The Desolation of Theory
By: Rebecca Kuang
Theory in Lincoln-Douglas debate is currently in Europe’s Dark Ages, by which I mean it lacks innovation, makes us look bad, and stinks like the bubonic plague.
It would be a fool’s errand to attempt to revolutionize theory in one article, and there are smarter, more experienced people doing a better job of it at debate workshops. Here, though, I’ll rant about some of the most annoying theory trends I’ve seen in the past few years. My hope is that this will encourage debaters to change up the way they debate theory—or at the very least, rethink some things.
At the very least, the tips offered here might help you keep your judge from cringing the next time you say “first off, A is the interpretation…”
1. Complain less, argue more.
If there’s one solution that could relieve judges of their theory woes, it’s this. A lot of debaters think arguments like “PICs bad,” “multiple off case positions bad,” “going straight ref bad,” and “counterplans bad” are legitimate arguments, and this shocks me. Whenever I see someone debate a clever counterplan, the 1AR is more likely to be four minutes of theory rather than…answers to the counterplan. These arguments then usually boil down to “this PIC is hard for me to answer, so they should lose.”
Poor baby. Did they make debate difficult for you? Your opponent should have read the most predictable, inane, simplest arguments in the literature—yet they didn’t. They tried to win- and worse, tried to win in a smart, strategic way. Shame on them. God forbid you be forced to think on your feet and defend the necessity of your aff—or even worse, do research before the round and anticipate their strategy.
Here’s a novel idea- what if hard debate is good debate? What if there’s more to this activity than stopping after the first page of Google scholar and whining when someone does more research than that? What if we encouraged strategies that forced debaters to rummage the literature for answers? What if that research taught us more about the topic? What if debate made debaters learn?
The next time you’re inclined to read theory, stop and ask yourself: “Am I reading theory because this practice is actually bad for debate, or because I’m just lazy?” If it’s the former, I’m skeptical, but all power to you. If it’s the latter, take a deep breath, accept that you’re an indolent slug who probably doesn’t deserve the win, and work harder.
2. Stop repeating mindless drivel.
“Reciprocity is a voter because both sides need equal access to the ballot. Fairness is a voter because debate is a competitive activity and things have to be fair for you to determine the better debater. Also, aff gets RVIs because affirming is hard.”
These are the most commonly heard phrases in any theory debate, and they are not complete arguments. Arguments involve claims, warrants, and impacts. These here are barely claims. If more judges held these arguments to the same standard they’d hold any other argument, they’d realize how underdeveloped they are.
What does it mean for both sides to have equal access to the ballot? Why does the fact that debate is a competitive activity mean that fairness is the most important consideration for debate methodology? What does a fair debate even look like? Why does the fact that LD speech times are stupid mean that the aff suddenly gets to win on defense on theory? Maybe there are valid reasons for all of these claims, but they are never adequately explored by the debaters spitting them out.
Debaters too frequently rely on buzzwords and catchphrases they were taught at workshops and never depart from them, much less question them. It’s the easy thing to do—thinking of arguments on your own is a lot harder than recycling back-files. And recycling currently pays off, too, because we have a culture where judges validate these quasi-arguments with wins, a practice akin to awarding grapes to circus monkeys.
I’ve seen debaters scrunch up their eyes and recite phrases from memory, as if it is some great feat that they’ve managed to memorize the same balderdash that everyone else reads. Congrats, champ—not only can you prove what a brainwashed conformist you are, you can do it with your eyes closed.
You don’t have to read the same standards and voters as everyone else just because they told you to at workshop. You are your own person. You determine the debater you become. The world is big—break free of your chains and forge your own destiny.
3. Impact your arguments.
If there was ever an area LD desperately needed innovation, it’s here. Debaters have been reading the same theory impacts for years, as if a monk at some camp inscribed them and they became unbreakable rules. It’s as if debaters think these arguments are actually good. The height of argumentative evolution has been reached. There can be no improvement.
Here are some popular ones:
A) “Fairness is a voter because without fairness, debaters will quit.” This was empirically proven…never. Even if unfairness could cause the widespread rage-quitting of debaters across the nation, it’s unlikely that what your opponent did could outweigh the millions of other ways in which debate is unfair—e.g. resource disparities, stupid speech times, and outright hostility to debaters of color.
B) “Fairness is a voter because the judge has to vote for the better debater and you can’t tell who the better debater is if the debate isn’t fair.” What does that even mean? This argument presupposes the point it’s trying to prove: that the “better” debater is the one who fares best under completely “fair” terms of debate. What if the better debater is the one who thought of the “abusive” strategy in the first place? Also- I’m not sure what a completely fair debate would look like. See sub-point A.
C) “Education is a voter because without education schools will stop funding debate.” Not only does this argument ignore debaters with few resources whose schools don’t fund debate in the first place, it also has a brink problem. It’s unlikely that any given debate could lose all educational value, even if it’s not as educational as it could have been. Moreover, the majority of education about the topic comes from out-of-round research rather than in-round discussions; skimming a scholarly article is much more informative than arguing about author qualifications with other high school students.
D) “Education is a voter because it’s the only reason why debate is valuable.” This is the voter that comes closest to being a real argument, but unfortunately, most debaters tend to stop there. Debaters should sit down and think about what debate can offer that other activities like reading books can’t provide. Maybe it’s because debate teaches us portable skills like advocacy, critical thinking, and decision-making. Maybe it’s because debate teaches us about philosophy. Maybe it’s not either of those. Either way, it’s something that deserves consideration, and is almost never fleshed out in round.
4. Recognize your privilege.
This one deserves more than a couple of paragraphs, so I won’t pretend to explain it comprehensively here. I will say that theory as argued by many debaters already assumes a level playing field that doesn’t exist.
What do we really mean when we say debate should be “fair”?
Is it fair for inner-city kids who have to overcome obstacles just to make it to a local tournament? Is it fair for the black and brown kids whose teachers expect them to be causing trouble rather than debating? Is it fair for the girl who is being sexually harassed by her teammates, who is excluded at tournaments because she’s not part of the “boy’s club”? Is it fair for the kids who might not debate in a conventional, Eurocentric fashion, who are probably down a ballot before they even walk into the room?
Think about that the next time you think an aff that deals with issues of race and gender is “unfair.”
To conclude, there isn’t really a unifying theme to this article. It’s more of a laundry list of theory conventions that make me angry, so if you for some reason pref me, you might want to refer to this before whipping out your PICs bad shell.
If you’re looking for a moral to the story, though, I suppose it is that just because theory is bad right now doesn’t mean it always has to be. This community is full of intelligent people who are usually pretty good at coming up with new, innovative, though-provoking arguments. Nobody is pretending to like theory the way it’s debated now, yet squads aren’t taking more of an initiative to fix it.
That needs to change, and you don’t have to wait for workshop to start experimenting with the way you debate theory. Be daring. Take risks. Try out arguments no one else has. The world is big. The possibilities are endless.