Debate Tip of the Week: Make Theory Simple

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Maybe you’re someone who avoids debate theory like the plague, dreading every time you have to debate it. Maybe you’re like me and a complete theory nerd, lying awake at night puzzling over arguments in your mind. To both kinds of people, debate theory can seem complex and difficult; to understand for the former debater, and to communicate for the latter. This is a gentle plea to try to make theory simple, for everyone’s sake.

To do that, we have to understand why debate theory exists in the first place. Debate doesn’t have rules on what you can argue in the round. The rules are procedural, outlining basic behavior and structure, but not content. Regulating content is left to the debaters and judges with this wonderful thing we call theory. What kinds of content should be regulated? Well, what kinds of tricks and schemes would you not want someone performing against you? What kinds of arguments make for dull, uninteresting debate? What ruins the sense of fair play and competition? Answering these sorts of questions is a simple way of thinking about debate theory. There are more complex considerations, but this line of questioning will cover the vast majority of theory issues.

Let’s look at the most common theory argument as an example: topicality. This is debate theory because it’s an argument about what kinds of arguments should be permitted. A topicality argument says that the affirmative should not be able to argue a non-topical plan, and we should punish any team that does so by giving them a round loss. Why shouldn’t we legitimize non-topical plans? Think back to our basic questions. What would happen if non-topical plans were the norm? Would the activity thrive? Would negative teams have a reasonably fair chance to win the round if they had absolutely no clue what the affirmative team would run? Would there be any point to researching the negative side?

Here’s a more complex problem: specification arguments. More often than not I see teams arguing that e.g. the aff needs to specify enforcement in more detail because if they don’t “we don’t know how the plan works”. Okay, but what level of specification is needed? Real bills that congress passes in real life are dozens of hundreds of pages long. We can’t read that out in an 8 minute speech, so how much specificity is needed, and why? There are good and interesting debates to be had here, and asking our fundamental theory questions can help with those debates. How does it harm the activity, or even just this round, if the aff’s enforcement is just, “the US Federal Government”? I’ll let you all ponder that one on your own.

The point is to return to the basics: to understand the purpose of debate theory and then to use that understanding to make your arguments simple and clear. This will help avoid those muddled, aggravating rounds where everyone seems to be talking past each other and making each other miserable. No one wins there.

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