Swing and a Miss (Part 1): Silly Things Debaters Believe about Theory for No Reason by Leah Shapiro and Christian Tarsney



Sometimes, somewhere in debateland, a coach or judge or camp instructor isn’t thinking very clearly, and says something false. And sometimes, despite that thing’s falsity, everybody else starts believing and repeating it because hey, a person said it, which is the normal criterion for a given thing being belief-worthy. Still, believing true things can be fun too–it’s at least worth a shot. So without further ado, here are four silly things that lots of debate people believe about theory, for no reason at all.


1. “Theory can’t be abusive.”

Whoever came up with the idea that theory can’t be abusive (“omg meta-theory’s not a thing”) was either joking or badly confused. And now the whole anti-meta-theory brigade is too. The thing people like to say is something like: “Theory is how we determine what’s abusive, so obviously a theory argument can’t be abusive.” This is like saying: “Courts are how we determine what’s illegal, so obviously a court proceeding can’t be illegal.” It’s just a complete and total non sequitur. Just about any abusive practice at the post-theory level has obvious analogues at the theory level. For instance: eight fifteen-second theory arguments each of which claims to prove a priori that the aff was “infinitely abusive.” Or an argument in an offensive theory shell that says any counterinterp has to meet each of the four standards in the shell to be admissible. If multiple NIBs or a prioris are abusive at the substance level, then for the exact same reasons they’re abusive at the theory level.

The examples we just gave are extreme, for the sake of driving home the point, but the same reasoning applies to more modest cases. For instance, running jointly exhaustive shells every round (can’t run a plan, must run a plan) is probably unfair since there is no conceivable way the aff can avoid a theory debate. Running five shells in the NC against a reasonable stock AC is arguably unfair if you don’t grant an RVI. Yes, somebody will point out that the aff in this situation can just run theory too, but if you think the aff can run five new shells and answer five shells in the 1AR, then we think your timer might be broken. Certain theory shells might just be intrinsically unfair (if the judge can’t verify the violation, e.g. speed theory, then the violation is arbitrary and subjective).

An argument that sometimes gets made in round is that higher-order theory arguments (theory arguments in which the violation comes from a theory argument made by the opponent) create irresolvable clashes between different orders of abuse. This would be bad, if it weren’t for a magical thing called “weighing.” There are sometimes arguments to be made for lexically prioritizing the offense from a second-order shell over the first-order shell it indicts, but even failing that, there’s no reason why ordinary, quantitative weighing should be any more difficult between shells at different levels than between shells at the same level. (And of course, even if this weighing were impossible, it wouldn’t show that theory can’t be abusive.)


2. “Risk of offense” arguments trigger ballot implications on theory.

Frequently, debaters will say that a mere “risk of a violation” or a “risk of offense” on theory is enough to drop the debater (in particular, under a “competing interpretations” paradigm). “There’s no terminal defense on theory under competing interps!” But this sense not make. Look at any other situation where we punish people for violating a rule. We don’t imprison or execute people for the mere “risk” that they committed a crime. And we don’t pass new criminal statutes merely because there’s a “risk” that the behavior they criminalize might be bad enough to warrant criminal punishment. Why? Because justifying punishment requires some standard of evidence! To permissibly punish someone, you have to be at least moderately confident that they did x, and that x ought to be punished…because, most of us agree, punishing innocent people is bad. We’d never be like, “Dude, there’s a risk you were jaywalking, so we’re gonna have to execute you,” because a) the mere existence of risk doesn’t justify punishment and b) nobody cares about jaywalking. Likewise, voting someone down based on “risk of violation” or “risk of offense” violates the prima facie presumption against punishment absent substantial evidence that it’s warranted.


3. “Interpretations must be ‘positively worded.’”

This particular collective delusion might be fading a little bit, but lots of people still seem to believe it. Let’s try to understand this principle by applying it to a few possible interps, and seeing what it says.

Interp #1: “Debaters must read solvency advocates for their counterplans.”
Well that’s just a-okay, no problem, great interpretation.

Interp #2: “Debaters must not read a counterplan without a solvency advocate”
This is clearly nonsense. Possibly not English.

Interp #3: “Debaters who read a counterplans must advocate them unconditionally or dispositionally.”
This is excellent, the veritable epitome of a well-written interpretation.

Interp #4: “Debaters must not read conditional counterplans.”
Terrible. Just truly, truly awful. This existence of this interp is might be the worst thing that has ever happened, ever.

So, just applying the principle a few times should make us suspect that it’s silly. But in case the point is unclear, let’s spell it out: Every “negatively worded” interp is equivalent, for all intents and purposes, to some “positively worded” interp. In fact, with slightly more awkward wording, we could that any given negatively worded interp is logically equivalent to some positively worded interp. So even if there’s some interesting distinction that people are trying to get at when they invoke this rule, positive vs. negative wording ain’t it.

Even if there were a real, non-verbal distinction between “negatively worded” and “positively worded” interps, there would still be no reasonable argument for prohibiting the former and requiring the latter. The usual thing people have been taught to say is: “A negatively worded interp tells me what I can’t do, but it doesn’t tell me what I can do.” This is a fantastic way of explaining what the phrase “negatively worded” means, but as an argument…well, it’s not.

Consider the following rule: “Debaters must not poison their opponents’ water bottles.” Now, are you impossibly confused by this rule, because it fails to tell you what you’re permitted to do? If so, then like any negatively worded interp, we can give a logically equivalent “positively worded” paraphrase: “Debaters must behave in ways that leave their opponents’ water bottles un-poisoned,” or something like that. But what’s the point? Did the interp just magically become clearer? Fairer? More educational?

(Incidentally, not that it matters, but positively worded rules don’t tell you what you are allowed to do any more than negatively worded rules. For instance, the interp “Debaters must read a plan” doesn’t tell me that I can do x, as long as x involves reading a plan–e.g. read a plan plus fifteen a priori reasons to do the plan, then poison my opponent’s water bottle. It doesn’t tell me that any particular case or strategy is permissible, because there could still be other rules that strategy violates.)


4. “The aff can’t run topicality.”

On some resolutions, there might be an argument for this claim. As a blanket generalization, it’s bizarre. Suppose the resolution is something like, “Just governments ought to value A over B,” and the aff says that the neg must defend “the converse of the resolution” (i.e., “Just governments ought to value B over A.”). In this fairly common situation, at least, it seems completely obvious that the neg has exactly the same sort of topicality burden as the aff. People sometimes say something like, “Well of course the neg doesn’t have to be topical,” where by “topical” they mean “topically affirming,” rather than “defending the appropriate side of the topic.” So if that’s how you want to use the word, then fine, when the neg runs arguments that only negate under a misinterpretation of the resolution, we can call the aff’s argument “schmopicality,” if that makes you happy. But substantively, it’s the same thing.

Generalizing from the case just described, things get a little more complicated–if there’s no “defend the converse” argument, or if the topic isn’t comparative, then the neg’s burden is not so clearly structurally analogous to the aff’s. But so long as you think that the neg is supposed to argue against the truth of the resolution, or defend the desirability of a world on the negative side of possible world space, there are still situations whether the neg fails to do that, or claims to do so in a way that relies on a tendentious interpretation of the topic. And in these cases, there’s no intelligible reason we’ve ever encountered why affs should not be allowed to run an argument that is, in every interesting respecting, exactly like neg topicality.

The only obvious reason why someone might think the aff can’t run T is if you’re committed to a view of debate that permits topical neg advocacies, and permits them even when the aff hasn’t run a plan or otherwise limited their advocacy. But the only reason we can see for accepting such a view is: that’s how it works in policy. Which is, well, silly.

TL;DR: Silly things are silly. Believing them is silly. So don’t.