Thursday, December 21, 2006

Debate and Personal Agency

I haven't posted here about debate in a long time. But my commitment to particular processes of argument informs my life politics in so many ways. And I'm in the middle of another debate about debate: particularly the value of "switching" sides, or occasionally/frequently advocating things with which one disagrees as a competitive AND pedagogical tool. I say it's acceptable, good, ethical, to take positions with which you personally disagree. Others say not. My position is Levinasian and Habermasian, or in plain English, my position has to do with how we engage other people, and make fair rules to do so. We should step into the other's shoes. We should, in a "game" like debate, occasionally be required (or at least strongly encouraged) to do so.

Below is my latest post on this discussion, the entirety of which can be found here, on the thread entitled "criticisms." The actual discussion of agency, ethics, etc. begins around page six.

While contemplating the fact that nobody has answered the debater/judge advocacy question (if we can't expect debaters to take up advocacies they don't endorse personally, why should we expect judges to dispell their personal beliefs as a reason for decision?--a question whose answer might reveal a lot about people's differing conceptions of debate's educational and political purpose...), I have come up with a set of questions, inspired by the last several posts on this thread. Anyone can answer them, or nobody needs to, or whatever, I am really just thinking out loud and trying to be transparent about my thought process.

1. Regarding taking positions one personally disagrees with, is there a threshold to this expectation? Must we be willing to expect "racism good" along with "U.S. hegemony good?" The dilemma is that making a distinction seems political in itself, but not making a distinction allows scenarios at least as plausible as Joey's "rape good" scenario, or even more realistically, Nomad's question of whether a Palestinian student ought to be expected to defend Israel in a debate.

To the latter question, I can only answer what seems irrefutably obvious to me: Israelis AND Palestinians ought to meet together and take EACH OTHER's sides in debates. Does anyone really think this would be a bad idea?

2. Should this decision be left up to the debaters? In a very significant way, it already is. Debaters can win the debate that their personal conviction, or the ideology it represents, is a reason to transcend normal resolutional and ground expectations. What is more important to me is that they must do this according to a set of rules that are relatively ideologically neutral: they must take turns to speak, speak within time limits, and, in 99% of the debates, ANSWER each others' arguments. These constraints serve the same deliberative function as "switching" (debating in and out of your personal agency) but the latter has the additional ethical benefit of exposure to the positive side of oppositional ideas. I believe that at the point that debaters learn to transcend the reasons why they "can't" debate from personal conviction, their level of understanding of the debate process has come close to meeting the same level of benefits that radical immersion in "switch" debate might provide.

In the larger sense of the question: I object to games where people get to do whatever they want, but I also believe that UNREFLECTIVE evasion of taking the other side guts a huge part of what is ethically (and intellectually) beneficial about debate.

3. Does the ethical transformation argument unwittingly rely on a dramatistic view of advocacy, in that I might be playing a role I don't like if I argue something I don't believe in?

I ask this because of what people say about roleplaying. I'm not sure where I am going with this question, but it seems interesting. I was in theater in high school and a tiny bit in college. I played a lot of characters I didn't like or agree with, and I think I learned something "internal" about them. Having long held that debate is argumentative oral interpretation, it seems to me that hypothetical enactment has a similar pedagogical effect as that of theater.

4. Habermas readily uses the term "universalization" to describe his ideal deliberative conclusion about norms. He genuinely believes we can build universals (although in a way very different from what Kant or metaphysical ethicists believe--he believes they can be built through democratic institutionalization). Does my description of ethical debate also imply the possibility of universals?

5. Does Nomad's hypersimulation argument undermine the ethical value of traditional debate? Depends, first, whether the argument is sound. I don't necessarily believe that the world, and rhetorical acts within the world, function the way his authors believe it does (more detail on that, obviously, to follow).

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