Impact Hyperbole: A Dilemma of Contemporary Debate Practice

It seems as though debate is stuck in a loop of nuclear wars and no value to life. We have a difficult time of conceiving of a terminal impact that doesn’t end in some ultimate destruction. Without terminal impacts such as nuclear war or the root of all claims, we have a tough time comparing and weighing impacts.

Our arguments for spill over connect even the most improbable of scenario’s. Take for example our Africa war arguments. Given that Africa, as a continent, largely lack nuclear capabilities the chances of a conflict escalating in this area of the world are slim at best, but still debate returns to evidence written by The Rabid Tiger Project. In fact if you google”, you will find the great majority of the hits are debate links. This particular scenario is largely a debate creation and the scholarly world around it seems to have largely dismissed this single article as lacking credibility. Even in a debate context, this particular evidence is difficult to take seriously with a big debate on the line.

Beyond the most terrible of impact evidence though, a world of equally terrifying scenario’s exist. According to the debate community, we face nuclear war because of any of the following: economic collapse in any number of countries across the globe, a lack of US leadership, use of US hard power (pre-emption, imperialist expansion, etc), India-Pakistan conflict, Middle East escalation, Iran nuclearization, capitalism, the lack of capitalism, patriarchy, racism, nuclear terrorism, US response to a terrorist attack, Taiwan independence, Chinese collapse, Russian aggression, Russian collapse, or accidental launch of nuclear weapons. That’s a short list and I am certain it doesn’t contain all the ways a nuclear war could break out as described in debate scenarios. If one listened closely to the debate community, a sense of inevitable doom would most certainly replace any belief in a long life.

As much as it would seem I am poking fun at the policy debate community, kritik debaters caught in the same loop. External impacts to our criticisms are often extinction claims. A great number of K’s end in root of all claims or no value to life claims. In a very similar pattern, our kritiky impacts reflect the same sense of terminal destruction we find in the policy community we often subject to kritik.

Possibly living under the sword of Damocles has had more impact on our psyche than Americans give it credit. Possibly living in the information age has resulted in the ability to read any old nut as great impact evidence without the effective critical thinking skills to discern who or what qualifies as credible. Possibly debate as a community lacks a language by which to communicate the dangers of racism, sexism, homophobia, economic justice, poor foreign relations, or terrorism.

Is this tumble into impact hyperbole a problem? Well, it definitely does not reflect the sort of care a scholar takes in his/her work. It lacks the humility of limited claims backed only with probable warrants. Although there are some scenarios which could escalate into extinction or which do explain important pre-conditions for violence or meaningful living, these scenarios are much more limited than the debate community gives credence. In theory, the repetition of these hyperboles naturalize them or, at least, make them appear natural/normal. Our community convinces itself the impacts we discuss are credible threats. We are a population believing in an exaggerated reality – a hyper real if you will. Before we give ourselves the credit of knowing that our impacts are exaggerated, let us consider those of us who move on to work in think tanks or write law reviews who assess the threats of nuclear wars to the United States. In fact, this honor, think tank writer, is given out at the NDT every year.

Perhaps a better question is, what is the value of our current impact debate? We don’t really help avoid nuclear wars or prevent violence by making every possible interaction into a discussion of the potential for either. If all of these scenarios result in gruesome ending for life on Earth, then the issues become very muddled. The result may be a sort of nihilism which in its conclusion is more Darwinian than Nietzsche.

If we decide there is a impact hyperbole problem, what then is the alternative? Of course, the literature is our guide to a sensible form of impact debate, but we wouldn’t be in this predicament without literature. No debater asserts these impacts; they read cards. Cards = Truth Currency. A solution is a better internal link debate. How do the scenarios unfold? To examine the internals means examining all the many different ways the world would intervene in order to prevent the terminal impact from occurring. Debate judges can only work with what debaters give them, but we too must be willing to tell a team their impacts are overblown when this argument is part of the debate. Giving a debate ballot to the team who finds a 1% risk of extinction is a silly judging paradigm at best. At worst, it reflects a lack of critical thinking on the part of a debate critic. I am most definitely not saying critics should intervene and make impact arguments that are not in the debate, but giving more weight to impact defense is an important start to reign in our impact hyperbole.

What do you think K audience? Is contemporary impact debate a problem? If so, how should we resolve the race to the bottom of the impact barrel?

7 Responses to “Impact Hyperbole: A Dilemma of Contemporary Debate Practice”

  1. I can think of at least two ways to approach this problem:

    1. Assume debate should “be a training ground” for skills in critical thinking, judgement, discernment, and finding/presenting valid or useful information.

    2. Assume debate is a game, and that the way it’s being played currently requires outrageous impact claims.

    If we choose strictly (1), then the constant use of improbable impacts could be problematic. Perhaps utilizing more realistic arguments makes debate more educational, or more preferable for some other reason.

    On the other hand, it could be easily argued that the process of playing the game (2) is also very educational. Think of the last time you read a fantasy or sci-fi novel: Surely, you had to suspend your sense of disbelief in order to experience what the author was communicating. Still, you might have taken something valuable from the book – something “educational” or maybe something that’s better than education (perhaps it should be valued simply because it was simply fun to read).

    I’m glad you pointed out the flaws within the critical community as well. Alongside the problems of “extinction” and “root of all” claims, the viability of many critical alternatives are outrageous. Take the civilization bad K from the agriculture topic for example – seriously, we’re gonna end civilization? And you’re saying the ballot has something to do with making that happen? On the surface, these claims make absolutely no sense.

    However, if we view debate as a game, then these arguments are allowed into the community. In this way, countless sets of literature are opened up for us – and I definitely think that’s a good thing. Even if the structure of the game requires us to make some strange claims, I think that the skills and knowledge we develop in debate are amplified if we assume (2).


    • Scott,
      I think you highlight some important problems, and I largely agree with the thesis of your article. Some issues, for me at least, begin to arise when you reference the ballot as a tool to change the way impacts are assessed in debate. If a team reads shoddy evidence that makes an extinction or value to life claim – the Africa nuclear war evidence for example – then the other team should have an easy time refuting that argument. On the flipside, if a team explains a causal chain of warranted impacts resulting in nuclear war and the like, then very good impact defense will be needed to defeat that analysis.

      You say yourself that you aren’t advocating harmful forms of intervention by the critic; I believe that philosophy demands we leave impacts squarely in the hands of debaters. It is my hope that teams on the high school circuit will learn to better execute defensive arguments and contest ridiculous impact framings like “a 1% risk of infinity is still infinity,” but actively changing my judging paradigm is not the way to bring about change, because that only predetermines the outcome of debates before they take place.

      Instead, coaches can teach their students how to contest low risk, high magnitude impact frameworks using quality evidence and warranted explanation. In other words, the solution to hyperbole in debate is more, better debate.

    • Sheldon,
      Does anyone really think of debate as a training ground anymore?
      I think an implicit understanding that unrealistic arguments should be examined because inquiry and dialogue are valuable unto themselves is pretty universal amongst coaches and judges. If we, as debaters, are the future Congressmen and women of America a litany of problems with policy debate need to be addressed before the question of hyperbolic impacts ever comes to the fore – offense-defense, the existence of kritik arguments, agent CPs, etc.

      I want to expand on your notion that debate sometimes accommodates and even rewards silly arguments for the sake of the game, because I believe this practice is extremely valuable.
      First, reading crazy impacts from unqualified sources is poor scholarship, and should be rewarded with losses. I know there are countless examples where this doesn’t take place, but debaters who never get past evidence of the kind Scott was referencing will never achieve success at the highest levels.
      Second, no claim is crazy until put under the spotlight. If debaters were never exposed to terrible analysis, then they wouldn’t know how to identify it and expose it. Luckily, there’s plenty of those arguments to go around. I know Holocaust denial is a counterexample people use to argue we shouldn’t question everything, but that’s hardly what I’m asking for. Some arguments can be dismissed as offensive or established as an independent reason to vote against a team, but that in itself is an argument, and one that public figures repeatedly fail to put forward.
      Finally, and most importantly, treating debate as a game allows us to weigh the relative merits of different policy proposals, or any other form of advocacy really. You said it yourself – we can decide whether it’s a good idea to collapse civilization or not. If the argument is as awful as you claim, then it should be easy to defeat and will disappear from competition thanks to a lack of success. If, however, the argument wins some ballots, then teams will work on better answers and perhaps begin to examine reasons why civilization might be bad after all. I certainly enjoy research into previously unexamined questions of that sort.

  2. Lets Make Debate Better Says:

    Arsht and others,

    You point to these four issues being barriers to debate being taken seriously:

    offense-defense, the existence of kritik arguments, agent CPs, etc.

    I don’t think these are intrinsically bad or worthy of criticism–it only seems the over emphasis or hyper emphasis on one of the above could be something to adjust.

    Further, I personally don’t think any of the above practices will be eliminated from the activity–only re-adjusted or re-focused or re-prioritized.

    If anything–agent counter plans create a more dynamic and strategic model of decision making. Sure, congress doesn’t control the states or the courts….but journalists, academics, and public policy analysts don’t have control over the Congress either.

  3. well, an intimately related problem to me is card fetishism (the notion that all cards count as evidence and that cards, by default, count more than analytical argumentation), and to address it from a judging perspective, i suggest that judges adopt the policy of not reading cards after the round (unless it’s to resolve a specific contradiction over what the card actually reads). moreover, i suggest that debaters research arguments that impact hyperbolic rhetoric as such, and present them as independent voting issues. ‘disaster porn’ and ‘genocide trivialization’ are nascent forms of what those critiques could look like. when any member of an academic community of speakers warns us about the non-existent wolf of nuclear war, that person damages the reputation of the entire forum. to be sure debate is a game, but kritikers like to pretend it’s an intellectual’s game as opposed to a strict policymaker’s one, and that’s why if one seeks to reform it based on the above concerns, kritiks of hyperbole must become strategically viable.

  4. Actively participating in the debate community, I have observed that there are certainly radical assertions made concerning terminal impacts. However, the problem is not exclusive to terminal impacts, as there has been an intellectual decline of substantive and procedural arguments. More specifically, the community has shifted from fundamental policy components to theory filled rhetoric.

    Although this trend has proven itself to be disadvantageous in some instance, I believed that its absurdity teaches debaters how to identify flawed arguments and weigh impacts logically. To make impact analysis more beneficial, team should start using common sense, rational arguments against wildly developed claims of nuclear war and extinction.

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