How to Criticize America

It is virtually impossible to compete in academic debate without ever criticizing the country in which you live. Debate forces us to think critically about all ideas, which means that you’ll often have to object to the ones that your audiences hold dear.

This year, criticizing America comes in many forms. TPers have to justify ending landmark foreign aid deals that our country has held for decades. LDers have to explain why free trade - the shining jewel of American economics - must take a bow to fairness. Regardless of how nation-centric the criticism is, it is inevitable that at some point you will have to say the dreaded three words:

America was wrong.

And if you want to be competitively successful, you’ll have to say them without alienating your audience. Here’s how.

Separate Nation from Policy

The nation describes who we are, the policy describes what we do. It’s important that your judge doesn’t feel like you’re criticizing part of their identity. When you discuss America’s failings, separate its policies from its people.

For example, imagine if the United States kept the laws that it had in the 1930s. We’d still have children in coal factories, segregation in schools, and rats in sausage patties.

Resisting change because it’s change would stop us from making any progress. Recognizing policy mistakes is part of what makes America a great place to be.

It’s the difference between saying “America has a bad policy” and “This bad policy is in America”. Governments should always be looking for changes: it’s how we stay ahead of the curve. And if we’re unwilling to call out a bad policy when we see one, we can’t really claim to be interested in making our country better.

Use Forward-Looking Language

Your judges identify as Americans: criticizing America feels like criticizing them. Once you’ve separated America as an identifiable group from its policies, make sure that you then reference policy changes as ways to IMPROVE the people group.

In other words, the focus should shift from “America has done this bad thing” to “America can be so much better!”

Compare the following statements:

“When we send Egypt military aid, we’re writing a check to abusers. Every citizen of America should be ashamed of the way their tax dollars endorse human rights atrocities. Vote affirmative to end this pattern of wrongdoing.”

“Right now there’s a loophole in our system of foreign aid that allows politicians to send money to thugs. These same politicians close their eyes as those criminals slaughter civilians across the globe. Vote affirmative to stop the bleeding and restore America as a beacon of justice to the world.”

The first example alienates the audience, and requires them to turn against their country to vote affirmative. By contrast, the second paragraph uses powerful yet encouraging language to remind the judge that they can stand with their nation against evil.

Remind the judge that criticizing policy is essential if we ever want to do more than stagnate. A nation only advances when its people are dissatisfied and hungry for progress.

Isn’t that something we should all want?