Debate Tip of the Week: Question “Significance”

When I say to question significance, I’m not talking about the significance of the affirmative team’s harms, I’m telling you to question the idea of significance in the first place.

What is significant? No, really. I’d love to know because it seems like half of the rounds I’ve watched lately have four debaters with a shared, innate understanding of what kinds of things are significant and one judge (me) who has no clue. I feel like I’m missing something. Teams throw out this concept willy-nilly, telling me that (to use an example from the last round I saw) saving thousands of people from literal torture isn’t significant like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. Was there a memo I missed?

Let’s try this: repeat the word “significance” to yourself over and over. Keep going until it loses all meaning and simply becomes sounds.

Now listen to this: About an hour ago I was tired. I haven’t been sleeping great lately and I couldn’t focus. So I made some coffee. It supplied me with enough energy to sit down and write this article. The coffee was significant to what you’re reading right now. A cup of coffee is significant.

But, of course, I heard the other day from a debater that not torturing people wasn’t significant, so we’ve got to figure out how to reconcile these two things.

Fixing the Problem

I think the problem is that new debaters are taught that “significance” is one of the stock issues, one of the supreme four arguments, and that you can always try to claim that the affirmative case isn’t significant to try to win the round. The analysis doesn’t go much further beyond that, which is a shame, because it leaves out all of the important stuff.

I lied a couple of paragraphs ago. But don’t worry, it was one of those helpful lies like when your physics book tells you to ignore friction. A cup of coffee isn’t necessarily significant. It was only significant in context. Just like a lie, which can be incredibly damaging or simply a teaching tool. Context is everything.

So what’s the context for what’s significant in a debate round? You’re debating over what policies the government should adopt. Isolated from any other context, what problems are significant enough that the government should adopt a policy? Now that’s an interesting question. But we can’t isolate context completely. Because we live in a reality that’s bound to the concept of time, every time you take an action (like passing legislation) you necessarily forego taking other actions. If you’ve studied basic economics you should recognize this concept as “opportunity cost.”

So if congress gets together, debates a bill, passes it in both chambers, sends it over to the president to be signed, and then the president has whatever people in whatever executive branch figure out how to organize and implement the policy, all of those people are doing that thing instead of doing something else. What else would they be doing? You could certainly run some interesting arguments along those lines (called “politics DAs”), but we’re not getting to specific contexts yet. You can assume they’re generally doing vaguely important government stuff.

That’s not a huge hurdle to clear for something to be significant, and it’s certainly not clear-cut or widely understood, but at least it’s a starting point.

How about this: change is risky. Any time there’s a new government policy there are trickle effects, changing incentives and behaviors in ways people can’t quite predict. You could call these unforeseen consequences or negative externalities. They are by their nature very difficult to predict, but we know they’re out there. If the policy is barely making any positive impact, why risk potentially worse consequences?

This all Seems Weak

Now we’ve got some baseline context for any policy: is it significant enough for the government to spend some of its limited time on it, and is it significant enough to overcome the inherent risk in change? But you’re probably thinking that this all seems a bit weak-sauce. That’s because it is. Most aff cases probably meet these standards. Occasionally you might be able to diminish significance enough to make it work, but usually, affirmative teams have put some thought into why their policy is justified and will mount a defense.

So if we can’t diminish their significance enough to win the round there, what else is there? Remember that significance only has meaning in context, so if you can’t argue down significance anymore, then change the context.

This is why significance and DAs are best friends. All of your negative arguments should be friends with each other, but these two are special friends. If the opportunity cost to passing the plan isn’t just a vague notion of wasted time or some kind of unknowable risk, but instead explicit negative consequences, then it’s way easier to argue that the plan isn’t worth passing.

Significance arguments and DA’s are mutually reinforcing because they let you say “there isn’t a great reason to pass this policy, and there are also these horrible things that will happen if you do.” Isn’t that a great thing to say? It’s powerful. So say it. When the 2NR comes around, don’t split up significance and DA’s like they’re two separate ideas. Combine them into one big statement. Let them be friends.

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