The Very Old History of Abolition as a Negative Strategy In Debate

One of the most common negative positions on this year’s criminal justice reform topic is the abolition kritik, an argument that rejects the legitimacy of the carceral state writ large. In these debates, the negative does not defend the status quo; they defend more radical change than the plan proposed by the affirmative.

This form of negation can be confusing. Most beginning debaters are taught that an important difference between the affirmative and negative is their relationship to the status quo: the affirmative rejects it by proposing a change in policy, and the negative either defends it or proposes a different (but competitive) policy change.

Kritiks complicate this understanding of each side’s relationship to the status quo. In many kritik debates, the negative is not accusing the affirmative’s policy of deviating too far from the mostly desirable status quo. On the contrary, they are accusing the affirmative’s policy of deviating too little from a mostly (or entirely) undesirable status quo. Instead, the negative proposes a more radical alternative.

While these two forms of negation are quite different, they both share a very long history. It turns out that for as long as there have been competitive debates, there have been disagreements about the appropriate division of affirmative and negative ground. As it relates to abolition, I recently learned that the disagreement about whether the negative may legitimately propose a more radical alternative than the affirmative’s plan dates back to at least 1915:

Secondly, there is the attitude of the negative. Life counsels its debaters thus: Nowhere in actual life are the Ayes invariably radical and the Noes conservative, or indeed those who vote together all alike radical or alike progressive. Let all arguments justifying a vote of No on the resolution be in order on the negative.

Often, I think, disagreement and recrimination accompany debates because they are conducted on a basis different from this. The debates of the schoolmen were primarily logical. The Major Premise, the Minor Premise, the Rules of the Syllogism, and the Enthymeme, none of them recognized in the world-old practice of deliberative discussion, figured conspicuously with them. Our hazy conception of debating has led us to stress the logical aspect of debating unduly.

Consider an illustration: A certain debate was held on the subject, “Resolved, That county elections in the various states should conform to the principles of the short ballot.” It was assumed by all that the negative would support the status quo in county political organization. They did not. Instead, they favored complete abolition of county government as we understand it. The outcome of the debate is unimportant. The point is that the supporters of the negative were criticized for disregarding what was said to be an assumption in the question, a term in the syllogism, as it were—the assumption that county governments were to continue to exist. I do not here treat this position as logic. I present a different conception of debating, and submit that the question was proposed in a form suitable and natural for discussion before a deliberative body, and that the contention of the negative, justifying as it does a vote of No on the resolution, was in order.

Citation: Davis, William Hawley (Bowdoin College). Debating as related to non‐academic life, The Quarterly Journal of Speech Education (Volume 1, Issue 2), July 1915, p. 110.

While this is not a perfect analogy to the modern abolition kritik, it’s pretty close. And more importantly, the same theoretical disputes that one might have heard in a debate in 1915 are still being litigated in 2020. For as much as debate is continuously changing, its fundamental theoretical foundations are more timeless than most students might think.

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