Debate Tip of the Week: Work Backwards to Generate CX Lines

Cross-examination is perhaps the most difficult debate skill to excel at. Most debaters, after some experience, are fine at cross-x, but it’s been years since I’ve heard anyone actually gain a lot from the exercise.

To be honest, I usually check out a bit during those three minutes when I’m judging because I know nothing of much significance will happen.

However, there are some who take this opportunity–the only time in the round–to directly interact with their opponent, and use it to win the round. A round won in cross-examination is a beautiful thing. It’s a mark of a debater who isn’t only skilled, but more importantly, prepared. Great questions are rarely created on the spot. The best debaters plan out cross-x weeks before the round begins.

But even such preparation is difficult! Time and time again I see prepared cross-x questions that are stale and limp, generating little advantage at best. What’s the problem? I think people are approaching it incorrectly. They commit two major mistakes.

The first mistake they make is jumping the gun. They think of the killer question that gives them everything they desire, and they simply ask it. It’s typically open-ended and opponents easily dodge and refute it. Even more they signal their plan of attack too early.

The second common mistake people make is not thinking ambitiously enough. They see small holes in their opponent’s arguments and prepare questions that poke at relatively insignificant details. If the cross-x is successful it doesn’t do much. The judge becomes bored.

My most successful cross-examinations revolved around only a couple of key concessions I wanted to generate and they started with that goal and worked backwards to lay the foundation where my opponent had no escape. This is backwards-looking cross-x prep.

Take, for example a situation where you’re planning to run a “brain drain” disadvantage. You know that a common refutation against this DA is to try to diminish the impact by arguing that the EU countries ought to prioritize their own citizens over the needs of those who live outside of Europe. You want to cut this off at the pass in cross-x, but if you go up and ask “should the EU consider the needs of those outside of Europe the same as those inside?” you’re probably going to get a swift, “no, countries should care for their citizens first”.

But if we lay the foundation for that question first perhaps we can get the answer we want. Thinking philosophically can help. Treating people equally is a common sentiment, so why should governments act differently? Still there’s wiggle room out of that, so we go back even more fundamentally: why do we treat people equally? Because they have equal worth, of course. There’s something no one’s going to disagree with, so we start there. Here’s how I might prep this line of cross-x:

Do all people have equal moral worth? (yes)

Should we, therefore, always treat people equally because they have equal worth? (yes) [perhaps there’s a better way to phrase this question to get out of “not if they’ve acted in different ways” waffling.]

Is this a moral absolute? (yes, probably)

Does this moral absolute hold for everyone regardless of circumstance? (yes)

People acting as part of governments, then, should also be held to this moral standard, right? (yes, probably)

[Now we get to the real question]

So, then, the EU should consider the effects of their policies for all people, regardless of who they are, correct?

I’ve identified a couple of points where a particularly wily debater might see where you’re going and introduce an argument for why people acting as part of governments have different moral obligations, but I think this line would work most of the time. But, more importantly, even if you don’t get to the killer question you’ve won the battle of ethos in the judge’s eyes because you’re laying, step by step, the foundations of a clear, logical argument. The other person is the one disrupting your argumentation, and they will almost certainly appear, no matter how pleasant and confident they are, to be on the defensive.

This is how you turn cross-x from a sleepy 3 minute break into the most riveting, critical part of the round. Find the answer you want, and work backwards to lay a strong foundation to get to that answer.

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