The Necessary but Insufficient Burdens of Self-Defense by Stephen Babb

The debate world’s head is exploding at the proposition of Affirmative debaters having to demonstrate that repeated domestic abuse meets the multiple conditions for qualification as “self-defense.” For deadly force to be justified as self-defense, the conventional logic is that certain requirements must be met, namely: the threat must be imminent, and deadly force (as opposed to less deadly alternatives) must be necessary for someone to prevent serious harm from being inflicted. Proportionality may also be considered a requirement insofar as it wouldn’t be acceptable to use deadly force to stop a minor affront or injury.

In the most technical sense, a 1NC that requires the 1AC to demonstrate how repeated domestic abuse is consistent with these requirements is indeed holding the AC to multiple necessary but insufficient burdens. This should say more about our impoverished burdens theory than it does the “abusiveness” of the NC strategy.

After all, in many instances, the 1AC is advancing self-defense as a justification. The 1NC is no more responsible for the constituent requirements of such an argument than is logic. If the 1AC tacitly accepts a multitude of burdens by running a position with several moving parts, then so be it. Whether or not that’s strategic is another question. On this topic, self-defense is a compelling position, so it’s actually somewhat reasonable for its positional value to trade-off with an “un-strategic” adoption of multiple burdens. Either way, though, this was the 1AC’s choice. With even a cursory examination of the literature discussing the multiple requirements of self-defense justifications, any AFF debater should be abundantly prepared to engage multiple arguments on multiple fronts.

There are several additional reasons why the 1NC should be entitled to exploit multiple burdens (i.e. imminence, necessity, proportionality).

First, the 1AC has chosen to adopt ground that is extremely difficult to refute on any foundational or ethical level. The vast majority of normative frameworks accept the inviolability of self-defense. If we don’t allow 1NCs to challenge the application of these normative principles to actual events, then we’re far more likely to see debates that are horrible for 1ACs strategically and fundamentally side-step topic literature. Would affirmative debaters really prefer that 1NCs make ludicrous philosophical pleas, arguing that self-defense is ethically baseless? Would they prefer for 1NCs to argue that self-defense is a construct of Westernized, “racist” logocentrism? Are these better debates for the 1AR? It seems much easier to just be ready to go on front-lines for for imminence, et al.

Second, we shouldn’t be treating “burdens” as all-or-nothing premises. This has more to do with the viral skepticism infecting our community of judges, but debaters should be the first ones to take a stand. If a round ends and the judge believes the AFF ultimately did a better job than the NEG on the imminence debate, the judge should probably give that thread of the debate to the AFF. Of course, every judge will have his or her own thresholds (and that’s fine), but there’s really no world in which the AFF should be expected to meet (or “prove”) a burden 100%, whatever that would even mean. In a world where the 1NC has highlighted multiple burdens, perhaps the appropriate solution is for debaters to seek (and for judges to grant) leeway in their thresholds for each burden. In other words, if the 1NC makes the debate about imminence exclusively, the 1AR should be expected to do a very good job on the imminence debate. If, however, the 1NC deploys three distinct burdens, then judges should hold the 1AR to lesser thresholds for each independent burden. This is probably somewhat inevitable in a world where the 1NC’s arguments are fragmented and less developed than they would be in a world where they focused entirely on imminence.

Third, the problem with necessary but insufficient burdens really has less to do with some fictive approximation of reciprocity and more to do with its concrete effects on the 1AR’s strategy. We should be concerned about 1NC tactics that render large portions of the 1AC irrelevant. That’s the real threat to AFF ballots. It may come in the form of multiple burdens, framework games, skepticism or any other manner of shenanigans—we should be less concerned with the contours of the NEG strategy, and more concerned with its functional effect on the 1AR. In the instance of self-defense positions, there may be multiple burdens, but they’re positional in nature. The 1AR should be able to extend arguments from case that speak to the issue, and if they can’t, that probably indicates a major problem with the 1AC. I’ve seen 1ACs run evidence that speaks to imminence and necessity alike. If one piece of evidence can be successfully leveraged against a supposed whirlwind of impossible burdens, AFF debaters really don’t have much to worry about.

If the opening “spikes” of the average 1AC are any indication, it’s hard for AFF debaters to win rounds these days. As a judge, apparently I’m supposed to do everything at my disposal to help these victims of circumstance (default AFF, accept AFF interpretations, roll out a red carpet, etc.). I’ve always been willing to help Affirmative debaters, but only when they help themselves.

The decision to abandon the 1AC to restart the debate in the 1AR is, in my opinion, advisable only in the most dire of circumstances. With the consistent and woeful failure of most 1NCs to actually engage and respond to the AC, I can’t understand the insistence of 1ARs to abandon their six-minute cases and run disingenuous NIBs shells. If those cases had a shred of well-developed, offensive evidence… the 1AR might be in a better position to actually debate. As long as 1ACs are stacked with defensive preempts and esoteric frameworks, I guess I can’t blame a debater from wanting to start over. A 1AC that doesn’t really want to affirm is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When debaters sign up for this activity, I think they should be prepared to defend both sides of the topic. And, I don’t think that obligation stops in the 1AR. If theory in the 1AR isn’t grounded by an egregious violation, judges should be calling these routines out. Force AFF debaters to actually debate—it might just be good for them in the long term. The whining has been going on for years, and it’s never demonstrated a consistent benefit to AFF wining percentages. This NIBs fad is only the latest in a line of grievances that lazy debaters have when informed they actually have to beat someone’s argument. There’s a time and a place for it to be sure, but the self-defense debate isn’t it.

  • Rebar Niemi

    so you're saying they're not nibs?

    • The self-defense burdens? To the extent they aren't, I think that's an indication of flaws in nibs theory itself. Maybe there are already accepted norms suggesting that positional nibs are OK (while resolutional burdens aren't)… but the norms clearly aren't so well-established to prevent a number of debaters from appropriating the argument that way.My primary argument is that self-defense burdens shouldn't be treated in the same way as infinitely reductive 'a priori' burdens. I'd think that, technically, both instances involve necessary but insufficient burdens. The questions is whether or not both instances are equivalent in terms of fairness to the 1AC.There's a somewhat separate argument Nebel advances about engaging a nibs debate once it happens. I think I agree with him too, but that's probably a different issue.

  • Haven't read the whole article yet but do people agree that any argument with a normative impact ("X is good/bad or right/wrong") is fair game? It is clearly impact-turnable. It is also probably link-turnable because the aff can say that neg violates while aff does not. And even if it's not link-turnable (or if the link turn is really hard), I'm not sure why that means the aff needs 100% defense to meet the standard. It seems to me that the neg needs to prove that it's more likely than not that the aff violates the NIB, and the aff has to prove the opposite. I get the risk of a link argument when we want to maximize expected value and therefore vote on big impacts with tiny links, but these NIBs are usually (always?) non-consequentialist.

    • This is an interesting point. I've encountered a few of these situations recently.. My only qualm as a judge is when a debater says "I meet" while there remains a legitimate 'risk' that they do not meet an interpretation. It might be helpful in these situations for debaters to simply articulate the 'more likely than not' qualifier Nebel mentions.At the end of the day, theory debates would benefit from all the same things we've tried to teach debaters to do in the rest of the debate: give reasons, be comparative, and crystallize. In this instance, that last part is crucial: as long as debaters remain silent, they leave judges to settle these things in their own heads (and that's usually not something I want to do). If, alternatively, debaters spent time telling the judge how they should be evaluating arguments and what their expectations should be (e.g. for responding to NIBs bad), I for one would be very receptive to reasonable suggestions.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with this article entirely and also with Josh Melnick. The classic example I get in discussions of why NIBs are bad is always "do you think an NC that runs 20 a prioris is fair?" I think these arguments should be dispatched at the level of the resolution rather than with NIBS bad theory. For example, frame the resolution as a question of offense/defense, or define the resolution in a way that isn't a piori false and win reasons to prefer your interpretation (which should be easy if your opponent's interp allows the neg to win on semantics). The problem I see is when the violations shift from "your interpretation of the resolution is unfair" to "your specific substantive argument is abusive". The latter seems to blur the line between fairness and strategy.

    • Yah that's a good point. I also think that the problem with how the '20 a priori burden' strat typically plays out is that most 1Ns don't give any substantial reasons those burdens aren't met. They're just banking on a skeptical disposition and the assumption that anything short of 100% meeting each burden is a NEG ballot. That's ridiculous. For every burden the 1N deploys, they should be providing good substantive reasons that burden isn't met. Absent that, I'd assume the AC automatically meets 'all 20' burdens..

  • I think that the really interesting core of this article is the idea of positional nibs vs. resolutional nibs. While it may be abusive to say "In order to prove the resolution is good/true/permissible/etc, you have to prove X, Y, Z, and that the sky is blue", nibs that arrise from specific positions are very different. Even if they are stock positions, the idea that a position might have to prove more then one thing to win a full syllogism is not a horrifying thought.1ARs' willingness to run nibs theory has always seemed a little odd to me, as, absent automatically giving the NC the RVI, the theory shell is a nib itself. I don't know, maybe I am just annoyed by the current practice of using theory like a disad that just has a much higher threshold for being turned, but nibs theory has always seemed especially whiny to me.Turnability is certainly important, but attempting to eliminate all unturnability by running a whole bunch of theory seems like the wrong way to go about it.

    • Yes, I think the distinction between positional and resolutional applications is very apt. I suppose 1NCs could exploit that somewhat ridiculously by arguing a position commits itself to any number of prior assumptions, but there's a huge difference between the AC having to defend a laundry list of prior assumptions and defending the 2 or 3 basic tenets the 1AC should logically set out to defend. Not sure there's a clear bright-line, but that's definitely not a reason to trigger NIBs out of caution..