When I wrote about tolerance being dead, it expressly spoke to people with “sincere reasons.” Both words were purposefully included to include both the subjective (sincere) and objective (reason) why an position with which many disagree is still worthy of respect. While this shouldn’t have been too nuanced for basic comprehension, it was to some.
The stated reason was they knew of no one who proffered a “sincere reason” for their position. In other words, their rejection of tolerance was based on their personal experience, or at least their claimed experience, as if the limits of their world defines the world for others. The idea that anyone could have a “sincere reason” was at best a theoretical premise and at worst a lie. The only people who disagreed with getting vaccinated were evil and selfish, who cared only for their personal desires at the expense of harm to others and their social responsibility.
The problem is that there is no argument to be made about what someone did or did not personally experience. Maybe it’s true, or substantially true, or maybe they’re just making it up, but either way, it’s their claimed experience and there is no rational argument to dispute it. On the other hand, it persuades no one. Even if true, so what? The limits of another person’s experience is irrelevant both to the facts and to your experience.
As it turns out, this dichotomy in argumentation not only isn’t new, but was tested in formal, competitive college debates almost two decades ago, when Ede Warner, a black debate coach at Louisville, came up with a “new” approach to formal debate.
Warner’s first efforts centered these arguments on what he called “Black issues,” like reparations, the criminal justice system and Black social justice movements, but for the most part, he stayed within the standard parameters of debate.
Whatever the resolution upon which the debate was framed, Warner’s method was to ignore the topic and shift the focus to a black issue.
In 2004, for example, when the topic was NATO, Louisville opened a match against Harvard by arguing that the debate community was similar to NATO as an oppressive institution. While researching NATO and the effect of racism on foreign policy, the Louisville debaters argued, they came to the realization that they, as Black people in America, had experiences that the so-called experts they were reading did not.
Warner’s great innovation was to shift the stakes of each round from the theoretical to the personal. His debaters argued that the judge’s ballot could do more than just decide which fake plan was better: By voting for Louisville, the judge could affirm the validity of Black students in debate and, by extension, create a more diverse, inclusive community. By voting against Louisville, he would be implicitly saying that everything was fine.
Thus the “win” wasn’t a test of who made the most persuasive argument, but whether the debate judges were racist. After all, how could some theoretical, or “fake” problem, be more important than the “real” problems that Warner’s debaters brought to the podium?
Warner also told his debaters to use what he called “identity advantages,” which he defined as the lived authority to speak on issues pertaining to oppression and racism. This forced their opponents to enter the debate at a deficit. If the other team refused to debate on those terms, or as in several instances, if they responded in ways that might have been deemed discriminatory, Louisville debaters would shut down the round and refuse to continue.
What was happening wasn’t some brilliant Aristotelian appeal to pathos, but changing the rules of the game. The rules of debate required the debaters to address a specific resolution, a topic, but instead Warner’s approach was to turn every topic into a debate about racism and to use the black debaters’ “lived authority” to make it impossible for white, particularly Ivy Leaguers, to challenge since they neither had those experiences nor could challenge the experiences of the black debaters without appearing racist.
And if the other side refused to shift their aim toward the moved goalpost, Warner’s debaters walked off the field.
Some might get the sense that Warner’s team wasn’t debating, but playing Rhetorical Calvinball. But one would think that the rules of formal debate would preclude this from happening. After all, there was a resolution before the debaters and their failure or refusal to address the relevant arguments would be the ruin of their effort.
There was also a whiff of racial essentialism in Louisville’s core arguments: Was there really a Black way to debate? Was there no real value in reading the opinions of experts on the effects of racist foreign policy, even if its harms fell on other people? And was race really the correct way to view the problem of elitism and exclusivity in the community?
Are these fair questions to consider? Only if you refuse to accept the premise of critical race theory, that there is a racial component to everything and to deny the view through that lens is to be racist. So sure, white dudes, challenge black rules all you want, which is exactly what one would expect of a person who has enjoyed the privileged life of a white person.
Still, I believe Warner’s project presaged a profound change in the way that race and inequality are now discussed, not so much in ideology but rather in methodology. The range of possible solutions to problems of inequality have drifted together and consolidated themselves. What has resulted is a false consensus.
What Warner accomplished, with substantial success, is a new methodology of argumentation that couldn’t be refuted because it was not focused on the specific topic or grounded in common facts or reason. Rather, it was reduced to a racial litmus test.
I call this process “binary consensus building.” When judges voting in a Louisville Project debate were presented with the problem of exclusion in debate, they were given two choices for resolving it: Vote Team A or Team B. Similarly, a recent rise in reactionary politics has meant that the range of possible solutions to policy issues has been drastically reduced, forcing people into a type of acquiescence to whatever solution gets placed in front of them. Do you want to stop inequality or not? Are you a racist or an anti-racist? Do you care about race or class? Are you on Team A or Team B?
The outcome isn’t dependent on whether you’ve persuaded anyone by the strength of your rational argument, but whether you can deny a black person’s perception of every issue as racial, deny their “lived experience” by not choosing to side with the anti-racists. It worked for Warner’s debate team. It works today.
There’s no question that it’s an effective mode of argumentation, but does it persuade anyone? Does it identify real problems or serve to reach correct solutions? It’s one thing to use manipulative pathos to win a college debate, but is that any way to decide sound public policy?