Just the name itself looks exotic: “Kritik.” Indeed, in the lands of homeschool debate, the mysterious “K” is a creature of great mythology and scorn. However, outside of the welcoming realm of homeschool debate—especially out in the deserts of public school and college policy debate—it is actually regarded as a fierce and formidable beast which debaters should not just prepare for, but also tame if possible. Having reviewed accounts of some theoryographers who have gone before me, I can say that although Ks possess a common basic anatomical structure (on which I will present my own tentative theory), they take on many different forms, and they hunt many different kinds of debate practices and arguments: Alleged racism and sexism… “biopower”… “capitalism”… the list goes on. As many in the homeschool community are aware, however, these beasts may often target legitimate or insignificant points/strategies. Yet, as I have further studied the beasts, I don’t think that they are all truly of the debaticus kritikus family. Furthermore, I have discovered more species than our peers, ancestors, and legends have generally reported, and I have even studied a few “beasts” which I consider noble and upright, in that they seek to uphold truth and justice—and occasionally even do so based on evidence. In particular, these Ks target generally-scorned practices such as deception. Thus, while I recognize that many in our land will continue to condemn the beasts based on anecdotal accounts and their admittedly unorthodox methods, I want to report that there may be legitimate Ks out there. If nothing else, I believe we should begin having more conversation on the subject.
“Okay… so what is a kritik?”
That’s a great question. Let me first say that it is not pure coincidence that my intro conveys such a medieval understanding of kritiks: whereas the debate world is at least in the industrial age when it comes to theories like the stock issues, the concept of kritiks is very much in the dark ages. As a result, there are plenty of ways to answer this, and I can’t really say that most of the ways are objectively “wrong,” because it is just a made-up word in debate and its meaning can differ by person: some people might consider it an “argument which challenges a mindset”; some people might say “it condemns bad language/arguments”; etc. There are lots of answers, but I believe that there is a “best”—or at least “generally superior”—definition, and that is what I will focus on.
What I consider a kritik to be (and why)
In short, I consider a kritik to be any argument impact which ultimately doesn’t relate to whether the resolution is true or not—and which isn’t already covered by other rules (e.g. evidence fraud). In other words, it’s a reason to vote against a team other than “because they are ultimately wrong.” Thus, even though it would be very ham-handed to phrase it this way, a negative’s kritik might say “In the end, their policy might be net beneficial by a hundred million dollars, but because they [used deceptive tactics, etc.] you should not vote for them.” In the real world, one example of a “kritik” could be in business: suppose that an employee made a good proposal to their boss, but while doing so, made very sexist or otherwise crude remarks. His boss might dismiss him from the meeting even if the proposal was good (although in the real world, they would probably still go through with the proposal).
Of course, this begs the question “why should we prefer that definition?” Ultimately, I consider it to be far better than definitions like “it challenges an underlying mindset” because with the definition I’ve given, a kritik is its own thing, rather than just another way to argue the stock issues. In reality, “mindset challenges” like “US hegemony is bad/good” ultimately are just mega solvency/significance/DA/etc. arguments.
“So, for example?”
There are numerous arguably legitimate/valuable kritik types, but I will just focus on four of them to give a broad picture: argumentation tactics/strategy, information hazards and “bad topics,” bigotry/violence advocacy, and perhaps the most common and widely-acceptable of them all, deception/obfuscation.
Tactic/strategy kritiks condemn various argumentation styles/tactics/etc: one prominent example would be a kritik against spreading. Another example would be to discourage squirrel cases—the suggested punishment for which could be as light as: “we call for high standards for evidence and topicality” (in other words, “let us nitpick”). Another tactic that people were unhappy about was my “split the neg” approach (which I admit I didn’t explain clearly).
I won’t mention many information hazards (based on their very nature), but the basic idea is “regardless of whether or not this is true, it is not good to discuss in a public forum.” So while I’m not expecting anyone to “reference classified information,” more realistically someone might make an argument such as “our individual votes don’t really influence elections”: this might be true (though it doesn’t mean there isn’t psychological or social value in voting), but it isn’t good to tell an entire audience of people “your vote doesn’t matter,” since it could discourage people from voting and caring about elections. Regarding bad topics, Isaiah McPeak has published a skeleton of a “mature topic” kritik. In a similar sense, there are some topics which are occasionally inappropriate to discuss in debate rounds: I would generally advise against a discussion of sexual assault—at least if there are good alternatives (an issue discussed later, in the “structure” section).
Bigotry/etc. kritiks are fairly self-explanatory, though I recognize they are often misused in debate. On that note, I will say that in general, one would likely only run this as formal kritik in very clear, egregious situations. Basically, it condemns discrimination, promotion of violence, and other, similar arguments. The problem is how to determine likely-legitimate discrimination (e.g. “gang members are, on average, more violent than other citizens, on average”) from likely-illegitimate discrimination (e.g. “most illegal immigrants are violent criminals”). I’d say the answer isn’t easy to determine, but a good precondition is that the ‘offending’ side built on a false—or at least questionable—premise. Regardless, it has to be readily obvious and explainable to a common-sense, community judge (which will be further discussed later on). You might be thinking, “well if it relies on whether something is true or not, then why is it a K?” The answer is because although the overall argument may have traditional significance/inherency/solvency impacts, such impacts just say “their argument should be disregarded; they should get ‘zero points’ from these arguments.” The kritik “impact(s)” of the argument, however, might say “because they have promoted a narrative which validates discrimination and disregard for immigrants’ wellbeing, they should actually get ‘negative points’ (i.e. be penalized) for this argument.” Again, it’s hard to determine when to or not to kritik, but for an example of violence incitement (whether “unintentionally” or otherwise) which I would have kritiked on the spot, see this NRA ad.
Most important of all, though, is the deception/obfuscation kritik. This covers a wide range of topics from being misleading regarding a statistic/fact (e.g. not fully explaining the context of what was being described, but also not technically “misrepresenting the evidence”), to “fear-mongering” to “bad science” to repeating fake narratives, etc. Ultimately, the kritik is that “not only are they wrong, but they are damagingly wrong, and this arose out of either academic negligence or outright deception.” The damage of these practices, a kritiker would argue, is wide and potentially serious: although dependent on the specific case, generically they cover “worsened debate,” “devaluation of truth and accuracy,” and “misinformed populace.” Unlike with some other, similar kritiks, however, the primary focus is typically on “legitimizes deception/obfuscation” or “devalues truth and accuracy”—with the subsequent effects (e.g. “people believe [something healthy] gives them cancer”) being more secondary in focus.
The basic structure
Disclaimer: This section in particular is just my opinion on an evolving theory, and so I welcome feedback/alternate conceptualizations
Much like disadvantages technically have formal parts/structure (e.g. brink, link), kritiks also have some basic parts. And just as you may not need to always say all the parts of a disadvantage, you may not need to mention all the parts of a kritik. Although I recognize there can be other “anatomical theories,” I consider kritiks to have the following parts:
- (Tagline/intro: The name of the kritik, and possibly an intro/summary if you see fit)
- Commission: this is where you explain how the other team committed the “offense”—i.e. what they did—as well as details like “it was done with negligence (if not intent)” or “it doesn’t require negligence or intent to be kritikable.” For example “The other team referenced a case of bad science that has been widely discredited. For them to have done any serious research on what they were talking about, they would have had to come across the criticism; otherwise, they didn’t do serious research, in which case they were being negligent.” I will note, though, that some people split up this section into two parts, with the first part being “standard” (as in, “what is appropriate vs. inappropriate,” such as “Using racial slurs is unacceptable”) and the second part being “violation” (which explains how they violated the standard, such as “They used a racial slur”). Personally, I prefer making this into one section so as to keep it simpler, especially since the next part seems to already cover the value of having “standard”:
- Alternative: this is where you simply identify what they should have done (or just not done) instead of what they actually did. For example, “They should not have used this study since it is known to be invalid.” This may not always be necessary to say as the kritiker, but as the kritik-ed, it can be a weak spot to target: as an obvious example, if the resolution is “Voting is pointless,” one shouldn’t condemn the affirmative for arguing “voting is pointless,” because they likely had no alternative.
- Damage and impact:
- The first sub-part of this is like a disadvantage’s “impact” (and link, unless you want that to be a separate part), but the different wording emphasizes that the consequences are happening in the real world—not just hypothetically, in the “world of fiat.” I gave some generic examples earlier, and these include “instilling harmful beliefs,” “devaluation of truth,” “encouraging mistreatment of people,” etc. One thing I will emphasize here, though, is that damage can vary based on the size of the audience: a larger audience generally means the damage is greater (because more people are witnessing the practice).
- The second sub-part of this is “in-round impact,” and is the trickiest aspect of kritiks. Here, you provide a way to weigh “damage” alongside the traditional, hypothetical “impacts” of the case (i.e. “net benefits”). You often may not even bother to cover this in detail except by saying “this warrants against a negative/affirmative ballot,” but if you wanted to be very concrete/technical, you can give estimates like “We think this damage outweighs their plan’s benefits even if you think that the plan may be net beneficial by $150M dollars.”
That final aspect leads into the next section, which is definitely the thorniest issue when it comes to kritiks:
“Are they legitimate?”
I don’t know NCFCA rules (if they even exist), so I will be answering based on Stoa’s team policy rules: At the risk of triggering a wave of “Is-ought fallacy!” responses, I’ll upfront summarize by saying it should be treated as legitimate, even if its rule-based legitimacy is questionable.
First, the issue of why it should be considered: It mostly depends on the type of kritik in question but put generally and classically (for policy debate): “Ballots aren’t policy. What you think about this policy based on this round does not actually change our policy in the real world; all you are doing is just selecting someone you think should win. Thus, ballots aren’t actual policy, BUT debaters and audiences may well be actual policy-shapers, whether they take up roles in media, legislation, research, or even just the voting booth. If we allow our future communicators to practice bad habits—or even just validate bad behavior in front of future participants in democracy—just so we can fulfill some detached, calculative rule, we have done the future a short-sighted disservice. Therefore, even if only to a limited extent, we should consider the effects of what this ballot means outside of ‘right or wrong.’” (Feel free to cut this card as theory support; I do support the use of kritiks overall, despite the criticism I will soon discuss.)
Also, I should note that I have encountered plenty of kritiks which are almost directly supported by evidence, in that sources say (paraphrased) “this topic should not be cast as a civil rights issue, because it clouds policymaking” or “the promulgation of bad science regarding vaccines has led to measles outbreaks,” or even “tactics such as nuclear war DAs in policy debate have brought great shame on the debate format.” In general, I think that if you can find common-sense evidence for such a kritik, it is likely a fairly legitimate issue. And overall, “If they make sense to a judge in a round, shouldn’t they at least be considered rather than outright rejected?”
Of course, while this may all sound well and good, there is at least one significant objection to it.
Technically, according to Stoa’s TP/LD rules, “It is the job of the affirmative team to uphold the resolution. If the affirmative is successful, they win, and the judge should vote for the resolution” (I will note, however, that stoa’s parli rules are far more open than the TP/LD rules). A face-value, strict interpretation of this (and again excluding other, pre-defined rule violations such as evidence fraud), would likely mean that kritiks are not valid decision factors. However, such face-value interpretations also—in my opinion—make topical counterplans illegitimate arguments (since they also affirm the resolution), but that hasn’t stopped people from coming up with all kinds of theories like “parametrics” to justify topical counterplans—the use of which I wholly admit could be beneficial (i.e. educational) with limitations and in certain circumstances. I think that the same applies to kritiks: you might come up with potential (questionable) justifications like “The impression left on the judge can factor into his/her decision,” but in the end I think the question can just be left to the debaters to persuade a judge based on the specific circumstance: should someone’s [deceptive practice, etc.] be outright penalized, or only considered insofar as it impacts their argument quality? Additionally, one might even justify it by comparing it to jury nullification, even if this might be a bit extreme.
I agree that kritiks will need to be subject to a lot of scrutiny, and there are very valid points to be made on both sides. I think that a blanket approach, however, is likely harmful, especially when the question of how we advocate for things is becoming increasingly important in a political system of deep polarization to the point of occasional violence. To invalidate that discussion among the future communicators in debate, I believe, is not a wise approach.
To be totally clear, I don’t want to see kritiks become a major part of debate. Although I have personally had rounds where I felt like I possibly should have made some type of argument like a kritik, those averaged about once or twice per year—certainly not once per tournament. Furthermore, you can likely go through your entire debate career without ever “needing” to use a kritik, which has been the case for many Ethos coaches. However, there very well could come a day where it may be good to use one—or at least know how to respond to one. Because of this, I also want debaters to be considerate of their value—and limitations/problems—rather than rejecting them outright just because they have been problematic in public school leagues (which I would argue is in part due to a severe lack of emphasis on community judges—an issue which Stoa and NCFCA do not face). Ultimately, I think that if kritiks can be made and defended before common-sense community judges, they should not be dismissed as an illegitimate, destructive practice.