Defending Switch-Sides Contest Debating: Responses to the Hicks & Greene Evidence

In 2005, Ronald Walter Greene and Darrin Hicks authored an article in the journal Cultural Studies that has been used by debaters to criticize the ethical and political implications of “switch-side debating” at contest round tournaments. Entitled “Lost Convictions: Debating Both Sides and the Ethical Self-Fashioning of Liberal Citizens,” the article has been excerpted to support “critique” and “project” arguments by establishing the harmful effects of traditional debate pedagogy. In particular, quotes from Hicks and Greene are leveraged to argue that the switch-sides methodology contributes to the creation of “exceptional subjects” whose personal convictions are neatly separated from their public statements and who therefore contribute to the ideological maintenance of American exceptionalism.

Debaters wishing to respond to this argument must defend the virtues of the switch-sides model of contest round debating. Below the fold you will find three pieces of evidence that should be helpful starting points for the construction of a persuasive response. I have left the cards untagged and ununderlined: I encourage debaters to read the original articles and to consider the best ways to package their answers to Hicks and Greene. Feel free to use the comments to begin a discussion—consider this another “crowd-sourcing” experiment in the construction of compelling debate arguments.


Matt STANNARD, Director of Forensics and Associate Lecturer in the Department of Communication and Journalism at the University of Wyoming, 2006
[“Deliberation, Debate, and Democracy in the Academy and Beyond,” The Underview, Spring 2006 Faculty Senate Speaker Series Speech, April 18, Available Online at, Accessed 06-26-2007]

I wish to focus on one such criticism: the argument that the discursive practices of academic debate are reappropriated in the service of American hegemony. This is the focus of an article by Darren Hicks and Ron Greene in last year’s Cultural Studies. It is one of the most comprehensive critical treatments of debating ever to appear in a non-specialized journal, and it is written from the perspective of two former debaters and debate coaches who are now leading scholars in the field of rhetoric. Hicks and Greene argue that switch-side debate, the practice of making students advocate views they do not believe, creates “exceptional subjects,” and separates speech from personal agency and conviction. This separation from conviction is crucial for spreading a liberal-capitalist idea of “freedom” around the world, since “the ability to distance one’s judgment from one’s first order convictions secures the knowledge class’s professionalization.” They conclude:

debating both sides helps liberalism to produce a governing field between a person’s first order convictions and his/her commitment to the process norms of debate, discussion and persuasion. This field is then managed in and through the alteration of different communicative practices. The production and management of this field of governance allows liberalism to trade in cultural technologies in the global cosmopolitan marketplace at the same time as it creates a field of intervention to transform and change the world one subject (regime) at a time.

The main strength of Hicks and Greene’s argument is their cooptation trope. Clearly, the “civic engagement” of academic debate can be, and is, exploited in the service of soft-power imperialism. Indeed, this is not merely done through the psychological conditioning of the student elite, but is often based on a literal, material connection, as when The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a foreign policy think-tank with direct ties to the Central Intelligence Agency, directly recruits college debaters.

If it is indeed true that debate inevitably produces other-oriented deliberative discourse at the expense of students’ confidence in their first-order convictions, this would indeed be a trade-off worth criticizing. In all fairness, Hicks and Greene do not overclaim their critique, and they take care to acknowledge the important ethical and cognitive virtues of deliberative debating. When represented as anything other than a political-ethical concern, however, Hicks and Greene’s critique has several problems: First, as J.P. Lacy once pointed out, it seems a tremendous causal (or even rhetorical) stretch to go from “debating both sides of an issue creates civic responsibility essential to liberal democracy” to “this civic responsibility upholds the worst forms of American exceptionalism.”

Second, Hicks and Greene do not make any comparison of the potentially bad power of debate to any alternative. Their implied alternative, however, is a form of forensic speech that privileges personal conviction. The idea that students should be able to preserve their personal convictions at all costs seems far more immediately tyrannical, far more immediately damaging to either liberal or participatory democracy, than the ritualized requirements that students occasionally take the opposite side of what they believe.

Third, as I have suggested and will continue to suggest, while a debate project requiring participants to understand and often “speak for” opposing points of view may carry a great deal of liberal baggage, it is at its core a project more ethically deliberative than institutionally liberal. Where Hicks and Greene see debate producing “the liberal citizen-subject,” I see debate at least having the potential to produce “the deliberative human being.” The fact that some academic debaters are recruited by the CSIS and the CIA does not undermine this thesis. Absent healthy debate programs, these think-tanks and government agencies would still recruit what they saw as the best and brightest students. And absent a debate community that rewards anti-institutional political rhetoric as much as liberal rhetoric, those students would have little-to-no chance of being exposed to truly oppositional ideas.

Moreover, if we allow ourselves to believe that it is “culturally imperialist” to help other peoples build institutions of debate and deliberation, we not only ignore living political struggles that occur in every culture, but we fall victim to a dangerous ethnocentrism in holding that “they do not value deliberation like we do.” If the argument is that our participation in fostering debate communities abroad greases the wheels of globalization, the correct response, in debate terminology, is that such globalization is non-unique, inevitable, and there is only a risk that collaborating across cultures in public debate and deliberation will foster resistance to domination—just as debate accomplishes wherever it goes. Indeed, Andy Wallace, in a recent article, suggests that Islamic fundamentalism is a byproduct of the colonization of the lifeworld of the Middle East; if this is true, then one solution would be to foster cross-cultural deliberation among people on both sides of the cultural divide willing to question their own preconceptions of the social good. Hicks and Greene might be correct insofar as elites in various cultures can either forbid or reappropriate deliberation, but for those outside of that institutional power, democratic discussion would have a positively subversive effect.

We can read such criticisms in two ways. The first way is as a warning: That we ought to remain cautious of how academic debate will be represented and deployed outside of the academy, in the ruthless political realm, by those who use it to dodge truthful assertions, by underrepresented groups, of instances of material injustice. In this sense, the fear is one of a “legalistic” evasion of substantive injustice by those privileging procedure over substance, a trained style over the primordial truth of marginalized groups.

I prefer that interpretation to the second one: That the switch-side, research-driven “game” of debate is politically bankrupt and should give way to several simultaneous zones of speech activism, where speakers can and should only fight for their own beliefs. As Gordon Mitchell has pointed out, such balkanized speech will break down into several enclaves of speaking, each with its own political criteria for entry. In such a collection of impassable and unpermeable communities, those power relations, those material power entities, that evade political speech will remain unaccountable, will be given a “free pass” by the speech community, who will be so wrapped up in their own micropolitics, or so busy preaching to themselves and their choirs, that they will never understand or confront the rhetorical tropes used to mobilize both resources and true believers in the service of continued material domination. Habermas’s defense of the unfinished Enlightenment is my defense of academic debate: Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Instead, seek to expand this method of deliberation to those who will use it to liberate themselves, confront power, and create ethical, nonviolent patterns of problem resolution. If capitalism corrupts debate, well, then I say we save debate.

#2—English et al. (DAWG)

Eric ENGLISH, Graduate Student in the Department of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh, ET AL., part of the Schenley Park Debate Authors Working Group (DAWG)—a consortium of public argument scholars at University of Pittsburgh that includes Gordon R. Mitchell—Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh, Stephen Llano, Catherine E. Morrison, John Rief, and Carly Woods—Graduate Students in the Department of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh, 2007
[“Debate as a Weapon of Mass Destruction,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, Volume 4, Number 2, June, Available Online at, Accessed 01-19-2010, p. 223-225]

Second, while the pedagogical benefits of switch-side debating for participants are compelling,10 some worry that the technique may perversely and unwittingly serve the ends of an aggressively militaristic foreign policy. In the context of the 1954 controversy, Ronald Walter Greene and Darrin Hicks suggest that the articulation of the debate community as a zone of dissent against McCarthyist tendencies developed into a larger and somewhat uncritical affirmation of switch-side debate as a [end page 223] “technology” of liberal participatory democracy. This technology is part and parcel of the post-McCarthy ethical citizen, prepared to discuss issues from multiple viewpoints. The problem for Greene and Hicks is that this notion of citizenship becomes tied to a normative conception of American democracy that justifies imperialism. They write, “The production and management of this field of governance allows liberalism to trade in cultural technologies in the global cosmopolitan marketplace at the same time as it creates a field of intervention to transform and change the world one subject (regime) at a time.”11 Here, Greene and Hicks argue that this new conception of liberal governance, which epitomizes the ethical citizen as an individual trained in the switch-side technique, serves as a normative tool for judging other polities and justifying forcible regime change. One need look only to the Bush administration’s framing of war as an instrument of democracy promotion to grasp how the switch-side technique can be appropriated as a justification for violence.

It is our position, however, that rather than acting as a cultural technology expanding American exceptionalism, switch-side debating originates from a civic attitude that serves as a bulwark against fundamentalism of all stripes. Several prominent voices reshaping the national dialogue on homeland security have come from the academic debate community and draw on its animating spirit of critical inquiry. For example, Georgetown University law professor Neal Katyal served as lead plaintiff’s counsel in Hamdan, which challenged post-9/11 enemy combat definitions.12 The foundation for Katyal’s winning argument in Hamdan was laid some four years before, when he collaborated with former intercollegiate debate champion Laurence Tribe on an influential Yale Law Journal addressing a similar topic.13

Tribe won the National Debate Tournament in 1961 while competing as an undergraduate debater for Harvard University. Thirty years later, Katyal represented Dartmouth College at the same tournament and finished third. The imprint of this debate training is evident in Tribe and Katyal’s contemporary public interventions, which are characterized by meticulous research, sound argumentation, and a staunch commitment to democratic principles. Katyal’s reflection on his early days of debating at Loyola High School in Chicago’s North Shore provides a vivid illustration. “I came in as a shy freshman with dreams of going to medical school. Then Loyola’s debate team opened my eyes to a different world: one of argumentation and policy.” As Katyal recounts, “the most important preparation for my career came from my experiences as a member of Loyola’s debate team.”14

The success of former debaters like Katyal, Tribe, and others in challenging the dominant dialogue on homeland security points to the efficacy of academic debate as a training ground for future advocates of progressive change. Moreover, a robust understanding of the switch-side technique and the classical liberalism which underpins it would help prevent misappropriation of the technique to bolster suspect homeland security policies. For buried within an inner-city debater’s files is a secret threat to absolutism: the refusal to be classified as “with us or against us,” the embracing of intellectual experimentation in an age of orthodoxy, and reflexivity in the face of fundamentalism. But by now, the irony of our story should be [end page 224] apparent—the more effectively academic debating practice can be focused toward these ends, the greater the proclivity of McCarthy’s ideological heirs to brand the activity as a “weapon of mass destruction.”


Casey HARRIGAN, M.A. Candidate in Communication and Graduate Assistant Debate Coach at Wake Forest University, 2008
[“A Defense of Switch Side Debate,” A Thesis Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of Wake Forest University in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts in the Department of Communication, May, Available Online at, Accessed 01-19-2010, p. 57-59]

This extension of the previous claims of Greene and Hicks is where my defense of switch side debate takes issue. Many of the elements of Greene and Hicks position are undoubtedly true. Like any principled approach to communication, SSD is laden with ideological presuppositions and biases. It presumes that the marketplace of ideas operates with a degree of efficacy, that democratic and deliberative approaches to problem-solving [end page 57] produce strong outcomes, and that there is a gap between the “private” debate round and the “public” realm of advocacy-after-conviction.

However, the arguments in “Lost Convictions” alone should not be read as a sweeping indictment of SSD for two reasons. First, Greene and Hicks make a specific and context-dependent claim about the Cold War that cannot be easily applied to contemporary discussion of the merits of SSD. 1954 was a time of McCarthyism and anti-Communist witch-hunts. It was quite possible then that one justification for debating both sides was a re-affirmation of liberalism against the communists. Now, in the midst of the “war on terrorism,” widespread restrictions on civil liberties, and President Bush’s mantra of “with us or against us,” it seems like the opposite is truer. Fidelity to the American cause is performed through the willing silence of its citizens. Dissent is quelled and the public is encouraged to view the world through the singular lens of “freedom” against the forces of terrorism. Debating both sides—and lacking immediate conviction—is a sign of weakness and waffling in the face of imminent threats to national security. Thus, in the contemporary context, to reject SSD and promote argument only through conviction is far more conducive to supporting American exceptionalism than debating multiple sides is as a liberal democratic justification.

Second, the fact that certain communicative practices like SSD are implicated in operations of power does not alone make them undesirable. Consistent with the Foucauldian basis of such a criticism, one cannot blanketly assert that power is a monolithic entity that can be deemed either “good” or “bad.” Instead, it is imperative to examine the “specificity of … practices in order to delineate their forces and effects” (Muckelbauer 2000, p. 78). Many actions were taken during the Cold War under the [end page 58] pretenses that they would contribute in some way to the case for U.S. superiority over the Soviet Union. For example, it could be argued that the racial integration of schools in the United States was complicit with a narrative of plurality and openness that was, in at least some ways, exceptional. Does this make the fact that schools were integrated undesirable? Assuredly not. Bracketed off from the benefits derived from SSD, the interweaving of the practice with liberalism may be a cause for some concern. However, once the advantages of such an approach are considered, they do not alone merit a whole-sale rejection of the process. Greene and Hicks acknowledge this when they write that, “In a world increasingly dominated by fundamentalism (religious and otherwise) the development of a respect for pluralism, tolerance and free speech remains political valuable” (2005, p. 121). Yes, as instructors and practitioners of debate, it is our responsibility to remain cognizant of precisely what type of “moral development” is being taught. But, once that awareness has been raised, the fact that it may not be totally neutral (an impossible goal) does not warrant abandonment of the switch-sides approach.

2 thoughts on “Defending Switch-Sides Contest Debating: Responses to the Hicks & Greene Evidence

  1. gulakov

    Before knowing the best response it'll help to read Greene's article:

    I've read this Greene article before and just reread it, and my conviction remains that his is a reductionist perspective. Although all the responses are similar, I think Harrigan's post is the best because of the rhetoric / style he uses. First he makes an offense claim that personal conviction can also lead to the fundamentalist ideology of the Bush era, then he defends SSD in Greene's own discourse.

    There's another part of the English article that uses the 1954 example to say that it was the military debate academies & Nebraska that chose "not to affirm the resolution" due to their personal conviction against engaging Communist China — sounds like a good link for a Cede the Political K. I've gathered some more articles on the 1954 topic controversy here, if you're interested.

    The personal conviction framework sounds great until it leads to strengthening pre-existing ideologies that you disapprove of. Better to strengthen personal convictions in favor of SSD, because at least then there's a chance that that will affect people's minds via better arguments instead of pre-existing beliefs.

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