More and more, there appears to be disconnects between judges and debaters on the virtues of using theory as a strategy practice. Theory debate has steadily garnered the reputation as a frivolous, unpleasant practice, labeled as a tool employed to garner “cheap wins,” a “crutch” for those who lack substantive debate skills, and even a mechanism to exclude underprivileged debaters from the activity.
However, I find that a lot of these issues are not inherent either to theory debate or strategic theory debate, but the way debaters run these arguments. While it may occur much less frequently nowadays, excellent theory debate does exist. Even the most ardent opponents of theory (that I know) agree that the aff. should defend the resolution (absent justification for micro-politics or other similar position), necessary but insufficient burdens are harmful, and fiating twenty planks in a plan without a solvency advocate is probably deleterious to debate.
But I digress. My goal in this article is not to defend the virtues of theory debate; rather, I will assume that it has a place in LD Debate. The goal of this article is to establish guidelines to help debaters improve on theory debate, should they choose to engage in it.
1. Theory starts from the top!
Unlike casing, which should be bottom up, theory should be thought of top- down. Hence, the most important part of a theory argument is the interpretation or your advocacy or view of debate. A well-crafted interpretation will save you much grief at the standards level, allowing you to not only exclude your opponent’s offense, but also by making it harder for your opponent generate offense from unintended effects consequences.
The key is to BE SPECIFIC. You want to “outlaw” as few practices as possible, and ideally the only thing you remove from debate is exactly what your opponent does. If your opponent read two necessary but insufficient burdens maybe you want to read debaters may only read one necessary but insufficient burden instead of banning the practice altogether. Or maybe you can read necessary but insufficient burdens only are integral to the proper application of their ethical theory (see Gauthier). If your interpretation is broad, even the most “correct” theory shells can be easily beat back by a smart counter-interpretation that shuns the practice (in this case, it’s reading necessary but insufficient burdens) as a whole, but advocates that practice is a specific instance. Think of it this way, is it easier to prove that some practice is detrimental 100% of the time, or is it easier to prove that practice is bad in a certain instance? And as a corollary for those that enjoy competing interpretations, because it’s not what you do, it’s what your interpretation justifies, a broader interpretation leaves more ground for your opponent to generate offense.
2. Weigh relatively not absolutely!
One of the most painful and hardest things to evaluate in theory debates is power-tagged, misinterpreted weighing. Take the classic example of plans good/bad. Many of you have probably heard the argument in favor of plans that depth is better than breadth because it’s better to understand one topic fully than to touch upon a lot of issues and not comprehend any of them. Many of you have also probably heard the counter saying that its better to talk about multiple issues than just one because soon talking about that one issue will remain repetitive. And at the end of the day, assuming those are the only two arguments made, your RFD comes down to depth versus breadth, without a clear mechanism to adjudicate between the two.
Presumably, no debater really has 100% strength of link to a standard. For instance, if you say your opponent’s position is unpredictable, you probably don’t mean that the position was completely unpredictable, just that you would’ve had to do significantly more work to predict it. Similarly, when debaters complain about losing ground, they complain about losing some amount of ground, not access to every single argument possible. So if our abuse claims are not absolute, why should our weighing be? Why should we weigh standards such as ground and predictability as if one debater completely controlled access to one and the other debater access to the other when they obviously don’t?
Going back to the plans example, it seems much more logical if say, the plans debater, argued that not only did he have depth from discussion of the plan, he had breadth as well because the plan, albeit one issue, contained various sub-issues that could have been explored to provide breadth. Such weighing is much more nuanced, easier to resolve, and allows that debater to win off of depth, even if breadth is more important. How? Because strength of link determines size of impact and by proving he has some depth, he essentially undermined a sizable amount of his opponent’s strength of link to breadth. Just because one thing outweighs another doesn’t mean a tiny bit of that thing outweighs a lot of the other thing. For instance, a complete Ferrari are worth more than a Honda, but the same cannot be said for the steering wheel of a Ferrari.
3. Understand time tradeoffs!
Many people believe that the way you win theory is by winning more offense than your opponent to an interpretation or a counter- interpretation or winning reasonability and proving that you’re not being that unfair. Those are certainly ways to “win” a theory debate. You can also win a theory debate by getting destroyed by your opponent on every argument of theory.
That’s the magic of time tradeoffs. Assuming theory is not a RVI, you cannot lose on it. Therefore, as the person initiating theory, you place two burdens on your opponent, to 1) beat back your argument and 2) to beat back your argument in a time-efficient manner. If you read a one minute, thirty second theory argument in the 1NR and the 1AR spends 3 minutes destroying you on it, but fails to read an RVI, who really won the theory debate? The aff.? Is the aff. really a winner when they have to win a five minute thirty seconds to one minute substance time tradeoff? It’s probably the neg. who garnered this advantage even after losing theory.
But even with an RVI, the time tradeoff is still skewed. If the aff. goes all in on theory in the 1AR by reading an RVI, they lose substance. The neg. then has six minutes to win either RVIs bad or their theory argument good. The aff. has three minutes to win both. Essentially the time skew is not even six minutes to three, but six minutes to a minute, thirty seconds.
The important takeaway here is that when you’re answering theory, don’t try to do too much. Make the right arguments and move on, don’t just keep tacking on. But more importantly, substance still matters! If you do not go for substance and commit to an RVI, you essentially put yourself at a massive structural disadvantage.