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A Class Discussion
Recently while discussing the resolution among our Public Forum debaters, some interesting thoughts emerged. I drew a pyramid on the board and divided it into three parts. The very small upper segment representing the top 1%, a base segment representing the lower 19% and the largest area in between, the 80% middle class. As the discussion ensued, one imaginative debater suggested we separate the top of the pyramid at the 1% line from the lower 80%. We were now viewing the problem in a completely different light, graphically illustrating the gap between the upper 1% and the remaining 80% of Americans. The illustration of the decapitated pyramid sparked new ideas and discussion as well as reminders of the French Revolution. Certainly one of the key ideals of the American way of life is based on the concept of upward mobility. This is the notion that any individual in America has the opportunity to better themselves and basically move up the pyramid, as it were, from the bottom to the top. But perhaps it becomes increasingly difficult to attain the peak if the top is moving away at a rate that outpaces one's ability to climb the ladder of success. I could sense frustration in the minds of the debaters as they began to think of approaches to debating the PRO side of the resolution. Finally, at the end of the session, one novice debater expressed her concern about how broad the resolution really is and how does one defend against every possible example of non-threat to a democratic ideal, the CON side may choose to introduce?
The Decapitated Pyramid
The illustration of the decapitated pyramid serves very well to graphically depict the widening gap between the rich and poor in the United States. David Lynch of Bloomberg.com reports "A widening gap between rich and poor is reshaping the U.S. economy, leaving it more vulnerable to recurring financial crises and less likely to generate enduring expansions." Susan Demas, a political commentator, reports, Charles Ballard of Michigan State University says "The gap between rich and poor is the least reported story in the last 25 years". U.S. Census Bureau confirms the income gap is greater than it has been since tracking of income data began in the 1960's. As an example of how the laws in the U.S. actually contribute to the gap, consider the article published in the Washington Post, Sep 6, 2011, "Capital gains tax rates benefiting wealthy feed growing gap between rich and poor". Obviously, there is a wealth of evidence declaring the gap exists and describing how profound that gap really is but what are the implications? The New York Times reported, the income gap can lead to worker health issues, corruption and psychological effects. An interesting article, found online at the Santa Clara University, discusses the ethical issue of income disparity and links income disparity to loss of "democratic solidarity" and "positive liberty". There is no question, even the most mildly inquisitive debater will be able to find links between income disparities and a plethora of negative impacts, many of which impact democratic ideals.
Refutation - The Ground
What exactly is a side's burden in this resolution and how does one go about meeting it? Clearly, most published guidelines for public forum debate will state neither side has a presumptive burden but each side supports an advocacy. This, of course, differentiates PF from LD which usually requires a value/criterion framework and Policy which requires advocating a specific plan within a (sort of) stock issues framework. So, if I identify certain democratic ideals and run a case which proves those ideals are either threatened or not threatened by democratic ideals, have I established an advocacy? Assuming I have, how does the opposition refute my advocacy? For example, I choose the "right to vote" as a democratic ideal and prove that income disparities have not threatened that ideal. Must PRO now, refute that with evidence that income disparities do threaten the right to vote? What if I choose right to life, or the right to protest, or cultural freedom, or a laundry-list of random ideals? How is it possible to refute every ideal that may or may not be threatened? This seems to indicate that either side has unlimited ground in choosing from a long list of so-called democratic ideals which may or may not be true democratic ideals but if it connects in the experience of the judge, it is an ideal.
In PF debate, it is not enough to simply establish an advocacy and run it throughout the debate. A necessary part of the PF debate process requires refuting the opponent's position. This means establishing an offensive attack against the other side. Since it is impossible to predict which of the many possible ideals the opponent may choose. It is vital, in my opinion, to establish some guidelines which allow the debate to be judged as an overview avoiding the collapse into arguing over very narrow and specific democratic ideals.
Creating a Framework
A framework is defined as a set of standards or assumptions which regulate behavior. In debate, a framework establishes various guidelines which determine how the judge should evaluate the round. For this resolution, one way to avoid the unlimited ground of "democratic ideals" is to establish an evaluation strategy whereby Pro, for example, holds they must advocate that income disparities threaten democratic ideals where "democratic ideals" are to be treated as a collective idea or entity. If there is an over-arching concept which establishes the basis for democratic ideals we can limit the debate to the specific concept and avoid the pitfalls of arguing specifics. To understand, lets look at example.
Resolved: In the United States, income disparities threaten democratic ideals.
Before beginning this round we note the resolution specifically limits the scope of the debate to the United States so an advocacy which focuses on income data or ideals not directly applicable to the United States are not topical. We also establish the following definitions, "income disparity" is ...., "threaten" means ...., a "democracy" is ...., "democratic ideals" are ....
Observation One: As seen in our definitions, a democracy may be guided by many ideals and any debate in which a side is allowed to choose from a laundry-list of ideals places an abusive burden on their opponents since it is impossible to anticipate, research and prepare rebuttals for every possible ideal that can be linked to democracy as practiced in the United States.
Observation two: American democratic ideals are based on the over-arching concept of "power to the people" so we urge the judge to evaluate the round on the basis of whether or not income disparities threaten the idealistic concept of "power to the people" and not random specifics which are impossible to know and research in advance.
Using the framework established in the definitions and observations the debater defines a set of standards and assumptions; in short, a framework, which gives the judge a mechanism for evaluating the round. Once the framework is created it then becomes paramount for the side to pin their constructive to the framework and in all of the claims, warrants and examples, show how they link to the concept of "power to the people". Once the framework is established, the opposition will either, refute it, ignore it, or establish a counter-framework. Regardless, there is simply no way of knowing how the judge will react because he also has the option to accept or reject any framework a side attempts to create. Indeed, some judges simply refuse to be told how to evaluate the round.
The strange thing about PF debate is one can never be sure how the cases will evolve. Indeed, as the month progresses, the PF world tends to narrow their cases down to a few specific arguments which seem to work and catch the acceptance of the judges in their communities. It may be, my concern of unlimited ground may prove to be incorrect and clever debaters will find tactics which connect with judges without over-burdening the opposition with impossible research tasks. I think at the end of the month we will realize judges are going to weigh these rounds on the basis of some kind of framework, regardless of whether it is one established by the debaters or not. So let's see how this plays out.