The past ten years or so have seen a new trend emerge in debate, one that I refer to as “The Project.” The Project involves debate teams whose approach to debate can be most broadly characterized as non-traditional. While these teams adhere to the speech times, speech order, and prep time of a debate round, the arguments they make are less tied to the current debate topic than they are to a prevailing issue that they wish to emphasize. The issue could be anywhere from racism/white supremacy in to sexism/patriarchy to homophobia/heteronormativity to any number of broad philosophical objections the team has to traditional policy debate. Rather than running an affirmative with a plan or overt advantages, these teams will run affirmatives that may have a narrative, play music, read poetry, or make arguments about the flaws they see in either a literal interpretation of the topic or the norms and procedures common to the activity of policy debate.
Oftentimes, policy-oriented teams that debate against project teams find it difficult to engage in a meaningful debate with them, as is evidenced by the fact that framework and topicality are by far the two most common arguments run against project teams. These types of debates often devolve into what have been unfortunately labeled “clash of civilizations” debates where each side argues vehemently for its interpretation of debate or society or reality or whatever. These rounds become increasingly tedious and difficult to sort out properly, mostly because the debates involve very little actual clash between the two “civilizations.” Hopefully, this post will shed some light on The Project as well as provide some of my own personal insight into how these debates can be improved for both sides of the constructed divide.
Contrary to (what seems to me like) popular belief among policy folks, project teams are not ruining the activity. They are not destroying the traditions and values of argumentation that many policy debaters hold so dear. Their approach stems from a concern that many of the benefits of debate that make it an incredibly useful pedagogical tool are undermined by an intellectually stagnant approach to argumentation, one rooted primarily in dominant, Eurocentric ways of thinking (state-centered agency, realist IR, Enlightenment rationality, capitalist economics, deference to social norms that privilege white, male, straight, rich modes of subjectivity, etc.). These assumptions portray themselves as universal, objective truths about the nature of our reality (“economic decline causes nuclear war!”), when in fact they are little more than subjective assertions backed up by social privilege able to enforce them onto others. Though these reactions take many different forms and start from many different perspectives, I think this general belief comes as close as I can get to a common thread that runs throughout many, if not most project teams. For some teams (Louisville, Towson), this condition results in an enforcement of white supremacist norms that harm and oppress non-white persons both within and beyond debate. Others see it manifesting in different ways, and you can usually tell by the 1st constructive speech what way that is, if you don’t already have info on the team.
Approaches to debating project teams usually fall along 2 lines. I call them the “cheaters!” strategy and the engagement strategy. The former basically involves calling project teams cheaters by saying they should lose on either framework or topicality. Those who embrace the latter try to run a non-traditional argument of their own as a way of link turning the project. Each approach has its pros and cons, and I won’t take a position here on which is better because it will likely depend on the team, round, judge, etc.
I will, however, make a couple comments about ways that I think project debates can improve. First, I think both sides should approach each other with less of a hostile orientation and with a broader willingness to understand where the other is coming from. Rather than just sticking to your side of the divide and shutting your ears to the other perspectives, it might help us all to find some time to really listen to what debaters who run unfamiliar arguments have to say. You might just learn something. It may seem odd to do this, but I think former Fort Hays coach Bill Shanahan makes a good point when he says, “you can’t debate effectively if you’re not open to the possibility of being changed in a given debate round.” This applies both to policy teams and to project teams.
Second, I think that too many policy teams rely on framework-type arguments (including T) to get them through project debates. This 1) is lazy and 2) shows a lack of argumentative flexibility that I have often heard as an indictment of project teams. There are robust ways to defend policy debate that don’t involve saying “you should lose because we can’t run our disad.” If more traditional teams put as much thought into engaging project debates as they do consult counterplan debates, for example, then we would have much more interesting and useful debate rounds.
Finally, and to show that I’m an equal opportunity critic, I really think many project teams should be willing to engage the current year’s debate topic in a more substantial way than many do. Some avoid talking about the topic altogether, claiming a bias in either the topic process or in the nature of policy debate that would exclude their interpretation. While I certainly support project teams using their platform to express themselves and their perspective in the way they feel best, I think that an unwillingness to more thoroughly incorporate the topic is a missed opportunity for these teams. If you can’t find a way to use the topic as a gateway to the platform you want to advance, you’re not trying hard enough. I’ll take racism and this year’s college topic (nuclear weapons) as an example. There is a whole subset of literature that deals with questions of nuclear racism and the way that white supremacy is interrelated with US nuclear weapons policy. These issues are solid ways to talk about many of the issues that have been central to project teams. Even if you are making epistemological claims, you can make them in the context of the topic without losing much of the strength of your arguments.
Overall, I think one thing that would help immensely would be for teams all over the debate spectrum to display a willingness to branch out argumentatively. It would certainly involve a little more work to do this, but, to echo Rob’s post, I think it would be quite rewarding, both intellectually and strategically.
Published in: Kritik