Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Debater's Perspective on the Current Political Rhetoric: A Stock Issues Approach

When students learn the academic game of debate, there is a univeral starting place: the affirmative team, at least in traditional policy debate, is charged with presenting a "case and plan."  The plan is the what the team proposes to do; the case is why they propose to do it.

While there are countless permutations, strategies, and tactics, the most basic debates center around the "stock issues:"  topicality, harm, inherency, solvency, and disadvantages. (Those of you who are not debaters, stay with me. This will make sense.)

Topicality is what it sounds like - the plan must fit within the resolution, or topic, for the year.  Inherency means that that the present system cannot fix whatever is wrong, thus requiring the plan.  Neither of those is relevant to this blog.

The other three stock issues cross over into our everyday political rhetoric.  "Harm" simply means what is wrong in the present system.  The affirmative team identifies some "harm" of significance that begs for correction.  "Solvency" is the affirmative's proof that the plan will fix the harm.  Disadvantages are the negative team's arguments about why the plan is a bad idea.

A negative team need not win all these issues. Winning one is enough for a negative vote from the judge.  A negative team may, therefore, simply argue that the "harm" is not really so bad and does not need to be fixed; or the negative may argue that the harm is indeed significant but that the plan does not solve it; or the case may be granted in its entirety, but the negative may try to prove that the disadvantages to the plan outweigh whatever is gained from solving the harm.

Today's rhetoric ought to embody the same idea.  When somebody is against a certain political idea, it may be because she denies the harm, but that may not be the case.  She may agree that the harm is significant but may think that the proposed way to fix it won't work or is a bad idea, or both.

Take two ideas from today's headlines, Obamacare and the North Carolina state constitutional amendment on marriage.

Someone may oppose Obamacare because he truly believes that there is no health care crisis or because he simply hates poor people and does not care about a health care crisis. If so, in debate language, he would be denying the "harm" of the affirmative case.  But he may well believe that we have a health care crisis and may care deeply for the poor and still think Obamacare is a bad idea, or that Obamacare is the wrong way to address the problem, or both.

Someone may oppose the North Carolina amendment because she believes that gay marriage is a good or moral idea or because she believes the amendment is an imposition on minority rights.  But, someone may think homosexual marriages are a bad idea and still oppose the amendment because she does not think it is any of the government's business or because she thinks that the constitution is not the place to address the issue or because she believes that moral issues like this are for the church and not the state to address.

My point is that you often cannot tell how someone feels about what is important simply by how that person responds to a particular policy initiative.  It is not my point in this blog to tell you what I think about Obamacare or amendments outlawing gay marriages, but I can tell you that being against either one may not say what you think it does.  Being against them may be a statement about solvency and/or disadvantages, not the claimed harm in the status quo.

Many of today's pundits - whether they be on tv or on Facebook - clearly do not get this.  The level of condemnation of those who disagree on policies because of the assumed reasons for the disagreement is frightening to me.  The idea that anyone who opposes government-run health care must hate poor people is uninformed.  It is too narrow to think that quoting Bible verses will make all Christians be in favor of certain governmental action.

Don't assume that those against Obamacare do not care about the poor or the health care crisis.  Don't assume that all those who feel that gay marriage is wrong are therefore in favor of making it illegal.  They may absolutely agree with policy proponents on the harm but be against these polices becaues of a lack of solvency or based on disadvantages.

Remember that you can argue the negative for a number of different reasons.

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