Theory, Performance, and Community Norms by Joey Schnide

The debate over the merits of pre-fiat and performative positions has become increasingly heated over the last several years as these positions have become prevalent and successful. The arguments for and against pre-fiat positions have been said before and said better, so rather than weigh in on that debate, I’d like to take a step back and examine the way that the rise of pre-fiat positions has and will continue to impact the norms of the debate community.


Part 1: The State of Debate

“I hate debate” is a phrase that my teammates and I have started throwing around at tournaments. While we obviously don’t hate debate, there are certainly parts of the activity that are worthy targets of our loathing, namely tricks and frivolous theory. Most LD rounds involve at least one theory shell, and few of these shells can lay claim to a strong in-round abuse story. It is fairly uncontroversial to say that theory is often run as a strategy. It should also be apparent that very few people outside of debaters frantically making “theory education” arguments in round actually believe that the mass proliferation of frivolous theory is a pedagogically sound practice.


I won’t hesitate to admit that I run my fair share of frivolous theory and tricky positions. A friend of mine who knows how much I dislike frivolous theory recently asked why I still ran it, and I told him that I disliked losing bid rounds more. While I can’t claim to know the motivations and feelings of other debaters, I think that it is fairly reasonable to claim that most debaters who engage in highly uneducational practices do so because these practices win them rounds. I’m not accusing any individual debater, coach, or program of making debate a worse by running certain types of arguments, nor am I claiming that judges should intervene against positions that they don’t like. Rather, I’m criticizing the broader community norms that allow these arguments to succeed. Even if judges shouldn’t necessarily intervene, I do believe that the community would be better off if judges had a lower threshold for responses to silly and counterproductive theory arguments.


Part 2: How an Argument Becomes a Norm

Access to the ballot is by far the most important determinant of the norms of the national circuit. Twenty years ago, people debated values because values won rounds. Ten years ago people read a prioris left and right because judges voted off of dropped a priori arguments. Today, some of the most successful debaters go for tricks or frivolous theory almost every round, and they do it because judges vote for it. On the national circuit, community norms are determined by what wins. This isn’t likely to change any time soon; the circuit is comprised almost exclusively of high schoolers and college age coaches and judges who abhor intervention in the name of pedagogy. If there is to be a significant shift away from frivolous theory, it will happen because it no longer is a viable strategy to win rounds.


Most debaters have very strong opinions about the legitimacy of pre-fiat positions. A number of recent articles have made an impassioned case for and against them. However, as I hope I sufficiently proved in the last section, persuasive articles (and ultimately the hearts and minds of debaters) will have little effect on shaping the norms of the debate community. It doesn’t matter if debaters believe that fairness outweighs critical positions; what matters is how well debaters can articulate these claims in round. If the first few months of this season have proven anything, it’s that debaters are either really bad at doing this or that kritikal debaters are really, really good at beating these arguments (or a combination of both).


Part 3: Letting Frivolous Theory Die Out

Just over a year ago, Emily Massey, Grant Reiter, and Geoffrey Kristof published a highly controversial criticism of pre-fiat arguments in debate. They concluded by expressing their wish “that with smarter responses from opponents and better decisions by judges, [pre-fiat] arguments will eventually stop winning and die out naturally” (Massey et al 2014). My hope is exactly the opposite of that. I hope that the debate community embraces positions that substantively engage real issues instead of the nonsense typically run by so many students. But it doesn’t really matter what I think. What we say in flowery language on debate forums doesn’t matter nearly as much as how persuasively (and quickly) debaters can make these arguments in round. With that in mind, here’s my prediction for what will happen to the norms of debate community over the coming months and years.


Performance is new, and most of the community is scrambling to think of new strategies to beat it back. We turned first to theory, because it’s what we know and what we are good at and what required the smallest deviation from our comfort zones. Since theory linking back to traditional fairness voters seems to be failing, my guess is that debaters, reluctant to stray entirely from theory, will come up with new ways to make theory impact back to the role of the ballot presented by performative/kritikal debaters. Because these types of arguments would implicitly indict the methodology of the performance or kritik, it seems like the logical conclusion of this practice would be the eventual discarding of the pretence of theory in favor of a direct engagement on the methodology debate. And who knows – maybe this will lead to debaters finding new ways to engaging that I can’t even begin to imagine. Or maybe people will go back to rambling about how fairness is the constitutive purpose of debate. Who knows.


It seems pretty reasonable to say that as performative positions continue to win, they will become more common. Many debaters who have always wanted to run these arguments but didn’t for a fear of failure will be encouraged to experiment. Many successful performance debaters will go on to coach once they’ve graduated, training the next generation of debaters who will likely be as successful as their predecessors. Some debaters will start to make performance arguments because they think that they’ll win by doing so. While that might not be the best practice (it’s actually pretty awful), I’m pretty confident that it will happen, at least to some extent.


This leaves us in a world where performative positions are more common and where some students choose to actually engage them. It’s possible that the decline of the use of theory in rounds where one debater reads a performative position could spill over to a reduction of theory in other rounds. It seems like there wouldn’t be much of a point in writing an AC with 4 minutes of theory spikes if it would be useless against a significant proportion of negatives, and writing lots of bidirectional theory shells seems like a pretty poor time investment if they won’t apply to (or be effective against) many ACs that a debater could expect to hit.


Whether you like it or not, performance debate is here to stay. How you engage with it is your choice. When you make that choice, remember that the days when you can shut people out of the community with endless theory blocks are long gone.