High School/College Partnerships

Communications Studies Supplements

How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love the Kritik

Eric Truett, University of Chicago Law

2001 - WMD Policy: Limited Use or Useless Limits?

While a wide variety of judges have demonstrated a willingness to vote for critical arguments, many of these judges do not vote on kritiks because they view criticism as an effective and desirable form of argument. Rather, their ballot is compelled by the absence of compelling affirmative arguments. I have heard judge after judge comment that they voted for kritiks simply because the affirmative could not put up even a token defense. While advocates of critical arguments have gone to great lengths to perfect their craft, many affirmative teams remain woefully unprepared to debate kritiks. This unpreparedness stems somewhat from denial/disinterest (I don't want to spend two weeks researching Heidegger answers. Give me more NMD cards) but mostly from a lack of strategic understanding of what makes kritiks powerful arguments and what effective Affirmative tactics can be utilized to offset the strategic advantage of criticism.

From the strategic perspective of a debater, kritiks offer several advantages. First, links are virtually guaranteed. The generic nature of many criticisms ensures their wide and varied applicability. The nature of every modern NDT and NFL resolution ensures the negative of widespread ground for criticism. Second, the research burden of broad topics is minimized. Some write this off as kritik debaters being lazy. I do not believe this to be the case. An effective kritik debater must spend a great deal of time in order to anticipate affirmative answers and develop strategies for effectively utilizing criticism. This effort, however, differs from traditional research. Kritik work does not primarily take place in the library, on Lexis, or on the Web. It involves community discussions, creative thinking, and extensive block-writing. A great deal of effort must go into the actual performance of criticism as well. Third, specialization in critical argumentation creates a comparative advantage that can nullify the strengths of your opponents. Knowledge of the resolution, widespread evidence on the topic, and the ability to spew evidence are virtually irrelevant in kritik debates. A slow-yet-persuasive kritiker can beat fast teams by keeping the debate on their ground. A school with limited coaching and resources and a low-quality library can minimize their strategic disadvantage versus the debate machines. Finally, the burden of proof for critical arguments is usually much less than for conventional arguments. Links require minimal thresholds, uniqueness is never really an issue, the solvency burden for an alternative is lower than that of a counterplan. Quite simply, it is easier to win using criticism than it is using traditional debate arguments. This is the most compelling reason why critical argumentation has taken off in popularity-debaters gravitate towards practices that have the maximum competitive benefit with the least effort. While everyone may dream of executing the perfect strategy against the fastest, best-evidenced team, in reality, you choose the path that has the greatest margin of error and best chance for victory. A savvy affirmative team must accept these realities and learn to love debating (or defeating) kritiks.

Framework For Affirmative Strategy

The key is to achieve mastery of a few basic arguments which can be paired with the kritik-specific evidence in your files. Many debaters end up spinning their wheels when debating kritiks because they try to do too much without a good sense of what is important and how all of the arguments fit together. Other debaters err by overengaging the negative on complex philosophical issues and ignoring more powerful and comprehensible arguments

In the large number of the kritik rounds I have seen, the negative has won due to one or more of the following seven reasons: the kritik functioned as an absolute harm or solvency takeout (including an indict of the affirmative's method, their actor, or their mechanism); the kritik turned the case; there was no benefit to voting Affirmative because their plan would never be adopted and their discourse had no unique benefit to the round's participants; the Affirmative employed objectionable language or imagery; the system of thought defended by the Affirmative destroyed the meaning/value of life; the alternative defended by the negative solved the Aff case harms and avoided any link to the kritik; the Affirmative did not answer a theory voting issue to one of their 2AC arguments (typically versus a permutation) Even though kritiks can be extremely varied in the micro-level arguments, the list from the previous paragraph demonstrates a basic redundancy of critical arguments. In order to make kritiks relevant to most judges' decisions, negatives rely upon the same impact calculus and same weighing arguments. An Emory team several years ago would spin teams in circles talking about the fusion of Heidegger and Foucault in Spanos' thought, but then win the round on a series of analytical policy arguments that were hidden by the complex philosophical discussion. The point to remember is that the Affirmative can be ready to defend against virtually every kritik even if they have virtually no understanding of the inner workings of the argument.

Elements of the Affirmative Strategy

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to debating kritiks. But there are arguments that tend to have greater strategic utility than others. This section addresses some of the main errors affirmatives make and refutes some of the most common negative arguments utilized in defending kritiks.

Front-load the 1AC:

The biggest strategic error an Affirmative can make is not using the time allotted to the 1AC to maximum effect. If you are debating a team that is highly reliant upon kritiks, you have a major strategic advantage in shaping the 1AC. You don't have to worry about insulating the case from a specific attack. You can present a skeleton of your normal 1AC-stripped down to its essential claims-and use the bulk of your time to present generic arguments and evidence that preempts the 1NC. If you start the debate in the 2AC, you will be behind after the entire 1NC is devoted to critical arguments. What you decide to preempt will vary from round to round. What should not vary is your approach to the 1AC as an opportunity to get a leg up on their criticisms.

Avoid the Link Trap:

Kritiks are very difficult to answer on the link level. Many of the links are too broad and generic for a topical case to dodge. Further compounding the problem is the lack of threshold arguments. In contrast to disadvantages, where a team can lose because their link was too small to outweigh the case, most judges approach kritik links as an all-or-nothing issue. Except for in extraordinary cases, the Affirmative will lose if they spend a great deal of time trying to win "no link" arguments. The most valuable purpose of link arguments are to demonstrate that the link is not so large as to make a permutation impossible.

Permute, Permute, Permute (Think of kritiks as utopian counterplans):

Counterplan permutation theory is pretty much settled. Virtually every judge believes a counterplan must be net beneficial (the counterplan alone must be better than plan or permutation) and that a legitimate permutation must include all of the affirmative plan and all or part of the counterplan. However, permutation theory for kritiks remains in a primordial state. There is great confusion about what permuting a kritik means, how a permutation takes place, and what actors are involved when permuting. Negatives seize upon this lack of common understanding to disable what should be extremely effective arguments. The Affirmative must do three things to win a permutation: prove its theoretical legitimacy, show that the link does not undermine the permutation solvency, and demonstrate a net benefit versus the kritik alone.

Most negative teams will reserve a chunk of speech time reading a long theory block against permutations. Although you must answer these arguments, they can be disposed of rather easily. Permutations are not severance or conditional because the affirmative still advocates adoption of the entire plan after the end of the round. Permutations are not concessions to the negative-they demonstrate the assumptions that the negative rejects and the alternative that it embraces are not fundamentally inconsistent with the affirmative project. A world without permutations would allow the negative to always win by advocating more change than the Affirmative or by arguing against a greater evil than the affirmative.

Negatives will also rely heavily upon the argument that the links to the case make the permutation impossible. However, this puts the kritik in a solvency double-bind. If the link prevents the permutation, than the status quo (which links to the kritik as well) will crush the solvency of the negative project. If the negative project can overcome the status quo, it solves any risk that the permutation prevents the solvency of the kritik. The affirmative should point out that the fiat of the negative alternative is stronger than any link they win to the case.

The final negative argument against permutations is that there is no net benefit to the permutation-any risk of the link means the kritik alone is better. The affirmative should offer the following responses: this comparison is unfair because it compares utopian rethinking to pragmatic policy change; permutations prevent criticism from lapsing into inaction and nihilism by allowing for incremental improvements over the status quo; permutations make criticism more effective by allowing empirical testing of ideas and constant revision of policy; lack of incremental policy action encourages ideological extremism and disastrous social experiments like communism or national socialism; rethinking alone assumes we can obtain a state of perfect knowledge in the absence of experience; and, contradictions are inevitable and necessary in a path of questioning and having the world reveal itself.

"No Alternative" is a good argument (if explained properly):

At some point, kritik advocates recognized the perceptual disadvantage they faced when unable to offer an alternative as part of their criticism. In a stroke of genius, someone realized that "rethinking" or "questioning" could be presented as the alternative. This move threw affirmative teams for a loop, and many have given up on the idea of no alternative in spite of its formidable potential to beat kritiks. "No alternative" should be rethought to mean "No short-term, specific, solvent, policy alternative". Although this is verbose for a 2AC blip, this conceptualization demonstrates the elements of a no alternative argument.

To understand why most alternatives are not competitive, imagine the kritik as a study counterplan. Once popular, this counterplan fell out of favor because there were too many problems with competition and fiat to view studies as a viable alternative. No judge would vote for the notion that study alone was a viable alternative. For the counterplan to solve the case, it must change the status quo at some point. Negative teams usually dealt with the problem of inevitable delay and potential inaction by guaranteeing action based upon the study results after a certain period of time. This proved problematic, as the affirmative could use that mandate to change mandates of the plan based upon future knowledge. The negative was then left with the "hidden disadvantage" to the unknown action of the affirmative plan to weigh against the certain impact in delaying action. Needless to say, the negative was unlikely to win on this argument alone. There was also the problem that status quo policy ensures study bias. There is no vacuum in which to think or to study. Any study will inevitably be influenced by current policy as well as by interest groups on both sides of the aisle. There is no process as of yet that has been able to hermetically seal out bias. Finally, the negative incurred the risk of delay-the time-frame solvency gap on the study usually outweighed the possibility that study could make the solution even better.

The affirmative must avoid the trap of describing "no alternative" as "rethinking is not action." The negative is correct in asserting that rethinking is a form of action. Your job on the affirmative is to prove it is not a competitive or viable form of action.

Stick it to them (the Status Quo, that is).

An essential corollary to the "no alternative" claim is the proposition that the negative should be stuck with the status quo. This means that the affirmative should not be judged by an ideal standard. Instead, any link and impact must be comparative to current policies, assumptions, and rhetoric. Given that virtually every criticism applies to the status quo equally (or more) than the affirmative, this is an extremely powerful argument. To stick the negative with the status quo, the affirmative should argue the following: the resolution is a provisional statement, not an assertion of absolute truth; all comparison is relative--perfection/utopia is not a fair burden for the affirmative to meet; sticking to the status quo forces clash of different perspectives, which is a valuable exercise to build power of critical theory; and, if the negative doesn't have to defend the status quo, neither does the affirmative have to be tied to the status quo.

"Stick it to them" gains extra credibility if the negative attacks the theoretical legitimacy of your permutation. Some of the arguments they make-the permutation is severance and the permutation has no net benefit-assume a policy-making model of debate in which the negative is implicitly defending the status quo.

Strategy in the Rebuttals

Kritik debates can only be lost in the 2AC. An ineffective constructive can doom you, but given that many of the voting issues for kritiks do not emerge until the block, effective and thorough rebuttals are essential to ensuring an affirmative ballot. While a full roadmap for the rebuttals is impossible, there are central issues that need to be addressed in any kritik round. Before the 1AR and the 2AR, the Affirmative team should be able to answer the following questions:

  1. What are the policy implications of this kritik? Does it take out our advantages? Does it take out my case advantage or solvency? Does it function as a turn of any kind? How does my solvency weigh against that of the alternative?
  2. What is the impact to the kritik? Is it simply "avoiding domination" or is there a bigger impact to weigh against the case?
  3. What am I comparing to the kritik? Can I claim my whole case advantage? Or am I only looking at the social benefits of speaking the words of the 1AC?
  4. Are there any theory voting issues that need to be answered?
  5. What is my offense (either turns to the kritik or net benefits to the permutation)?

Final Thoughts

Given the prominence of the kritik in present-day debate, affirmatives must spend as much (if not more) time preparing for and researching kritiks as they do policy-based arguments. Many teams suffer because they cannot bring themselves to adjust their tactics in an era in which kritik proficiency is of equal importance to great solvency cards and up-to-the-minute politics answers. It is my hope that this essay can provide some guidance to improve affirmative strategic decisionmaking in kritik rounds and to offset the enormous advantages that kritiks offer negative teams.