The Need for Epistemic Humility in High School Debate

Sungjoo Yoon | 7/30/22

It’s been nearly four years since Michael Moreno and Weston Burnett’s infamous round 5 disqualification at the Arizona State University Invitational. Citing Dr. Jordan Peterson’s anti-identity politics literature as a response against reigning Utah state champion Juan Diego Catholic’s performance, the round was cut short by judge intervention against the evidence.

The recording of the round, uploaded by Moreno, has since amassed nearly 1 million views and 20 thousand comments on YouTube - and has been the subject of continued controversy since.

I preface this by noting that I disagree with virtually every fiber of Moreno and Burnett’s advocacy that round. I have for long been a staunch believer in the importance of identity in forensics, have myself run dozens if not hundreds of arguments surrounding intersectionality, and find Peterson to be nothing more than a reactionary shrink.

On the contrary, and in a recent discussion in the debate space, I oddly found myself defending perhaps the only salient part of Moreno’s tangent in the video - his defense of epistemic humility.

The virtue of epistemic humility, which is merely the acceptance that our ideological assumptions are not absolute given they are an extension of our finite experiences, might be the only area in which we agree. But it’s also a concept that’s seemingly absent within the realm of our community today.

In the context of debate, it’s often used in reference to the evaluation of arguments under a variety of moral frameworks; especially those heterodox to those present in society. Grounded in that epistemology is always provisional on an individual level, it asks for modesty in discourse by leaving the door open to the possibility that one’s moral normativity may be entirely incorrect.

But recently, I’ve encountered a troubling rise in a lack of this humility and a disconcerting rise in its inverse, epistemic confidence.

In the past month alone, I’ve been in rounds where opponents have argued that the Amish need to be forcibly integrated into society because their culture isn’t ‘progressive’ enough. I’ve heard arguments on why a debate ought to be shut down when a team challenges the legitimacy of ‘orientalist discourse’. I’ve even been told that looking at ‘failing to look at economics through an anti-capitalist lens’ is disqualifying because it ‘causes psychological violence’.

Conceivably, the root of these dismissals is not unfounded given the nature of our community. Adding a generally leftist sphere to arrogant high school students is likely to produce an uncompromising, ‘holier-than-thou’ paradigm where debaters and judges alike reject the meager possibility of alternative moral standing. But it is wholly problematic to exclude discourse and to argue that teams ought to be disqualified merely because their epistemologies are different, or even right-wing.

First and foremost, exclusion in this regard both raises class barriers and denies the lived experiences of people who often have difficulty accessing the circuit in the first place. That’s to say, in places where debate is already constrained by systemic boundaries, students often aren’t aware of postliberal epistemology - and their lived experiences often are crowded out of discussion when said framing is the only framing that ‘circuit norms’ accept.

When I began debate, from a working-class school and with my worldview then, that my advocacies weren’t about advanced ontological criticisms. They were, and largely still are, arguments on how realpolitik disaffected people in my community; even if those arguments dipped into right-wing stances like isolationism, anti-globalism, and Western hegemony. The troubling trend of rejecting said arguments likely would have pushed me out of debate four years ago, and I’d advocate on behalf of that not happening now to others.

Moreover, even in the critical instances where students aren’t innocently running uncommon moral frames, and rather they are pushing extremist views, it is still better to engage them in discussion. This isn’t to say that we ought to normalize any form of problematic discourse in debate; rather, it’s that bad ideals are best rejected socially when they lose in the broader marketplace of ideas. It’s to say that we ought to deconstruct problematic ideas logically.

The same notion works vice versa. The worst possible way to address problematic arguments is to isolate the arguer from society and to castigate them; much like what happened to Moreno. He found refuge in vastly more violent communities (take a peek at the video’s comment section), and then only grew in his extremism after the circuit shunned him.

Perhaps this is all a roundabout way of saying that our community today has become too arrogant in the way it deals with unfamiliar worldviews, especially those that aren’t hyper-leftist. But the national-level debate circuit needs a roundabout way of embracing those it’s leaving out today, or else it’ll suffer from elitist exclusion and a missed opportunity to break down bad faith.