Three Things You Can Do To Improve Your Cross-Examination by Adam Torson

Cross-examination is one of those debate skills that some people just have a knack for. Some struggle to fill the time with pointless clarification questions, while others lead their opponents down the primrose path only to pounce and exact a devastating concession. But don’t worry – you don’t have to be Clarence Darrow to make good use of your CX time. Here are three things you can do to make effective use of cross-examination without necessarily having to be a CX prodigy.

The basic theme of the following advice is that you can get a lot of utility out of your CX by setting up positional strategies for your rebuttals. While I think this is often a highly effective strategy, keep in mind that there are many other things you can do with your CX time that will be useful or necessary. These include asking clarification questions, probing theoretical issues to set up or avoid theory, establishing perceptual dominance, etc. You should always pursue a CX strategy that is situationally appropriate and which you believe will give you the best chance of winning the round. With that in mind…

1. Find choke-point links.

By “choke-point links” I mean links in your opponent’s position that are both critical to their link story and vulnerable. Such links are generally vulnerable either because they are implausible or because they are turnable. For example, many affirmative standards on this topic assume that moral rules should be agent-relative. That assumption is easily questionable. Offering an agent-neutral standard and arguing that it is preferable for that reason is a solid positional strategy. Many affirmatives assume that the use of deadly force interrupts the cycle of domestic violence. That link is turnable. There is solid evidence suggesting that the use of deadly force actually escalates the violence used against victims. Again, a solid positional strategy.

Cross-ex can be used to set up these types of strategies in several ways. For unclear positions, you may need to clarify the link story to find these arguments. It is important not only to seek them out but also to clarify them for the judge so that your answers are easily understood during the rebuttal. It also prevents your opponent from shifting out of important arguments by either clarifying the position or obfuscating it further.

For more straightforward positions, it might be useful to go a step further and clarify the function of the link you intend to target. “If I show that morality is agent-neutral rather than agent relative, does that mean that the rest of your standard doesn’t follow?” “If I show that deadly force actually puts victims in more danger does that mean I win on your standard?” Don’t be terribly worried about telegraphing your strategy – your opponent will know soon enough. In some cases it might make sense to be cagey, but unless your opponent is really going to take advantage of the extra-prep time it is more advantageous just to have the concession. In many cases you will get more information about the strategic mechanisms in your opponents position – e.g. she might indicate that she can outweigh your turn with other offense on the flow or that she can extend other links to win her standard.

2. Figure out how to link into the standard.

Debaters too readily accept that the impacts of their best arguments do not link into their opponent’s standard. Don’t be so passive. Often times standards appeal implicitly or explicitly to a broad set of moral norms which would consider most impacts relevant. The key is figuring out how to frame the impacts of your arguments so that they a) link to the standard and b) do so clearly enough that they can be effectively weighed against other offense.

Use your cross-ex time to probe the standards and impact level of your opponent’s position. Again, explicit questions about what impacts link are generally worthwhile. “If I show that passive responses to domestic violence entrench patriarchy, does that link into your standard?” Being cagey here gets you very little compared to the value of either getting an admission that your impacts link or revealing some nuance that is going to be used to delink your offense.

3. Minesweep.

This is a basic skill but debaters neglect it. Case positions are too often filled with silly spikes, various “triggers,” and all manner of hidden sketchiness. So, part of just about every CX should be making sure one of these little monsters doesn’t foul up your substantive strategy for the round. When spikes sound suspicious, ask whether they preclude a specific argument, type of argument, or position you wish to run. Ask also about arguments which function before the standards or which might affirm or negate ‘a priori.’ Ask if there are any arguments which would trigger either skepticism or some kind of presumption. Investigate your suspicions, especially against debaters who you know are inclined to engage in these practices. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.