The Liberal Suffocation

The Liberal Suffocation

Karthik SivaramParliamentary debating is dominated, to a point of suffocation, by liberal discourse. It’s nigh impossible to debate on the side of social conservatism, however well argued, due to the dogmatic bias of adjudicators towards arguments in the domain of free choice and ‘rights’. The expected depth of analysis expected, while arguing such vaguely liberal sounding ideas, is ostensibly much lesser. This also results in teams equivocating on such arguments and expecting to win, which they do, especially in emerging circuits. This results in a vicious cycle of sorts, where the same old arguments are rehashed repeatedly. It makes for an amusing investigation, to look into the ‘pet arguments’ of different circuits. The liberal bias, per se, is an anodyne facet of parliamentary debating. It is indeed extremely challenging to sound persuasive and reasonable while arguing socially conservative issues. This is, perhaps, because of the dogmatic incompatibility of these ideas with self-critical discourse. The issue is when this begins to erode any sort of criticism on typically liberal arguments. This results in a misinterpretation at best and a mutilation at worst of the same ideas by teams who are rewarded for vaguely associating themselves with those ideas. Thus, this acts counter productively in the development and refinement of liberal discourse itself. The expectation of in depth reflection and analysis for issues such as rights analysis, individual choice, the harm principle, the social contract and what have you is pathetically low. This has resulted in teams foisting these arguments, because empirically these arguments have been shown to win debates, into paradigms with no contextual relevance. The impact is much graver on adjudicators. In messy debates, the adjudicator is alerted by these ‘debate phrases’ and conjectures, not always faultily, that the team that has deployed them surely must be making the most sense. Thus the cycle recapitulates itself. With the spirit of these philosophically rich ideas sacrificed for cheap gamesmanship, liberal discourse in debating has become a regrettable travesty. I don’t think remedying this situation requires adjudicators and debaters to all take philosophy classes. Just an emphasis on the fallibility of such arguments made in the wrong context and with a lack of required analysis should suffice. The simple of rule of thumb being that if the jargon being dished out doesn’t make any sense, don’t buy it just because it happens to be a debate phrase. I understand that this is easier said than done, but I see very little consciousness of the same.

The liberal bias becomes much more of a problem with regards to fiscal issues. Fiscal conservatism, although widely popular in western mainstream political discourse, finds very few takers in debating circuits. Perhaps, it’s more of a structural problem with any debate on economics. Economics is perhaps a theme most negatively affected by obfuscating rhetoric. Especially in a paradigm where ones claims don’t have to be qualified with facts and figures, it is not uncommon to have ridiculous debates and arguments made whenever economics based motions are debated. In this process fiscal liberalism, especially attitude towards state capacity and obligation to spend on welfare is placed upon an undeservedly lofty pedestal. Where popular as well as intellectual discourse is shifting towards advocating smaller states, debate discourse still sees the big-spending colossus of a state with a lot of affection. I, personally, would like to see a lot more motions at international tournaments that demand teams to carefully reevaluate state spending and the justification for taxation. But on the other hand I can also understand how 14 minutes of substantive analysis is much too less to accommodate complex economic phenomenology.

Since parliamentary debating traces its origins to western civilization, it is structurally more conducive to western liberal thought. However, in the absence of real conflict, or borrowing from Hegel, in the absence of an ‘anti-thesis’, there can be no refinement of the ‘thesis’ or synthesis of new ideas. This bias also makes debating and discourse vulnerable to pedantry. If not for anything else, but for more engaging and enjoyable debates this stagnation of thought must change.

Editor's Note

The debate junta does lean towards liberal argumentation and after some deliberation I did arrive on certain conclusions regarding the cause and nature of this phenomenon. Upon a cursory analysis I came to realization that societal discourse is diametrically poised to the discourse in Parliamentary Debating in most matters. So where conservative arguments by virtue of being intuitive from the societal perspective require very minimal or token justification, liberal views need to be propelled by a mighty thrust of logical argumentation and even then it receives great resistance. The burden of justifying principles and policies by virtue of logical reasoning and argumentation forms the philosophical underpinnings of parliamentary debating. This leads to a process of questioning and evaluating the merits of issues from a stand point which as a result of overcompensation gravitates towards the liberal spectrum. Take for example the motion “THW legalize gay marriages”. The burden of principled justification on the opposition will be astronomically higher than the proposition in a parliamentary debate whereas it will be the other way round in the context of a societal discourse. However, I believe this isn’t limited to emerging circuits and is prevalent in varying forms across most circuits.

As far as conservative arguments on issues are concerned, much like in our society, where the underlying logic and principles behind conservative philosophies have been entirely forgotten leaving blatant dogmas thinly buttressed by scant logic, debaters presenting these arguments almost never do justice to them. I believe that some share of blame for the bias against conservative argumentation lies with debaters that present them with thread bare analysis. This reminds me of something John Stuart Mill once said, "Conservatives are not necessarily stupid, but most stupid people are conservatives."

On the use of ‘catch phrase’ arguments like social contract and others such, I don’t feel the problem is either unique to liberal arguments or attributed to the bias we speak of. It is an independent characteristic of our debate circuit, whereby arguments have brand value and in certain cases using a celebrity argument is perceived to fetch brownie points. There is a need to overcome this superficiality and promote deeper analysis in general. However I don’t agree with Karthik in so much as I don’t think the use of such arguments wins anyone debates. I frankly can’t think of one debate where stating the ‘harm principle’ or ‘social contract’ has won anyone a debate.

Now there’s one thing that has left me in a bit of a knot. Karthik talks about the existence of a liberal bias in the circuit when it comes to fiscal policy matters but then he goes on to deride the importance given to the welfare state theory. The problem with this is that fiscal liberalists demand greater state involvement in the economy and spending, whereas fiscal conservatives rally for smaller states and reduced government spending. So then the circuit seems to be leaning towards the conservative school of thought in this aspect. Whatever the case may be, the international debating circuit seems to be quite well balanced on this subject and affections towards the welfare state notion are prevalent in the Indian circuit as a result of the overarching philosophy on which the state of India was founded whereby a state is supposed to provide for its citizens by all means and so on. This rhetoric has permeated through propaganda into the social psyche and in the absence of adequate exposure to alternative models, has become the prevalent expectation from a state.

Summarizing, I agree that there is a certain extent of stagnation and there needs to be a push towards bringing more depth and greater analysis along with an open minded approach towards arguments, issues and philosophies. I don't think there is any set mechanism to achieve this, the only thing to be done is for every debater and adjudicator to consciously strive towards it...


Leor Sapir:

Before anything else, I think you both make very good points. I would, however, offer a few clarifications of my own.

First, Karthik's point about how the liberal bias undermines our ability to sharpen and improve liberal discourse is true. In fact, this was the hallmark teaching of the father of free speech, John Stuart Mill: "If the opinion is right, they [we] are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error." Where I disagree is with Karthik's assumption that the purpose of BP debate (or any debate, for that matter) is truth seeking. Debate is about rhetoric, not truth. Power through persuasion, not enlightenment through careful juxtaposition of ideas. The Sophists, not Socrates, would have been on RVCE A. Why does this matter? Because a good speaker is one who can make counterintuitive arguments convincingly, who can introduce unorthodox ideas while still appealing to the prejudices of his or her audience, and who can analyze examples in order to show the opposite of what people think they show. Debate, you should keep in mind, begins with a premise of relativism - that every argument has a counter argument equally valid - without which debate would not be possible. Relativism and truth seeking are hardly compatible with one another. Insofar as the philosophical underpinnings of parliamentary debate are important for all of us to think about from time to time, I thought this point was worth making.

Second, and more important, you both seem to conflate two very different kinds of conservatism. There is religious conservatism and philosophic conservatism. The one relies on the authority of the revealed Word and its Canon, the other on arguments about the value of received human wisdom through tradition and social institutions. It is the latter whom you are much more likely to encounter in debating circuits, and they can be (and usually are) highly self-critical. Especially because they tend to be in the minority among liberals in these circles. Why am I saying this? Because I disagree that in such motions as THW Legalize Gay Marriage "the burden of principled justification on the opposition will be astronomically higher than the proposition." I disagree with the factual claim, and with its pedagogical implication. If your argument as opposition is "well, hey, God said so", then yes, you're likely to lose given the audience. But I would caution against cutting philosophic conservatives slack when arguing against liberal-progressive agendas, precisely for the reason Karthik cares about, namely the clarification of all good arguments. Conservative arguments must be made carefully and sensitively, but thoroughly and persuasively.

Finally, on the use of catch phrases, code words, and other sound bytes. Here I agree with Aashay. In good rounds at good tournaments, no self respecting team would throw out "social contract" or "women's choice" and hope that that alone would stroke the liberal G-spot of their adjudicators enough to win. All rights arguments presuppose ideas about interests, about human good, about responsibility and about dignity - things that most conservatives care about deeply, by the way. Make those arguments and you will win. Smugly wrap them up in terms like "social contract" or "undemocratic" and you will probably lose (unless the clash is over the obligation to obey the law or enfranchisement of the politically dormant, respectively).

Speakers who know how to challenge liberal assumptions that usually go unchecked in debating circuits are actually in a position of relative advantage. Speakers who have to rely on pandering to such prejudices are usually weak anyway. With the exception of a final (which is in front of an audience that has immense influence over the judges and - due to group psychology - will probably cheer loudly at the mere mention of progressive ideas) don't fear the liberal bias.
and then Baba said...

I have to say Aashay Sahay, Karthik Sivaram that much of this problem comes from the fact that lots of "conservative" motions are basically asking one side to argue for things that are basically truisms/falsisms, which aren't implemented because in reality governments are not trying to maximize public welfare; for instance stuff like legalizing drugs, legalizing suicide etc which basically expect one side to make retarded arguments about "symbolism" "sending messages" and stuff like that

Also, gotta say, BP debate can be fun and all, but as a competitive format, it is an unmitigated disaster..I entirely disagree with treating BP as the standard for this kind of issue; especially since due to the structural flaws of BP, winning key arguments and winning rounds aren't the same thing
Leor, when i talk about the said motion, what I don't mean to say that the odds are meant to be in the prop's favor; but rather that given equally qualified teams in this debate the opposition will find itself harder pressed in such a debate. This is something I'm saying based on what my observations in our circuit...
Unknown said…
True. To clarify, I do think that in certain motions the onus is slightly heavier on one side just because of the zeitgeist and the prejudices of the audience. I just don't see it as that big a problem (although it is, on some level, a problem).

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