Over the past few years, a lot of judges have claimed that something is wrong with debate theory as it is used in LD. But there is little agreement on what that something is. The alleged problems with LD theory include the framework of competing interpretations, the speech order and times, the lack of RVIs, the presence of RVIs, the lack of LD-specific academic literature, an outdated conception of reasonability, among other things.
I think the problem (to the extent that there is one—it’s probably a lot of things) is simpler. I believe that the threshold for dropping the debater on theory is, in most cases, too low. If we raised this threshold, it would be harder to win on theory, so there would be weaker incentives to run it at the expense of substantive responses.
The following are my reasons for thinking that we should have a high threshold for dropping the debater on theory. I look forward to reading what you think about these arguments.
AT “Drop the Debater”
- Proportionality. The punishment of losing the round is much worse than the “crime,” even according to the biggest theory impacts (which claim that winning becomes easier or more likely, but not certain). Fairness requires proportionality because fairness is the satisfaction of claims in proportion to their strength. (That requires a bit more development. For the basic idea, see John Broome, “Fairness.”) The only residual cost if you drop the argument is the time investment for running theory. But
- that is balanced by the investment in the initial practice and in defending “drop the argument”;
- there’s no evidence that they needed to spend so much time on theory; dropping the debater is the main incentive for the excessive time investment;
- even if dropping the argument would not fully rectify the “abuse,” it’s closer to being proportional than dropping the debater;
- Mismatch with competing interpretations. Just because some practice violates the best rule for debate doesn’t mean that it’s “abusive,” or unfair enough to warrant a loss. It’s almost certain that our current debate norms are suboptimal, but it would be crazy to think that almost every round should be decided on theory.
- Perverse incentives. Making theory a voting issue makes bad theory arguments strategic, because even bad arguments have enough of a chance to make them worth running. Sure, dropping the argument makes unfair practices strategic too, but those practices do not necessarily decide the round even if won. And the threat of dropping the debater in extreme circumstances will always exist. The main disincentive for bad theory arguments is an RVI, but
- [if they said RVIs bad] that’s excluded by that interpretation
- [if they haven’t taken a stance on RVIs] RVIs are bad because [. . .].
- Ex post facto. Punishment is justified only given rules that are fixed and announced beforehand, but theoretical rules are constructed and changed in the round. This doesn’t mean theory is bad but it does make it prima facie unfair to vote against someone on such an unpredictable basis.
- Reductio ad absurdum. Their arguments would justify voting neg if the aff made a single new argument in the 2AR. This example shows that the unfairness is in the judge voting on some illegitimate argument or practice, not in its mere existence, so dropping the argument is sufficient.
Three Weighing Arguments
- Type-I errors outweigh. Ceteris paribus, punishing someone who doesn’t deserve it is worse than not punishing someone who does deserve it. This is because punishing the innocent is intrinsically bad, but punishing the guilty is not intrinsically good: the punished person doesn’t benefit. It’s only instrumentally good in this case because the non-guilty debater wins, but that reward is also undeserved: that I did something unfair doesn’t mean that they did the better debating overall.
- Theory is worse than substance. Substantive debate is centered on a resolution agreed upon in advance, so we can prepare for better clash, which is key to all benefits of debate.
- Higher standard of evidence. If you do drop the debater, you should require demonstration beyond reasonable doubt to avoid unfair punishment. Use a higher threshold for theory because (a) claims of unfairness are absolute whereas the probability of the resolution comes in degrees; (b) dropping the debater is an action, in contrast to forming beliefs or degrees of belief in the resolution, and there’s a slippery slope to allowing debaters to argue about how you should act, even in this round—e.g., about speaker points or your wallet.
I don’t think that theory should never be a reason to drop the debater. But, as a judge, I would be willing to accept the following default position: if a debater runs theory as a reason to drop the debater, then it’s an RVI. This default, I think, would encourage debaters to run theory as a reason to drop the argument from the get-go, without having to waste much of the debate on whether the theory argument is a voting issue.
I am now inclined to think that even topicality is, in most cases, not a reason to drop the debater, but that is a more complicated discussion that we can have in the comments section.
What do you think? Do these arguments persuade you?
Jake Nebel is a Marshall Scholar in Philosophy at Oxford. As a coach, his students have won the TOC, NDCA, Glenbrooks, Bronx, Emory, and the Harvard Round Robin. As a debater, he won six octos-bid championships and was top speaker at the TOC and ten other major tournaments. He co-directs the Victory Briefs Institute.