The Persuasive and The Personal

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?

27 thoughts on “The Persuasive and The Personal

  1. PseudonymousKid

    Yes, maybe, no. The tactic might not work as well on you, but some are more swayed by the righteousness of the cause than others. The problems the tactic identifies may well be real, but the manner of debate says nothing about the topic itself or moves the subject towards real solutions, unless winning a debate with shitty rules is a solution. This isn’t a way to produce sound public policy. There’s no real integration of ideas or compromise. It’s an all or nothing gambit that will serve to divide.

    1. SHG Post author

      The effectiveness of bad argumentation isn’t the question. It can be, and is, very effective to some. The primary problem is that it’s still bad argumentation, unsound in its logic. The second problem is that it shuts down rational debate, precluding any serious logical discussion. Just because there are more emotional people than rational people does not make emotional argument, effective though they may be, better arguments for the sake of society.

      1. Rxc

        But it wins the argument for the people who are making up the rules of Calvinball, which is what they want. And they don’t care what anyone else wants.

        I don’t think this sort of mindset ever results in a stable successful society, but they don’t care – their immediate goal is to destroy the current society. They will figure out how to build their utopia after everything has been reduced to rubble.

      2. El_Suerte

        How about when the bad argumentation occurs in a trial? Should attorneys echew effective arguments for their clients if they’re deleterious to society, etc? Would they be unassailable as they are in debate?

          1. El_Suerte

            I read the comments here, don’t I?

            I asked because I saw connections to other things you wrote, and I was interested in hearing more because you’re an experienced CDL.

            Apologies for any imposition or offense

            1. SHG Post author

              Which is why you already know (or should know) that the answer to your question is obvious, that our duty is to our client, not any cause, and if you had a point to make about it, you should have made that point rather than asked that question.

  2. John Barleycorn

    And here I thought “sound public policy” was in and of itself a manipulative appeal to pathos?

    Don’t you watch Rachel and Tucker’s infomercials and read those books the politicos put out every time they are seeking higher office? I thought everybody read those to get all charged up on the slippery slope of tradition while getting high with pity and guilt, not to mention the rush of fear when all those popular adjectives of the day are loaded up and dispersed for the conclusion.

    Damn, you are missing out!!!

    “Sound public policy”, you crack me up…. What sort of fairy tale world are you living in? I am telling you eesteemed one, you really need to get out of the house more often.

    P.S. There is a reason pretzel dough is dipped in lye and doughnut dough is not. Baking or frying is not the question. Why do you have to make everything about baking or frying, not even maple bacon spread for bagels is gonna become a thing…

    1. SHG Post author

      Maybe I’m a bit grumpy, but I’m not finding your incoherent rantings particularly humorous lately. You may want to give cogent and concise a try, or I may need to just trash your insanity for a while.

  3. Quinn Martindale

    Warner’s innovation took place in a context where the dominant judging paradigm wasn’t “who made the most persuasive argument” but ‘tabula rasa’ where the rules of debate were themselves up for debate. A lot of judges were perfectly willing to reward absurd arguments if the other side couldn’t adequately deal with then in the debate round. Before Warner’s narratives there were kritiks where, for example, a team would argue they should win because the other team said something racist and losing would make them less racist. Rather than the traditional tools of ethos, pathos, and logos, it’s pure gamesmanship.

    These style of arguments are famously not about to persuade anyone. In fact, there is a weird contempt in the debate world for “lay” judges who just vote for the team that’s the most persuasive. On the other hand, kritiks and narratives are probably the only form of competitive debate argument that’s actually had a real world impact, debaters really did change their language and, as the article says, schools started recruiting debaters with unique personal narratives.

    To shift to the real world, this style of authority from identity certainly doesn’t persuade anyone. It can help identify real problems and solutions or inform public policy, but only when tempered with other forms of reasoning. “Nothing about us, without us” is good and useful, but policy breaks down quickly when people are discouraged or barred from evaluating claims.

  4. B. McLeod

    “Argument” that never persuades anyone is like rants on the Internet. It may be a badge for entry into a particular echo chamber, or a contribution to competitive virtue-signalling, but it isn’t worth much.

    1. SHG Post author

      People may not be persuaded, but are they convinced that they better go along, and publicly express support, to avoid the consequence? Does that not create the appearance of being persuaded? And if someone appears to be persuaded, and goes along with the idea, and publicly expresses support for it, all of which creates the appearance of increasingly strong support, does that not create momentum to achieve whatever it is people are not persuaded about?

  5. Elpey P.

    “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?”

    The loudest voices in the culture war, as with identity politics and institutional power in general, have other priorities. It’s better to compel than persuade*, better to leverage problems than to solve them, and better to maximize and protect power than elevate the public.

    The “binary consensus building” approach is a good way to obfuscate this, by playing GWB’s with-us-or-against-us card against those who object to the damage being done in the name of “fixing” something.

    *”persuade” here could mean “sincere reasons,” but insincere acquiescence is also possible and an even better form of persuasion because it involves bending the knee.

  6. Pedantic Grammar Police

    These tactics don’t win the debate. They render it irrelevant. By ruining the debate, the debaters make themselves irrelevant.

    The same applies in the real world. That is why our “education” system is increasingly recognized as irrelevant and useless, and the value of its “credentials” diminished.

    The same bomb-throwers who have destroyed debate and who are almost finished destroying our education system now hope to apply this tactic to the United States.

    1. MT

      How does it make them irrelevant? Winning the debate isn’t important to them, power is. Did Alexander the Great win debate competitions all the way to India?

  7. Pedantic Grammar Police

    That NYT article led me to the Gore/Buckley series of debates. What a delightful rabbit hole! I guess it was considered a train wreck at the time, but by today’s standards it was a model of decorum, and Buckley is a Jedi master of the English language. Even his made-up words (i.e. mellifluity) are perfectly crafted and delivered. It’s a bit depressing to see how far we have fallen.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’ve told the story often about my time in the Green Room at Firing Line watching Buckley and John Kenneth Galbraith go out it. I was in the presence of brilliance.

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