to take some responsibility on this issue.
What We Can Do About It
I encourage debaters to embrace the responsibility that comes with argumentative agency. Ultimately the person who chooses the arguments you run is you. More than that, you are the authors of the culture. Coaches and judges do what they can to provide incentives to debate in certain ways, but it is ultimately a commitment in the minds of debaters to deploy intellectually sound strategies that creates the norm.
The willingness to win at any cost is a bankrupt approach to debate. While it’s great to take pride in your accomplishments, the luster of debate trophies will eventually fade. Choose to make one of your lasting contributions to the community the choice to debate with intellectual integrity. You will value the habits of mind you develop for the rest of your life.
Judges can change the incentive structure. Give lower speaker points for positions that purposefully obfuscate or take a shallow approach to the topic. Refuse to vote on arguments you didn’t understand. That takes the courage to answer debaters’ questions honestly and stick to your guns. To be thought of as a “good judge” is a status marker, and penalizing debaters for common but unsound practices might jeopardize that, but recognize that your need for validation from high school students should be trumped by your obligations as an educator.
Lastly, make a good faith effort to meaningfully evaluate the quality of arguments and give students feedback. Translating lines and arrows on the flow into oral form is the laziest and least useful thing you can do for students. We learn by talking about arguments, so talk about arguments. Judging isn’t always easy or formulaic, but it’s not supposed to be.
As coaches, we must own up to the style with which our teams debate. Far too many of us decry practices that our own debaters utilize (I’m sure I’ve been guilty of this). We can’t (and shouldn’t) exercise dictatorial control over what arguments our students run, but we do have a bully pulpit. The burden of stewardship falls most directly on us, and it is irresponsible to abdicate this role entirely to camps, judges, and the tactical flavor of the week.
More importantly, our students take their cues from us. If we sacrifice intellectual integrity for the sake of competitive success, our example will be heeded. Competition is a brilliant motivator for students to push themselves to do a great deal of high-quality work, but we can’t forget that winning is only an instrumental value. If our students walk away from their debate careers without an appreciation for intellectual integrity, then surely they’ve missed the point. Let’s do what we can to make sure that doesn’t happen.