Lots of people think that this season’s first Stoa LD resolution is lopsided. Here it is:
Resolved: A free press ought to prioritize objectivity over advocacy.
Why do people think this resolution is lopsided? My impression is that they can’t imagine any arguments against it that don’t amount to defenses of subjectivism or propaganda. Denying that we should prioritize objectivity, they think, is the same as denying that we should be concerned with the objective truth. And once you deny that, anything goes. Right?
Wrong: this interpretation of the resolution rests on a bad (or, at the very least, contextually inappropriate) definition of “objectivity.” Once we define this word in a way that better fits the context of the resolution, the NEG position becomes defensible. In fact, when properly understood, the NEG position might even be true.
How should we define “objectivity”? One option is to define it as, “concern with objective truth.” This is what I just called a bad definition. It’s a bad definition because it doesn’t conflict with advocacy.
Advocacy just means defending or promoting something you believe in. But that’s not incompatible with being concerned about objective truth – in fact, much of the time, when we are engaged in advocacy, we are defending or promoting a belief because we take it to be objectively true. If I publish a column in the New York Times defending Israel’s response to terrorist activity in Gaza, I am clearly engaged in advocacy. But when I say that Israel’s response is justified, I am saying something that I take to be true objectively. More generally, whenever I try to persuade someone to believe or act in a certain way, this involves giving them reasons to so believe or act. But I can’t give someone reasons without telling them things that are objectively true (unless, of course, I am deceiving them, but advocacy need not be deceptive).
So, advocacy is entirely compatible with a concern for objective truth. That means we need a different definition of “objectivity,” or else there won’t be any conflict in the resolution.
Here’s a better definition of “objectivity”: objectivity is freedom from bias. This definition delivers conflict, because advocacy is biased by definition. If I am advocating for something, I am not approaching it from a neutral standpoint. (Maybe I did so at some point, before I came to believe in it. But once I believe in it, I am no longer neutral.)
Note: By “bias,” some people mean a special kind of irrationality, one that involves deliberately ignoring or downplaying evidence that contradicts one’s views, or that involves dismissing what people have to say out of fear, hatred, or disdain. That’s not what I mean by “bias.” Obviously, everyone agrees that bias in that sense is a bad thing. But there is another sense of “bias,” which is just non-neutrality. I may be biased in favor of Christianity, not in the sense that I ignore evidence against it or hate people who are not Christians, but merely in the sense that I am for Christianity. I am not neutral about it. I believe it, and I want other people to believe it, too. That kind of bias isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
When objectivity is defined as freedom from bias, the question posed by the resolution is this: Should journalists concern themselves, first and foremost, with delivering information in an unbiased way? Or should they concern themselves, first and foremost, with promoting and defending causes they believe in?
This is not an easy question to answer – there are good reasons on both sides. Objectivity is important because it prevents one-sided journalism, journalism that disproportionately favors particular narratives or agendas over others. It is also important because having lots of accurate information is necessary for discovering the truth, and objective journalism focuses on bringing people as much accurate information as possible.
But advocacy is also important. Journalists can hold government officials accountable by advocating against unjust laws or corrupt practices. And journalists can put us in a better position to know the truth by offering, not just pertinent information, but arguments for and against certain beliefs or policies. (Remember, arguments are biased in the not-necessarily-bad sense of “biased,” because they are not neutral. Every argument is an argument for something.) So, advocacy can be a force for justice, freedom, and truth, just as much as objectivity can.
In conclusion: this resolution is not one-sided. In fact, I think the arguments for the NEG position are probably better (or at least more interesting) than those for the AFF position, once “objectivity” is defined appropriately. That means you’ll have to be prepared to define your terms clearly. But once you do, there’s no reason you can’t win consistently on NEG.
Noah McKay is an NCFCA alumnus and a PhD student in philosophy at Purdue University. He has been coaching Lincoln Douglas debate for six years. To book a coaching session with Noah, click here.