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Jul 29, 2023Liked by Maya Bodnick

Another interesting Maya post. I’m beginning to see a theme in her SB writing where there’s sort of some autobiographical or personal experience elements inspiring each post.

That said, I don’t know if I agree. Back when I was a nationally ranked high school policy debater (did quite well at TOC if I do say so myself), K was sort of frowned upon but definitely growing in popularity. The big focus was on body counts. No matter the topic or the side you were on, you would win by “proving” your opponent would lead to the larger pile of dead bodies. This led to truly horrid arguments constructed on the most tenuous of links that eventually led to global thermonuclear war or biological catastrophes or whatever. Sure, we were arguing the topic but I’m not sure there was anything more valuable going on by doing so. It’s specious either way.

Also, the debate community needs to pick up judges from outside of the undeclared-humanities-focused-sophomore. If you can find an upperclassmen engineering major with free time, none of those Ks will win.

More than anything, high school debate made me into an asshole. All I wanted to do was start arguments and win them. That’s fine when you’re only spending time with other debaters. When I got to college, that made it hard to make friends. Surprisingly, it was a “debate society” (rather than a team) that helped me on both the quality of my thinking and improving my social skills.

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Jul 29, 2023Liked by Maya Bodnick

"Another interesting Maya post. I’m beginning to see a theme in her SB writing where there’s sort of some autobiographical or personal experience elements inspiring each post."

Which is impressive given how young she is, just wait until she adds even more experience!

"More than anything, high school debate made me into an asshole. All I wanted to do was start arguments and win them. That’s fine when you’re only spending time with other debaters. When I got to college, that made it hard to make friends."

This is also why I think people tend to hate lawyers, because their whole job is to argue, and when lawyer brain seeps out of the professional sphere, it can be really annoying for non-lawyers to listen to.

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author

Lol I hope it doesn’t socially stunt me. & the autobiographical part definitely comes from Matt’s advice! As I young person he thinks that I should focus on what I know, which seems to have been a good strategy for now

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Your writing has improved in a short time using this method. I thought your first few posts were a little dry TBH. I suspect your previous writing was mostly academic sort of factual type, whereas this platform is personal/policy. Good work. Great to see you develop.

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“This is also why I think people tend to hate lawyers, because their whole job is to argue, and when lawyer brain seeps out of the professional sphere, it can be really annoying for non-lawyers to listen to.”

Hey! Words hurt., you know.

(I was incredibly annoying to be around after my first year of law school, but mostly grew out of being obnoxious in _every_ situation. I think that’s the trend for most of us.)

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Oh, to be clear, I think lawyers get an unfair reputation for this. I once worked for lawyers and it made be a better thinker, realized how much my upcoming profession (coding) had in common with law, and made me be much more appreciative for what they do.

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Jul 29, 2023·edited Jul 29, 2023

Misha Glouberman from Toronto recently ran an "undebate" on the premise that the idea of a contest or battle does little to illuminate the actual discourse: https://www.mishaglouberman.com/undebate

Naturally, in a contest framework, there's a clear incentive to develop winning tactics, and I think spouting volumes of difficult to understand, nigh unfalsifiable rhetoric makes you look smart and prepared and probably, at least some of the time, leaves your opponents flummoxed. Especially when you do it at 350 words per minute (probably the most shocking part of this whole thing for me). Honestly, it feels like "flipping the table," which, yeah, is a power move - and that's why "flip the table" tactics are against the rules in most games.

I think the concepts in play in critical theory are interesting and deserve to be up for debate. But at the same time it seems like speed debate and obscure jargon ought to be banned as simple procedural matters just in order to make the sport enjoyable.

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Another tactic would be for the non-K team to just "welcome" the lack of opposition to their arguments from the other team, which they would then repeat.

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Not if the judges reward the use of K.

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Just tell the judges they used the wrong criteria and declare yourself the winner. That's all the K team is doing, anyway.

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I think you might just be unaware of the changes HS debate has gone through in the last 5 ish years. Policy debate as such, complete with fastest sprint to extinction, is kind of a dying breed. Definitely still exists but it has gotten less frequent every year I've been judging and coaching.

The metagame right now consists of these kritikal debate arguments Maya discusses, which are incredibly varied and potent on both aff and neg and which have become somewhat more structurally distinct than how Maya portrays them here, versus what we sometimes call "soft left" arguments which essentially are making the case for institutional engagement and policy reform to achieve X left wing goal (such as reducing police brutality or preventing sexual assault or something) so then you can say the K team is choosing to ignore solvable problems and condemn oppressed people to suffering.

I promise you if you walk into a high level policy tournament today you will see both of those combined more frequently than the extinction arguments you're used to.

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Yep, the “meta” gives and the “meta” taketh away, it’s cyclical.

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> The big focus was on body counts. No matter the topic or the side you were on, you would win by “proving” your opponent would lead to the larger pile of dead bodies.

Yep. I did APDA briefly in college before getting bored of it and moving onto other things. At one point, I was on the negative team against a resolution that universal healthcare should be established. I felt like despite APDA's hard left lean, it would be way too much to try and argue that a tight case[1], yet I felt like the usual arguments against it would not be taken seriously by the judge. I usually tried to debate on the merits, but on this one I came up with a chain of causation that led from universal healthcare -> more people getting medical treatment -> more people getting antibiotics -> more antibiotic resistance -> drug-resistant super-bacteria -> a catastrophic super-plague that kills everybody. The judge ruled for the other team but commended us for an "interesting argument".

Since I normally didn't do that, it was a fun one-off. I can only imagine how tiresome it would get as a first-line strategy though.

[1] A tight case is one that has no good counterarguments and thus provides no reasonable avenue for the team arguing the negative to win. The affirmative team is required to present a case that the negative has a reasonable chance of winning. So if they bring in a case like "Hitler was bad", the negative team will call it tight, and the debate will turn from the merits of the case to a debate over whether it's a tight case or not, with affirmative arguing no, it's not tight, and negative arguing yes, it is.

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Needing to call universal healthcare tight is a shame. It’s not at all clear that expanding healthcare actually improves health — RCTs tend to find it increases use, but not physical health.

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Yeah in terms of "being able to nerd out while still making friends and learning social skills" quiz/knowledge bowl is much better than debate. You can waste your Saturday mornings proving you know what "Tally Ho!" is a reference to (fox hunting) instead of arguing that we need to abolish hospitals or whatever.

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Similar to debate, I think a lost skill is how to persuade politicians at all levels. I've seen how citizens passionate about a local issue get fired up but they are rude, long-winded, and use hyperbolic claims or misinformation to make their case. It helps get attention, but I don't think it wins over people to their views.

I know someone that helps with grassroots lobbying and they tell their members to remember the ABCDs - when talking to a decisionmaker you should be: Accurate, Brief, Courteous and, if possible, Develop a relationship with the official or their staff.

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“More than anything, high school debate made me into an asshole. All I wanted to do was start arguments and win them.”

+1

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It worked for Ted Cruz. :)

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I'm conservative, so of course I hate that debate is being overrun by far left teenage edgelords.

That being said...do these kids really believe the nonsense they are spouting? Or is it just that they are gaming the system and playing to the judges' biases?

And even if they do believe what they are saying now, will those beliefs survive contact with reality? I'm skeptical.

Maybe it is even good that they are being exposed to these various 'kritiks' and the counterarguments to them, as they can develop a resistance/immunity to them later?

All that being said...great article.

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Jul 29, 2023Liked by Maya Bodnick

It matters when these kids join the workforce. Our new head of sustainability (I work for a mutual fund company) uses similar tortured prose. Fresh out of grad school, he can’t write or speak persuasively to our broad audience. His vocabulary overflows with obscure phrases and theories.

Recently, I was asked to write a paper *for him* on shareholder stewardship and oil companies. The scholarly papers he asked me to reference are riddled with the same lingo and muddled “critical theory” reasoning. So yes, this topic is serious because it also reflects what’s happening *in* college & grad schools and *to* our future workers.

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It also reflects the way real policy debates are playing out, as described in this article: https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2023/04/blaming-capitalism-is-not-an-alternative-to-solving-problems.html

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Agree. I read and loved Marx in college. It was a revelation! But I also had an excellent sociology professor who got me hooked on The Economist.

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I always heard that you know someone's actually understood Marx because they read the Economist and the Financial Times.

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Eric Levitz is awesome.

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In *some parts* of college/grad school. I finished a phd in a leading program a core humanities discipline with only minimal study of critical theory and close to zero application of it, and done quite well thus far. Sure, some of my colleagues are into that to a greater or lesser extent, but it's just one of many niches (others are into economic aspects and quantitative thinking, others into law etc). Things is, the fact that something becomes fashionable *outside* academia doesn't mean the majority of actual academics are all that into it. Some are some are not. I daresay the important ones can sophistically engage with it but aren't blind devotees.

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I'd definitely say that the leftist gauntlet you have to run through to get a degree from a many good universities is a problem, for the reasons you mention.

But debate competitions are pretty niche overall, and the goal is usually to be capable of making compelling arguments even for things you disagree with. So its real effect is to make debaters learn all these weird critical theories and their weaknesses, rather than the old focus on other forms of rhetoric (the 'body count' arguments that others have mentioned).

Worst case, I'd say that the kritik stuff that Maya mentions is a very minor symptom of a much larger problem.

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The much larger problem being that we've allowed persuasive, discursive speaking and writing to become systematically detached from actions anyone might actually take, as if we were preparing our educated class for sinecures in which they'll never have to make any real decisions with impact beyond themselves.

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I don't think anyone has ever determined the extent to which there is a "leftist gauntlet" across our normal, non-elite universities, which in some ways are the only ones that really matter. Between grade inflation & Chat-GPT the main danger is that kids will get their degrees without ever thinking about anything.

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I'm skeptical on how much that "leftist gauntlet" actually exists for most people even within elite universities, outside very specific areas and contexts.

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It’s interesting to me how much we talk about the leftist bent in education but my experience pre college was decidedly conservative. Growing up in the rural south means I went to schools where conservative values were regularly reinforced and aside from the few liberal teachers (usually in the arts or an occasional English or science teacher) the versions of many subjects I learned were much more conservative than I suspect is average.

It would be interesting to see more discussion or coverage of the conservative influence in rural education.

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I grew up in rural Alabama.

I have lots of stories of the conservative tilt of my K-12 schools.

But it was flipped on its head in university. At least when I was in the humanities and liberal arts classes. (Not so much engineering)

And that was a southern state university that specialized in STEM.

(For a particularly fun example...I had an 8th grade science teacher that spent the first 10 minutes of every class reading from the bible, made boys and girls randomly slow dance with each other in front of the class, and refused to teach evolution and also, strangely, basic chemistry.)

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This reminds me of that kid in Louisiana that sued the state to get Evolution taught in his science classes.

It likely does flip the other way in Uni but it would be interesting to note the sum total of which ‘bent’ people are more exposed to. (More people go to high school than college, cons vs lib in HS, etc). I’d expect it’s highly dependent on state by state

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Yeah, metagaming debate is a big thing in lots of different ways. One fairly common way to argue against a proposition is to assert that, based on some ludicrous chain of causation, it'll lead to a nuclear war in which we all die, and even the slightest increase in probability of that outweighs all arguments in the affirmative.

I do think the type Maya writes about here is much more insidious - it's basically an institutionalized way of throwing up the race card or whatever else as a thought-terminating cliche, and being rewarded for it. Lots of our future elites (vomit) do this in high school and college, and some bit of it surely sticks with them.

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And not just the race card - the bespoke nature of some of these "kritiks" makes sense given how much time academia has had to ruminate on all the various flavors of conscious and unconscious oppression...

It makes me imagine a housecleaning company that shows up when called, burns down the client's house, and explains to them that it was so dirty that a fresh start was the only way to make it clean.

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Wait, debate got to longtermism first? That's quite funny

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Oh, way, way before. That’s the traditional vision of debate Ks are a reaction against.

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My favorite was that being easier on crime would lead to a catastrophic shift in the magnetic poles and the extinction of all life on Earth

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You gotta fill us in on the deets with this one.

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I wish I could! It was a) 32 years ago, and b) sounded like a podcast being played at 4x speed. It was an impressively long chain of impressively tendentious claims, like all policy debates at the time.

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Well, until very recently they were systemically told tha their race is one of the most important things they have to offer and a reason for their admission! Hopefully in the medium to long term the scotus decision will help us eradicate that sick notion.

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The problem is not that they're being exposed to them, but that they're apparently penalized for making principled and intellectually-honest arguments against them.

This may not be bad from an ends-justify-the-means conservative perspective: any conservative who succeeds at the game is going to be an expert at making disingenuous arguments that use their opponent's ideals against them, anyone who's filtered out is going to have a lot of resentment and disdain for leftists, and nobody's going to be exposed to potentially-compelling liberal arguments.

But if you value sincere, constructive dialogue as part of the liberal-democratic process, this is bad.

(The problem is not, fundamentally, critical theory, in its basic sense of "focusing on structural and systemic causes." Anyone can do that. The conservative Christian theory that all our social ills are symptoms of God's absence in public life is a kind of critical theory. New urbanism and radical YIMBYism have critical-theory elements. The problem is that only certain critical theories are acceptable, and that it's acceptable to reject the premise of the actual question but not to reject the premise of your opponent's kritik.)

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Debate competitions have involved lots of disingenuous tactics and strategies for quite a while.

Some other people have mentioned the 'body count' approach that was popular a generation or two ago.

This really doesn't seem -that- much different, and did that body count approach really have a downstream impact on our society's political debate?

I guess the old approach was still based on showing some amount of debating skill, rather than just reaching the 'right' conclusion as determined by politically biased judges?

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> did that body count approach really have a downstream impact on our society's political debate?

The War on Terror, BLM, and COVID discourses all indicate the answer is yes.

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Jul 29, 2023·edited Jul 29, 2023

Yeah, I'm definitely not in love with the "body count" strategy either, but at least it requires you to engage with a specific proposal, think through the chain of possible consequences of adopting/not adopting it, and make some sort of logical argument for why the opposing position is going to kill millions of people.

And there's a difference in the level of disingenuousness between making valid arguments for a position you don't agree with and making arguments that you know are invalid. I can maintain my intellectual integrity while steelmanning the libertarian case for abolishing the minimum wage, but I'd feel fundamentally morally compromised if I had to make an argument of the form "we shouldn't even be talking about the minimum wage because capitalism is evil."

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Jul 29, 2023·edited Jul 29, 2023

yeah iirc there used to be critical articles about how Dick Cheney and Karl Rove were debate guys because of this.

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Given the headline, I was prepared to argue that debate was _already_ nihilistic and this changed nothing, but she didn’t really go there.

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This is the comment I agree most with today.

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Without being able to speak to the scale of the "issue", if these debaters grow up learning that the only successful way to argue is through escalating critical theory concerns and then bring those views into public debate that seems like it could be bad.

These are views being encourages/enforced by the judges so it isn't as if these beliefs are exclusive these kids.

Looking at the policy debates our politicians/media have it seems like we should be trying to create spaces for more serious debate at a young age rather than unserious ones.

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I think this speaks to the fact that maybe we're not sure why we even run these things.

If these things are just "smartypants" contests, where the goal is to be impressively clever for fun - I think Ks seem like a tactic consistent with that goal.

But if these things are meant in some way to train young people for important IRL policy discussions, then the rules really need to be revised to prioritize mutuality, respect, and working towards shared understanding.

And honestly, maybe the "debate" format should be rejected in favour of something like https://www.bridgeusa.org/ or https://www.mishaglouberman.com/undebate

The idea that social discussions are something you "win" and others "lose" might itself be something to fight against.

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founding

Questioning the idea of a debate as something to win sounds like an important critical move to make.

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That's my K haha

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It's worth noting that there are many other opportunities for high-schoolers to engage in actually reasoned debate that prepares them for IRL policy discussions: mock trial, model congress, etc. Is there any evidence that competitive debate is intending to do the same thing? I watched 30 seconds of spreading on the first Tournament of Champions link Maya provided and I don't see how anyone could see that and think this competition has anything to do with real life.

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In the past it was just ruthless sophistry. Now I think there is a contingent who believes it (as quoted, there is some judge who's a sincere Marxist-Leninist-Maoist and will vote against anyone who deviates from their strange personal interpretation of dialectical materialism. This is different from a contestant getting up and advocating Marxism or any other ideology to win a round, which has always been common.)

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Belisarius, if these kids don’t believe the kritiks, that makes it even worse! “I’m going to spout harmful, nihilistic BS I don’t really believe in so that I can win” - is that what we want young people to do?!? It’s worthy of Trump!

Look, I know you’re conservative and I often disagree with you, and that’s GOOD, because on this Substack we can disagree civilly and present reasoned arguments and still respect each other as people. In these debates, apparently it’s “here’s my trans feminist Marxist kritik, if you disagree you’re part of the problem, f**k you, I win.” That’s appalling.

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But ... that's what debate has always been. The exercise requires you to consider a proposition and then argue for or against it — regardless of your personal feelings or beliefs on the matter. Learning to argue effectively, and to thoroughly think through positions that you might not personally believe, was the goal. Such skills make for more thoughtful, and I've always thought, more empathetic citizens.

What's being described here is something different: They're rejecting the proposition entirely and making an unrelated political statement. Put simply: They are refusing to debate at all, refusing to consider how another person might view the world, refusing to accept that there are differing and sometimes competing value systems, and instead insisting that the world as we know it must be burned to the ground and rebuilt as a Marxist utopia — all other topics being moot.

Do they believe that? I dunno. But the fact that some of them probably don't isn't the thing that undermines the spirit of debate. It's the fact that they aren't really debating at all.

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Come to think about it, one reason why I vastly prefer this place to other online places to discuss and debate heavy topics is that when I try to have a discussion about issues, it quickly gets derailed into what I would consider kritiks in the line of "This is the fault of Republicans, just like how they're to blame for everything else in the world.". Dude, I don't care about Republicans in this discussion, even in cases where I might agree with you!

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I think it's always been somewhat nihilistic, or at least an exercise in sophistry. So this just seems to be a particularly annoying (and maybe pernicious?) example.

However, I guess to some extent my nonchalance about this is due to the fact that if it is 'poisoning the minds' of any students...it is likely happening to already left-wing students.

And if they go off the deep end and also try to acquire political power, I assume they will alienate a lot of people and either spur a backlash (ideal) or ineffectually waste their energies on stupid stuff.

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“If you go off the deep end and spout complete rubbish, you’ll alienate people and lose support!”

I have two words for you: Donald Trump.

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I think 90% of them don't believe it, but the 10% who do are 10pp more than we used to have. And the judges quoted in the piece certainly seem to believe it as well.

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Agree.

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"That being said...do these kids really believe the nonsense they are spouting? Or is it just that they are gaming the system and playing to the judges' biases?"

I think the problem is that they're learning to game only one system.

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hello from 2024,

it's fucking surprising how out of touch these comments seem to be with how deep ideological convictions kids can (and as we see) have - those kids are protesting now on campuses.

> And even if they do believe what they are saying now, will those beliefs survive contact with reality? I'm skeptical.

that's just one more test of faith!

after all the Marxist theory of "labor = value" is going strong against any and all evidence. (or, similarly the demonization of centrism from the left, and the absolutely infinite load-bearing strength of the central mantras of the right when it comes to guns/gays/gender, and the utterly Pavlovian response to collectivist policies .... and other extremist fundamentalist views are booming despite the fact that Europe/Canada/etc continues to exist ... ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ )

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>Marxism-Leninism-Maoism

When plain old Marxism-Leninism isn't edgy enough for you, so you throw on a heaping of famine.

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I look forward to the debate judges dividing into Stalinist and Trotskyist camps.

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Stalinists bringing their ice axes to the stage for maximum effect....

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Even the concept of Marxism-Leninism is oddballs to me. Again, why not just Marxism? Or if you advocate for Lenin's policies, why not just Leninism?

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I'm certainly not an expert on flavors of communism, but I thought the reason "Leninism" is added as a qualifier to "Marxism" is to clarify that you reject gradualist/evolutionary approaches and favor immediate revolutionary action to install a communist government without regard to whether the country had reached the "proper" stage of economic development. I would presume "Leninism" isn't used by itself because people want to emphasize that it is still rooted in Marxist economic thought (unlike Maoism, which rejects Marxist views on the importance of industrialization, etc.)

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And Lenin also wanted global revolution rather than a focus on the Soviet Union, as opposed to Stalin), right? I think it means they're an ecumenical Marxist that still thinks there can be a global revolution of the proletariat

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That was Trotsky, with his permanent revolution idea. After the USSR lost the war with Poland Lenin decided, for the time being, to stop spreading the revolution.

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Maybe? The Wikipedia entry for it actually makes it sound like "Marxism-Leninism" favored a country-by-country process rather than waiting for a single world revolution: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marxism%E2%80%93Leninism

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Well this has sent me down a rabbit hole, and I think I now understand why these people are the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist trifecta. The Marxism is for the class/power differential struggle, the Leninism is for the global (but not Stalinist!) nature of their revolutionary belief, and the Maoism is for the belief in a revolutionary vanguard of both intellectual communists and the "lumpenproletariat" who may not know that their criminal and anti-social behaviors are in fact revolutionary.

Can anyone who knows more about this tell me if I'm right or not? 😂

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I’m wondering if “Maoist” is also providing a touch a racial diversity and anti-colonialism--can’t have an ideology based on a couple of white dudes only.

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I actually did not know that Maoists viewed themselves as rejecting Marx. You learn something new every day. Though I did know that the Khmer Rouge was anti-industrialization. I wonder if there are any debate judges whose bios say they prefer arguments praising the Khmer Rouge.

Still raises the question of what it means to believe in "Marxism-Leninism-Maoism" though.

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I don't think Maoists would explicitly say they are "rejecting Marx," just that they are rejecting the idea that any particular degree of economic development is a necessary precondition for communism to succeed. (In Maoism, the premise is that you can go straight from an overwhelmingly agrarian society to a successful communist state without even really needing to concern yourself with what the urban proletariat or intellectuals think -- in that sense the Khmer Rouge could be described as "more Maoist than Mao.")

That said, I'm not sure what the judge is going for with "Marxism-Leninism-Maoism," but a Google search tells me it's a thing: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marxism%E2%80%93Leninism%E2%80%93Maoism

It looks like the TL;DR summary would be: "Maoism without Chinese characteristics and especially emphasizing anti-colonialism."

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The debate judges are intellectuals, which meant they would have been among the first people burried alive in the Killing Fields.

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True - unless they made it into the inner circle, that is!

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Still seems to me that Leninism is sufficient, knowing that he subscribed to Marxism on all but one plank. Needing to append Marxism on would imply that there are non-Marxist Leninists out there, which I highly doubt.

Also, I feel for Freidrich Engels, people never think of him. Shame for him that Engelsism just doesn't flow elegantly off the tongue.

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It's just a mad libs of things intended to piss off people their parents' age.

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Marx largely advocated for a set of policies and not for any particular political mechanism for implementing them. Lenin laid out a set of strategies (vanguardist party seizing power by force within a revolutionary context and imposing the socialist mode of production by force) for implementing htem.

In theory, you could adopt the Leninist approach to implement a non-Marxist set of policies. Indeed, you can argue that fascism, or at least certain types of fascism, are exactly that.

Marxism is the political goal, Leninism is the strategy for achieving it. In practice, of course, the strategy became dominant over the goal. But we call that "Stalinism".

It's worth pointing out that late Marx and especially Engels writing after Marx's death was much more sympathetic to democratic political means than early Marx; socialist parties were starting to get significant shares of the vote in the 1880s-1890s and were looking increasingly likely to be able to get majorities within a couple of decades, but the bourgeois parties weren't resisting the way that the Marx of 1848 would have expected. Lenin rejected this entire line of thought in 1901's "What is to be done?" This was often dismissed by other Marxists as being specifically Russian (because Russia didn't have elections yet).

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I think it was originally to disambiguate from Stalinism, which was transparently and obviously totalitarian (while Leninism was just murderous and tyrannical).

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It also feels very 70s or something. Oddly anachronistic.

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Because they venerate violence and using class reductionism to justify it?

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who isn't?

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The Ukrainians would say "another heaping of famine."

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Marxism is a religious movement.

Leninism and Maoism are the authoritarian and violent offshoots of that theology.

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I never did high school debate, but I remember in that the kids I knew who did (back in the earlly 2000s) never talked about it like the goal was any kind of substantive policy exchange. It was always about weird rhetorical tricks, most of which were intentionally silly. I don't think these specifically left wing strategies were in vogue yet, but they had lots of similar gambits like going super postmodern or trying to drag the argument into a discussion of the panopticon. None of it was ever really serious, it was more an exercise in how you could exploit weaknesses in the format to score more points.

Which, I think, all works as an object lesson in how debates are generally poor ways to try to find truth, and the way we center debate as the main way for doing that in politics is a bad thing. But I think the nature of scored high school debate has meant it has always been hijacked by various forms of gamesmanship.

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debate *competitions* are bad ways to find the truth. However, how can you have any "rational assurance of being right" other than via free and open debate and exchange of ideas?

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I think the conflation of "debate" with the "free and open exchange of ideas" is exactly the problem. Debate is an adversarial process where you have an assigned side (either formally assigned as in competition or elected) and either "win" or "lose" based on your rhetoric. The process doesn't encourage you to lay down your sword if you realize you have the wrong side of the argument, you're meant to zealously advocate for your side, and the idea is that if both sides do this, some outside observer will be best equipped to make a decision as to who is right, but it almost never works this way. The alternatives to debate would be something more like negotiation, or reasoning together towards the truth.

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I dissagree. Partially semantically - I think you take “debate” a bit narrowly, it doesn’t have to be a formal competition, if that’s what you’re saying. “Public debate” is just a discussion about an issue with opposing views presented. However my greater disagreement is substantial. I do think that the adversarial process, which could be civil and friendly btw- is important. You *want* your ideas to be scrutinized and challenged. You *want* to hear coutneraguments. Otherwise how will you detect your errors? I think “negotiation” or compromise (not to be confused with synthesis!) is something of an anathema to finding truth. In negotiation or compromise you’re trying to appease the other side and find a solution everyone is happy with or can tolerate. However truth is independent of our happiness. We can discover it and face it or not but it remains the same.

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Yeah, I think that the evolution of debate competitions is kind of a “live by the sword, die by the sword” thing. The activity always rewarded bad faith rhetorical gamesmanship; the game has just changed.

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That's kind of like how one can play the ACT/SAT to get a good score, but not actually learn what the tests want to teach.

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I think the left-wingism here is a bit of a red-herring. "I reject your premise!" has always been a nifty rhetorical trick to use in an argument that you cannot win, and that makes it attractive as a go-to because it is simply easier than doing a bunch of research into the details so that you can win an argument on the merits.

The left-wing stuff is just the obvious slant folks in this demographic will use for the rejection of the premise, which makes sense both because of the demographic of the students, but also likely the judges.

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What's noticeable immediately in the writings of critical theory is the striking incoherence: it's gobbledygook.

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I’ve heard a couple of these arguments over the years, they sound like a someone is suffering a stroke in the middle with how incoherent and muddled they are.

The *only* reason they’re treated favorably is because the people who used and liked them as teenagers are the most likely to have nothing else to do in their adult lives other than judge high school debate.

It’s a self-selection problem at heart, driven by individualism and rising living standards and choices as to how to spend our leisure and volunteering time.

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Jul 29, 2023Liked by Maya Bodnick

Seems like debaters are just responding to the incentives that the judges are creating. In the last footnote, Maya describes the only feasible solution to this: eliminate judges that reward kritics (basically creating a meta-incentive for the judges).

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Jul 29, 2023Liked by Maya Bodnick

At least, eliminate the judges that say they will never vote for certain arguments! The point of debate is sophisticated rhetoric where you argue for things you don’t believe - the least judges can do is vote for some arguments they don’t believe in, if done well.

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Jul 29, 2023·edited Jul 29, 2023Liked by Maya Bodnick

Debaters choose their judges to an extent, which this article misses. You rank them in advance, and the tournament tries to equalize the judge’s rank between the competitors in the round. The team I coached would have “struck” all of these judges in favor of more traditional ones.

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I feel like the article is missing two important pieces of context:

1: As you note, a big part of debate is choosing arguments that will persuade your judges. If your judge says "I always agree with K's" then you need to prepare K's and rebuttals to K. This is part of the skills being developed and, if anything, is much more reflective of how debate works in the real world than a search for objective truth.

2: The popular alternative to K's is spreading, where debaters present a firehose of bad arguments as quickly as possible so that the opponent does not have enough time to rebut them and loses on technicalities. IMO, this is *much* worse than K's because it abandons any attempt at logical reasoning at all, it's all technical. Anything that moves debate culture away from spreading is moving it away from nihilism. More generally, the popularity of spreading makes it clear that these debate tournaments are fundamentally not about a search for meaning, they are about a search for technicalities. Fretting about a new type of technicality being exploited feels like fretting about how tennis has become more about slams and less about position.

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The “Gish gallop” or “spreading” pre-dates critical theory in high school debate— my millennial friends who did it certainly talked about that strategy.

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Yes, spreading has been around for decades and makes it abundantly clear that competitive debate is about exploiting technicalities and nothing more. One can't possible watch a teenager take an enormous gulp of air and then spout a dozen claims at the pace of an auctioneer and believe they're engaging in critical thinking.

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This is dumb. Fast rounds are much, much more intellectually demanding than slow rounds because there’s so much more going on. Ask anyone who’s done both (I have). And top national-level debaters will beat virtually anyone who isn’t at that level even if they go slow; like in athletics, the talent gaps are really big.

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Jul 29, 2023·edited Jul 29, 2023

"The popular alternative to K's is...a firehose of bad arguments...so that the opponent does not have enough time to rebut them...IMO, this is *much* worse than K's because it abandons any attempt at logical reasoning at all."

Rapid rebuttal of bad argumentation strikes me as one of the key skills to logical reasoning.

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Jul 30, 2023·edited Jul 30, 2023

Ok, then you should love Ks, since one can prepare general rebuttals for them. My point is that *making* bad arguments for the sole reason of driving your opponent out of time -- the dominant debate strategy for the past ~3 decades -- is NOT one of the key skills to logical reasoning.

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Jul 30, 2023·edited Jul 30, 2023

This isn’t correct regarding #2. K debaters spread too.

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Spreading is what Trump does. Sheesh...

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Wish I didn't have to dig this deep to find someone else familiar with TOC / nat circuit debate. The school I coach for was on the losing end of a recent K finals at TOC - our team just forfeited the round. They said it was because they didn't want to come across like bigots, but their friends told us that they knew no matter what they were going to lose so wanted to save some face. Shrug. I find this k stuff all weird. If they ever let me judge at these I'd have a paradigm that says I'll never vote for a k.

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Exactly, we'd think it crazy if a ump before a game announced "I hate the Yankees so I'm going to do everything I can to keep them from winning this game!" it's a bizarre way to approach "judging" a competition of any kind.

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For real! It blows my mind that someone can go on record saying "Before anything else, including being a debate judge, I am a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist... I cannot check the revolutionary proletarian science at the door when I’m judging... I will no longer evaluate and thus never vote for rightest capitalist-imperialist positions/arguments" and still have the job. I'm assuming these are volunteer positions, but still!

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This is one reason I tend to prefer Oxford style debates.

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Jul 29, 2023Liked by Maya Bodnick

Wow, assumed this was from Matt, saw another comment saying it was Maya. Amazing (and shocking) post. Another post that brings legitimately new data based on actual research.

I am really shocked by this. Having read biographies of Lenin, Mao, and Stalin, and being familiar with the outcome in the USSR, I’m really shocked these ideas have a following among judges.

Although it would go more towards journalism and less commentary, I am really curious what these judges believe happened in the USSR and revolutionary China. Are they unaware of the history? Do they dismiss it for some reason? Books like Lenin’s Tomb, The great Terror, Mao: The Unknown Story, what do they say to the history? It’s not like these ideas haven’t been tried.

Regardless, my oldest child is just entering junior high, and I had no idea. Thanks for sharing this relevant information!

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> I am really curious what these judges believe happened in the USSR and revolutionary China. Are they unaware of the history? Do they dismiss it for some reason?

"It never happened. But those damned kulaks deserved it anyway."

> Books like Lenin’s Tomb, The great Terror, Mao: The Unknown Story, what do they say to the history?

"Capitalist propaganda."

> It’s not like these ideas haven’t been tried.

Either "something something social-fascist wreckers" or "actually it's been tried and it was very good".

Source: exposure to lots of honest-to-god communists in college.

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When was this? Recently? I graduated in 1997, and was a politics major. Even at that time there was one lonely Marxist professor getting ready for retirement. After the wall came down, it seemed like a lost cause. Has there been a resurgence?

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I graduated in 2020.

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Well, I guess there has been a resurgence then…

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Glad you enjoyed!

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The people creating some Frankenstein identity of calling themselves a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist was pathetic. Why isn't Marxism good enough for them? Why do they have to append on the other two guys that had far more negative impacts than Marx did?

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Because there’s actual difference in the theory. Marx believed you need the workers of the world to unite while Lenin argued you could have socialism in one country. I don’t know the bits that Mao adds, but if you look at the constellation of communist parties in India, you’ll see that different ones adopt different sets of thinkers.

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I thought socialism in one country was Stalin's thing, and Lenin and Trotsky wanted to export the revolution? Anyway, Marxism-Leninism is coherent in that Marx supplies the ideology and Lenin supplies the tactics (this is how someone like Steve Bannon can unironically call himself a Leninist - despite Lenin having been a hardcore communist, "Leninism" generally refers to a specific strategy to bring about revolution). But combining Leninism and Maoism seems to make no sense because both are focused on tactics and they fundamentally contradict each other - Leninism is based on a vanguard leading the industrial workers, and Maoism is based on a mass "people's war" of the peasantry.

"Marxism-Leninism-Maoism" only makes sense if you take "Marxism-Leninism" seriously but not literally, and use it the way Stalinists use it - as a euphemism for Stalinism. So then it basically means Stalinist repression plus Maoist tactics. How joyful.

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Both Lenin and Mao introduced a bunch of new concepts into Marxist theory— and because they wielded political power and could censor opponents, they made it much more doctrinaire. (Marx’s thought certainly didn’t offer any sort of real blueprint for anything like the Soviet or Maoist states, and his actual engagement with real-world politics was gradualist, trade-unionist and social democratic— a lot of his more extreme contemporaries thought he was a wimp.). Soviet political philosophers self-identified as Marxist-Leninists, and Chinese political philosophers still identify as MLM (even though they’ve gone pretty far from Mao in practice.)

I think that modern day MLM communists in Western countries find the ideas appealing because of their doctrinaire ideological intensity, their founders’ ruthless willingness to destroy their enemies(which a lot of people read as strength), and the echoes of their founders’ heroic image (Lenin and Mao were both very charismatic and intellectually gifted leaders with genuine achievements as well as horrific crimes— and their states both employed literally thousands of people to crank out propaganda making them look cool). Fortunately, ‘tankies’ are still very rare in the US and tend to approach politics as a sort of LARP rather than organizing in ways that would actually help them attract widespread popular support or take power.

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>eventually became the #2 world power during the Cold War, which it never had been before.

From Napoleon's exile to WWI the Tsar was the most powerful person on the planet. As in, no one else had the total power the Tsar had over his subjects in the Russian Empire. And all the other European powers kept trying check Russia's power or make Russia their ally.

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They lost the Crimean war after Napoleon’s exile

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Strong Halford John Mackinder vibes here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Geographical_Pivot_of_History

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I'm being quite literalist, not ascribing to some grand theory of global politics. In the 1800s, the Tsar had much more power over his subjects than other leaders did over theirs. Everyone in the Russian Empire, even the aristocrats, lived and worked at the pleasure of the Tsar. Not so in other countries. The UK and the US were imperial, but they were also, for the mostpart, democracies. After Napoleon, France never had a stable government. Germany wasn't unified for most of the 1800s, the Austrian Empire was hanging together by a thread, the Qing and Japanese emperors were mostly figureheads, and the Ottoman Empire had been collapsing since King John III of Poland led his Hussars in a calvary charge outside of Vienna in 1683. It terms of raw power, the Tsar had the most.

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deletedJul 29, 2023·edited Jul 29, 2023
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The fact that Russia fought Britain, France, and the Ottomans and lost doesn't make it a weak power anymore than Germany losing World War I. Also attributing the turnaround over 30 years against Japan to communism vs modernization that likely would have happened either way and to Zhukov seems questionable.

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I think many of the SB commenters should cut these 2 interns some slack. WTF is wrong with some of you? This isn't twitter.

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Jul 29, 2023Liked by Maya Bodnick

Come to think about it, the discussion that has unraveled several times in Maya and Milan articles in the past can feel very much like an off topic kritik...

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It’s also fundamentally disrespectful of one’s opponent to refuse to engage in the terms of the debate. It may be better to simply disengage from the debate if one’s opponent does that, especially if the judges are in on it.

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Jul 29, 2023Liked by Maya Bodnick

This was well covered by The Free Press recently. A very sad phenomenon, and yet another opportunity for critical thought and inquiry taken away from young students, who needed it most.

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That piece has some pretty wild stuff.

https://www.thefp.com/p/judges-ruin-high-school-debate-tournaments

One of the judges they linked even has different rules for people of different races.

https://www.tabroom.com/index/paradigm.mhtml?judge_person_id=77592

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In all fairness, I don't think debate is a form "for critical thought and inquiry" in any meaningful sense; it's a sport that encourages (literally) weird behavior that doesn't look anything like what you or I do when we debate friends. I think it's more or less always been that way? I definitely remember going to debate practices as a high-schooler and being immediately weirded out by what was going on.

So I don't know how much is being lost here. It's probably best if you mentally substitute "debate" with, like, "cross-country skiing", IMO.

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Jul 29, 2023Liked by Maya Bodnick

I was (not to toot my own horn anonymously) a TOC-level LD debater in the not too distant past and then a coach of TOC-level LDers. I came here expecting to nitpick, but this is the best thing I’ve ever read on the topic.

To reinforce one of Maya’s points, the elite debate network in my chosen field (law) is incredibly influential. About 50 people per high school class compete at the TOC in LD (some go multiple times, so the tournament is closer to 80 total). I’d guess a third become lawyers, almost all of whom excel at top-six law schools, and several per year clerk on SCOTUS—the shiniest brass ring in the legal profession. If I had never gone to law school, I would have pretty exceptional SCOTUS connections *from high school.* Many federal judges, firm partners, and profs have similar backgrounds—e.g. Larry Tribe, until recently the most powerful SCOTUS rec letter in the country, was a legendary debater—and deliberately select for it.

On the other side to Maya’s point though, some of the value of debate stems from its radical openness. You can debate about anything, including whether to debate the topic. And if you can’t win the argument that you should debate the topic, maybe you shouldn’t win? Merely being *willing* to vote on a K, if won, isn’t a problem; the traditional way to judge LD and policy is to be *willing* to vote on anything (called “tab,” short for “tabula rasa”). And that means sometimes voting for Ks.

And the dynamic isn’t necessarily unique to Ks, though I really dislike them. There’s a natural incentive for elite debaters to read the most esoteric arguments possible. The margins are small and you ideally need to know your own argument better than your opponent does. Some of those are Ks, but some are ultra-specific existential risk scenarios or questionable applications of Kant’s transcendental idealism. Ks are just the flavor of the decade. And like past trends, not all schools engage in them—after all, K schools used to be the against-trend weirdos.

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I know nothing about competitive debate nor its history, but doesn't this seem to have devolved into pointless sophistry? Or was it always that way? Do you think it would benefit from being remade into something more resembling real debate (what I assumed it was before reading this), or is it actually not possible to do so and still retain a competitive aspect?

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Jul 30, 2023·edited Jul 30, 2023

Yes, it’s essentially competitive sophistry at the top level. You have to learn a ton to be an elite sophist, and it’s a great education, but that’s not really the goal. At lower and more local levels, it’s a lot more Norman Rockwell. There’s a debate event called Public Forum designed to be more like the non-competitive ideal of debate, but its designed limits make it a lot less intellectually intense.

Also, a background thing here that’s unstated is that a top-level LD or policy round is conducted at hundreds of words per minute. There’s no pretense of public accessibility.

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And this is considered fun? 😂 To each their own I guess!

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Jul 29, 2023Liked by Maya Bodnick

Excellent piece. It provides a convincing picture of a world I knew nothing about. I also liked learning a new word: “”alterity.”

How can you “win” if you wander too far into kritik-land? It’s like playing squash when you’re supposed to be curling.

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Jul 29, 2023Liked by Maya Bodnick

For what it's worth, as someone who has done a lot of debating in Australia and internationally (at the Australasian Intervarsity Debating Championships and at the World University Debating Championships) this feels like a particularly American phenomenon.

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I've been out of the activity a while now but my understanding is that most of the kritiks center in one way or another around the legacy of slavery and race in the USA so yes it is a deeply American phenomenon in that respect. There's also a culture of radical openness to any argument (even whether the topic should be the topic) that started in US policy debate and seems to have spread to other formats that makes these radical arguments possible.

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Jul 29, 2023Liked by Maya Bodnick

What I'm getting from this post is that competitive high-school debate has been so thoroughly metagamed that it now more closely resembles competitive Magic: the Gathering than any attempt to discern what we as a society should actually do about anything.

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I found the debate analysis really interesting and I do think it mirrors at least one corner of academia (the interpretive social sciences) if not engineering or business or economics.

I'm not sure about Maya's conclusion: we should be concerned because these debaters are future political leaders. True but then once you get into politics, your "judges" are no longer other exdebaters and it seems to me that they'll have a much harder time pulling off these arguments and winning.

But the bigger problem might be that these debaters end up often in grad school, non profits, journalism, and advocacy organizations. Which is where these dynamics might be worrying.

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You’re not the only commenter to be skeptical that these are future policy makers, but I guess I’d say, They’re not *not* the future policy makers. Certainly among that crowd they’ll be over represented in the policy realm of the future, right?

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Jul 29, 2023Liked by Maya Bodnick

This all sounds insane and unserious.

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Jul 29, 2023Liked by Maya Bodnick

Not the piece, the issue.

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Haha thanks for the clarification

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