And Justice for Some

I sometimes get the impression that there is a “Journalism World,” with its own variation on how the world works, on how the government ought to do things, and on what it means for justice to be served. In my mind’s eye, Journalism World might look a bit like the West Wing, but it’s probably closer to the Newsroom. Aaron Sorkin serves as a good touchstone here – his notions of how the progressive version of events will simply win out in the end is as much fantasy as is Tolkien’s view on the virtue of certain bloodlines.

The problem, then, is that Journalism World is putting a special lens over current events, as they are beamed into our homes via television and internet (and newspapers, for those of us into such cultural fossils). Journalism World, filled with its bright young things, out to change the world, and their ears whispered into by advocacy groups of all the appropriate stripes, gives us the news as it is evaluated by the Upper West Side of New York City. When this point of view collides with a different paradigm, say, the legal system, it creates unrest. The magnificent certainty in their opinions makes it hard for journalists to reconcile when the version of events they have presented does not produce the end they have envisioned: racist cops hauled away, the confession from the witness stand, Republicans hanging their heads in shame at their lack of love for the country and its forgotten populations.

Journalism World has had its world rocked three times recently: twice in court and once by those they thought were part of the tribe. These events not only cast a light on how journalists can frame a story, but also are indicative of the deleterious effect that such framing can have in establishing expectations. Both the Michael Brown and Eric Gardner cases were presented to the public as affairs that confirmed all the traditional biases: the racism inherent in America (especially in law enforcement, and most especially in southern law enforcement), economic injustice, and how the court system could serve as a bulwark against such abuses.

These notions ran smack into one of the fundamental premises of the American judicial system: it privileges the rights of the accused. The presumption of innocence and the standard of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt both attest to the fact that our courts are set up in favor of the accused. Victims’ Right advocates have been fighting uphill against this for years and legislators have largely responded by increasing penalties, a move that does nothing to readjust the balance of privilege. This has further significance when we start talking about sexual assault (more on that and UVA in a minute), but it matters here because of the expectations that news reporting creates.

We might have expected that journalists may have begun taking a more nuanced look at the Michael Brown case when the video came out of him robbing a store. We might have hoped for better expectation management when the Department of Justice said they probably didn’t have a civil rights case against Darren Wilson.   Even now, when no indictment is forthcoming, riots have ensued and demands for “Justice” have been heard from all of the usual corners. It’s that word, Justice, that we need to talk about.

Words Mean Things, and Justice has to mean something when we use it. For too many people in too many positions, from which they are able to pontificate to the masses, Justice means that the thing they don’t like is liquidated. For our Criminal Justice System, it means that the rules are followed to produce a decision based on all of the available evidence. The people with the most comprehensive view of what happened in Ferguson are the people who sat on that Grand Jury, and they decided there was insufficient evidence to even charge Officer Wilson with a crime. We can argue over the amount of latitude granted to police in the discharge of their duties, or even how we define the particulars of different criminal acts, but calling the matter a miscarriage of justice is ignorant – if I tell Stephen Hawking that his theories are all wrong because I read the Wikipedia page, I don’t deserve to be taken seriously.

The Eric Garner case becomes more difficult for a lot of the reasons the Rodney King case was a problem: the images. For my money, even I can’t figure out how you watch that video and conclude that the acts of the police did not reach New York’s definition of Second-Degree Manslaughter, but I haven’t heard all of the evidence or even seen the entire video. Journalism World presents us not only with events, but with what to think about them. When someone reaches different conclusions, they are usually vilified. If those conclusions have some impact on the outcome of events, that’s when anger starts to bubble out.

Perhaps it was these events that led the Washington Post to dig a little deeper into Rolling Stone’s depiction of a gang rape at the University of Virginia. Certainly, Richard Bradley, who got burned so badly by Stephen Glass, was inclined to approach any story with skepticism. But again, Journalism World fell back on two elements, one of which they still cling to. The first was that the story fit an archetype they believe in: white men of privilege as predators. The other is that the story spoke to a deeper truth than the narrative: the truth of rape culture on college campuses and in America. It is this second idea that they cling to, even as the story that supported this notion comes unraveled. I have a question: how many people did this story go through that never asked the same questions Bradley and other critics asked immediately after the story was published?

1) How did someone put through a glass table not end up in the hospital?

2) How does something as horrific as a gang-rape-as-initiation remain a secret in a large organization?

3) Has there ever been a friend, ever, that argued for someone to keep their mouth shut about being violated to protect the image of a university?

Even UVA’s president had to get in on the action, declaring that, regardless of the veracity of the story, that we had started a “conversation” was the most important aspect of these events. Indeed, that word – “conversation” – has become a touchstone as the wider world has proven to have higher standards of proof than that a story “feels right.” But even the advocacy groups should realize that this is doing them a disservice, for such conversations will start from a place that puts them on the back foot. “Cops are racists who murder black men,” except for this case that got the conversation started. “White boys of privilege are rapists,” except for these young men, who have no doubt been treated with the greatest of discretion while Rolling Stone printed a story that does not appear to be true.

The problem is that no one wants to appear to be supporting or defending racists or rapists. As a result, accusations become condemnation. If I defend an accused rapist, I’m a misogynist and a barbarian. If I question the veracity of a victim’s story, I’m a troglodyte from another era. Imagine what happens if that person is then found guilty.

Except that rapists and racists have one great defender when accused of a crime: that aforementioned justice system, privileging the rights of the accused. For every journalist that presumes that Darren Wilson went hunting black men, there is a court of law that presumes he is innocent of wrongdoing. This is the biggest hurdle that trying someone in the court of public opinion must overcome, and a possibly compelling argument to stop trying to do so.

All of these stories lead me to think about a story that is still in the news: the accusers of Bill Cosby. I read an article, in which a pair of journalists bemoaned the terrible things this story was doing to their psyche because of the damage to their relationship with a man who had been a role model and father figure when they were growing up. Even now, Journalism World leaves no room for a presumption of innocence. Some have argued that the sheer number of accusers is indicative that Cosby is guilty, whereas I might argue that the instant fame granted to an accuser, not to mention Gloria Allred talking in your ear about multi-million dollar paydays, might be worth a reasonable doubt or two. But in Journalism World, it’s all but decided, with Cosby appearing on magazine covers with headlines about what he’s hiding.

We built and reinforced a justice system that ensured, for a long time, that the mere accusation of impropriety could not destroy a person. Journalism World is, bit by bit, destroying that system. The rules of the criminal justice system only serve to create an impression of injustice when juxtaposed against the presumed guilt of those who have run afoul of the media. In terms of managed expectations, I would recommend planning on more riots.

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Debate Week – Bad Policy

Policy debate was my first debate event in high school. Even then, a long time ago, I thought the event was a little odd – delivering arguments at the speed of an auctioneer and every argument against the case seemed, arguments that included Malthus references, and every disadvantage seemed to end in nuclear fire. Still, we did a ton of research, and I did learn how to structure an argument.

I think that policy debaters today probably still learn argument structure, but that may be about it. Last year, the annual policy topic was increasing economic engagement with Mexico. I kid you not when one of the cases I heard – one that was broadly recognizable to the negative team – was installing tunnels for small animals to cross under the highways along the border. The negative replied that doing so would trigger an eventual nuclear response from China.

There are three structural problems in policy debate. They are problems because of the perverse incentives involved. Every time a debater improves their capacity in one of these skills, their ability to engage in rhetoric and argument outside of the policy debate bubble worsens. We’re teaching kids bad habits, and the college camps have become the cesspools in which these bad habits simmer and metastasize.

1) Speed

This argument has been around since I was in policy debate – 1989, in case you wanted to know or call me old. Rate of speech has a bell curve of utility, breaking down when your listeners can no longer follow what you are saying. Policy debate pushed over the hump and into uncontrolled descent long ago. So far as I can tell, it has only gotten worse. I know the debaters hate it when I tell them that if they go so fast that I can’t flow their argument, I won’t vote on it, but they have to be intelligible to me, as the judge, at a minimum. The teams, and even some judges, have gotten into the habit of “flashing” cases back and forth to one another – transferring them via flash drives to ubiquitous laptop computers. I don’t begrudge them the laptops – once upon a time it was OxBoxes that probably did damage to kids’ posture. But if the only way for one team to follow another’s line of reasoning is to read what was just said, haven’t we tacitly admitted that this is no longer a rhetorical event?

But speed feeds into a specific debate tactic, called “spreading.” The idea is that if I throw 12 different arguments at you at light-speed, and you can only reply to 11 in your allotted time, I win. This is a stratagem that only works in an academic debate round, exploiting the artificiality of the time limit to make up for a lack of irrefutable assertions.

Speed in policy debate makes you a better debater. Speed outside of debate makes you a jerk that no one listens to.

2) Hyperbole

Funny thing about that China disadvantage I heard in the debate round about preventing roadkill – I heard it in every round I judged on that topic. It turns out that someone somewhere has said that any U.S. involvement in Mexico will result in an infringement of Chinese hegemony, which they would respond to with military force.

Every time I heard that, I wanted to ask the same question: Do you believe that is even remotely a possibility? A nation with billions in U.S. bonds would risk the value of that to their treasury and economy over Mexico, Cuba, or Central America? But, over time, we’ve conditioned policy debaters to reach for the most cataclysmic outcomes, regardless of their grounding in reality.

When I was debating, it was Malthus. At the end of the 18th century, Thomas Malthus predicted that overpopulation would, eventually, destroy humanity. The problem was that the Malthusian catastrophes keep stubbornly refusing to happen. Paul Ehrlich predicted that there would be mass famine due to overpopulation…in the 1970’s. Bad science has combined with political agendas to produce “experts” who predict that nearly any action (certainly most economic actions) will produce devastation on a widespread scale. But if someone with a degree says it, and someone with peer-review publishes it, you’ll find it in a debate round, regardless of its grounding in reality. This brings me to…

3) Inability to verify sources

Remember my talk about spreading? It becomes a nightmare when you begin to think about sources. Any debate argument will have 3-6 different experts cited in the argument. If I toss out 4 arguments, that’s at least 12 sources, usually closer to 20. There’s simply no practical way for an opponent or a judge to validate those sources and the current format, with its dearth of practical rhetoric, makes no effort to establish a source’s credibility or impartiality. This is just as well, as people talking about the practical possibility of China going to war over Mexico might not have all their credentials in order.

4) Overuse of meta-argument

One of the things that struck me about the road tunnel plan was that it wasn’t really meeting the terms of the resolution. The resolution called for increased economic engagement with Mexico, but the U.S. was going to build the tunnels, making the level of economic engagement somewhat ephemeral. This seemed to set the Affirmative up for a charge of non-topicality: that their plan didn’t fulfill the terms of the resolution. I occasionally heard topicality arguments against that plan, but its overall power was diminished. Why would that be?

Because Negs argue topicality all the time. Topicality and critiques (which I discussed yesterday) are meta-arguments that, rather than engage the particulars of the affirmative plan and case, go after the resolution itself, or the affirmative case’s relationship with the resolution. The proliferation of these arguments undermines the overall educational value of the debate, because now you no longer need to even engage directly with your opponent. Critiques are about the resolution, meaning you can gleefully ignore whatever the affirmative says. Topicality can be germane, but it’s usually a dodge, and most often deployed as part of a spread strategy. Worse, critiques require the affirmative to defend the writers of the resolution, as if their burden wasn’t heavy enough to begin with. If I can pull apart just one component of a traditional policy case (Harm, Relevance, Solvency) as the negative, I win the round. If I can prove that the affirmative plan produces more damage than good (through the use of disadvantages), I win the round. Adding nonsense about the discourse of the resolution is simply lazy.

So where is the value anymore? The research is done by college debate teams, who are being paid scads of money to develop phony corner cases, or weird meta-arguments, rather than teaching the kids to do legitimate policy analysis. Victories are gained through sophistry and sleight-of-hand, not by the strength of reasoned argument. What does this sort of anti-intellectual mush produce in the kids who move through the system? What effect is it having, and has it had, on our national discourse? When is the last time you heard what you thought was a good argument from a national leader or policymaker?

There’s got to be a better way.

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Debate Week – That’s Debatable

The concept of the Critique, sometimes spelled “Kritik” in debate circles to reflect its derivation from German philosophy, has been around for a while in policy debate. It has more recently begun to appear in Lincoln-Douglas rounds, for reasons I cannot fully fathom. Essentially, the critique derives from a blending of critical theory, that bastard child of literary criticism and sociology, and the process-over-end emphasis of certain philosophers, such as Martin Heidegger.

I first encountered critiques a few years ago when I took up judging policy debate for my former coach in the Northern Virginia area. When someone tried explaining it to me, I was utterly perplexed. When I did my own research (The Wikipedia article is very good and includes several Rostrum articles as links), what I discovered was that the squishy literary theory that infested many of my college courses had come to melt away the last bits of utility to be found in policy debate.

A critique works by attacking underlying presumptions of either the resolution or the case made by the affirmative. One of the more common (and one of the reasons critiques often get pilloried for being “generic”) is a statism critique, arguing that any government action is immoral or illegitimate, therefore so is the affirmative plan. It can be seen as an attempt to bring a value argument into the round, but what it often ends up as is a dodge by the negative, allowing them to make an argument that requires less from them – if all government action is illegitimate, I don’t have to talk about the specifics of Aff’s plan. In this way, it becomes part and parcel with other more generic negative arguments, such as topicality or counterplan.

The problem comes when critiques move to attacks on fiat, the notion that there even is a right or wrong answer to the question. Using the relativistic analysis of Heidegger, not to mention scores of sociologists, the negative poses the idea that the judge cannot vote for the affirmative because the entire notion of argumentation is invalid. If how we think is more important than what we think, and there is no universal truth, then encouraging young people to engage in a win/loss scenario, based on western ideologies of reason, is illegitimate and the judge is obligated to take action to prevent the encouragement of those actions.

…which sounds plausible, until you recall that this is an argument being made inside a debate round. The negative is asking the judge to declare them the winner by arguing that a winner/loser paradigm is bad. This is contradictory on its face to the point of parody.

Here’s my issue: most of the critiques I’ve encountered work perfectly well as more traditional debate arguments, although they would require a bit more reasoning inside of the round to connect the argument to the affirmative case. You want to argue that the Aff is anthropocentric? Fine, that seems to me to lead either to a Harm (Damage to moral structures due to bad morals) or a Solvency argument (overestimation of human centrality and capability). Even statism could be expressed as a disadvantage. The urge to use the critique seems to be an effort to undermine debate itself, rather than expand it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with using postmodern thought as a basis for analysis, but to do so without tying it back into the resolution and case is lazy debating masquerading as avant-garde thought, which, for my money, is also a good description of most literary analysis.

The use of the critique in Lincoln-Douglas is a bit more perplexing to me, as LD is a values debate from the get-go. A “resolutional” critique that argued that the resolution was immoral seems like it could easily be a standard argument, and even lends itself to the alternative value system framework of a lot of critiques in giving the Neg a value criteria of their own to use. The “discourse” critique is a bit more of a reach for me. If you’re going to argue that the Affirmative used “he” for all of his pronouns, thereby privileging gendered language, you still haven’t proven that the reasoning was wrong – you’ve only engaged in ad hominem, which is still a fallacy. Being a jerk doesn’t make someone wrong, it just makes them a jerk. Bad discourse critiques, such as the use of profanity in a round, are often the triggers for low point wins, where one side may have a better case, but broke the rules of decorum in such a way that the judge doesn’t wish to accord them the victory. Again, the critiques fit into previously extant paradigms, though their use in those paradigm usually requires more work than the standard critique model.

So what’s the best way to respond to a critique? There are a few ways to make the critique’s language loop around on itself. As I noted earlier, challenges to fiat are inherently contradictory: You can’t ask me to vote for you because voting is morally bad. Statism and Anthropocentrism critiques can be tackled by cost/benefit analysis: If the state is immoral, but the failure to enact a plan produces the identifiable harms in the affirmative case, affirmative still wins if the benefits outweigh, putting some of the burden back on the Neg. A loaded cross-ex question might include, “Are you here to win this round?” Fundamentally, appearing and speaking in a debate round concedes that the proposition is debatable and, even in a relativistic moral paradigm, is an acceptable proposition for discussion by the parties involved.

Some of this is dancing around my larger problems with policy debate, which I will get to tomorrow. But critiques in specific degrade reasoned thinking, being so often derived from the same patterns of thought that encourage hate speech codes. We should regard with suspicion any line of thought that stifles discussion.

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Debate Week – Sports!

Prepare for the battle of one set of statistics versus another set of statistics! I suppose that fits, since we’re talking about sports. It’s Day Three of Debate Week, which brings us to the first Public Forum topic of the year.

Resolved: On balance, public subsidies for professional athletic organizations in the United States benefit their local communities.

There’s a problem in this resolution: Without the “On Balance” portion, the resolution becomes an absolute, which is far too massive a burden for the Aff, and allows the Neg to win with a single negative example. With the “On Balance” verbiage, this is less a debate and more a point-counting contest. The winners in this debate will be the ones who frame the calculation of social benefit to their own…well, benefit.

A good start is ye ole Wikipedia, which has an article on Stadium Subsidies and their general pros and cons. Please recall my admonition from yesterday – DO NOT CITE WIKIPEDIA. From Wikipedia, there’s a good 5-part article about stadium economics at About.com Just at a glance, it does seem the Wikipedia article is not really trying to be objective about the benefit of the stadium subsidy, so proceed with caution.

Essentially, the Aff needs to frame this in economic terms, and needs evidence that the presence of an athletic team produces revenue from out-of-town. It’s that out-of-town part that’s important, because a weak, but ready-made, negative argument is that sports revenue is simply a revenue transfer: Instead of going to the movies, I went to a ballgame, and the economic benefit to the community is a wash. If, however, people come from other towns to the ballgame, their money is a net plus for the community, and now we have a benefit. If you’ve got social engineers out there singing the praises of civic pride as a definable community benefit, that’s also in your pocket.

The Neg, however, has a lot of writers on their side. The website, Field of Schemes, based on a book, is all about the various machinations that go on to acquire sports subsidies. Reason Magazine also has multiple articles about the lack of benefit, and even economic damage, that sports subsidies can have on a local community.

While all the negative has to do is prove that the subsidy is not, on balance, a benefit to local communities, an aggressive Neg could push further to demonstrate that it’s a net harm to the local community.

Which brings me to my question for those folks who voted for this resolution: WHAT WERE YOU THINKING? Such a general statement cannot possibly be true, but the proving or disproving of it within a debate round is going to become an exercise in presenting a preponderance of the evidence. You’re not teaching them how to have a rational discussion, you’re teaching them how to cherry-pick their evidence, since the benefit of a sports subsidy to a community is relative to that community, based on a host of local factors. JFK stadium may have been a benefit to Southern Maryland, but Nationals Park was (and probably still is) a money sink for the District of Columbia. This is a bad topic that will teach bad habits. But it might make them good lobbyists someday, so I suppose you have that going for you.

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Debate Week – On Disobedience

Day two of Debate Week brings us to the Novice Lincoln-Douglas topic for the first two months of the debate season. Personally, I would have loved to see a topic like this for the varsity debaters, but that’s a topic for another day.

Resolved: Civil disobedience in a democracy is morally justified.

One note before we dive in: I’m going to point you to Wikipedia a couple of times in this. DO NOT CITE WIKIPEDIA IN YOUR ARGUMENTS. For some debaters, your coaches may be telling you not to even look at Wikipedia. You should listen to your coaches, but you should also not immediately write off any source of information. The bottom line is that Wikipedia is a derivative source, and it’s not that hard to get a step or two closer to the original thinking and protect your arguments from ad hominem dismissal.

First, let’s talk definitions. Take a look at this article on Civil Disobedience and you begin to see the first challenge for both sides: defining the parameters of the debate. Does Civil Disobedience only mean nonviolent resistance? Does it mean you have to plead guilty when charged? (This is part of why I’m unsure of this resolution as a novice topic) The Aff is going to want to define Civil Disobedience as narrowly as they can, keeping violent protest or revolutionary-type actions outside the bounds of the term. The Neg, on the other hand, can definitely increase the burden on the Aff by arguing for a definition that includes all manner of protests against law or government, since the resolution is absolute: All Civil Disobedience must be morally justifiable for the Aff to win. I would like to think that some standard of reasonableness should prevail here, but my experience with debate rounds in recent years says that such expectations are not really justified.

But the Aff has plenty of really great thinkers on their side. First and foremost is the writer of “Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau. Go check out the summary article on the work, but go read Thoreau. The central tenet of his argument is that morality trumps legality, and that moral people have an obligation not to support a government that is an active enabler of immoral ends. Thoreau’s, and the Affirmative’s, argument hinges on a couple of presumptions.

1) There are absolute standards of right and wrong. It doesn’t matter if 51%, 80%, or even 99.9% of a population believe a certain way. If they’re morally wrong, they’re morally wrong.

2) These standards have greater value than the value of law and adherence to law. Some John Stuart Mill might not go amiss here, which gives me an excuse to post my favorite Mill quote of all time.

“If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”

The relevance of the quote has to do with our freedom to act according to our conscience. Freedom and Liberty are two great core values for the Aff in this debate.

Those of you with access to law libraries should check out Ronald Dworkin’s breakout of the three types of Civil Disobedience (Source number 20 in the WP article).

Despite the probable popularity, especially in America, of the Affirmative position, the Negative has a strong case of their own, with their own big philosophical gun on their side – Socrates. Crito was, somewhat necessarily, one of Plato’s last Socratic dialogues. It’s based on a conversation Socrates had with a wealthy friend of his, the eponymous Crito, who wants to sneak Socrates out of Athens after his unjust conviction. Crito presents many of the arguments of the Civil Disobedience supporter, including the immorality of supporting an immoral law, even through nothing more than acquiescence. Socrates refuses to flee his fate (he was going to be executed), and argues that there is no moral basis to do so. Like Thoreau, Socrates’ argument has a few presumptions in it.

1) Citizens and Societies have mutual obligations. Here is where the addition of “in a democracy” protects the Neg from having to defend despots. Socrates articulates an early form of the Social Contract theory, arguing that societies pass laws for the protection of their citizens and citizens are honor-bound to obey those laws. This seems to give the Aff to opportunity to attack on the concept of unjust laws, but this is a trap, because a democracy has, as a matter of design, built-in processes for seeking changes in law, or, if the lawmaker will not change an immoral law, changes in lawmakers. Socrates argues that the individual conscience is insufficient grounds for overturning the contract which maintains society. If I depend on the police to come to my home in the event of a burglary, the fire department to put out my burning house, and the government to mill and pave my roads, then I am acting in bad faith if I break a law because I do not like it.

2) The Law exists as an entity, and breaking one law is breaking the law. This one is important because of how it interacts with the first presumption, and lends itself to core values of the Law or the Social Contract. Essentially, the argument is that breaking the law is not simply a dispute with one regulation or another, it’s an attack on the legitimate power of the state, which would constitute a breach of the social contract.

3) It is illegitimate to respond to injustice with injustice. You can also argue this as “two wrongs don’t make a right,” and it lends itself to Justice as a possible core value. Even Thoreau accepted that he had to go to jail for failing to pay his taxes, and he refused to allow his friends to pay his taxes for him, because that would have invalidated his argument. Socrates simply adds that the act of failing to pay taxes, of breaking the law, was wrong per se, and it is never moral to do wrong, even in response to being wronged.

Fundamentally, the argument is about the clash between our obligations to our beliefs and our obligations to society. Is it ever legitimate to disobey a law, with which we disagree? Does legality trump morality? It’s a juicy topic and I wish all the debaters much luck in arguing it.

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Debate Week – Who Owns Your Parts?

Happy Monday and welcome to Debate Week here at Words Mean Things. This week we’ll be looking at the topics for the beginning of the academic year for debate at the high school level. Today will be the regular Lincoln-Douglas topic, Tuesday will be the Novice topic, and Wednesday will be Public Forum. I haven’t decided what I want to say about Policy Debate just yet, and am attempting to gather information about the state of the event.

The September/October Lincoln-Douglas debate topic is:

Resolved: A just society ought to presume consent for organ procurement from the deceased.

A couple of observations here. Affirming the resolution means privileging the preservation of life, when weighed against the rights of individuals to the property (in this case, the remains) of a loved one. The Aff should be able to safely dispense with exceptions due to living wills or other declarative documents. Our good friend, Mr. Webster, provides a quality definition of “presume” that will suffice here:

to accept legally or officially that something is true until it is proved not true

So, no weaseling around with “well, what if people say that their organs are off limits?” Then, we can’t presume, as there is proof. This would also apply in the case of a religious objection – religious dictums that forbade the harvesting of organs should probably be seen as a declarative statement that would preclude any sort of presumption. We can only presume in the absence of proof.

There’s plenty of room for clash in the alignment of justice, as it applies to the disposal of human remains. Stimmel, Stimmel, and Smith, a San Francisco Law Firm, have a web page about the current legal requirements for the disposal of human remains. I encourage debaters to go look up the legal cases to evaluate the reasoning therein. This can come down to an argument over property rights. The presumption of consent would give society, as expressed through the state, a right to a deceased person’s parts, over and above that of family members, in the absence of a declarative statement. Whose claim is privileged in a just society?

For the Aff, a defense of life and health is probably a good line of attack. Check out Hobbes’ Leviathan and the ultimate goal of a Commonwealth. The resolution presumes that a person is dead, and their organs might be used to save the life of a living, but gravely ill, person. In a just society, under Hobbes’ construction, society would be obligated to seize upon those organs. How does this apply to the presumption of consent? If a person is a member of a society under Hobbes’ model, their consent to the purpose of the Commonwealth, the preservation of human existence, ought to be presumed. Society existed to preserve them until they were gone, now their remains may be used by the society for the same ends on behalf of their fellow citizens.

For the Neg, I’m inclined towards arguing freedom and property rights. You could note that the resolution’s presumption is not extant in current American jurisprudence, which defers to the wishes of next of kin. The presumption of consent also implies a deeper argument: that society has some claim upon your property in the event of your death. If your organs are vital to saving someone else’s life, well, isn’t your home useful for sheltering the homeless? Could not your wealth be used to pay for orphanages – or even organ transplants for others? The ACLU defines the “Right to Privacy” as

our freedom to make certain decisions about our bodies and our private lives without interference from the government

The government must interfere in the event of a presumption of consent, as society’s wish to make use of your organs imposes a positive duty on you to “opt-out” of organ donation. The moral justification of such an imposition is sketchy, and probably a good line of attack for the Neg.

I like this topic, as I find it highly debatable on a number of different fronts. On the one hand, we want to save as many lives as we can. On the other hand, what sort of moral framework (or Value Criteria, for you debater types) do we establish when silence implies consent for the state to do what it will with your stuff, to include your parts?

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Good Truths and Bad People

There’s a simple thought exercise that demonstrates the problem with the ad hominem fallacy, that being efforts to discredit a line of reasoning by discrediting the articulator of that reasoning. Let us suppose that Joseph Stalin were making a statement, and let us suppose that he said “It is critical that the trains run on time.” Does the fact that he was responsible for the deaths of millions of his own people make that statement invalid? It probably is critical that the trains run on time, for a myriad of social and economic reasons. That a mass-murderer has said so doesn’t make it any less valid.

In an article from today’s Washington Post , we are treated to a variation on the ad hominem attack, courtesy the police force of Ferguson, Missouri. In releasing the name of the officer who shot Michael Brown, the police also made sure that we knew that Brown had been involved in a “strongarm robbery,” where he had made off with some cigars from a convenience store. This ought to matter not at all, in light of what we know to be true.

Here is a critical fact for you about the shooting of Michael Brown:

Michael Brown was unarmed when he was shot several times by a police officer.

More than that is unclear, but it does bring us to the critical question about Brown’s possible involvement in a convenience store robbery: what, of those two facts above, is changed by this information? Nothing. Unless Missouri has some sort of strange shoot-on-sight law for those suspected of pilfering tobacco products, then why an armed police officer shot and killed an unarmed man is still an open question, and one that the Ferguson police department seems uninterested in shedding much light on.

But this isn’t about getting to the truth as much as it is about controlling the narrative. If you come to believe that Michael Brown was a dangerous man, then it becomes less of a problem for him to get shot. After all, if you felt threatened, wouldn’t you have shot him? On the other hand, I had always operated under the presumption that this is what the police were for, and that part of their responsibility, as surely as it was one of my responsibilities during my military career, was to recognize and use the minimum amount of force necessary. Michael Brown could have stolen the Crown Jewels, and it still doesn’t make any clearer why it was necessary to shoot and kill an unarmed man.

As thinking people, we must not allow bad arguments and rhetorical nonsense to draw our attention away from the facts, or seeing that those facts produce some manner of consequence. If (and it’s still an “if”) Michael Brown was involved in bad dealings, it doesn’t making his shooting a good thing, or even defensible.

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