Thursday, April 18, 2013

Critique article -- response

I have ranted about critiques here; I complained about the current theoretical mish-mash that accompanies most critiques, and I endorsed straightforward critiques of language, thinking, and values, and rejected critiques that are disguised utopian counterplans or linear disadvantages. In my view, a critique is supposed to be an argument about the affirmative failing to prove its case prima facie. Too many critiques I have heard try to spin an implication about in-round discourse into non-sensical utopian impacts about my ballot changing the world, blah blah blah.

I thought Armand Revelin's article in the National Journal of Speech and Debate had the right spirit. He clearly knows his philosophy. Early on, he makes the important distinction that critiques do not function based on real-world impacts (causal chains) but on implications (which are really about logical sufficiency). I thought this summed up his point:

The implication of a kritik . . . may be that the affirmative incoherence amounts to a complete unintelligibility, and that the affirmative does not get access to its solvency and advantage claims because they are founded upon this unintelligibility. (p. 5)

This is exactly right. I would have thrown in the phrase "prima facie" because I am an old-school nerd, and a prima facie case is one where the evidence is logically sufficient to prove the claims and the claims made are sufficient to affirm the topic. The distinction he makes is a crucial one: critiques are different from disadvantages and counterplans because of a different voting issue -- logical lapses, not outcomes. I thought he should have pointed out that there is a third type of voting issue: the procedural voting issue, like topicality or arguments about fiat abuse. It is important to note that critiques are not procedural voting issues. When the judge votes on a critique, she is not voting against the affirmative because its plan is unfair.

While I agree with Mr. Revelin so far, it seems like his guiding idea is that the pressure for an alternative on a critique leads to bad debate, and on this, I disagree. In many examples, the alternative is so clearly implied as to be trivial. On his example of a language critique of the phrase "Native American," surely the alternative is to find a better phrase. Perhaps "First People"? Even when the alternative is not so clear, at root the team responding to the critique is asking about the fairness of the critique: "You say our case is based on sexist assumptions. What are some non-sexist assumptions we could have worked from? Is it even avoidable?" In this way, it is analogous to asking what cases meet a topicality violation. Just as some cases should meet a topicality violation if it is a reasonable violation, the alternative is the argument showing that the critique is reasonable -- that the affirmative case (or the topic or whatever claim is being critiqued) could have been put together in a better way. On the one hand, the alternative should not make or break the critique; we can reject bad logic, even if we cannot imagine better logic. A defense attorney does not have to produce the real criminal. On the other hand, it strikes me as a problem if the critiquing team cannot make some motions in the direction of the alternative, and moreover, it seems like there is usually an alternative implicit in the critique. Few critiques are simply nihilist, and there are good arguments that nihilist critiques make for bad debate.

I think the main reason critiques have become an awful theoretical mish-mash is not the pressure for an alternative, but instead because the community does not stand behind the proposition that dismantling a case is a sufficient reason to vote for a critique. Debaters make a muddle of critiques because they, perhaps rightly, believe that they need to add on impacts to win. This is why Mr. Revelin's assertion that a critique might have an "external impact" deeply troubles me. As far as I can tell, by this he means discursive impacts:

The affirmative can argue for the educational merits of discussing their original advantages within the remote discussion-space of debate. Although this is not the same as weighing the impacts of the advantages themselves, it is substantive and can be compared with the exclusion of such discussions that would follow if a negative kritik team is allowed to exclusively draw attention just to the non-remote discursive harms of their kritik. (p. 7)

Discursive impacts are the root of the problem. They are not impacts in the fiat-link-uniqueness-impact sense; they do not need to exist inside the "box" of hypothetically assuming plan happens. Are discursive impacts to be weighed against fiat-impacts? The debate community has answered yes, but I think the answer should be a firm no. The label "impact" is misleading; discursive impacts are much closer to procedural arguments. The voting issue of a discursive impact is, "Your advocacy is bad for the debate community; it makes us insensitive, or offensive, or unethical," which is quite similar to the voting issue of a procedural argument, "Your plan is unfair and ruins the spirit of this game." The fact that the latter is explicitly about the rules of the game, whereas the former often borders on rejecting the games-playing, does not alter the fact that both are arguments about debating. A rejection of narrow-minded rules is still about rules. Trying to spin a discursive impact into the mould of a fiat-impact leads to all sort of double-think double-ungood. Let us stop calling them discursive impacts, and let us structure them like the procedural arguments they are.

There were two other problems I had with Mr. Revelin's argument. One was about the assertion that the episteme critique always tied back to Heidegger. I would say that there are many critiques of the logical sufficiency of evidence that do not. One that comes to mind is Stephen Jay Gould's outstanding book, The Mismeasure of Man, in which he systemically goes through the history to intelligence testing to demonstrate the long racist history. A case (on some education topic) that used IQ-test-based evidence would be very vulnerable to this critique. But I fail to see how this is Heideggerish. I do think the type of critique Mr. Revelin discusses is a narrow kind of knowledge critique (and a particularly nihilist one, at that).

The other problem was his response to permutations. On counterplans, a permutation is simply the argument that the counterplan is not competitive, that there is no opportunity cost to the plan. On critiques, a permutation is simply the argument that the content of the Affirmative case (the plan, the advantages) can be upheld separately from its advocacy (language, evidence, logic, or values). In other words, the Affirmative argues that we should still like the case but under a different framework. There is an argument that this is severance, so perhaps a permutation is a bad argument.

I am glad others are thinking and pushing at the debate community to re-evaluate critique theory. Thank you, Mr. Revelin, for your thoughtful piece.

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