No More Buzzwords

Connor Engel | Jul 28, 2021
7 min read

The Opinions Expressed In This Blog Post Are Solely Those of the Author And Not Necessarily Those Of DebateDrills

Introduction

How many times has this happened to you? You’ve just given or judged a standard 1AC evaluating the possibility of having the United States institute a cap and trade system to limit greenhouse gas emissions for major corporations. The neg sets their laptop on their stand and begins spreading:

“The model of constructive situationism is not demodernism, but neodemodernism. It elongates the ontological capacity of the otherized non-person subject interpolating them into a capitalist dematerialism that includes narrativity as a reality…”

Your eyes slowly glaze over as you feel the onset of a familiar throbbing in your temples. You sigh deeply and acknowledge that the next 40 minutes of your life are going to be complete nonsense.

Debate is being ruined by the overuse of buzzwords. They make the round arbitrarily less accessible to both judges and debaters and are a leading cause of misunderstandings about literature as well as contradictory argumentation. Used properly, they allow for eloquent and efficient explanation of complex topics. Used poorly, buzzwors serve no purpose other than to deliberately mystify positions and make debaters sound more informed than they are.

Explanation

To begin with, what is a buzzword? A buzzword is a literature specific term of art that is either an esoteric synonym of an existing word/phrase or a signifier standing in for a more complex topic. To be clear, my problem is not with the complexity of the words themselves. Complexity, when supported with explanation, leads to better understanding. Rather, this blog will criticize the use of complex terminology or buzzwords when doing so is actively harmful or unnecessary.

Assume that any argument you make ought to be phrased straightforwardly enough to be intuitive to the average person. This does not mean that you cannot ever use buzzwords. Buzzwords are incredibly important for explaining complex concepts in efficient and intuitive fashion. The important caveat being that people must know the definition of the buzzword for the condensed explanation to make sense. Essentially every time you use a word or discuss a concept that you can reasonably estimate a layperson would not know, you must ensure that it is immediately preceded or followed by an explanation, or by common sense words that provide context.
When deciding whether to use a buzzword consider this, does the tag or content of the card you are reading provide any explanation (even contextually) as to what the buzzword might mean? If not what do you expect to convey by using the term? Something that can’t be understood by your opponent or your judge and for which you offer no explanation is not suddenly admissible evidence simply because you read it in round. Let me be clear. Judges have no responsibility to interpret your position.

Here is an example of a link to a settler colonialism kritik that is a reasonable use of buzzwords, “The 1AC produces the labor surplus that is integral to Native erasure. It both justifies and enhances the colonial project”. Surely there are buzzwords used here. The tag does not explain the meaning behind “Native erasure” or “the colonial project”. But if we know what “labor surplus” is, which this affirmative should as it’s clearly a part of their advocacy, then we can easily fill in the blanks. We can assume that an excess of labor is an important facet in reducing the visibility or opportunity of native subjects, and that this act is somehow important to the project of colonialism in general. The tag need not offer an explanation of these assertions so long as it tees up an explanation in the text of the evidence. The tag makes a sensible accusation, referencing a specific action the 1AC has taken and explaining how this action leads to a problematic outcome. Even if the outcome and the exact dimensions of the link are unclear, the evidence combined with the context of the 1AC plan text should easily explain it.

Contrast this with another tag, “The affirmative begins with a model of subjecthood that is understood as an a priori property of existence – this is produced based on preconceived designs to uphold the illusion of a structured mechanistic subject.”. Clearly this tag is a bit more wordy, but what’s more important is how the buzzwords are articulated relative to the more obvious context of the tag. The reason this tag is incomprehensible is that there is no common sense language with which to ground the buzzwords in. From the outset it is unclear what the claim even is. What is a “model of subjecthood” or an “a priori property of existence”? Even if I know the terms “a priori” and “subjecthood” I’m left confused. Let’s translate the first part of the sentence into non-buzzword form: The affirmative begins with an understanding of human identity that is by definition a property of existence -. So the affirmative assumes humans must by definition exist? It seems like what the tag is trying to say is that the affirmative assumes that humans must exist, or rather that our understanding of the world should center around how the world relates to humans, and that this is motivated by some persistent falsity in our understanding of human identity. Unfortunately any meaning is lost amongst the jargon. Terms like “subjecthood” are too broad and the tag does not link its accusation to any specific action the 1AC has taken so it is unclear what is even producing or grounding this “model of subjecthood”. Perhaps the evidence will define exactly what a “structured mechanistic subject is” but it seems far more likely that the card will explain what is bad about mechanistic subjecthood as the tag does not.
So am I just a crotchety anti-intellectual too dense to understand fancy debater talk? Perhaps, but there are also compelling external reasons to simplify the way you phrase your argumentation, and they are as follows:

Simple = Successful

First, you will win more rounds. The concept is straightforward. At the end of the day judges aren’t flowbots, they’re human beings you’re actually trying to convince with careful argumentation. As such they’re far more willing to vote for something they can actually understand and explain in the RFD. And the better it’s explained the more clearly judges can make cross applications and identify embedded clash that they normally wouldn’t, thereby bettering your chances of eeking out a win in a close round. Also as unfortunate as it is, some judges will pretend to understand a position simply because they’re afraid of looking uninformed. Sometimes this may work in your favor, but it can just as often work against you. If we simply make more of a communal effort to be less intellectually opaque and normalize a culture of admitting ignorance, we’ll increase both the quality of positions as well as decisions.

Help Me Help You

Second, it helps debaters understand their own positions. Buzzwords seriously hamstring comprehension of complex topics because they are often used to teach debaters positions quickly. While this can help you fake knowledge in round it fails to prepare you to truly understand the foundations of a position. This is particularly troublesome when someone who has only learned the buzzwordy explanation of a position attempts to teach it to someone else. It results in a game of critical theory telephone in which the facial explanation of a position is preserved while the depth of its justifications are lost. If you know the definition of the term “libidinal economy” but don’t actually know where the concept is derived from and how it’s justified, then you’re part of the problem.

Back to the Clash

Third, it creates deeper clash. So many debates end up with both debaters talking past each other because they are unable to engage with anything past a broad thesis level explanation of each other’s positions as articulated via buzzwords. In a similar vein there are also many debates which end up being totally one sided as one debater will corner another with a deliberately complex position and the judge will vote for them based on their previous knowledge of it. Both scenarios destroy debate’s educational potential as they fail to precipitate any further understanding of the topics discussed.

Conclusion

Minimizing use of buzzwords doesn’t mean we have to read less complex positions. In fact it would encourage use of those positions by making them more accessible as well as more competitively viable. In debate, as in most pursuits, simpler is better.

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