By Srdjan Miletic
Beyond the thrill of competition or teaching critical thinking, one of the greatest things debating offers is wisdom. Good debates result in persuasive arguments being brought, attacked and compared, a process which often leads to brilliant and innovative analysis of issues and creative solutions to pressing social problems. Time and time again debating has led me to reevaluate my position on a variety of issues as I heard arguments which I had never been exposed to before. Whereas when I came into debating I thought all military interventions evil, debating made me confront the fact that in some situations a diplomatic solution was impossible and intervention was the only alternative to atrocities. Debating made me that little bit less ignorant, made my opinions resemble reality that little bit more and for that I am intensely grateful. That being said, what if a certain set of persuasive arguments were to be arbitrarily excluded from debating? What if we weren’t allowed to bring up local opposition when discussing humanitarian interventions? What if we couldn’t mention black markets in debates about drug legalization? It seems obvious that such arbitrary restrictions would make debating worse by ensuring that the discussions we had in debating were detached from reality, meaning the arguments made in debating applied only in debate-land and were of no relevance to the real world, holding little chance of influencing or people’s real opinions. Yet, there seem to be two problems with BP as it exists now which result in precisely such exclusion of argumentative categories.
The role of the state is one of the major points of contention between left and right wing parties in the real world. Partially, this disagreement is fuelled by different views on the extent to which the state should impose taxes on its citizens, or whether the state can effectively intervene in markets. Another part of the argument centres around whether state power should be feared amidst concerns states are not only fallible but also corruptible. For instance, one of the reasons many people, including myself, are against laws restricting free speech is that we do not trust the state to enforce such laws fairly, or to not expand them beyond their original scope. As such, we are willing to accept the harms of hate speech if it means avoiding the risk of government restricting other, more valuable forms of free speech. The problem is that BP debating often excludes concerns about the extent to which we can trust a state because in BP we are the state. As such, the above argument and others like it do not hold water in most BP debates as the government team can simply state that they will only enforce the law fairly and in a limited context. In other words, it seems that BP has an intrinsic statist bias which seriously limits the extent to which the dynamics of many debates reflect reality. This is a problem that I cannot see a simple solution to.
Another feature of good policy discussions in reality is that when we assess the merits of a policy, we do so by comparing it to a range of alternatives and not just to the policy which currently happens to be in place. When we discuss whether to renew Trident, the UK’s continuous at sea nuclear deterrent, we shouldn’t simply compare disarmament to keeping Trident as it is today but also to alternate options such as switching to aircraft based deterrence. In debating, counter-props are the mechanism which allows for such comparisons. Without the ability to counter-prop, opposition teams are locked into defending whatever the status quo of the day happens to be. Yet, I often meet CAs and judges who either see counter-props as entirely illegitimate or as strange and unfair. The problem with disliking or restricting counter-props is that doing so restricts comparison to only the proposed policy and the status quo, excluding a whole range of other potentially superior options and ensuring debaters cannot discuss a policy as it would be discussed in reality. The solution to problem is simple: allow counter-props for most debates and do not view them as unusual or deserving of punishment. If certain rare motions require a strict dichotomy between two options, it is always possible to restrict comparison by making the dichotomy intrinsic to the motion, for example with the wording “THW do X instead of Y”.
Debating is a game and, like all games, its existence is a function of a certain set of rules. Those rules should not be arbitrary. They should reflect and further the reasons we value debating. Aside from what I have said above, I don’t know many ways in which the rules of BP could be changed to make debating better. That being said, I’m sure that BP as it is now is not perfect and it may be wise for us as a community to take a good, hard look at what we want from debating and why we have the rules we do.