The Public Debate Manifesto

So I've probably typed out this argument a dozen times in email messages or forum posts, and it always comes off half-assed and rushed, so I'm going to use this space to play with this a little and hopefully develop something a little more robust.

Anyway, here's my claim: competitive debates ought to be considered public.

By public, I mean all of the following

-Open to anyone to attend, view, comment upon, in the sense of a "public park"
-Part of our collective knowledge base, in the sense of the "public domain."
-Not "belonging" to any person or group of people, as an antonym of "private property."

Before I rush into the nuts-and-bolts of my justification for that claim, allow me to clarify some of my assumptions.

My first assumption is that debate is malleable. The rules of the game are few, which means that much of what goes on during a debate round is dictated by norms and community standards. I believe that by directing those norms and standards, the community at large can influence what debate is and what it does.

There are lots of ways in which the community influences the game, but I think that the most important one is in determining "what wins." People play games to win, and what people do in pursuit of victory will influence how they act and ultimately what education and fulfillment they take away from debate. If, in pursuit of victory, competitors are having fun, developing worthwhile skills, and engaging in constructive behaviors, then I think that we have designed a good game.

So two debaters (or teams) enter a room... who should win? Here's my answer.

The debater who is most well prepared.
The debater who displays the best technical skills.
The debater who has the greater mastery of strategy and tactics.

That's probably not an exhaustive list, but I think it covers a great deal of the kinds of things I'd like to promote in debate. So I think that we, as a community, should promote norms of debate that reward preparedness, technical skill, strategy, and tactics.

Now, I could probably write entire articles on the trade-offs between these three principles, but for the sake of argument I'll leave it that these three things are good and a good game promotes all three.

And, simply put, considering debate rounds public does the best job of encouraging good debate.

Allow me to return to the idea of preparation, or "Doing work", as I like to put it to my students. I should have been more specific, because all work is not created equal. Cutting cards, writing blocks, discussing strategy with coaches and other debaters, this is all good work. It makes us smarter in numbers of ways. But before you can do all that work, you need to do pre-work of "scouting." You need to know what work to do before you do it, or more specifically you need to know what arguments to prepare against before you go about preparing.

Unfortunately, scouting sucks. It's a huge waste of time trying to figure out what Zumbrota QZ is running when you could be doing real work. This information tends to naturally filter down social channels, too, so debaters who attended the right camps or went to the right tournaments or have the right coaches get access to more scouting info than the "have-nots." This also privileges big teams who can scout by brute force.

Until you embrace the fact that Information wants to be free, and set up a central scouting repository. Now if someone knows something, the public knows it too. And teams opt-in to the system via a sort of reverse prisoner's dilemma. An individual team gives up the secrecy of their own arguments, but in return gets information about every team they will hit. This asymmetrically helps the have-nots, who would have less information "naturally" and therefore stand more to gain.

The alternative, from an individual's perspective, is to attempt to keep their own scouting information secret. Besides the fact that I think this strategy is bad for the community at large, I think this strategy is also bad for the individual. Anecdotally speaking, the information always gets out somehow (The Kevin Bacon effect will kill you here), and you lose a lot of ethos when you act as if your arguments rely on the "surprise! factor" alone.

I think one of the popular objections to my argument is that there can be "too much of a good thing" as far as preparation is concerned. This argument comes in two different flavors, which I'd like to address separately.

First of all, the "preparation arms race" is all well and good until it starts to interfere with school, family life, work, etc. Unfortunately, the answer to this one is pretty much "tough shit." The will to succeed is strong, and someone will always make a decision to do more work than you. I think that there is a meaningful discussion to have (outside the scope of this post) about how to make debate a more manageable activity, but the incentive to do work will always be there, and there will always be a bigger fish.

There's also the concern that the person doing the work isn't always the person getting the reward. The hypothetical scenario for this is a mediocre debater from a big team hits a good debater from a small team. In a "fair fight" the small team debater would win, but the big debater gets "prepped out" to the extent that they can skate through the round on nothing but the strength of their blocks. So we end up encouraging an army of thoughtless block-reading drones or something.

Frankly, I just don't see this happening. My personal observation doesn't make this argument true, but in my experience the cream that rises in policy and LD consists of smart, strategic, motivated kids who are writing blocks and rocking socks. And I've seen plenty of block-reliant teams get one-upped by a less prepared debater who was being more strategic. There's more than one way to win a round.

And I think that public debates help people become better at strategy and tactics, too.

This has been put in a bunch of different ways by a bunch of different people, but the phrasing I like is "You don't learn from the rounds you win." It's not technically true, I suppose, but it makes my point. You get more education in debate (as in everything) from watching and competing against people who are better than you. Now, most students' chances to compete against teams that are better than them is out of their control. It's a function of what tournaments they attend and what a computer spits out, so there's not much we can do about it. What we can do is give people as many chances as possible to watch debaters who are better than them.

And watching a debate does not just involve meat in chair. They need to be given the opportunity to flow, to talk about the round, to show their flow to their coaches, to have idle conversations in the lunchroom with other students about the strategic decisions made in round. This is the cauldron of strategy; it's the reason that chess grandmasters will stay up at night studying old games.

And in a perfect world, aspiring young minds would be able to go online to get the cites for the cards read in that round, read the original articles, and see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

If we are going to spend our weekends to drag students to (a) school, we might as well allow them to do something worth their time.

Let me close with a hypothetical example. You are a debater, you enter a round, they were well prepared against your case, and you've got bagel against their arguments. You get creamed.


-They've run this before, and you could have known about it via a caselist. They prepared for this debate better than you.


-They've never run this before, they came up with a great new strategy and caught you with your pants down.

It's a bitter pill to take, until you realize that in a world of public debates, There is nothing stopping you from being that team next time.

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