The Argument for Inclusion: Fostering Agonism in Debate By Rodrigo Paramo and Varad Agarwala

We recognize this article is long, but we believe that these are arguments that need to be publicly accessible (and publicly contested). We’ve included sub-headings in case you want to skip to specific sections, but we highly recommend you don’t close this tab. We ask you at least read some of it (preferably the whole thing) in order to facilitate open dialogue on this subject.


Note: While micropolitical arguments are critical in nature, the reverse is not always true. Thus, although the term “critical” will occasionally be used as a catch-all in the body of this article, we recognize there are important distinctions between the two schools of argumentation.


The contemporary debate space is exclusionary. Instances of micropolitical success do not mark the end of minorities being marginalized, calling out white power structures is not racist, and by no means does the greater community understand that discussions of oppression belong in the debate space. These are ugly truths that the debate community as a whole has to confront in order for work to craft inclusionary debate spaces to be productive.


There are some lines that should be drawn:

  1. Not every critical argument makes the ballot a tool for micro-political change
  2. Not every critical argument is a criticism of white power structures
  3. Not every critical argument is the same


(Many) opponents of critical arguments are quick to lump all critical debaters into the same group, ignoring the nuances that exist between and within critical positions for the sake of saying “fairness comes first.” Such an approach forecloses the possibility for productive dialogue regarding the state of our activity. We want to begin that dialogue with the writing of this article, justifying critical and micropolitical positions within the contemporary debate community (positions that argue the role of the ballot should be different from its traditional conceptualization). We address positive ways of engaging with critical positions, outlining the roles of students and educators in the debate space, and discussing the interactions between critical positions and theoretical arguments, culminating in an alternative model for debate that we believe maximizes inclusionary and educational practices and fosters productive dialogue between debaters.


We do not argue that theory does not belong in debate rounds, nor do we believe that critical arguments and positions should be run without limits on their form. The antagonism of today’s competitive arena should be replaced by an agonistic model, one that seeks to sublimate the perpetual conflict within the debate community into something positive.


Bonnie Honig outlines what an agonistic debate space looks like:


To affirm the perpetuity of the contest is not to celebrate a world without points of stabilisation; it is to affirm the reality of perpetual contest, even within an ordered setting, and to identify the affirmative dimension of contestation. It is to see that the always imperfect closure of political space tends to engender remainders and that, if those remainders are not engaged, they may return to haunt and destabilize the very closures that deny their existence.


An agonistic debate community does not begin with a predisposition towards or against arguments. It also does not claim to ever resolve the question of which arguments matter more than others. Rather, it recognizes that individuals will inevitably take differing approaches to this issue, and we should not shy away from this process of contestation. We should provide a space where this conflict can occur without collapsing to personal attacks and we identify the benefits that can come from engaging in this discussion. It is also important to recognize that some arguments cause violence to students within the debate space. This article outlines reasons these arguments should be avoided, with both ideology and strategic success in mind.


The debate community does not have to pick between theory and critical debate (a silly binary at its core). It does, however, have a responsibility to

  1. Be an open space for dialogue to occur
  2. Recognize its potential as an emancipatory political arena, and
  3. Embrace its unique position as an educational forum/competitive activity.


Dialogue is important to both debaters in the room: we will try to touch on why a new model of responding to “the K” (and separately, micro-political positions) would be advantageous even to those solely looking to defeat the argument.


Exclusion In the Name of Fairness:

Theory and Critical Debate


Many debaters run theory for purely strategic reasons against critical affirmatives. This ignores the fact that the best affirmatives are built to pre-emptively respond to the question of theory. The pre/post-fiat divide is deconstructed by many of these affirmatives, which means that in these debate rounds, arguments don’t exist in isolation from one flow to another; they’re interactive and many times even “post-fiat” arguments have implicit engagement with fairness/theory arguments. Arguments exist on equal footing, and substantive positions can engage with arguments that frame the debate space. For example, indicts of racist ideology on substance can easily become indicts of exclusionary ideology on the theory debate.


Most theory debates demarcate critical positions as separate from traditional styles of debates in ways that ignore the commonalities between the two. Critical-style arguments are not unique to debaters who claim to be reading a kritik. While certain micropolitical arguments are excluded from this, many critical arguments are effectively the same as other normative frameworks, they just draw on different literature bases. Generic consequentialist frameworks can moot 6 minutes of offense and do not outline specific actions. Critical frameworks that prioritize oppression can function in much the same way. It is important to understand these commonalities when framing the theory debate. Competing interpretations is quite literally applying a consequentialist lens to the theory flow. If we can apply substantive, normative positions like consequentialism to theory, critical positions should not function any differently. The framework arguments coming out of kritiks operate much the same way as their traditional counterparts (only the form is different). This functionally starts the debater initiating traditional theory interpretations one step behind, because the affirmative designed their whole position to respond to theory and already has close to 6 minutes of offense on the theory flow without having started their 1AR.


It is not impossible to read theory against these positions. That said, the theory should be nuanced, target something other than the critical aspect of the position as the reason to reject it, and should not culminate with “get out of this debate round.” For instance, with T you should find the interpretation where a topical version of the aff exists and proceed from there. When designing your interpretations versus critical affirmatives, you should assume critical debate is good—arguments such as “must/must not parametricize the method” or “must have a concrete method” engage the aff where they’re least ready, instead of forcing you to start the debate from a strategic disadvantage. A standard/end goal of “optimizing critical debate” is much better than “excluding critical debate”, and it makes it clear that you are willing to engage with your opponent’s position. Below we outline a couple of problems with generic theory as a strategy against micro-political positions.


First, the debaters who read critical positions have had this fairness and advocacy skills debate a hundred times more than you. Their practice rounds are not spent on substantive engagement, because they know that 90% of the community is going to respond with theory. They know the NC strategy you will choose and their blocks are targeted directly at it. For this reason, if you choose to respond with theory you have to differentiate yourself from the interpretations they’re expecting.


Second, theory that appeals to fairness is the wrong response to these positions, because many critical affirmatives argue that it is not a necessary gateway to evaluating their arguments. Fairness voters traditionally assume objective and normative conceptions of fairness but rarely address the question of what that fair debate space looks like. This makes debate unfair. If the initial response to critical debaters involves appeals to a conception of fairness that shifts from round to round, debaters begin on unequal playing fields.  Fostering debates that increase inclusion and dialogue is a net-better form of fairness for the community to strive towards. If the point of debate is to be fair, the ability to include more voices would necessarily supersede that appeal to fairness.  Critical debate includes more voices; the theoretical response to it should be to optimize the way dialogue unfolds between those voices post-inclusion.


Doug Sigel contextualizes reasons why substantive engagement must preclude discussions of fairness:


Fairness is almost entirely situational. The fairness argument in debate is always made when a team can’t think of anything better to say. A new case is going to place an unfair burden on any negative team. If the affirmative can talk faster than the negative an unfair situation exists. If the negative has four really good counterplans against a case an unfair situation exists. In debate there is no objective way to tell what is and isn’t fair because the activity by nature favors those participants who stay one step ahead of anyone else. It is time that debaters attack arguments on a substantive level.


We believe that the point of debate is not to be “fair” in a traditional sense. Debate has some structural unfairness built into it, and some has manifested itself in the community (big vs. small teams, individual resource disparity, access to bid tournaments, etc). While we can work to resolve this, we should recognize that a lot of this “unfairness” is inevitable and won’t be changed in the foreseeable future. Debate is at its best when it focuses its energy on maximizing the types of education it can provide, allowing it to embrace its location at the intersection between education, advocacy, and competition. For this reason, theory debates around the criticism should not appeal to fairness, but to questions of education as the voting issue. Accepting education voters does not mean the theory debate should solely be questions of which model of education is best. We believe that the best arguments here will occur on the internal link level (limits, advocacy skills and critical thinking should probably be at the crux of this debate). Our agonistic model for debate does not say other forms of education are bad. We argue that you should be prepared to compare your education to that gained from critical pedagogy/micro-political positions. If you can’t come up with a defense for your education that doesn’t link back to the criticism, theory is not the best response to that specific position.


Stop Evading, Start Engaging:

Responding to Micropolitics and Kritiks


Almost everything we outline in the next two sections applies to both affirmatives and negatives, so in the name of brevity we will group the two. Obviously there are differences between the two, but we trust you can figure those out yourself.


What to do when engaging critical positions —


What many debaters fail to realize is that you have a structural advantage against critical debaters because they have to defend the entirety of the 1AC, including its assumptions, discourse, methodology, performance, etc. That means negative debaters have more options and more ground for the picking. There is no excuse for not engaging the specifics of the affirmative if you have knowledge about what it is before the round.


Engaging criticism on a methodological level should be at the center of all effective negative strategy, especially in a world where critical affirmatives have to spend most of their 6 minutes justifying their speech act itself, sacrificing the opportunity for an in-depth explanation of their methodology.

The methodology refers to the advocacy of the debater, or the political praxis they advocate through which they meet the role of the ballot. Plan texts, specific critical alternatives, and generic reject alternatives all function on similar levels of the methodology debate. Though micro-political and K debaters have (for some reason) become synonymous with Wilderson in LD debate, assuming that all struggles against oppression collapse to Wilderson is disrespectful, ignorant, probably a little racist, and a lot harmful to substantial engagement. Be mindful of the nuances between methodologies working to challenge oppression, and recognize that not every K debater wants to see civil society burn. Attuning yourself to these differences will allow you to better craft positions against them, and promises strategic success.

Method debates are arguably the best way to engage with critical affirmatives, because similar to a PIC, they can co-opt a lot of the offense that the affirmative generates. You don’t have to spend time justifying and defending a new framework; you can instead provide an alternative political methodology through which to challenge oppressive structures. This also resolves one of the most common (and worst) responses to micro-political positions: “If micropolitics is allowed, I don’t have ground because I have to say ‘oppression good.’” Engaging with the affirmative directly on the method debate means you can agree that oppression is bad and skip to the productive part of the discussion (crafting a strategy to resolve real-world oppression).

If you want a good substantive strategy, our alternative would suggest you do some research. A well-researched topic-specific PIC against a plan can be unanswerable, and we recommend you apply the same level of research and vigor towards constructing a negative strategy against a critical 1AC. Opponents of critical debate tend to argue that this doubles the research burden for “traditional” debaters. This is probably true. It also doubles the research burden for micro-political debaters, who no longer have to prepare for the same theory debate every round. Being forced to engage with a multiplicity of responses, debaters will have to do more research about the intricacies of their own methodologies to stay ahead of the curve. Increasing the amount of work for debaters is not a bad thing: it forces entrance into sections of the library that many debaters would otherwise have no encounter with, opening avenues for new forms of education in the debate space and unlocking debate’s value as an educational activity.


Finally (and we know we’ve already said this), substantive engagement with the K results in more wins. If individuals debate because they like winning, you should feel incentivized to stop disadvantaging yourself against critical debaters. K debaters’ favorite things is when an NC tips their hand that they have nothing to say against them (a.k.a. reading theory), and reading a substantively engaging position gives you a much better chance of winning the round without being offensive and exclusionary.


What not to do when engaging critical positions —


First things first: you should not make the argument that “if you care about this position you will forfeit the round.” This is exclusionary. The notion that a debater should forfeit the ballot because they care about their position is nonsensical and an attempt to silence them. We don’t ask util debaters to sacrifice the ballot, because we recognize that they have less of a personal attachment to their arguments than micro-political debaters. If we recognize the personal impact these arguments have on those reading them, asking them to forfeit the ballot is unacceptable. This argument is derived from disregard for critical positions and trivializes their importance in the debate space. Voting for this argument endorses a false mode of inclusion and perpetuates the idea that micro-political positions don’t matter enough to be in the final rounds of tournaments.

Speaker awards do not solve. Out-of-round discussion (alone) does not solve. The debate space needs micro-political arguments to exist after elimination rounds have started. Arguments to the contrary are at best false gestures of acceptance. Debaters faced with these micro-political positions should both be willing to engage in an open discussion and recognize that they might lose the ballot if they don’t contribute to the discussion. Initiating a discussion of oppression in debate should not be punished, and if done right, it should be rewarded. Before calling on your opponent to sacrifice the ballot, ask why you should be rewarded on face before you contribute to the discussion. These arguments are a manifestation of privilege in the contemporary debate arena, allowing the bystander effect to become not only commonplace but rewarded, encouraging disengagement with these critical positions and perpetuating complicity within oppressive systems.

Traditional methods of engagement include theory, framework, skepticism, and policy-making good (or some permutation of all of the above). We wouldn’t necessarily deter debaters from reading these as a whole, but we would ask them to contextualize these strategies to the specific discussions of oppression. We will isolate several disadvantages to reading these positions (in their current form) against critical affirmatives.

These forms of engagement provide more links to the criticism. Skepticism argues that we can never construct normative truths. Many critical affirmatives begin with the normative premise that oppression is bad in order to engage in productive dialogue. While skepticism is seemingly responsive, the reality is that it is offensive and causes exclusion within the debate space. Think about the implications of skepticism. Skepticism would say lynching isn’t normatively bad or rape has no (normative) impact. For survivors and victims of oppression, the implications of these arguments have a very real impact within and outside of the debate round.


Debaters say “the pre/post fiat distinction solves.” We have a couple of responses:


  • The pre/post fiat distinction doesn’t exist (this is a controversial claim, we know, but it is important to recognize that at best it’s arbitrary and its definition changes from round to round). Many debaters throw around this jargon without ever contextualizing what it means to be “pre-fiat.” Arguments interact with each other across this artificial line all the time and debate is better for it.
  • We as a community need to question whether these are the type of advocates we want to be developing for the future. We can endorse advocates who work to develop praxis for liberation, or we can endorse those who question whether liberation should happen.


“Policy-making good” can be an excellent way of interacting with micro-political/critical positions. We would suggest that debaters who choose to go this route defend a role-playing instead of policy-making model, as it maintains emphasis on individuals in the debate space. Gordon Mitchell writes on how role-playing can interact with work to resolve oppression in the public argument context:


When we assume the posture of the other in dramatic performance, we tap into who we are as persons, since our interpretation of others is deeply colored by our own senses of selfhood … role-play “helps students discover divergent viewpoints and overcome stereotypes as they examine subjects from multiple perspectives…” … This process is particularly crucial in the public argument context, since a key guarantor of inequality and exploitation in contemporary society is the widespread and uncritical acceptance by citizens of politically inert self-identities … By opening discursive spaces for students to explore their identities as public actors, simulated public arguments provide occasions for students to survey and appraise submerged aspects of their political identities … students’ self-identities carry significant emancipatory potential.


Contextualizing your policy arguments through a lens similar to what Mitchell provides would ensure you do not come off as insensitive, recognizing the importance of challenging oppression while providing a different starting point, and it would also allow you to start the round strategically ahead. Instead of wasting time with theory saying the critical argument is not allowed in the debate round, debaters can subsume a lot of the critical offense, positing the role-playing lens as a prerequisite to critical solvency. Substantively engaging with these positions is better for dialogue and for your competitive success.


Judges as Educators:

The Role of Adults in the Debate Space


Discussions of the obligation of the judge in contemporary debate seem to be a refrain of the same sentences:


  • “The judge should decide who did the better debating in round, not the better cheating”
  • “You don’t have jurisdiction to vote on that argument”
  • “You’re a judge, not an educator”
  • “How can the judge know what’s fair if we don’t tell them what’s fair?”


Let’s establish some things: Judges are educators. Judges have political power in each debate round. The ballot is a tool for the judge. It is impossible and undesirable for a judge to truly be “tabula rasa.”


We don’t think any of these claims are particularly controversial: students look to judges to learn how to better construct strategies, the debate space is increasingly becoming host to political discussions, the ballot is how judges endorse/reject ideologies, and a truly “tab” judge would be willing to vote for positions that justify oppression.


Of note before we delineate the role of the educator in our model, let’s deal with appeals to “the ballot asks who did the better debating, not the better cheating.” Appeals to tradition as the way we craft norms preclude the ability to contest norms that can be problematic. Tradition alone is not enough to justify a judge’s obligation. The debate space is shifting, and with it, so is the judge’s role. More importantly, tournaments that utilize ballots on sites like tabroom or use electronic ballots no longer ask this question. More often than not they simply ask judges to choose a “winner”. It might sound like we’re playing a game of semantics here but the role of the ballot in today’s debate community has already begun to shift and the onus is now on debaters to choose how they contextualize that within individual debate rounds.


A final note on ballots: Debate is a competitive activity. Debate is also an educational activity. This means that it is not merely a game, and ballots are not mere game pieces. Individuals on all sides of the ideological spectrum recognize that debate rounds are political in nature (critical rounds tend to talk about micropolitical actions, util arguments are simulations of their macropolitical arguments, etc), so it is important to understand that ballots are political tools in the debate space through which positions are endorsed.

Jonathan Alston, Anthony Berryhill, and Aaron Timmons wrote an article criticizing the current state of Lincoln Douglas Debate. They argued that judges must rise beyond their current role as passive observers of debate rounds. Judges must be willing to challenge power structures, call out whiteness when they see it, and intervene against the “isms” that exist in the world. We recognize that some judges will think that oversteps their obligations in the debate space and do not wish to impose our views on the way they evaluate their rounds. (Again, our alternative does not say that critical pedagogy is the only answer to resolving inequality in the debate community.) We do however argue that every judge must at the very least be receptive to arguments that re-conceptualize the role of the judge. Choosing to participate in this community as a judge implicitly accepts the responsibility to educate students, and educators should take care to meet that burden by being willing to challenge oppressive power structures in debate rounds and in the real world (an arbitrary distinction in our eyes).


Many of the problems we’ve discussed in the article occur because of a culture that actively works to exclude critical arguments. Camp lectures about responding to K’s often recommend theory as the go-to strategy, and coaches of nationally successful debaters publicly advocate for throwing as many underdeveloped arguments at criticisms as possible, instead of attempts at actually engaging with them. Coaches have a responsibility to endorse educational debate practices, even (and especially) if that means more work for them and their students. The community discourse is shaped heavily by the arguments debaters see their coaches and judges making (online forums come to mind), meaning that adults in the community should be mindful of the practices they endorse.



Our Alternative


Some will read this article and believe that we are advocating a debate space overrun by critical debate. Let’s get some things clear:


  • We need a diversity of ideas within our community, and that doesn’t foreclose the possibility of theory debates. You can (and should) debate about consequentialism and theory in debate rounds, but you should find a way to do that while substantively engaging with your critical counterparts. Agonism gives us all a seat at the table, moving past the question of “either, or” towards an “and, and, and” model of debate.
  • Not every critical position is justifiable in our world. For instance, negative positions that criticize power structures and operate as floating PIC’s could legitimately be called unfair positions. They are not unfair because they criticize power structures, but because of the form they are presented in. Theory is absolutely the correct response in this situation. There are limits to the model we propose.
  • Debaters on all points along the ideological spectrum must be willing to engage with their critics. We’re speaking to the critical debaters now: not every response to your position is racist or exclusionary. Not all theory is forcing you to jump through hoops. If someone’s CX questions bother you, recognize that the question might come from innocence, not ignorance. The frustration you experience at having to explain something you consider to be obvious is inevitable, but it is important to make your position accessible to people who have never stepped into your side of the library; anything else stops dialogue before it can begin. Be ready and willing to justify the content and form of your arguments. We understand your (our) arguments are important and speak to the community as a whole, but be careful not to collapse to an “everything is racist” argument. In the current debate space, you must mediate your performance to not be excluded from the start of the discussion.


Again, the word agonism comes to mind. Our ideal debate space puts an end to the notion that antagonism alone can craft solutions to our problems. It is overly ambitious to find an answer to oppression in a single 45-minute debate round, and we recognize that. However, we can promote a community that views each round as one step in the path to liberation.


Roland Bleiker concludes for us:

Agonistic respect among multiple groups or individuals … is necessary … precisely when—these groups or individuals passionately disagree. Whereas the liberal notion of tolerance assumes a majority that occupies an authoritative center and bestows tolerance upon minorities, agonistic respect is operating when numerous inter­dependent minorities coexist and interact in a safe and respectful en­vironment, thus generating and sustaining a form of common gover­nance.



(emphasis in the quotes is ours)

Bleiker, Roland. 2008, Professor of IR at U of Queensland, The New Pluralism, pg. 140

Honig, Bonnie. Professor-Elect of Modern Culture and Media and Political Science at Brown University. Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics, (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1993), p. 15-16

Mitchell, Gordon. Associate Professor of Communication at University of Pittsburgh. “Stimulated Public Argument As Pedagogical Play on Worlds”, Argumentation and Advocacy 36.3 (Winter 2000)

Sigel, Doug.