The Futility of Reclamation

Connor Engel | Jul 28, 2021
4 min read

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

There’s a popular trend among leftist fields that seeks to reappropriate the power from offensive terms, tactics, and concepts by having the people they are traditionally used against reclaim them and use them against the original perpetrators. The thought here coincides with the ever present “use the master’s tools” philosophy in which the oppressed turn the tools of the oppressor against them in order to gain power while proportionally reducing it for the oppressor. Hypothetically it’s an efficient exchange, but in practice it is often fraught with difficulty. Recently this trend has crossed over into debate. Debaters of various marginalized groups have been attempting to reclaim tactics that were once considered to make debate inaccessible like tricks, theory, and western philosophy. This post will focus specifically on the reclamation of tricks debate, why it doesn’t work, and why we should stop doing it.

What Are Tricks?
While it has no formal definition, tricks debate is broadly defined as any tactic which relies entirely on the chance your opponent will accidentally concede an argument rather than the strength of the argument itself. Tricks arguments typically come in the form of theory spikes (pre-emptive offensively worded theory interpretations) or aprioris (arguments that disprove the resolution itself). They are barely warranted and often hidden within other arguments or read in such volume with the hope that one will inevitably be conceded. Tricks positions are generally defended deliberately dodgily in cross-examination as to further obfuscate an already confusingly constructed position. Essentially tricks serve to gamify the practice of debate turning it into a glorified minesweeping challenge rather than a contest of opposing strength of argumentation.

There are numerous reasons why tricks are inequitable. If you are curious as to exactly why much of the community feels they ruin debate there are a litany of extensive articles written on the topic. For the purposes of this post we can assume that it is evident that tricks are bad for debate and especially so for marginalized debaters. So why can’t marginalized debaters reclaim them?

Why Reclamation Doesn’t Work
The issue is that tricks are inherently inequitable in application, not just subject position. One can imagine reclaiming a term like the n-word because there’s nothing physically limiting about the world itself other than its contextual application. When used by a white person against a black person it is a slur meant to be intensely degrading. But when used by a black person, one can imagine it adopting a different contextual meaning, and thereby be properly reclaimed. The problem is that tricks are not just words, they’re actions, an entire structure of debate strategy. To be clear, tricks are bad not because they happen to traditionally be used primarily by a privileged group of debaters, but because they’re a form of debating that deliberately seeks to make debate less accessible, less fair, and less educational. Having a marginalized debater replicate the same structure that makes debate worse isn’t productive. I understand that some debaters find the practice of reclaiming such arguments personally empowering. There’s obviously nothing wrong with empowerment, but it’s worth noting that if your personal empowerment comes at the cost of others, particularly the marginalized groups you might be a part of, then your tactic of empowerment is ultimately counterproductive.

Some argue this isn’t a problem so long as one makes a solemn vow to only use the dark powers against those whom our community has collectively determined “deserve it”; aka, wealthy, cis, straight, white, men. First, your ability to judge the nuance of people’s personal backgrounds is non-existent. We have neither the right nor the necessary information to conduct a reverse authenticity test to determine who deserves the wrath of bad debate. Second, this still continues to expand upon and normalize the practice of using tricks, thus making them more present in debate. The tactics you use to take X debater down a peg will just be copied by them and used against marginalized debaters in the next round.

At the end of the day we should just let some sleeping dogs lie. I understand it might feel good to be in the driver's seat for once; to see the color drain from an opponent’s face as they realize they’ve conceded subpoint (d) of your 12th spike and now stand no chance of winning. Nevertheless, there are far more productive ways of engaging with the inequitable structures and practices of debate than simply trying to inculcate yourself further into them. And there are forms of personal empowerment with more integrity and positive impact than the schadenfreude experienced from winning off of terrible arguments that make our activity worse.

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