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11/11/2009 12:53 AM by
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Neal Katyal

In debates that take place between policy teams and project teams, one central sticking point tends to be over the merits of switch side debate in our activity. Proponents of switch side debate argue that doing so offers debaters an opportunity to take a new perspective by learning and advocating a position they might not agree with within a given debate round. Doing so enhances critical thinking skills and teaches debaters to become better advocates for the things they do believe because they have examined all sides of the argument. Opponents argue that switch side debate is basically modern day sophistry, leading to an “anything goes” approach to argumentation that has no ethical foundation. Lack of such foundation leads to rounds where debaters advocate nuclear wars, extinction, and even racism or genocide. I think the major drawback in debates on this particular issue is that they tend to lack real clash. One side says switch side debating is educational, and the other says it’s unethical. No one resolves these two impacts. Well, I will attempt to provide some (contingent, I’m sure) way to resolve this discussion, and I’ll start out by stating my advocacy: project teams should be more willing to engage in switch side debate.

In my previous post, I argued that project teams should engage the current debate topic, and I still think avoiding the topic is a big missed opportunity. Here, though, project teams take a very one-size-fits-all approach to switch side debate that misses the chances to explore numerous aspects of their own arguments and strategic goals. I am convinced that the topic presents less of a hindrance and more of an opportunity for project teams to find links to the things they want to say.

I’ve heard some arguments/questions that I have heard some project teams make, and I’ve been frankly shocked at how poor the answers to these questions has been. I’ll address a couple here. The first one is a subset of the “switch side debate is unethical” argument, and it goes something like this: “Are you saying that on a slavery topic, we would have to advocate slavery good?” First, I take issue with the question. Switch side debating isn’t just taking both sides of any good/bad debate. There’s more to it than that, especially since sometimes there are more than 2 sides to an issue. Second, this is an extreme example, but even if I grant the premise of the question, I would say that you should be willing to examine that argument and advocate it in the space of a debate. That doesn’t mean that you take on that belief; it does mean that you don’t close off an argument just because you don’t agree. The debate round should be a space to test out arguments, and part of the education one gets from that testing is the experience of advocating something unfamiliar, and even oppositional to your beliefs. Plus, you can better argue against the offending argument if you have tried it on in an environment that encourages you to learn how it works. Ultimately, I dispute the slippery slope in the premise of this argument, though. Maybe you wouldn’t, as a matter of conscience, be willing to go as far as say “slavery good,” but on this year’s topic, you should be willing to argue that either we should reduce our nuclear weapons or we shouldn’t. You can support your claim with reasons based in your project, but the fact that the potential exists advocate bad things in a debate round isn’t by itself a sufficient reason to refuse switch side debate. I'm sure many people arguments they may not be willing to make for their own reasons, but that fact alone is not a condemnation of switch side debating.

Another argument I hear is the use of a paragraph from William Spanos in the book “Cross-X” in which he argues that debate’s potential for “‘disinterested’ argumentative skills” becomes a training ground for neoconservative ideology. It is important to note that Spanos’ understanding of debate is marginal at best, but more importantly, even if he’s right that debate can produce neocons, that’s not the only outcome. It can, and has, also produced strong advocates for anti-neocon causes. For example, Neal Katyal, the attorney who successfully argued Hamdan v. Rumsfeld in the Supreme Court, was a debater. Also, I would quibble with the terminology of “disinterested” argumentation that Spanos uses and project teams pick up on. Just because I argue for something institutional in nature in a debate round doesn’t mean that I’m taking a disinterested view. In fact, the process of arguing unfamiliar points is a really good way for me to become interested and gain a personal connection to the arguments that I make in rounds, even if that personal connection isn’t the same as ones that project teams discuss.

Believe me, I could just as easily go off on policy teams for not really switching sides on many big arguments (with the exception of the occasional impact turn debate, we pretty much presume that hegemony is good and nuclear war is bad, regardless of side). My basic point here is that project teams do themselves a disservice by closing off new ways to approach argumentation that are allowed by switch side debate. We don’t have to take a full-tilt, anything goes approach, but don’t throw it all out either. Even if some potential for abuse exists, it’s a risk worth taking.