New rhetorical tactics are creating a generation of nihilists
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.
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.
When plain old Marxism-Leninism isn't edgy enough for you, so you throw on a heaping of famine.
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.
What's noticeable immediately in the writings of critical theory is the striking incoherence: it's gobbledygook.
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).
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
You know what this is? You remember around 4th or 5th grade when kids figure out the high level cuss words? Then kids just will say as many of them in one sentence as they can? The phrase I distinctly remember hearing at school was "motherf***er asshole bitch" which doesn't mean anything but they think it sounds shocking.
This is basically that. Anytime you hear the phrase "white Supremacist capitalist patriarchy" (I'm aware I'm behind the times, there should be something about trans people in there), just mentally replace the phrase with "motherf***er asshole bitch," picture the speaker like 6 years younger, and the sentence will make a whole lot more sense.
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.
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.
This all sounds insane and unserious.
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.