Fear of Clash by Jake Nebel

I am a pluralist
about the value of LD debate. That is, I believe there are multiple features of
LD that make it good for its participants, including the development of
research skills, communication skills, and critical thinking skills. (The
debate about such values and their relative weight is the crucial question in
the impacts section of a theory argument.)  

Some features of debate, I believe, have a status akin to
primary goods. Rawls defined primary goods as things that a rational person
typically wants, regardless of his or her other values – e.g., basic rights,
opportunity, and wealth. It seems to me that clash is one of the primary
goods of LD. 

All plausible views about the value of LD are likely to agree on
the importance of clash. They may differ with respect to its relative weight,
but it will always be significant for one main reason: if the values of our
activity did not require clash, then they wouldn’t be uniquely facilitated,
realized, or promoted by a debate event. If you sever the link
between clash (the criterion) and your supreme goods of LD (the value), then it
will be hard for you to defend the value. To test this hypothesis, try using
your value to justify the importance of LD to an impartial audience
(e.g., persuading someone to invest time into the activity) without granting
significant derivative value to clash. 

Clash explains, in part, judges’ strong presumption in favor of
topicality. In principle, I love debates about epistemology, IR theory, public
policy, and debate itself. But, unless the resolution is clearly about these
things, I would not expect the clash on such topics to be very good in LD –
probably because both sides are best prepared to debate the resolution. Other
things being equal, we determine who did the better debating by evaluating
arguments about the resolution, because that is the clash for which both
sides are best prepared. 

There may be reasons to deviate from the resolution. Those
reasons must be weighed against the benefits of clash, and the other reasons to
debate the topic. 

There are other strategies that detract from clash, without
compensating for that loss with an outweighing benefit. I think we should
discourage such strategies, and perhaps debaters should make theoretical
arguments for voting against them.

  • Pre-standards arguments typically reduce clash,
    by shifting the debate’s focus away from case arguments and by giving debaters
    an incentive not to answer objections to their position. Conditional advocacies
    have a similar effect. 
  • Preclusive standards also seem to detract from clash.
    The point of a narrow, preclusive standard is to make it acceptable not to
    answer the other side’s arguments about the resolution. Maybe this is justified
    by the fact that the other side’s arguments really don’t need to be
    answered – e.g., because their impacts really don’t matter. But that
    is hardly ever the case. When it is the case, I agree that the framework
    satisfies the demands of clash. 
  • Arguments that “trigger” new frameworks,
    positions, or advocacies detract from clash because they reward debaters for
    not answering objections to their position. That is how the contingent offense
    is accessed. 
  • Many spikes reduce clash, but it seems hard to draw a
    meaningful distinction between bad spikes and good preclusive arguments. Here
    is a rough first pass: spikes about theory arguments, and defensive arguments
    that do not support the resolution or the affirmative advocacy, avoid clash
    because they transform rebuttals into wars of competing extensions. Most 1ARs
    these days are just a series of extensions with minimal comparison, and there
    seems to be a direct relation between the proportion of AC speech time taken up
    by irrelevant spikes and the proportion of 1AR time taken up by mere
  • How about offensive theory arguments with
    violations (as opposed to spikes which merely frame the theory debate)? I agree
    that theory detracts from clash. But I also think good theory arguments
    compensate us with clash-based benefits (e.g., topicality). And I think the
    debate about whether theory should be a reverse voting issue turns mostly on questions
    of clash. I happen to think that reverse voting issues detract from clash more
    than they contribute to it. 
  • Activist positions which ask for the ballot for
    reasons unrelated to the resolution usually detract from clash. They can meet
    the burden of clash when there is a violation or link to the opponent or to the
    resolution. But when there is no such violation or link, the advantages of
    voting for the activist position must be weighed against the significant
    detriment to clash. 
  • Plan-inclusive counter-plans may seem
    to detract from clash because they make much of the AC irrelevant and
    shift the debate towards one difference between the two sides. But if the
    affirmative narrows the topic to a plan, this shift may be justified. After all,
    the plan avoids clash on large portions of the resolution, and the affirmative
    debater should be responsible for debating all aspects of the plan. Word PICs
    are probably illegitimate because they avoid clash even when the affirmative
    defends the whole resolution. 

If we try to systematize this list, I think we can formulate a
general test for whether a strategy detracts from clash in an objectionable

  • First, we should ask whether the argument’s strategic
    function is to avoid debate on some issue. 
  • Second, we should ask whether the debater should be
    expected to debate that issue. 

The second question is difficult, and may only be resolvable by
evaluating other theory impacts or other arguments in the debate – e.g.,
whether the warrants for the standard really do justify why some impact has
zero weight, or whether the affirmative should really be expected to defend the
portion of the advocacy with which the PIC disagrees. 

This general test, however, may serve three purposes.

First, it may help debaters to make theoretical objections to,
or to formulate theoretical defenses of, certain strategies. 

Second, it may help judges evaluate clash-based impacts on the
theory debate. 

Third, it may help debaters and coaches deliberate about their
own strategies. I think this may be the most important. If you want to
get better at debate, you should not run away from clash. Clash is the core of
debate. You will improve at debate and debate-related skills if you choose to
embrace it.