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Author Topic: "We are in Transition"--The Agent Discussion  (Read 2163 times)
kevin kuswa
Sr. Member
Posts: 345

« on: April 03, 2013, 11:33:49 AM »

Obviously I agree completely with Dean Hester's astute words.  This shift cannot be ignored in our topic process.  I would like to hear thoughts on this from the folks running to be on the committee as well.  I am starting this new thread and quoting Hester's comments below to separate it from the "I am working on 'x'" thread below.

Also, I strongly encourage folks to read the portion of the economic injustice topic paper that takes on the passive voice implications directly, including some theory work that a number of us assembled.  That paper is here:

The passive voice work starts on page 97.  I will post the general sections of that work below Hester's comments.

i'm not writing a topic paper, so please accept the following advice with my acknowledgements that the work being done by those who are is appreciated...

To treat this year's formulations of topic papers and potential resolutions like any other previous year would be a mistake. Many things happen in any debate season, but there has been at least one strong and consistent argument posited and successfully defended which should have enormous implications for how we as a community proceed with regards to the topics we choose to debate and the resolutions we craft for debating them.

"The USFG should..." should no longer be unproblematically accepted as the starting point for our resolutions. Multiple First Round teams, including the first team in history to win both CEDA Nationals and the NDT in the same season, have been arguing all year long that there are good reasons why they refuse to advocate from the position that the USFG can take ethical action. This perspective has been voiced before, in previous years. But those voices could be ignored, either because their numbers were such that the volume wasn't loud enough, or because the success of teams advocating from that perspective wasn't 'elite enough' to be counted. Neither is the case any longer. Our national champion has told us, multiple other 'elite' teams have told us, and the overall number of teams arguing this position have made it clear the time of reckoning has arrived. It would be an enormous mistake to ignore what they have been saying and its implications for how we construct resolutions. It would be an even bigger mistake to naively think that because they have been successful, no changes are necessary. The 'tipping point' has occurred folks. NOW is the time to account for the changes which have occurred in how this community debates. Rather than continue with stale framework-based "clash of civilizations" debates, we as a community need to not merely acknowledge what's going on, we must account for it. The resolution debated the first year there was a National Debate Tournament makes it clear that our current template for resolutions is not "how we've always done it."

With that preface, i offer the following (very extemporaneous) suggestions for how one might think of alternative constructions of resolutions:

1) Negative Action, passive voice This came up in conversation with others during nationals. Their idea works like this:
- the SQuo approach of future-oriented advocacy would remain in place.
- the use of passive voice is not new. My junior year, 1991-92, the resolution was "One or more US Supreme Court decisions recognizing a federal constitutional right to privacy should be overruled."
- 'negative action' means the AFF gets to advocate against a current policy being implemented/enforced in the SQuo. This is also not new. Prior to the current trend of unidirectional resolutions, there were several resolutions which employed the verb phrase "substantially change." My senior year, 1992-93, the resolution was "substantially change development assistance policy." Several high school resolutions since then have used the "change" verb phrase. The 'reduce restrictions on' portion of this year's resolution allowed for similar AFF ground. To give the unfamiliar an idea of how this might work, consider the 2012-13 resolution under this modified phrasing:
Resolved: Restrictions on domestic energy production from coal, crude oil, natural gas, nuclear power, wind power, and/or solar power in the United States should be substantially reduced.

This approach alleviates the concerns raised about defending USFG action, without diverging from a future-oriented, USFG policy-focused, model.

2) Policy Analysis - This approach to constructing a resolution would remain grounded in policy. But rather than require the AFF to advocate a 'new' policy, the resolution would require the AFF to analyze SQuo and/or historical policies. For example, there is a robust debate in the literature over whether the policies which led to the desegregation of public services (schools) and places (restaurants, hotels, and other businesses) were better attended to through the courts or through the legislatures, and there's a less common (though much more spiritedly debated) discussion in the lit about whether such changes which took place in the mid-twentieth century were beneficial as implemented. The idea that one is only 'doing policy debate' if one is proposing new policies to replace old ones is a myth not adhered to in any other forum, and one not shared by everyone in this community. Historians, Sociologists, and Political Scientists all exist in academic disciplines which engage in educational debates about policy, and many of them are focused on the past, not the future. By turning our attention to the past, we could craft resolutions that allow debaters to engage in research and argument focused on the USFG, without requiring them to role-play the USFG in an unethical manner. This approach is admittedly requires the greatest divergence from what we have become used to. But it also provides perhaps the most significant educational benefit. Debating the history of policy-making in any number of areas would keep the focus on 'policy analysis' (which is more accurate than 'policy making' when describing what we as scholars are doing in debate), while providing a more welcoming space for those for whom a focus on the future seems woefully negligent until we have learned from what got us to this point.

3) non-USFG actors - Kuswa has been carrying this flag for years, and the NDT community has had resolution which were not centered on USFG action. i've always thought a 'sports' topic would work best if the NCAA was the actor in the resolution, rather than the USFG. Depending on the topic area, there may be other non-USFG actors which would be better suited to act in the area we want to debate. Whether it be sub-national, supranational, or simply the national government of another nation-state, this approach could allow for all debaters to feel comfortable advocating action from this agent. (obviously, the USFG isn't the only agent which can be problematized, and this approach would need to account for that)

This is not a definitive take on the subject, merely an opening salvo into a much needed discussion. i don't offer the above as absolute solutions, but only as brainstorming ideas to assist in getting the ball rolling.

Speaking after the final round with Sukhi Gulati, who cleared at the NDT, about this very issue, she stated "we are in a transition," a quite-apt phrase that evidences her maturity and intelligence. This isn't the first "transition" intercollegiate debate has gone through, nor will it be the last. But just as this debater recognized, now is the time for the community to recognize where we are and thoughtfully attend to where we want to go.

From the economic controversy paper:

Diversifying our Actors: Reinvigorating the Negative and Acknowledging Kritik Affs

Allowing different actors to make change will open up the affirmative to more innovation and more
solutions. We have relied on exclusive USFG action for far too long and this is a topic area that calls for
a wide approach, including in the actors that are responsible for change. As mentioned below, our
community is capable of taking on significant research areas and we should not shy away from our
potential. Two important points must be made at the outset before getting into some of the specifics of
the theory and demonstrating that this controversy area is well-suited for a diverse array of actors.

1. Return to the topic. Opening up the agent of action will encourage all affirmatives, particularly
critical and performative cases, to relate directly to the object of the resolution. Currently, in our
calcified regime of USFG agency, K affs know that they are always already outside of the topic so they
make the calculation to move away from the entire resolution. Indeed many of these affs are counting
on the bad “must-be-the-USFG topicality/framework” argument to get offense on their activism and
censorship claims that bolster the underlying thesis of the overall affirmative. The passive voice will reenergize
the meaning of the topic itself. If the aff cannot defend some type of topical action when the
agent is wide open, it will make it much harder to find offensive arguments against well-developed
topicality positions. In addition, it makes the negative arguments calling for ground and some
modicum of predictability much more compelling. K affs are common and powerful—opening up the
agent on the affirmative will coax these affs closer to the topic as a whole and give the negative a bit
more leeway in topicality debates even though those arguments will not be based on the agent of

2. Re-charge counterplan debates. In addition to encouraging a more direct relationship to the topic,
opening up the agent will help the affirmative find solvency arguments that matter and connect to the
various types of impacts being run on the aff. Of course there is reciprocity for every theoretical
innovation and the passive voice is no exception. Just as the aff can obtain topical solvency by
advocating change through agents other than the USFG, the negative has more space to counterplan
with another competing agent. Instead of agent specification—which would not really make sense—we
will be able to engage in complex counterplan debates about how to start the call for change, what type
of sequencing works best, and how these actions are connected to the object of the topic and the
solvency claims raised by the affirmative. The debates over fiat, counterplans, permutations, and kritik
alternatives will separate from the ossified framework debates concerning false constructions of the
political in the supposed “ceding of the political” and instead rely on more specific solvency arguments
that are actually connected to the diversity of impact claims currently being made on the aff.

Keep in mind, though, that this controversy area paper does not advocate the passive voice
exclusively—a specified agent, even the USFG, is consistent with many of the wordings being suggested
and defended in the paper. Also, if we do select the passive voice, the USFG is still a topical action on
the aff and often a viable counterplan on the neg. We have debated a non-specific agent a dozen times
since World War II with great success and the community has not fallen apart.

We will return to some of the basic theoretical concerns about the agent and the false fears of change
that have put the community in a strait-jacket for the past two decades, but first we turn to the topic
literature itself as a justification for a more open agent of action in the resolution.

---. Given the current polarization in politics and the struggles over the role of the state and the
benevolence (or lack thereof) of market solutions, we need to think differently about welfare and
economic inequality. Solutions have to be creative and take into account the need for compromise but
also the need to think outside of the box. This calls for an opening in our sense of “the agent of action”
and the willingness to follow the literature into other areas of debate. Poverty offsetting—the idea that
we can make choices as consumers that will help to blur the line between a responsible sense of
citizenship and our primary economic activity—is exactly the type of proposal that calls for different
forms of agency and action. Now is the time. The next two cards are long, but outstanding....

---. Pardon the long card, but this evidence is very good. There are a number of pertinent arguments
here, particularly the need to rethink our notions of agency, citizenship, and consumer activism. This
is the very type of discussion that calls for a more open sense of the agent of action in terms of
addressing poverty in a meaningful way. Rather than skirting the issue by only pretending to be the
USFG and pretending that those actions are always the most likely to solve a social problem like
poverty, our students deserve the opportunity to research and defend other options, including market
solutions, consumer-driven reform, and personal responsibility—all in terms of the shifting
conceptions of citizenship circulating throughout the polity....

---. We must rethink “institutions” outside of entities controlled by the state. We can debate market
forces, consumer-driven change, and micro-agency. These agents are debated in the literature and are
important to understanding the full array of actors capable of making a difference. In this case,
institutions should be defined on micro and macro levels—including enforcement....

Additional passive voice theory musings:

Leaving the question of “By Whom?” open to debate, passive voice may well offer the best place to
diversify the construction of the resolution. Putting the resolution in the passive is a way to include the
USFG as one agent among many possibilities. There is room within the passive voice to debate the
question of the agent as it relates to the controversy area. For the questions surrounding economic
inequality in particular, there are a number of important agents to consider and we should give the
affirmative that opportunity. We are not sure exactly how fiat will work itself out, but we should give
that space for debate to the students. Let questions of enacting change and implementing reform
evolve throughout the season. How do corporations or groups of corporations make changes? How are
consumer-driven policies implemented? What does it mean to take an individual stance on economic
inequality, whether inside the debate round, outside, or both?

Moreover, normal means are really under-theorized and deserve further inspection. Any opening the
affirmative receives through the passive voice will simultaneously increase counterplan ground for the
negative and supercharge the importance of topicality governing the verb and the object of the
resolution. As argued above, the community might decide that providing some ground for the
affirmative to advocate action (topically) outside the constraints of the USFG could actually bring
portions of critical debate closer to the specifics while allowing topicality to matter. And, if so desired,
the staunch defenders of the USFG could use counterplans or other forms of agent arguments to try to
bring their favorite actor back into the round.

Pre-empt: Given that we have had passive voice topics in the past, even as recently as the early 1990s, it
is noteworthy that these topics were not over-run by counterplanning in the active voice. On the Africa
topic (that US foreign policy should be changed), one of the more recent passive resolutions, there were
excellent debates about other avenues for changing US foreign policy in the region (France, OAU, UN,
NGOs) that emerged from the passive construction but augmented everyone's understanding of the
factors in the region. It actually helped to concentrate debates on Africa and policy in Africa instead of
generic internal arguments about US politics (these arguments were still available, but they were not
dominating of the argument field).

The theoretical "problems" associated with the passive voice are not reasons to avoid this type of
construction; on the contrary, healthy theory debates involving what counterplans might look like, for
example, are demonstrations that we should try a topic in this form—a form that is capable of helping
us revisit the meaning of fiat. Topical counterplans with a different agent like the States CP or the
Executive Order CP would face different types of competition arguments and solvency burdens. Keep
in mind that current theory debates are not so wonderful that we should avoid a shift. The burden
should be on the defenders of current wording hegemony, not those willing to experiment with the

Some also argue against the passive voice from Korzybski’s theory of English-Prime, or E Prime, which
would eliminate most passive voice by expunging the verb “to be.” Passive is still possible within Eprime,
however, and the “should” verb is also acceptable. Compounding the misapplication of this
theory to the wording of the resolution, there are problems with the E Prime semantic paradigm in the
first place because it conflates certain uses of the “to be” verb (identifying something and expressing a
condition) with all uses. This is a fruitful place for discussion, but not one that would void the
possibilities of a passive resolution altogether.

The bottom line is that there are some huge benefits to this type of construction and leaving the agent
open. This is a topic that works with a passive construction and we should at least have a few wordings
without a specified agent on the ballot to give the community the choice.
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