A practical Habermasian structural analysis of the contemporary speech situation of the NPDA debate round. (Part 2)

Aaron J. Alford
11 min readMar 22, 2019

So You Think You Know Debate Huh?

This is part two of a four part series:

Part 1 can be read here

Part 2 can be read here.

Part 3 can be read here.

Part 4 can be read here.

In part 2 of my unreasonably long analysis of NPDA debate, I would like to analyze intercollegiate debate itself, and its history. I will argue that intercollegiate debate is heavily framed by social discourses, particularly in news and media, and then I will discuss a series on controversies which have been posed by intercollegiate debate since its start in the early 20th century.

Debate is framed by inter-debate discourses, and is heavily influenced by larger institutional changes in society (Harrigan, 2008). The reason for debate came out of the new age of discussion enabled by mass printing technologies and the availability of information. This means that the media, the news they report, and the information that is supplied to students greatly affects the arguments and sorts of arguments which are run in rounds. Debate has changed a good deal in the past hundred years, but the contemporary issues of debate continue to be framed by similar tensions created through the discursive construction of the debate space.

The development of intercollegiate debate spaces

John Dewey (1927), a pragmatist and public intellectual in America, was studying what he described as the “problem of the public”. The development of modern technology was causing an emerging public consciousness which hadn’t been possible before industrialization (Dewey 1927). John Dewey was interested in a pragmatic deliberative sense of discourse, much like Milton which would later be mirrored in the writings of Habermas, though it is unclear if Habermas read John Dewey or Milton. This problem of the public spurred on American intercollegiate debate, student journalism, and student government, all disciplines interested in civil discourse (Nichols, 1936). It seems like the discussion of discourse in that time may have been similarly popular to discussions of gender in our time. The problem of the public framed the early discourses surrounding the original development of debate (Hogan & Kurr, 2016).

Early theorists like O’Niell, Davis, and other progressive english educators considered debate to be an act of deliberative democratic training (O’Neill, 1916; Davis, 1916; Woodward 1915). These theorists engaged in discursive argumentation about the nature of debate, all of them however agreed that debate as an activity was meant to train students to engage in the “age of discussion” (Washington State University, 1910). The earliest forms of intercollegiate debate were three school groupings, called the triangular formation (Nichols, 1936). Each school would select one team who is in favor of the topic and train one team who is against the topic (Nichols, 1936). Debate soon adopted a switch-side debate format, and larger formations of schools. This expansion of debate was an exigence for the development of argumentation and communication classes at universities, and this brings debate historically in line with the development of the critical approach to sociology, and as an integral piece and activity for communication departments (Nichols, 1936).

The discursive tensions of collegiate debate

Debate contains a number of controversies and tensions which must be negotiated by the interactants in every round. Many of the early changes in debate lead to a number of constraints on the debate space which impact the student experience of the activity. The major controversies revolve around switch-side debate/topical debate, game conception of debate versus its pedagogical purposes, and as an extension of that technical methods versus methods focused on investigating what is true and reasonable.

Switch-side debate.

Switch-side debate assigns a side of a proposition, and asks debaters to argue in favor of things they may not believe in. This form of debate caused great controversy in the early days of debate, even drawing criticism from Teddy Roosevelt himself. O’Neill defended the form of debate from the negative criticism, arguing that it trained debaters to effectively present an argument while also teaching them empathy and consideration for alternative views than their own (O’Neill, 1915). The reasoning skills of debate were the point, the training of rational but persuasive discourse resolution. This point is made again by Ehringer (1958) in his defense of the switch-side debate method. Although debate can seem like a pointless activity, devoid of ethics, Ehinger believed that the macro cooperative and micro competitive framework of debate teaches critical thinking skills, and broad understanding of a variety of perspectives, and ultimately serves the purpose of coming together to test a variety of ideas for truth (Ehringer, 1958). This form of debate is being challenged even in contemporary debate spaces questioning whether it is educational, some of the criticism has evolved to critiquing the ways in which debate has been subjugated to the needs of policy makers rather than activism (Harrigan, 2008; Masey, 2006; Quimby, 1953; Rutledge, 2002; Mitchell, 2000; Mitchell, 1998; Mitchell, 1995; Mitchell and Suzuki, 2000).

Game versus pedagogy.

Let’s skip the pleasantries, NPDA debate is a game. Although debate should probably be about education and discourse, debate is a technical game which rewards being the most technical, and often unfair team, in the round. I say that as a coach and former successful competitor in this activity. Debate though, have not always been so technical, fast, and even traumatic as it is in 2019. So many debate round today descend into visceral attacks against the other team, all in pursuit of that glorious win.

The question of switch side debate in the early 20th century connected to a larger discourse about what the purpose of debate truly was. Some theorists and coaches worked toward a form of debate that would be done without expert judges in a public forum manner, believing that technical debate would alienate the activity from real world democratic training (Davis, 1916; Woodward, 1915; Mitchell 2000). The innovations in debate instead turned toward expert judging, and competitions which functioned like collegiate athletics (Nichols, 1936; Ehringer, 1958). They were framed by a tension between debates dual identity as game and as educational activity. This competitive v. educational framing can be observed even today in the rhetoric of debaters, arguing standards of education and fairness as intrinsic values to debate, and in the strategies and methods of judges and debaters utilized in the round.

These two aspects are not entirely in contradiction, however the domination of the game over the educational purposes is one of the large issues in modern debate today that this analysis seeks to address. Debate continues to utilize this tension, debaters often weighing the merits of competitive fairness against the merits of real world education, which makes it an important issue for both a debaters considering joining the NPDA, and as a broader question for debate designers and innovators to wrestle with.

Hicks and Green (1999) suggested that game debate is not void of merit as a method of inquiry, however they did so by describing debate as a technology of citizenship, which suggests debates technical and functionalist purposes are essential to its operation as a method. Hicks and Green (1999) suggest that game debate is an exercise in role playing, and not lying in our discourse. This argument does not address how the game implicates the truth claims used in the debate, because even when arguing for a conviction one doesn’t believe in the authority of the judge and the community, as well as the constraints of winning the game, distort the communication regardless of the debaters ethical intentions. The view of debate put forward by NPDA coaches such as Rutledge (2000), sees debate primarily as an instrument of critical thinking, rather than a space of communicative action. Although debaters are not inherently driven to lying, as Rutledge’s analysis showed, debaters are still encouraged to privilege and obscure varying perspectives as a method of accruing the ballot, and these technological distortions are what this analysis is interested in.

Technique versus truth.

Another aspect of debate which flows out of debates competitive yet educational purpose, is a tension between technique and truth. As Davis (2016) predicted, debate with expert judges and ballot decisions is marked by complex tactical methods of persuasion and delivery. This prediction has been accurate about the NPDA, which has normalized the use of high speed rhetorical delivery, peaking around 600 words per minute. Debaters, even novices, are sometimes expected to answer the entire flow of arguments presented at that speed. The team that can say more arguments then has a strategic advantage in a technical sense, and this led to teams speaking faster and faster, even if it made their message less understandable to the listeners. This is particularly relevant in the NPDA, because one of the reasons for removing evidence cards was to encourage a more reasonable and understandable debate, but this reform was coopted by the game essentially to remove certain validity types from the round, including the norms of persuasive delivery which people expect in a space of public deliberation.

The community of the NPDA also operates by certain common argument structures, which are essential to competitive success. Highly technical reasoning, large scale strategic decision-making, and concise and clear narrative building are celebrated above careful persuasive delivery which relies on the artistic proofs of speaking. The tension between technique and truth is negotiated by the debaters, coaches and judges. Different judges have different opinions on how debate should be done. Debate is marked by the expectation that debaters will adapt to the audience, which is typically a highly technical expert judge but could be someone who has never seen a debate in their life. This makes the speech situation of debate a highly stressful and difficult affair to engage in, especially for debaters new to the norms of the debate community.

Expert judges, lay judges, or no judges.

The question of expert judging was a huge issue in early days of intercollegiate debating. O’Neill and Davis both touch on this issue with competing perspectives. O’Neill (1916) argued that expert judges offer debaters the opportunity to have an expert in persuasion and argumentation offer them feedback to improve their skills, and decisions are an essential component to his view of game based debate. Davis (1916) on the other hand desired lay judges, a sentiment still found in certain high school leagues especially homeschool christian leagues (NCFCA, 2017; STOA, 2017). This view of debate believes that the purpose is to teach you how to persuade the average listener rather than a technical expert in communication. There is something to be said for both perspectives, and debaters in contemporary collegiate leagues still end up dealing with a plethora of judges with varying degrees of expertness. However, the use of a judge and a decision has further ramifications for the communicative nature of the space which will be examined in this analysis.

This analysis is interested in how the practical process of debate is experienced by the debaters, because the majority of discourses about debate are concerned with its impact on the students. Theoretical discourses without practical concerns for implementing an alternative ultimately become void and alienated (Foss, Foss, Trapp, 1998). Debate has created a unique speech situation, asking students to negotiate a number of tensions to win over a variety of audiences as a means of competitive success.

The collapse of trichotomy resolutions on the national circuit

Originally the NPDA format used the trichotomy of questions to frame its types of resolution: Fact, value, policy. Fact resolutions examine whether a statement is true, by the preponderance of the evidence. Value resolutions ask for an ethical conflict to be resolved through comparing two competing values. Policy questions ask what policies institutions should implement. In recent years national level tournaments have begun using only policy questions, many directors arguing that policy questions allow for the preponderance of fact, value, and policy education and a predictable interpretation of the resolution. Notice that the arguments against the trichotomy of questions is focused on the game aspect of debate, by focusing on predictability and consistency. Some regional tournaments still utilize the trichotomy of resolutions, and many of them emphasize slow persuasive delivery and lay judging, but the preparation of teams found there is often less rigorous than nationally competitive teams, so value and fact questions become marginalized in the community to the needs of policy ones. This has drawn some criticism from critically minded debaters who are wary of the western domination of debate. Parliamentary debate is a very western form of debate, considering it is based on the procedures of western governments. The submission of nearly all the topics to western state interests has only increased the instrumental use of debate for training policy makers rather than social advocates, and demonstrates debates commitment unwritten rules for the game, while avoiding official rule changes that would improve its educational mission.

Debating the Topic.

As an extension of the early debates about the ethics of switch-side debate, new forms of argument in recent years which started in Cross-Examination Debate Association (CEDA) policy debate that move over into the NPDA challenge the use of a topic at all. Rather than the stances of the past on switch side debate, namely that it causes debaters to become immoral and misanthropic because they don’t argue what they believe in principle, modern performance/activist debate has challenged the notion that directors should decide the topics of our discourse at all (Mitchell, 2000; Mitchell, 1998; Mitchell, 1995; Mitchell and Suzuki, 2000). A common argument in favor of rejecting switch-side debate is that it can force people oppressed by the federal government to roleplay as the federal government. Other arguments against the use of the topic include the need for debate space to allow for individual expressive discourses (Avowal applications), and that issues within the NPDA are a prior question to the topic of the round. This type of debate, about whether or not we should use the topic, is called framework debate and is a modern development in debate. The activist debate attempts to point to a real world example of oppression, typically within the debate or academic community, and suggests that their argument can make some real world change. This would be a fine form of debate, in line with the avowal expression of sincerity, however the debaters read highly technical frameworks that justify why they should win the round, making it part of the game.

It has been used for both educational and technical purposes, though as a strategy it has developed into a technical game based argument. The largest issue with this type of debate is that is is unfair on a number of grounds, from the game perspective of debate, to the team having to answer the activist position. Critics of this style of debate argue that this allows the affirmative team to have not only unlimited preparation time, but also allows them to monopolize the moral highground, or enforce a debate on a traumatic topic without the consent of the negative debaters. Disclosing the topic helps only in the sense that it allows the negative team to opt out of the round, but they still end up losing the ballot.

Advocates for the use of topics argue that topics allow for a fair debate, because everyone has the same opportunity to prepare. Some innovations such as disclosing the activist project at the beginning of preparation time have been suggested and utilized to a limited degree, but even this does not address the technical unfairness of the non-topical argument in debate. This is another example of where the game aspect of debate is in conflict with the ability for debaters to express personal politics in the round, which could be challenged and reformed by removing the win/loss paradigm of debate.

Traditional policy debate versus critical approaches

A final important background piece to the format of contemporary debate in relation to past debate, is the introduction of the kritik. Debaters think they are sooo cool, so they use the German spelling for the word critique. The kritik challenges the assumptions underpinning a policy action, seeking to undermine the basic understanding of the world presented by the other team or the status quo. This approach started as a marginalized movement in the NPDA, but now it is a normal approach that the majority of judges are willing to weigh. That said, there are issues with the use of critical approaches in debate which will be discussed in this analysis. Critiques arrived in debate in the early 90’s and come in a variety of shapes and form that defy comprehensive standards (Harrigan, 2008).



Aaron J. Alford

Media critique and memes. Writing about rhetoric and society. MA in Communication