Mr. Nebel’s neighborhood, OR Nebel Tea
– I sip it.
By Rebar Niemi
Introduction and answering Mr. Nebel’s preempts
There is a distinction between T on the basis of correctness (semantics, etc.) and T on the basis of better debating (pragmatics). We should sever the link between correctness and better debating fundamentally. Better debating is a contextually defined (and non-static) method of evaluating performances in round. Correctness is an appeal to right answers and wrong persons. Correctness is an appeal to logic that is unbound by its history, creators, or usage – logic that grounds itself in so-called “universality.” Though this may come as a shock, there are non-binary conceptions of truth and falsity. Even more shockingly, there are multiple types and expressions of logic. Throughout this article I will refer to the position that semantics control or come before pragmatic concerns as the position of correctness. This article’s thesis is that students have been increasingly using some of Jake Nebel’s recent spate of articles (Should T be a voting issue?, Specifying just governments, and On the priority of resolutional semantics) to justify a certain type of topicality position. Each of these articles centers the notion of the “competent speaker of english” without ever justifying why we should value that or really what the implications of such a designation are. This is a rebuttal to Mr. Nebel’s overarching position on debate, an indict of the ethics of such a position, and a suggestion that students should dispense with the utilization of this evidence for theoretical debates.
There is an attempt to preempt part of my argument here in Mr. Nebel’s article on resolutional semantics. He does not take seriously the notion that meaning can be oppressive and illusory. I don’t either, because that is a mistaken identification of the argument. I take seriously the argument that meaning can be oppressive and is constructed and contexted. The argument is not that meaning is illusory. The argument is that meanings (bare plural) exist and they require mechanisms to negotiate between them. He then even uses the example of “African American Vernacular English” – his argument here is twofold.
The first is that a specific scenario (aka an instance) of the generic objection to semantics does not disprove that different things mean different things. On the one hand this seems to be exactly what it does – you do not have a consistent general rule if there are exceptions to that rule. On the other hand the dismissal of context and specificity is problematic in itself (a point I will reference throughout this article). On top of that, Mr. Nebel seems to admit that excluding “African American Vernacular English” would be oppressive and wrong, but says that his exclusion of it does not count because clearly resolutions are not written in this dialect. I take this as a concession that Mr. Nebel’s conception of debate is a by-whites-for-whites activity. Perhaps he would agree that more resolutions should be written in other dialects. That is not a claim he makes in his articles.
The second objection happens in the footnotes. It is that “there are few words or phrases in resolutions with completely different referents.” The word “just” is either an adverb or an adjective. The word “ought” is typically thought to have at least two definitions, one indicating duty or correctness, and one indicating probability or logical consequence. Now – are these or are these not “completely different referents?” I admit to being a less than competent english speaker, so it is possible that I am mistaken when I note that a word can have multiple meanings. Further, it is possible that even among only somewhat different referents (to be honest, I am unclear what an incomplete difference versus a complete difference is), there is significant difference in terms of debate. Mr. Nebel frames only all or nothing decisions as having import – now, as when he debated, he does not believe in comparative advantages between worlds.
Non-comparative theory debate is bad theory debate
I would argue that the model of T that is proposed is wrong in some sense. Mr. Nebel breaks T down into the so-called “topicality rule” and then a semantic justification of the resolution’s meaning. I do not dispute that the topicality rule must be justified in some way, and is a potentially separate issue. I do, however think that it is almost always a related issue to the meaning of the resolution. His isolation of semantics begs the question of why one semantic interpretation is better than another. At one point, there is an offhanded comment about how sentences don’t mean what it would be best for them to mean. This is likely true, but entirely beside the point – a T debate is never about what would be best, it is about what would be better among a number of interpretations (typically two in a debate round). It is not a claim indexed to an absolute, it is a relative claim. Of course, such relative claims don’t make sense from the perspective of someone who is already committed to universal logic.
To clarify, I am not against topicality. I enjoy a rousing topicality or topical interpretation debate, but I enjoy a topicality debate that actually generates real impact scenarios in terms of what a norm means in a debate round or in relation to a topic. Formal correctness must have an impact to matter (teaching the “proper” norms of grammar as an educational benefit could be a plausible one, although I would say a problematic one).
In the many correctness T shells I have seen over the years, there is often no impact generated in the debate round beyond being right or wrong on a formal level. T is a voter because otherwise you are incorrect about the topic and your position is non-T. This is circular. Worse, it implies a pragmatic impact but does not justify one. Mr. Nebel is well aware of this problem, and he agrees this circularity is insufficient to justify T. Why then does he engender it?
A better T shell does not appeal to correctness, but instead to what Nebel considers the more base concern of pragmatism – for instance, this interp excludes X aff while including Y aff and that is bad for education/loses us important topical ground based on the lit, or this interp forces neg to defend status quo and nothing else, or this interp is itself founded in a racist/ableist/heteronormative etymology. To clarify, I support students running these types of T arguments where properly impacted to pragmatic concerns about debate. For instance, an obsession with correct white english grammar could be impacted to education because we need to know how to write essays that will get us through college. Obviously this is not a particularly persuasive impact, and is likely outweighed by the issues of linguistic hegemony among other things. So my position on T incentivizes running T with better impact stories, in particular impact stories that talk about how they are better for debates rather than how their opponent is merely incorrect. This probably extends to theory as well.
A second claim against correctness based T arguments is that they are antithetical to the very notion of topicality debates: that there could indeed be multiple correct interpretations of a topic, and we need to weigh between the actual effects of those interpretations. I do not know which dictionaries Mr. Nebel prefers, but in the ones I typically reference there are multiple definitions for words. The correct definition for any one situation is often times a completely subjective undertaking that incorporates judgments of sentence context, subject matter, historical and cultural significance, and aesthetic preference. These are pragmatic and comparative concerns. The claim that semantics comes before pragmatics is a claim that debate should not be comparative. Under the conception of lexical priority, debate is not a performative speech activity. Debate is a slightly fleshier essay contest where you are not graded according to your competition, but according to a rubric that exists outside of your control.
No more neighborhood watches in debate
Though I believe Mr. Nebel to be fundamentally wrong on the debate theoretical level, I have a more serious objection. I will make this claim in the strongest terms I possibly can. Correctness is racism. Correctness is “you must be either a boy or a girl or you are wrong.” Correctness is “the ideal functioning body versus all others.” Correctness is one kind of person having access to The Truth and others lacking it. Correctness is “sit down and shut up.” Correctness is “your kind aren’t welcome here.”
Any debater who runs so called “Nebel T” and any judge who votes for this argument must acknowledge that they are situationally and strategically embracing a perspective from which there is an implicit or explicit metric of what it means to be a competent english speaker. What is the logical conclusion of speaking competent english? The notion that “mongrel” forms of english are inferior, diminished, unpersuasive, and should not have access to the ballot. Quite possibly the notion that those who can’t live up to these standards should not be involved in debate. After all, their dialects are not what resolutions are written in – it is people like Mr. Nebel whose dialect prescribes correct resolutional meaning.
You may say that “competent speakers” was a rhetorical flourish, I am nitpicking, and that Mr. Nebel should certainly be allowed to take back his offensive speech. I will say this: the competent english speaker, aka the correct type of thinking and being, is the fundamental goal and top-level value that Mr. Nebel appeals to throughout his articles. If this is “not what he meant” then he did not mean that debaters should pay any attention to nor follow his logic. Either he defends correctness or he concedes the irrelevance and negative impacts to fairness and education of his position.
Nebel may appeal to pragmatics as a way out of the appeal to correctness, but in fact, his pragmatic claims are a pragmatic justification for correctness. This concedes pragmatics first anyway, and that so to speak, is a flow I can win on. It is my opinion that there is no in or out of round benefit that correctness could provide sufficient to outweigh the toxicity of its implementation and rhetorical methodology.
Conclusion: Your generic is someone else’s oppressor
In one sense we should be thankful that Mr. Nebel has let the cat out of the bag: T arguments from the perspective of correctness have always been the vehicle for racism and exclusion of all sorts. I cannot imagine a construction of competent english or correct grammar that is not racialized, gendered, and further influenced by its origins.
To me it is impossible to endorse the claim to correctness without conceding that one is invested in a justification of domination (of course they won’t call it that) stretching across axes of class, race, gender, flesh, and cultural origin. The one place where Mr. Nebel speaks to this question, he dismisses it by claiming that specific examples are insufficient to deal with the bare plurality of his arguments. Mr. Nebel is kind to differentiate for us that there is “generic” or “competent” english, and that is its own dialect, where as these other dialects or ways of speaking are simply different uncomparable dialects. This truly tests my credulity. Are higher pitched so-called “feminine” voices less competent speakers of english? Are those who have read words in books but never heard them pronounced due to lack of high-grade prep school educations less competent? What about those who speak in accents, vernaculars, or dialects of english? For that matter, what about overlaps and points of connection between those ways of speaking and “generic english?” We can easily assume what Mr. Nebel thinks about speech impediments, or those who are unfamiliar with formal usage of grammar. Perhaps even run on sentences disqualify one from being a competent english speaker? Or an overabundance of rhetorical questions? Does anyone have memorized the full and formal set of rules for speaking competent or proper english? Does anyone actually trust that all those rules aren’t implicitly ideological? It is hard to believe that Mr. Nebel is blind to the values he endorses. Perhaps we should accurately hold him to them.
I am proud to be an incompetent english speaker. No way will I speak correct english for Mr. Nebel, and no way will I designate any student the worse debater for failing to live up to a standard that is entirely dependent on a single way of interpreting how to speak, think, and be in the world.
Mr. Nebel has read too much of his neighbors in analytic philosophy and not enough James, either C.L.R. or William. The only impact to semantic difference is a pragmatic one or it is merely a claim that “the rules are the rules.” Truth has no value if it does not “work” in the world or is actively opposed to what does work. His claim to lexical priority is false generally and specifically in debate. He does not understand how a T debate should work. More disturbingly, he is wholly disconnected from the concrete history of violence that correctness in language embraces and grows out of. In Mr. Nebel’s neighborhood, we had (and have to) kill the indian to save the person. In Mr. Nebel’s neighborhood of debate, all the folks are the same, equally well off, and nobody says y’all.