A Defense of Reasonability
by Noah Simon
Under the guise of norm creation, debaters are permitted to set competitive bars for their opponents to meet. This provides the initiator of theory a great advantage. Competing interpretations (CI) means that in order to win against theory, one requires offense on the standards level linking back to an offensive and competitive counter-interp. It is believed that we are setting rules for the round, and thus in order to win the theory debate, one must justify a preferable rule. This seems sensible. However, in lieu of looking to the “best interp” (whatever that means), judges should not vote on theory unless there is unreasonable abuse being perpetrated. This can be formulated through the judge “gut-checking” theory debates. Prior to discussing the advantages of this paradigm, let’s start off by establishing some basic premises about theory debate:
Premise A: Theory debate is worse than substantive debate. I’m not sure I know anyone who enjoys theory over substance. What has been so frequently forgotten in a sad, strangely, ironic way is that most of us are here to debate the merits of the resolution (for those of you out there who prefer non-topical approaches to debate, I’m pretty sure you don’t need a lot of convincing that theory debates can be detrimental to the activity). If we are to hold theory debaters to their word in regard to the voter section, then unfair arguments are only harmful to the extent that they inhibit the judge’s ability to evaluate substance, and uneducational arguments are only pernicious in that they hinder an engaging discussion about relevant issues. A debate on the content of resolution seems to be the most productive, as it is the debate for which we have prepared. It allows us to delve into a controversial moral dilemma and attempt to take meaningful strides towards solutions to real-world issues. Theory achieves nothing of this. Instead, it bogs us down with debates about procedurals that lack relevance outside of the round, and do not further our understanding of important topics. Theory does remain an incredibly useful when utilized properly; however, regardless of its value, theory debates ought to be reserved for when they are warranted and not simply desired.
Premise B: Theory ought to be treated qualitatively differently than substantive debate. A claim that your opponent should a priori lose regardless of any other issue should only be mounted in patently unfair or uneducational circumstances. Calling someone a cheater should mandate a clear abuse story. Theory debaters demand that the judge ignore the topic and vote off of a norm. In order to justify this shift, substantial justification is absolutely necessary. Rules transcend the game itself, and thus ought to be held to appropriately different standards. They must be clearly distinguished from the simple offense-defense paradigm that most judges (hopefully) use to evaluate substance.
Now, based on these principles, a reasonability paradigm with a “gut-check” threshold is the preferable way to evaluate theory debates:
1) Reasonability prevents undeserved and unjustifiable wins. Let’s take an example: Debater A runs theory with CI, and Debater B is responding. Even if Debater B is winning considerable mitigatory defense to the point where the offense on the shell is insignificant, Debater A still wins under CI since there is no offense back to a competitive counter-interp. This is problematic. It allows people to win with such marginal offense that the ballot becomes meaningless. Starting from Premise B, lacking almost any offense on the standards level should not be enough to get a ballot. There needs to be a higher threshold than merely claims of “risk of offense” or the infamous “no abuse doesn’t mean their interp isn’t preferable.” Thus, it would be more desirable to set the bar that much higher to pull the trigger on theory. This way, judges won’t have to roll their eyes and cry somewhere deep inside as they click Debater A’s name on the ballot. And, if Debater A cannot meet this basic threshold, maybe it’s not the judge’s fault for not voting for them, but maybe it’s Debater A’s fault for not wanting to brave the terrifying terrain of actually substance.
Moreover, this encourages Debater A to devise ridiculous and unnecessary standards for Debater B to meet. Yet, the burden is still on Debater B to provide offensive reasons why they shouldn’t have to conform to that rule, instead of Debater A having to prove why the rule is a substantially beneficial idea. A gut-check addresses this by allowing Debater B to devote less time and strategic planning to contend with frivolous theory. This prevents a race to the trivial through which interps and violations grow less and less significant, theory becomes easier to win and, simultaneously, substance is proportionally devalued. This is inconsistent with Premise A, the (hopefully intuitive) claim that substance debates are superior to theory debates.
2) When the offense on theory becomes so minimal, there is more abuse being perpetrated by the judge voting down the other debater (or, even the argument, depending on the case). A loss is the greatest punishment mechanism that a judge possesses, so when drop the debater is instigated, we are already accepting that the loss to whatever voter has been read is quite substantial. Thus, reasonability is a useful marker for drop the debater, since the loss of a round disproportionately punishes a merely reasonable amount of abuse.
Further, abuse stories can be concocted in any case (see: exclusive interps) such that the cases become so absurd that the theory debate becomes a burdensome and oftentimes pointless debate with which to engage. On a more complex level, debaters justify theory as precluding substance usually by saying that any skew hinders the judge’s ability. However, if the abuse is so forgettable, the judge’s job doesn’t become challenging at all in evaluating substance. In fact, since theory debates are so often incredibly blippy and problematic to evaluate, it might be easier to evaluate substance with insignificant skews than to dig through the jigsaw puzzle of theory debates to piece together a coherent ballot story. Yes, this could justify drop the argument, but, when only drop the debater is read, reasonability must come into play.
Moreover, CI inhibts exploration into new ideas. The fear of a potential loss created by an imaginative and fresh position could disincentivize debaters from innovating. Norms accepted by the debate community are constantly in flux, which means that adopting any one as the best and only one prevents change and evolution as topics progress. If we allow some leeway for creative ideas when there is not clear abuse occurring in the round, we will thus encourage the advancement of intellectual analysis, instead of paralysis.
Now, let’s address some common justifications for CI over reasonability:
1) Reasonability is arbitrary.
The most common claim is that reasonability is arbitrary. The absence of a clear definition of reasonability invites judge intervention. However, some level of judge intervention is preferable to CI; even if there is no definite brightline, reasonability at least allows for the possibility that some things to be put on the correct side of that brightline instead of deeming anything less than perfect to be drop-worthy. A gut check, though still relying on judicial intuitions, would at least be superior to fall back on the draconian CI. This objection also seems to be non-unique: all debates ultimately rely on some level of judge intervention to make decisions. The very theoretical offense itself is up to judges to deliberate, which seems to indicate that one more small burden isn’t going to shatter the debate community. Moreover, a plethora of other potential thresholds can be justified, many with quite intuitively appealing benefits. Some of the more common ones include a threshold of turn ground or structural abuse. Consider crafting ones specific to the shell, since that can make for more compelling weighing analysis. Further, a lot of the common CI rhetoric includes calling out all potential thresholds as arbitrary or unjustified, but if you have warrants, this take-out seems to fall flat. Further, if we look to the real world, we have vague and, yes, perhaps arbitrary, standards. Look no further than the CLS-derided Criminal Justice System, which contains a provision that in order for punishment to be exacted, guilt must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Thus, there are interesting and potentially highly strategic real-world education arguments to be made.
2) Reasonability creates a race to the bottom.
This objection claims that reasonability creates a race to the bottom as we justify increasingly abusive norms and push judges’ tolerance for abuse until thresholds begin to justify all abuse. There’s not much merit to this objection. Reasonability doesn’t seem to create a race to the bottom, merely a race to the reasonable. As long as standards remain at reasonable abuse, there’s no more racing, anywhere. Furthermore, these race-to-the-bottom-y brightlines still require justifications, so if there’s something bad with the brightline, it itself can be questioned and refuted without finding the conception of reasonability itself objectionable. And, after further development and advancement of reasonability in debate (since, let’s face it, it is highly rare for someone to go hard for reasonability), community norms will develop and certain brightlines will come to be generally accepted or at the very least tolerated. This prevents a race to the bottom, since these practical brightlines will remain generally fixed in judges’ minds, and less palatable brightlines will be rejected. Weighing arguments could be made here for why a race to the reasonable is better than a race to the trivial, such as the fact that the reasonable allows for us to engage in substantive debates, whereas the banal devalues the entire activity. Moreover, paltry wins on theory constitute greater fairness violations, as people who aren’t culpable for substantial abuse are punished.
3) Reasonability doesn’t require offense.
Some claim that since reasonability doesn’t require offense to win, it’s arbitrarily treating theory differently than any other argument. However, this doesn’t take into consideration the punishment factor that’s involved in voting on theory. This is a definitive action that a judge takes in signing the ballot. Therefore, the argument for why reasonability treats theory differently is justified: theory should require substantial offense to trigger a win (see above: the reasons why the burden of proof should be on Debater A, and not Debater B). Moreover, any offensive reason to prefer reasonability can outweigh this, since this is a merely procedural and largely impact-less objection.
In conclusion, theory debates distract from the real issues at hand and trivialize an activity about which we care a lot. The community should attempt to set a logical but firm bar to separate reasonable and egregious abuse so that punishment and reward are appropriately allocated. I hope more debaters start refining and putting to use their reasonability arsenals, as I believe this can be a strategic choice for dealing with frivolous shells. More importantly, regardless of strategic value, I really do think that this sets better norms for debate, so I encourage you to explore this option.