Sunday, April 19, 2009

Agonism, Debate, and Blood Sports

Linking to Happy Bodies only when I agreed with them would be lazy. Finding times when I disagree is a far more challenging endeavor. A certain author on that fine blog writes against the "blood sport" conception of academic discussion, which she analogizes to a "whip it out and measure it" approach. She also links to a post by Mandolin at AAB entitled "Debate", which claims (among other things) that debate is characterized by "power games, attempts at manipulation, and a confrontational mindset." My disagreement here isn't actually that deep, as much of it boils down to what I take to be a mistaken view on what a "blood sport" approach to academics means. As someone who has used the "blood sport" metaphor in a relatively positive context, and has "debate" right in his blog's name, I want to distinguish the "blood sport" approach from the type of abusive practices Jill and Mandolin identify (which I agree are all too prevalent), because I think the latter is in actuality a serious distortion of what a true "blood sport" academic discussion should be trying to accomplish.

Jill writes:
[I]n this “academics as blood sport” model, the goal is not to grow. The goal is not to reach a consensus, or to get to the bottom of a thorny problem in the text, or to hash out a controversial point. The goal is to make the other person look as stupid as possible. The goal is to, as a friend once put it, “whip it out and measure it.” Women play at it sometimes, but this is a game for men.

Ideally speaking: No, probably yes, yes, maybe, no, and no. Let me explain.

The "blood sport" model, at its heart, is an articulation of the belief that academic discussion is most fruitful when proponents of particular positions are willing to "let their hands go" (to adopt language from my favorite blood sport, boxing). We should press weaknesses, probe implications, attack shoddy reasoning, all in pursuit of making each participant present their best possible case. We develop intellectually by challenging and being challenged as strongly as possible; what remains at the end is indubitably stronger than what came before. I often say that one of the reasons I wanted to attend the University of Chicago for law school was because I wanted to "put myself through the fire"; that is, I wanted to be placed in an environment where I knew I would be challenged to the greatest possible extent, knowing that I could only develop by facing the most advanced and vocal advocates of alternative positions. J.A. Hodnicki gives similar advice to junior faculty members deciding where to present their works in progress.

Though I don't think it's bound to it, I also think the "blood sport" approach is tied intricately to the position of philosophical agonism expounded by writers like Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau. Agonists believe that, at root, disagreement will never be expunged from democratic societies. Mouffe, in a quote I've referenced before, claims that holding out "consensus" as a paramount goal in a pluralist democracy actually threatens democracy itself:
To believe that a final resolution of conflicts is eventually possible...far from providing the necessary horizon of the democratic project, is something that puts it at risk. Indeed, such an illusion implicitly carries the desire for a reconciled society where pluralism would be superseded. When pluralist democracy is conceived in such a way, it becomes a self-refuting ideal because the very moment of its realization coincides with its disintegration.[Chantal Mouffe, Democracy and Pluralism: A Critique of the Rationalist Approach, 16 Cardozo L. Rev. 1533, 1544 (1995)]

Consensus, in this view, is a trap: it means consensus on grounds acceptable to the empowered classes. There is not always a true consensus to be had, no "bottom" to get down to. Collaborativeness is another word for exclusivity, because we're not all just trying to achieve the same thing. I concur with Mouffe and others in that I believe that many value disputes are fundamentally irreducible, and that this is something we simply have to accept as members of the deliberative community.* Even Iris Marion Young, queen of the deliberative democrats, believes that "rational" discourse only requires that the parties come in with an aim, rather than a guarantee, of agreement. I agree with this as well -- I don't think we should pick fights just for their own sake -- but Young certainly is keenly aware of the illiberal risks in demanding agreement when disagreement still lingers.

But this is getting far afield. The point is that, believing that political conflict is inevitable and indeed desirable, the agonist political project is centered around managing it so that there still exists a basic framing of mutual respect. Since we can't ground mutual respect on some form of "we're all really working for the same thing" (because we're not -- at least not necessarily), it must be located elsewhere. And in this, agonists find the "blood sport" metaphor to be very helpful. Samuel Chambers writes:
Agonism implies a deep respect and concern for the other; indeed, the Greek agon refers most directly to an athletic contest oriented not merely toward victory or defeat, but emphasizing the importance of the struggle itself-a struggle that cannot exist without the opponent. Victory through forfeit or default, or over an unworthy opponent, comes up short compared to a defeat at the hands of a worthy opponent-a defeat that still brings honor. An agonistic discourse will therefore be one marked not merely by conflict but just as importantly, by mutual admiration.

I think this is tremendously illuminating. There is a considerable amount of literature on the different discussion styles of men and women, including how men often simply try and bludgeon their way to "victory" by blunt verbal force. This is an example of "victory by default", and it is not truly legitimate. The true agonist does not wish to claim victory simply because he's rigged the discursive rules in his favor. The struggle is only valid when everyone is in a position where they can participate as strongly and ably as they are capable of. Consequently, persons who conceive of themselves as participants in a "blood sport" view of academics should work actively to insure a level playing field amongst the participants; not taking advantage of structural or contingent advantages (think Inigo Montoya's sword fight with Wesley in The Princess Bride). That means avoiding, not reinforcing, gendered modes of silencing or shutting down alternative perspectives.

There is an (unfortunately, mostly liberal) conceit that the participants in blood sports are all ruthless, cutthroat savages, and a consequent conflation of "blood sport" with "win at all costs". This is quite far from the truth. In most blood sports, one observes an important dynamic of respect between the players; and disrespect for those who care only about winning but do not respect their adversary. Boxers often talk a lot of trash before the fight begins to sell tickets, but nearly invariably they will embrace afterward and have naught but high praise for each other. I still remember Bernard Hopkins -- immediately after handing Kelly Pavlik the first loss of his career -- going to the younger man's corner and giving him some fighting advice, promising him that he would one day become the best in the world. The agonist debater should likewise see his or her project as facilitating the mutual development of themselves and their interlocutor as advocates.

The ethos of the "blood sport" is one steeped in language of glory and honor. But the persons who engage in self-aggrandizing pugnaciousness to prove that they're the smartest guy in the room are running quite far afield from this ideal.** They are not behaving honorably. They are fighting for themselves, when they should be fighting for the greater ideal of illumination and elucidation, or at the very least making all participants the best they can be as advocates and proponents of their causes. Moreover, agonist struggle implies a willing and eager partner: forcing someone who does not wish to fight into a debate context is as incompatible with agonist ideals as a boxer picking a random guy out at a bar and pummeling him senseless. The agonist does hold -- properly in my view -- that if one does wish to enter the fora of public deliberation, then one can't demand that everyone put aside their difference and "collaborate" together.*** But not everyone wants to be in the fora all the time, or on all subjects.

I do believe that the best academic discussions are ones in which eager and talented participants are trading their best shots at one another. But not everyone is in a position to do that. Some people aren't eager. Some people don't know enough to be thrown in with the sharks yet. Predators seek out these persons because they want another notch in their "W" column, but there is no true honor in that. There are, after all, models of combat which are premised on building someone up rather than taking them down (e.g., a sparring session), and this too ought be (and I believe is) incorporated into a true agonist frame. In this way, conflict and collaboration are reconciled.

Debate ought to be an honorable activity. Many persons, unfortunately, do not practice it in this way. They relish victory for its own sake, with no regard for their partner and with no purpose other than victory. But whatever else it is, that sort of behavior is not consistent with the ethos of the blood sport.


* Even if disputes over values can't always be dissolved, this doesn't mean that debate is futile. There are still several important functions debate can serve. First, it can solve factual disagreements masquerading as value disputes (e.g., what tax policy is most beneficial to the nation's poorest?). Second, it can reveal the reasons advocates have for their position and the passion with which they hold them, which may be important to people who base their decisions in part on the opinions of others. Third, it can clarify the interplay between various disconsonent values which may be implicated in any given dispute, forcing people to reveal what values they are giving up or sublimating in order to adhere to their position.

** There are actually two distinct problems here. On the one hand, there is the guy who doesn't know a lot, and masks it by being unreasonable aggressive and belligerent. This is obnoxious if for no other reason than it forces more advanced participants in a discussion to continually hash out basic 101 material. But sometimes, the best response to the sort of person really is just to crack his skull a bit. A systematic evisceration of his "analysis" may inspire more humility next time.

On the other hand, there is the person who really does know a lot about the subject at hand, but uses that knowledge to crush the more incipient or inchoate ideas of his less knowledgeable or confident fellows. The violation here is the one I focus on above -- it is preying on less experienced or willing adversaries, before they can pose any serious challenge or threat. Eventually, the student may become the master, but only if the master doesn't systematically squash all his students as babes.

*** Consider how White feminists used this line of argument to silence dissident voices of women of color; arguing that those differences should be pushed aside precisely because they would threaten the collaborative nature of the women's movement -- "coming together as women". I'm not sure why, faced with White feminist leaders who claimed to care about racism but systematically ignored it in word and deed, women of color should not have attempted to draw some blood in response.


Jack said...

I think the problem with the blood sport model as you've outlined it is that its still about winning. Yes, to really win requires abiding by the rules, a fair, respectful fight... but the incentive is still to be the best rather than be right. The academic of virtue is the academic who after 25 years defending her position is willing to admit that she's wrong in the face of contrary evidence. When a disagreement comes to an end and an answer is agreed everyone wins and that doesn't in any way fit with the blood sport model.

David Schraub said...

I don't think so -- the honorable opponent should be willing to admit defeat when defeated. But also, with regards to the type of value questions I'm talking about, I'm sure there are "right" answers in the strong sense anyway. I'm not convinced there is way to make disagreement come to an end aside from the unanimity of the graveyard.

chingona said...

I can't tell if this post is a defense of debate or a defense of boxing.

David Schraub said...

About 65/35, I'd say.

Jack said...

Surely you have had the experience of totally demolishing someones arguments and decisively showing that you're right such that your opponent has nothing left to say? They just go "I guess".

And then you press them further to make sure they've come around ... and they haven't. They're now, without any reasons at all, holding to their initial position. I strongly feel that this is because all the incentives in a blood sport line up against giving in. People sometimes just hold their ground for the sake of saving face. By introducing someones position into a blood sport debate you force them to defend it OR LOSE. Thats not healthy at all when we want people to be more flexible with their positions (at least I want people to feel totally free to change their minds). It isn't even about ending disagreement, just not entrenching it. And I don't see any reason other models won't be able to clarify questions and understand the other side. Indeed, theres a huge disincentive toward clarifying the question and understanding your opponent. Even if distorting positions is against some blood sport rule people end up doing it any way and I think they'd be far less likely to if it wasn't about winning anything at all.

Eric Massengill said...

I think maybe the "bloodsport" model is a little extreme. I do agree that conflict is essential to giving positions respect, and forcing some kind of "agreement" when none exists is just silencing the opposition. But, as Jack said, people become less flexible in extreme conflict because they don't like losing. Part of this may just be the way people go about their debating: it seems to me that people are much more open to each other's arguments when it's more of a relaxed discussion than an outright intellectual fight. (I think who you're debating with has an impact as well. If I were debating my best friend I would be more willing to respect his arguments and possibly concede my own position, than if I were debating Rush Limbaugh.)

Against Jack though, I don't buy consensus as an alternative to debate, and whether or not someone is willing to concede their position when proven wrong has a lot more to do with their quality of character. If they're not willing to concede in a debate when totally proven wrong, then I don't see how that kind of person can possibly form a consensus with that same opponent. Consensus is trying to say, "you're both right," but it just turns into, "you're both wrong," because it requires both parties to make concessions for the sake of social compromise, even when one of their positions may be totally and completely right. That will happen, statistically - everybody can't be wrong all the time.

And of course people will say, "I guess." People take passion in their positions for a reason, and even if they are a reasonable person, you can't get them to just change their mind on the fly. I have frequently been persuaded by arguments, but I have never conceded at that very moment. I have thought about it for a while, emotionally adjusted, and have thought about whether I lost because my position was wrong, or because I wasn't as good a debater. This is why I think turning debates into a "blood sport" is perhaps a little to extreme: in calm situations where people really have time to think over the other person's arguments, they are more likely to take those arguments seriously instead of just seeing them as obstacles to overcome.

What I don't like about consensus is that it essentially says that conflict itself is bad, which seems totally counter intuitive. Where would humans be without conflict? Single celled organisms in the ocean. Conflict hones, but honing requires adaptation or death of faulty positions, which means a willingness of parties to objectively observe the argument (and I have seen people with disparate positions convince one or the other - I'm not talking of some fairytale person, there are reasonable people out there, and unreasonable ones as well; the fundamental problem with intellectual debate or consensus is that all parties are human, and bring their baggage with them). Consensus is saying everyone somehow deserves to be right, when in the end there is only one real answer, and chances are people aren't disagreeing over semantics, they're disagreeing over something more fundamental, or else the conflict would not have gotten so intense. (I can't imagine people having passionate debates over semantics.)

And besides Jack, isn't what you're doing right now "debating"? Even consensus requires debates. People don't just get together and go, "We've been fighting all these years, but now that there's five of us in the room instead of two, we instantly know where the common ground lies." Even if we accept this premise that all positions are partially wrong (which consensus basically demands), we still don't know what parts, and hammering that out still requires... well, a hammer, so to speak.

David Schraub said...

Again, Jack, this isn't how I view the internal ethos of blood sport behavior. Again returning to boxing -- a boxer who refuses to admit when he's been beat loses a lot of respect in the community (see Michael Katsidis after his loss to Juan Diaz). Think of the "student takes on the master" events in all the cultural representations of the blood sport. If the master is considered a good guy, he handles his defeat with grace. If the master is a bad guy, he can't fathom how he was beaten by this peasant (see also: the fight in Jade Empire against Gao the Lesser [this is the most baller cite ever]). Chambers' quote about how honorable defeat is superior to victory by default further re-enforces the mentality we're working with.

I don't think that every intellectual discussion needs to be arena combat, if for no other reason than we're not always in a position where we have strong positions we want to defend -- we might still want to know more before we stake out a claim with any vigor. But I do think the best discussions are when you have two champions of given schools going at it with each other.

Jack said...

@ Eric

I don't know that you and I disagree. Consensus isn't my alternative to debating, it is my alternative to "winning the debate". I don't want to say "You're right, and you're right too, and everyone is right in their own special way." I want to say "One of us is wrong, I think it is you but I'm more than willing to accept that it could be me." My model would aim at two things, consensus and where that is impossible do to ultimate value disagreements, understanding. If I said something to indicate I wanted to skip the part where we talk it was unintentional.

You're also right to point out that people will be unwilling to immediately give up their position when their position is something the take passion in. This is certainly true when we're dealing with issues about how to live one's life. A person's identity can get wrapped up in this stuff. Thats all the more reason for avoiding discourse models that impose additional barriers to changing ones mind- in this case the barrier of losing face.

A decent example of my model is something like written analytic philosophy.


For some reason we're talking past each other. Let me try to clarify.

1. I think the focus on winning in the blood sport model can lead to manipulation, unsavory tactics etc. This is the case even if the blood sport ethos, ideally implemented, rejects these things. In all sports people cheat. We condemn it obviously but if there is a model that lowers the incentive for cheating, all else being equal, we should prefer it.

2. Even if the blood sport ethos is implemented perfectly it is still about winning. All the effort of the participants is put into winning- when I think ideally equal effort should be put into losing- that is appreciating the other person's arguments and trying to decide if they're true and if you ought to change your mind. No matter what rules you establish to limit what sorts of winning "count" the blood sport model will always, all else equal, prefer winning to losing. I think the model should merely prefer an end to the fighting.

3. All that said, even if none of these objections hold up I don't see what the net advantages of the blood sport model are. Blood sport debates are for sure fun to watch, but I don't think they are "the best" by any usual standard (are they productive? That is the right pragmatist standard, isn't it?)

I suppose if you think consensus really does kill democracy but the Mouffe argument is really quite bad, David... Yes at the moment of complete consensus comes the pluralist democracy comes to an end... but thats an end to the "pluralist" part not the "democracy" part. If we weren't a pluralist society I take it we wouldn't want a pluralist democracy. In any case complete consensus is never going to happen- so the question is whether the aim of our discourse is more disagreement or less.

Joe said...

But surely things like, say, Parliamentary Debate tournaments, have nothing to do with illumination, yes?

David Schraub said...

But since I'm defending a proper mode of conduct (which I'm calling the blood sport ethos), it's irrelevant whether people sometimes ignore the code. That's simply not a refutation. I could respond to all of your claims likewise (but sometimes people don't want to achieve consensus!). I also specifically account for how a combat ethos doesn't have to always be about winning (e.g., the sparring session). I'm only saying that the apex is the arena combat case. And I do think that's an ideal! Frankly, I'd be more interested in seeing a knockdown dragout debate between Germany IK (Immanual Kant) and American JD (John Dewey) than I would be in seeing the two sitting at a roundtable pecking at each other's papers. When you're at the level where you can truly take on a fellow elite of an opposing position, I think that can be illuminating in a way few other events can be.

Jack said...

Joe, I take college and high school forensics/debate to be games. Games which can be a lot of fun and very educational. I participated. But they make terrible discourse models.

David, you wrote:

>But since I'm defending a proper mode of conduct (which I'm calling the blood sport ethos), it's irrelevant whether people sometimes ignore the code. That's simply not a refutation.

I take it any advocate of the "color blind" approach to race could make the same response to the critical theorist. A communist might say the same thing to the non-communist. As a pragmatist I want to actually prevent bad things from happening. If your model is structured such that elements of it tend to be ignored when people try and implement it then it is an inferior model relative to other models.

I take consensus and understanding to be the aims of discourse. I take verbal activity that doesn't have these goals to be either word games or politics. Games can help us hone skills that are worthwhile- but winning them isn't an intrinsic good. Politics really does matter. So sometimes its important to just make your opponents look stupid so you can win an election. But neither winning games or politics are the right goals for academic discussion. Under the agonist model what is the aim of discourse?

A Kant-Dewey debate might be fun (though my guess is they would talk past each other). But time-constrained verbal sparring won't actually get anyone anywhere. It would be educational for undergrads but reading written correspondence between the two of them would be vastly more interesting, I think.

If you're interested a similar debate actually did happen- I don't know if you've read about the fascinating 1929 Davos debate featuring Martin Heidegger and neo-Kantian Ernst Cassier. The timing of the debate somewhat symbolically makes my point.

David Schraub said...

I think that anyone whose attack on communism or color blindness who could be beaten back by "but it hasn't really been tried!" really sucks as an advocate. But since I'm not passing statutes but simply prescribing a code of behavior, it's kind of ridiculous to hold me to a standard of "but what if people don't want to adhere to that code of behavior!?!" It just doesn't go anywhere. Maybe if there was a large class of persons who saw themselves as agonists but were behaving really abusively, then you could say that the model fails because the ideals aren't met. But I don't think that's the case.

Jack said...

Not sure why this one argument is what you're focusing on. It was somewhat ancillary to my main point. I'm willing to grant you that people will perfectly abide by your agonist ethos. My main objection is that its the wrong ethos because its still about winning (even if it only counts as winning under certain parameters). I don't think there should be a winner at all.

David Schraub said...

Because I don't think agonism is all about winning. Agonism isn't about the glory of winning, it's about the glory of struggle. Chambers specifically says honorable defeat is preferable to certain kinds of victory. And I've already identified certain types of agonistic behavior (e.g., the sparring match) which rather clearly aren't all about winning.

Becky said...

David, The way you describe Academics as a blood sport sounds fantastic: a mutually challenging discussion, taking things back to individuals' assumptions, deep respect for one another and actively not trying to silence women? sounds great. But what's so great about Jill's post is that she's speaking up and articulating how she has been overlooked and silenced in class. I completely agree with her sentiments, and know many other women who feel the same way. The fact that you often don't hear about women feeling silenced - might be because they feel as if they shouldn't speak up.

I for one, have often felt overlooked in classes where this sort of model of debate is purported, but I usually blame myself for not getting my voice heard. Shouldn't we start listening to all these women with the same experience and start analyzing how to change these academic settings? Clearly, there is a problem. Clearly, it is gendered. I'm not sure if it's a problem in the philosophy of blood sport, as Jill proposes, or just in the continual inadequate application of your ideal, but I think we need to unpack the blood sport model further, and find where we are losing the valuable voice of women.

PG said...


But to what extent is this a problem with the model, and to what extent a problem with how we've socialized women? The difficulty with saying that "Women as a group feel silenced by this form of academic discussion" is that some of us don't. Some of us enjoy it, at least so long as no one's literally trying to shout us down. (I did get socialized femme enough that I can't really raise my voice without also being on the verge of tears.)

Obviously an academic model is easier to fix than the models of socializing young women -- academics have conferences and "best practices"; parents and all the other inputs to girls' development don't -- but I'm skeptical of the idea that there's something inherently hostile to women in what David's talking about.

Anonymous said...

The blood sport model would be awesome if it didn't force so many things besides the quality of the ideas presented into the equation. In this model, victory is just as (if not more) likely to go to the participant with the most endurance, the most emotional detachment, the most relentless tone/manner, etc, as to the person with the best ideas.

In intellectual discussions, I often find myself saying "Whatever, I guess" because my opponent is so willing to dog it out with endless objections that are just relevant enough to demand a response, or recharacterize me in normatively or emotionally unappealing way until I am exhausted and impatient because our fighting is getting in the way of either of us learning anything anyways. Note that many these recharacterizations are probably appropriate in the blood sport model, at least if this blog is any indication. But the characterization is based on incomplete understanding of the other, and often inaccurate or unfair from the other's perspective. It's just a lot of punches to the body with the aim of knocking out the head, but without actually attacking the head.

The blood sport model also seems to require anybody who wants to share a serious idea with the world to also be prepared to dig themselves in and defend that position against all comers for as long as possible, because struggling is valuable in itself. We want to see the merits of the position, and in a blood-sport model, the person who invented it is best situated to defend it. Maybe they're obligated to defend it?

But why not let everyone move around and learn from each other more freely? A more collaborative model would be just as good at pointing out flaws in arguments and challenging positions. Why not put the onus on the provider of the idea to do more self criticism? Why not require the listener to treat his dialogue partner's ideas in their best possible light? You can still give critical feedback without fighting about it. But the idea of cooperatively seeking to understand doesn't strike me as a less efficient method than the a war of ideas. What you lose in not having people constantly struggling to defend themselves, you make up for with intellectual freedom to move from position to position. Hell, why do we even have to hold positions? Why not just suggest ideas for consideration? We don't have to say that disagreement is bad. But I much prefer an intellectual model of explorers sharing maps to a model of trench warfare.

Yeah, it can be a fun sport to try to beat each other up intellectually sometimes. It probably even makes us all individually the best "fighter" possible. But I'm not sure that's what's best for learning (which, remember, requires admitting that one does not yet know).


Becky said...

PG - I think you make a good point that the socialization of women has everything to do with our experience in the classroom, and its definitely an important consideration in considering a fix.

However, as happy as I am for you that you feel comfortable in this environment, you should not let that diminish your respect for other women's experiences. Because many women do feel silenced in the classroom, it's an issue that is clearly gendered, and clearly needs to be addressed. Something is off with either the model or the execution of the model, and I think hearing more women's voices is worth questioning the validity of classroom norms. Basically, I'm saying that my comment still stands - we can't let the ideal of the model overlook women's actual experiences.

Jack said...

David, that isn't responsive to the objection. I object to any model which conceives of discourse as a contest. If what you really value is the struggle- fine, but I don't see how conflict should be the ultimate value in academic discourse. I understand that honorably losing is better than certain kinds of winning- but I still take it that its worse than honorably winning. The fact that there is agonist behavior that isn't immediately about winning doesn't change anything. Are you saying that most of academic discourse should be taken as a sparring match? What would that even mean?

Put it this way, if you were to convince me in this discussion and I were to end in complete agreement with you I think it would be wrong to view the result as you winning and me losing. If that were to happen the debate was a success- not just for you but for me.