Should T be a Voting Issue? by Jake Nebel

Jake Nebel studies Philosophy at Oxford on a Marshall Scholarship. As a coach, his students have won the TOC, NDCA, Glenbrooks, Bronx, Emory, TFA State, 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.

Earlier this year, I argued that theory should not, in general, be a voting issue. I also believe that topicality (T) should not, in general, be a voting issue in LD.1

This view may seem crazy. Let me explain why it’s not.

T in Policy

We first need to understand how T works when the aff runs a plan. Consider the current college policy resolution:

Resolved: The United States should legalize all or nearly all of one or more of the following in the United States: marihuana, online gambling, physician-assisted suicide, prostitution, the sale of human organs.

This resolution is a disjunction: it says that the U.S. should legalize marijuana OR online gambling OR physician-assistant suicide OR prostitution OR the sale of human organs. A disjunction is true just in case one of its disjuncts is true. It is false if all of its disjuncts are false.

Arguing that the resolution above is false is a tough task. Fortunately, no one expects the neg to do that. Instead, the aff presents a plan, which is an unconditional advocacy. One topical plan might be that the U.S. legalize all online gambling. Another might be that the U.S. legalize nearly all prostitution and physician-assisted suicide.

When the aff proposes its plan, the focus of the debate shifts to the plan. If, based on the evidence presented in the debate, the plan is a good idea, then the aff wins. If not, then the neg wins. But notice that the resolution might be true even if the plan is a bad idea: there might be other plans that are good ideas, and the resolution is true if one of its disjuncts is true.

What if the aff proposes a plan that does not, in fact, constitute the U.S.’s legalization of all or nearly all of one of those things above? What if the aff, for example, defends the legalization of euthanasia, not knowing that euthanasia is distinct from physician-assisted suicide?

If the negative’s burden were to show that the resolution is false, then that might not be game over for the aff. The aff might reply, “Sure, our plan did not show that the resolution was true, because it does not support the legalization of physician-assisted suicide. But you still need to argue that the U.S. shouldn’t legalize any of the things listed above. There is no offense either in favor of or against the resolution.”

The neg’s burden, however, is merely to show that the plan is a bad idea, not to show that the resolution is false, which would require showing that all topical plans are bad ideas. But if the plan is not topical, then why should the neg have to show that the plan is a bad idea? It is not fair to expect the neg to argue against just anything. Nor is it fair to allow the aff to start the debate over, by presenting a plan that does affirm the resolution. So the aff should lose.

The crucial idea here is that given a topical plan (i.e., a plan whose being a good idea entails the resolution), the focus of the debate shifts away from the resolution and onto the plan. If the focus of the debate were the resolution, rather than the plan, it would be much less clear that the aff should lose for presenting a plan that is not topical. If the focus of the debate were the resolution, then the aff could, in principle, present 62 conditional plans—i.e., different combinations of “all” or “nearly all” of one or more of the five eligible things to be legalized. (My math might be off here, but you get the point.) If just one of them is a good idea, even if all the others are bad ideas, then the resolution would be true. That’s a silly way to debate the resolution above.

(I’ve oversimplified policy debate theory here in a few ways. For one thing, not all policy resolutions are disjunctions. But all policy resolutions can logically be affirmed by plans, via other aspects of their wording. Another issue is this: some argue that the debate should be about the aff’s advocacy even if that advocacy’s being a good idea does not entail the resolution. This might be because the threshold for being topical is weaker, or because topicality is just one consideration among others.)

I have suggested that T’s status as a voting issue in policy follows from the focus on the aff’s plan, and that this is justified by the way policy resolutions are worded. Some might object that “plans good/bad” is completely independent of the topic. On this view, we first determine whether the debate should be about the “whole resolution” or some part of it, and then we figure out whether some plan really is a part of the resolution. But that is a mistake, because different resolutions have different logical forms. The part-whole dichotomy is not a helpful way of understanding the relation between plans and resolutions. The only uniform test for whether a plan is topical is whether its being a good idea entails the resolution.

If you think I’m making this up, just consider the statement of the policy-making paradigm due to Licthman, Rohrer, and Corsi:

The responsibility of affirmative debaters can be quickly and simply stated: they must convince an impartial critic to support or affirm the debate resolution. For propositions of policy, affirmative teams are required to formulate proposals whose affirmation logically entails affirmation of the resolution.2

This view provides a clear test of topicality for plans. It also has great explanatory power: it provides a clear test for illegitimate extra-topicality and effects-topicality, although I won’t get into that here. But what if the aff doesn’t present a plan on the grounds that the resolution is a general principle?

T in LD

Now let’s turn to LD. Consider the current LD resolution:

Resolution: The “right to be forgotten” from Internet searches ought to be a civil right.

This resolution is not a disjunction. Competent speakers of English would not infer that the right to be forgotten (RTBF) ought to be a civil right merely from the fact that some segment of some population ought to have the RTBF. Such examples might provide some evidence for the resolution, but they certainly don’t entail it. And showing that the resolution is false would not require the neg to show that every possible way of making the RTBF a civil right for any possible segment of any population is a bad (or merely permissible) idea.

There is, I think, some wisdom to the old-fashioned view that LD resolutions are general principles. The reason why plans are not kosher in traditional LD theory is that they do not affirm the resolution, except by much interpretive violence. I think some plans do affirm on some LD topics, but those are exceptions to the rule.

Suppose the aff doesn’t provide a plan. She just makes arguments for why the RTBF ought to be a civil right. What happens if some of these arguments do not entail the resolution, because she has misunderstood what the RTBF or being a civil right requires? So much the worse for the aff: those arguments become insufficient to affirm. But that doesn’t imply that the resolution is false: the aff might have independent arguments that do entail the resolution, and the arguments that don’t entail the resolution might still be some evidence for it. Nor is it unfair to the neg for the aff to make arguments that don’t entail the resolution. So it is not clear why the aff should lose.

You might say that the aff should lose because her unconditional advocacy does not entail the resolution. Even though the aff doesn’t have a plan, she advocates something: namely, that the RTBF be a civil right, under some conception of “RTBF” and “civil right.” And if this advocacy’s affirmation does not entail the resolution, then the aff should lose just as if she had run a plan.

But this argument assumes that the aff’s advocacy is not just that the RTBF to be a civil right, but is rather something more specific. We should not assume that the aff is committed to anything more than just the resolution. Everything else she says—including her framework, contentions, and definitions—are just means to arguing that the RTBF ought to be a civil right. By default, those instruments are conditional. It is not helpful, in this context, to distinguish between the aff’s advocacy and the resolution itself.

You might be thinking that I haven’t focused on the real issue. Failure to be topical is not just making arguments that don’t entail the resolution. Then what is it?

You might say that the aff isn’t topical just in case their interpretation of the resolution is illegitimate, in some sense of “illegitimate.” But why should this matter, unless it shows that the aff’s arguments don’t support the resolution as it is legitimately interpreted? Mere disagreement about definitions is not a sufficient violation for T.

You might say that a bad definition should be a voting issue because of the way it affects neg ground. For example, defining “ought” in terms of desirability may preclude the neg from arguing that making the RTBF a civil right is merely permissible: it might be permissible yet still desirable. And the neg might argue that they should get to win by showing that it’s merely permissible for the RTBF to be a civil right. Hasn’t the aff unfairly limited the neg’s ground?

I don’t think so. If the neg is right that permissibility negates, then now the neg should argue that it’s merely permissible for the RTBF to be a civil right. This is a crucial difference between the implications of T depending on whether the aff has run a plan. When the aff runs a plan, the neg’s burden is to argue that the plan is a bad idea. If the plan is not topical because its being a good idea does not entail the resolution as best interpreted, then the neg doesn’t have to argue against the resolution as best interpreted, because the neg’s burden is not to argue against the resolution at all. But if the aff doesn’t (and doesn’t have to) run a plan, then it’s not as if the debate would need to start over for the neg to meet her burden after winning T. She is closer, not further, from meeting her burden.

You might say that the unfairness lies in the time tradeoff: the neg had to waste her time reading T just to get access to arguments that she should’ve had access to anyway. This claim, however, is not unique to T: it can apply to any other theory issue. But its truth requires conditions that are rarely proven in debate rounds—e.g., that the neg had to spend as much time as they did. And, I think, it justifies an RVI: if the aff should lose for illegitimately “forcing” the neg to waste time reading T, then the neg should lose for illegitimately “forcing” the aff to waste time responding to it. As I suggested in my article on drop-the-argument vs. drop-the-debater theory, an RVI should be the price of drop-the-debater theory. The same goes for T—except when the aff runs a plan, because then there is a different and more natural reason why the aff should lose, because the plan is an unconditional advocacy.

Conclusion: Two Notions of T

I have argued that T should be a voting issue when and because the aff’s burden is to propose a plan whose being a good idea entails the resolution. When that is not the aff’s burden—i.e., because the resolution is a general principle—it is much less clear what it means to fail to be topical and why that should be a voting issue. Perhaps it would be better if we distinguished between the two notions: we might reserve “topicality” for claim that the plan’s affirmation does not logically entail the resolution and “resolutionality” for the claim that the resolution doesn’t mean what the aff thinks it means. The difference is that only in the former case has the aff presented an unconditional advocacy that isn’t fair game. Resolutionality merely affects the relevance of arguments to the aff’s and neg’s burdens with respect to the resolution.

My view implies that plans are not as strategic in LD as you might have thought. First, they are rarely going to be topical on LD resolutions. There might be some other coherent sense of topicality, but that remains to be seen. Second, only by running a plan should you be committed to facing T as a no-risk issue.

I have made many controversial claims here. Some of them are assumptions that I have simply taken for granted without argument. I’m happy to explain, in the comments, why I think they are true.

  1. This view is not original to me. Walter Alan Ulrich, after whom the LD TOC Top Speaker trophy is named, argued that T should not be a voting issue in value debate. See “The nature of the topic in value debate,” Contemporary Argumentation & Debate 5 (1984): 1-6. A number of instructors and former students at VBI, including Jacob Nails, Christian Tarsney, and Marshall Thompson, have expressed sympathy for this view over the years.
  2. Lichtman, Allan J. (Professor at American University, 1993 Scholar/Professor of the Year) Rohrer, Daniel M. (was Director of Forensics at Boston College until death in 1982) & Corsi, Jerome (Harvard PhD). 1979, “Policy Systems Analysis in Debate,” Advanced Debate: Readings in Theory, Practice, and Teaching.