The Willful Refusal of Logic

The Atlantic recently ran a piece that asked the question, “Does Traditional College Debate Reinforce White Privilege?” From the piece:

It used to be that if you went to a college-level debate tournament, the students you’d see would be bookish future lawyers from elite universities, most of them white. In matching navy blazers, they’d recite academic arguments for and against various government policies. It was tame, predictable, and, frankly, boring.

No more.

These days, an increasingly diverse group of participants has transformed debate competitions, mounting challenges to traditional form and content by incorporating personal experience, performance, and radical politics. These “alternative-style” debaters have achieved success, too, taking top honors at national collegiate tournaments over the past few years.

But this transformation has also sparked a difficult, often painful controversy for a community that prides itself on handling volatile topics.

On March 24, 2014 at the Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA) Championships at Indiana University, two Towson University students, Ameena Ruffin and Korey Johnson, became the first African-American women to win a national college debate tournament, for which the resolution asked whether the U.S. president’s war powers should be restricted. Rather than address the resolution straight on, Ruffin and Johnson, along with other teams of African-Americans, attacked its premise. The more pressing issue, they argued, is how the U.S. government is at war with poor black communities.

In the final round, Ruffin and Johnson squared off against Rashid Campbell and George Lee from the University of Oklahoma, two highly accomplished African-American debaters with distinctive dreadlocks and dashikis. Over four hours, the two teams engaged in a heated discussion of concepts like “nigga authenticity” and performed hip-hop and spoken-word poetry in the traditional timed format. At one point during Lee’s rebuttal, the clock ran out but he refused to yield the floor. “Fuck the time!” he yelled. His partner Campbell, who won the top speaker award at the National Debate Tournament two weeks later, had been unfairly targeted by the police at the debate venue just days before, and cited this personal trauma as evidence for his case against the government’s treatment of poor African-Americans.

I remember debate in high school, where the whole point was to argue from a given premise (regardless of your feelings on it). It didn’t matter if you didn’t like the premise, it was a valuable skill to learn how to understand and present arguments for it, and solutions for it. The negative side had the opportunity to either disprove the premise, or to agree with the premise and attack the proposed solution. As you worked out what your opponent was doing, you would tailor your own arguments based on their strengths and weaknesses, and the evidence you had available to you in your bins.

Now this is what passes for debate at the college level:

The whole notion of the “affirmative” not being for the premise is ridiculous. If the affirmative doesn’t have to affirm the premise of the debate, then all you have are two sides yelling about whatever they want to with no structure. But it seems the writing has been on the wall for awhile now.

It used to be that you you had to have the facts and the logic on your side to win. The judge listening to you had no mercy: every dropped argument or broken change of logic cost you. The time clock had no mercy, either. It was a tough, brutal form of learning.

No more. Things have been headed down hill in the debate world for a while, like the rest of our society. Things got especially bad when they started introducing kritik into debate. Kritik is a form of meta-argument by which the debaters argue against the meanings of words (“race is a social construct!”), the validity of rational argument (“there can be no ‘debate’ until we destroy this society of patriarchy and privilege!”) and the nature of reality itself (“Facts? There are no ‘facts’!”) instead of affirming or negating the resolution.

Kritik renders debate impossible. One cannot argue the facts, the logic, or the merits of the case because all of these are constructs of the cis-sexual, intrinsically racist, intrinsically LGBT-phobic Christo-fascist society of privilege we inhabit. Logic is Eurocentric and racist; there are many “logics”. Facts are products of the privileged clases imposed on the rest of us by force; there are no true facts. Or those are the arguments now being made. 

According to Aristotle’s Law of Identity, A is A. A will always be A. A is never not-A. It never will be. But according to this new way of thinking, A is not A. “A” is a racist, Eurocentric power construct used by the privileged to exploit and enslave the rest of humanity. In a world of equality and diversity, “A” can be any letter the People want it to be.

A few years ago, one CEDA debate tournament saw a team use human feces in a bag as a prop. Also, a lesbian team from another school went topless in order to demystify sex and the female body. What either of those incidents had to do policy debate eludes me. At another tournament a team lost because they didn’t incorporate “Queer Theory” into their policy affirmative that would have the US Government act as honest broker between North and South Sudan in order to end the civil war. It is sad how far the “elite academic world’ has devolved, and how quickly.

It is truly a disservice to allow these kids to not have to follow the rules, to not have to abide by the spirit of the competition. Even the article tacitly acknowledges this:

Indeed, to prevail using the new approach, students don’t necessarily have to develop high-level research skills or marshal evidence from published scholarship. They also might not need to have the intellectual acuity required for arguing both sides of a resolution. These skills—together with a non-confrontational presentation style—are considered crucial for success in fields like law and business.

So why are we allowing this kind of stuff to go on? More and more I wonder if I even want my kids to go to college. The system tries to instill in you that college is a step everyone should take. You see it everywhere. But, if this is what passes for scholarship, is it even worth the effort?

As to the question of traditional college debate reinforcing “white privilege”, the sad fact is this: If logic is white privilege, so too is civilization. Karl Popper summed it up best:

No rational argument will have a rational effect on a man who does not want to adopt a rational attitude.

To put it another way, I will bring it back to Aristotle:

To have an identity means to have a single identity; an object cannot have two identities. A tree cannot be a telephone, and a dog cannot be a cat. Each entity exists as something specific, its identity is particular, and it cannot exist as something else. An entity can have more than one characteristic, but any characteristic it has is a part of its identity. A car can be both blue and red, but not at the same time or not in the same respect. Whatever portion is blue cannot be red at the same time, in the same way. Half the car can be red, and the other half blue. But the whole car can’t be both red and blue. These two traits, blue and red, each have single, particular identities.

If we cannot agree that A is A, then how can we have any debate, or exchange of ideas, at all? How can we communicate when we cannot agree on basic truths as a foundation of our discussions? Where does this further degradation leave us as a society?


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