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.

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  • swag

    somewhere on this section Carlos Taylor is slowly chuckling

  • Harvey Birdman, Esq.

    My prediction is that circuit LD will follow the same pattern that other debate events have followed over the last three decades: (1) increasingly esoteric stuff wins; (2) debaters and programs who don’t care for the esoteric arms race quit; (3) an alternative event is created; (4) only hardcore esoteric debaters remain in what is now a small, niche event.

    In fact, one could argue that circuit LD already has completed this process. Only a handful of schools nationwide have true circuit style programs. That said, perceived size gets inflated a little because traditional LDers still show up at tournaments that are, for all intents and purposes, a different event. The failure of traditional (“lay”) coaches to understand this fundamental rift may account for why (3) has not yet happened in a formal sense. But once they figure out what’s going on, (3) will happen. Just like with HS policy and Public Forum, NDT and CEDA, NDT/CEDA and parli, parli and IPDA, etc.

    Details may vary, but the pattern holds every time. The simple fact is, 98% of U.S. high schools aren’t going to fund an event where we write down a resolution for debate, then disregard the topic and hand out trophies based on who does the best slam poetry at the Oppression Olympics.

    Like that guy who looks like Colonel Sanders said, this is the sixth version of the Matrix. With each iteration, the people inside choose to destroy it. Of course, debaters could be Neo and choose self-sacrifice –i.e., voluntarily laying down their esoteric weapons. But they won’t. And the cycle will begin again.

    • Joey Schnide

      I certainty think that circuit LD is close to completing the process you described. However, your comment seems to imply that kritikal debate is somehow more exclusionary than the status quo, which I disagree with. Progressive debate, no matter the actual content, looks the same to any outsider and excludes people by the same mechanism. A principle (or coach for that matter) at a school that doesn’t invest in circuit would look at any number of progressive practices with a similar degree of confusion. There wouldn’t be any meaningful distinction in their mind between a student spreading incomprehensibly fast about nuclear war or social justice. If anything, the latter is more likely to encourage administrations and coaches to fund circuit programs. If I offered you a choice between an event that was decided quite literally 50% of the time by arguments about the rules and an event that encouraged students to use critical theory and personal experience to examine issues of social justice, you should have a pretty easy choice.

      • Harvey Birdman, Esq.

        As someone who has actually been in the room when the decision not to fund a program any longer was made, I respectfully disagree. There is a difference between watching an incomprehensibly fast debate and watching CEDA finals on Youtube, in which two teams argue over whether the AFF debaters are “authentic n*ggas”. The former has maybe a 5% chance of getting funding based on the argument: “Sure it’s esoteric, but it’s really rigorous, and that’s how all academic debate works, right? What’s the harm?” The latter has a less than 1% chance. The principal/school board/dean/department head would have to be a true social justice warrior ready to stand up to public outcry (if anybody happened to find out), and almost none are.

        Right now, high school LD is a little less overtly confrontational on this front than CEDA/NDT. But as you point out, that’s only because few have tested the waters and been rewarded with ballots so far. It’s only a matter of time, and when it happens, you’ll see schools get their programs cut. Guaranteed.

        • Joey Schnide

          It sounds like you have a better understanding of and more experience with how schools make decisions to fund debate, and I believe you when you say that schools are more likely to cut funding from debate if they see performative debate. However, I’m still not convinced that this is a sufficient reason to exclude kritikal positions from the community. The difference in funding that you describe (5% vs. <1%) sounds large, but in context it becomes a question of really small vs. really small-er. If we're at the point where 95% of schools refuse to fund what most of us believe to be an extremely valuable activity, then we have a much bigger problem then certain styles of argumentation causing extremely marginal losses in participation. If we really care about making the circuit accessible enough to be able to solicit funding from the majority of schools, then we need radical changes in the way that debate changes, not a conversation about whether kritiks or theory exclude more people.

          That brings us back your original problem; what incentive could the debaters who make up the community possibly have to "lay down their esoteric weapons" as you say? It would probably be better for debate in the abstract if I slowly read positions that were accessible to the average person at the TOC this year, but I have no intention of doing so. That act represents an enormous opportunity cost to me, and on its own has little chance of making meaningful change in the community. Maybe I'm overly pessimistic and a little bit selfish, but I don't think my choice is unreasonable, and I don't think any other debater who chooses to take up esoteric arms at the TOC is acting particularly selfishly.

          If we use policy as an indicator of where we are going, then the answer is certainly not back. I think it would be great if the event somehow evolved to be less esoteric without sacrificing rigor and meaningful discussion. Realistically, that is never going to happen. If sweeping reforms are out of the question, then the question again becomes how can we make the status quo less bad? In answering that, I still stand by my original thesis that the community would be better off with more kritikal positions that engage in real issues and less frivolous theory and tricky nonsense.

        • Harvey Birdman, Esq.

          Your second paragraph is dead on. I don’t blame students one bit for reading whatever wins, however esoteric or inaccessible. You only get one crack at debating, plus you’re building a resume’ for college/grad school. So pull out all the stops.

          But what you’ve identified is a classic collective action problem, where individuals who sacrifice make very little difference at great personal cost. Sort of like white flight. You might deplore racism, but if the general community is somewhat racist and pays less for property when minority individuals move into a neighborhood, you’ve got a decision to make. Do you stick it out on principle, knowing that you probably won’t change anything and you’ll eventually lose a lot of money? Or do you sell now?

          And I don’t disagree that, absent sweeping reforms, performance is way better than reading five blippy theory arguments. Anything is better than that. But at some point, collective action problems usually require solutions that collectively bind us to something we all can live with, even if it’s not any one person’s ideal scenario.

          I think coaches have to stop abdicating responsibility –leaving students like you to conclude that they have to make the change through informal evolution– and seriously address the possibility that top down reform may be the only way. In other words, if you want to preserve rigorous LD debate that is accessible to most students, we may have to collectively agree to some limits on the more extreme practices. The alternative, as you suggest, is a wide open intellectual wonderland that is accessible to maybe 2% of (mostly affluent) high schools.

        • Joey Schnide

          So then how do we go about encouraging established coaches to take argumentative responsibility for their students? Ultimately, I think that the type of top down approach that you propose is the only way that the community could shift back towards the debate equivalent of a higher entropy state (less esoteric). However, this would require some type of consensus among established coaches in the debate community. If recent history has shown us anything other than that debate will get esoteric as time progresses, it’s that coaches love to argue about inane details even more than their students do. What specific reforms do you think that it would be reasonable to ask established coaches to agree to? How do you think we could go about establishing this consensus? A meeting at the TOC maybe? I’m asking because I honestly think it’s a really good idea, and I’d like to see it happen.

        • Harvey Birdman, Esq.

          That’s a great question. My guess –and I would love to be proven wrong– is that a meeting at TOC probably isn’t the first step. TOC is sort of the inner sanctum for circuit style debate. The coaches there are good people, but they’re the insiders. They have even more of a vested interest in keeping things esoteric and exclusive than students do, as you guys will all be gone in a few years doing other things. (Again, not commenting on them as people –many are fine folks– just about incentives.) And in my experience, while many hate blippy theory, most are at least somewhat hostile to the idea of rules governing the content of the round.

          All that said, I think the first step is to think about what the end goal might be. For me, it would be having LD practiced nationwide with similar norms and much lower barriers to entry, but without reverting to traditional lay judging that excludes interesting and fun arguments. If that were going to happen, I think you would need to bring multiple sides to the table for a conversation.

          As for who that is, the esoteric/circuit side is pretty easy: probably the TOC committee and other successful coaches. For everybody else, I’m not sure. It’s a pretty diffuse group. NSDA probably would factor in, as it’s the national championship of traditional debate, and sets the norms for traditional circuits like TOC tends to set trends for the national circuit. State directors and prominent coaches in traditional leagues probably also should have a seat at the table.

          What would be the goal? I guess it would be, first, to see if everyone can agree that LD has grown in two radically different directions. If so, then to decide whether it’s possible to reconcile them into a single event with a predictable, accessible rule set everyone could live with. If there is a sense that can be done (and there very well may not be), then to begin a conversation about what that rule set might look like.

          What would it look like? I have some ideas, but that’s not really the point. The point is to get people talking and making good faith concessions. Like maybe circuit coaches admitting (1) that their style is on a recursive loop toward greater and greater exclusivity; and (2) that you can’t just completely throw up your hands and say that the rules are entirely up to the kids, unless you want exclusion. And lay coaches admitting (1) that performance/kritiks/a prioris can have a place, and (2) that we need trained judges.

          I wish I had a prescription for how to make that happen, but I’m just a lawyer/volunteer assistant coach. I hope the full-timers will give it some serious thought soon, though.

  • Anon

    Honestly, I don’t really give a shit about any of these real issues people talk about. Like I can understand why they want to talk about them, but I just kinda want to win and get through a round with the least amount of effort and thought as possible. So in that sense it’s easier to just not engage in narratives or performance. I say “I hate debate” in the frustrated sense that I might have to talk about something that I don’t have extensive prep and strategy against.

    This sounds really childish and petty but ugh I just want people to stop running those kind of arguments cause they’re annoying.

    • Hunter Seitz

      I feel like this is the exact mindset Joey is critiquing. Correct me if i’m wrong (cus i probably am) but it seems to me his argument is that people just throw out theory block files as a lazy knee jerk reaction so as not to have to think and engage the performance/K. That doesn’t necessarily mean i support such cases. But i feel that if you are going to hate on such cases it should be because you think it is detrimental to the activity, not because you are too lazy to be bothered to actually think in round

  • Grant Brown

    Great article. I definitely understand the “I hate debate” sentiment that’s proliferated by the proliferation of awful theory arguments. The community is the best thing that I’ve ever experienced, and at the same time the most toxic when it comes to certain issues. I’m glad these kind of discussions are happening, and I’m glad we have multiple view points to try and have an open discussion about the way we view debate and the pedagogical opportunities it affords us.

    I think a productive starting point to “get into the mind” of the debaters who read theory all the time against performance positions, is to consider how they approach normal positions and why those approaches can’t be transferable.

    If you’d prep a CP and a DA against a plan aff, why is prepping a counter-K to answer a performance argument any different? Some will claim that preparation skews create an impossible skew. I think A) this is non-unique, our community accepts plan affs which are often very different and can be just as specific as performance debate, B) generics are better than theory. Policy (yes, I know we hate to look at policy, but it’s the truth) has utilized Orthodox Marxism, Capitalism, all kinds of generic K’s. If you’re good enough at Marx, you’ll be able to stand toe-to-toe with a performance debater even if it is a tad generic – you’re probably more likely to win as well.

    This was mostly about performance affs, but I think the same applies to performative negatives. Why not prep a generic A2 that is part of your aff? 1AR theory is another rant for another time, but seems to be a growing community norm and is pretty awful in my mind, and rarely if ever has a justifiable abuse claim.

    In conclusion, I agree with the sentiments expressed here. The amount of theory arguments in LD almost made me quit to be completely honest, and it’s hard to stick around when 9/10 rounds are theory shells even if I’m negative. To me, debate has always been more than just winning, and I think the competitive nature of the activity mixed with young activists creates a strange environment in which there is a strong dichotomy between those who debate for more than competition, and to those who view debate as solely competitive. I don’t think which one is better can ever be resolved because we will all differ in opinion, but moving towards a better mesh in which individuals engage “performance” positions with awareness of the potential for out of round impact, education, and “more than just winning” possibilities. If you don’t enjoy the “more than just winning” model at all times, I think awareness and utilizing the times in which you do engage these positions as a potential learning experience and place to really learn something is a good thing to consider.

    (Apologies if the rhetoric of “performance” offends or annoys anyone. The term is a tad annoying, but for sake of discussion I think it is a decent way to refer to these types of positions. If anyone has a preferable rhetoric, feel free to message me on Facebook, as I’d love to discuss it with you. Also if this is incoherent, I’m quite tired and apologize.)

    • Joey Schnide

      “Apologies if the rhetoric of “performance” offends or annoys anyone. The term is a tad annoying, but for sake of discussion I think it is a decent way to refer to these types of positions.”

      To be honest, I pretty much used “performance” “pre-fiat” and “kritikal” interchangeably in the article, when in reality the terms probably mean slightly different things. I think that it would be great if someone more knowledgeable than me could explain what types of positions each term applied to. It would be to everyone’s benefit if we all used words to refer to the rights things and didn’t group very different types of argumentation under the same umbrella terms (like I did).

      • Nick Smith

        These are by no means the objective definitions of each concept, they are only how I tend to apply the concepts.

        Pre-fiat – a position that offers an argument that isn’t contingent upon defending a post-fiat world in which the respective debater’s advocacy is adopted. A negative running a position that criticizes their opponent’s use of gendered language would be pre-fiat as it doesn’t prove the undesirability of a hypothetical affirmative world (as contextualized by the traditional standard/framework) but rather says that the use of gendered language justifies the judge voting negative.

        Theory is also a pre-fiat argument, since the debater running the argument says that there is some procedural concern that must be resolved either before analyzing the post-fiat debate or rendering the post-fiat debate irrelevant to how the judge should vote. A negative reading a shell that asks the judge to drop the affirmative for failing to disclose isn’t disproving the resolution. There seems to be a misconception that pre-fiat arguments can’t be proving/disproving the resolution or meeting a debaters positional burden, but that’s wrong. Ignoring the potential theory debate a negative reading a cap K can generate pre-fiat offense off of a post-fiat alternative to a living wage. Also, a debater could read framework criticizing the viewing of debate as post-fiat game-playing and use that as a starting point for a topical affirmative/negative that simply offers an alternative interpretation of what a debaters positional burden is instead of defending their advocacy in a hypothetical world.

        Performance – a position that is not necessarily premised on the truth/falsity of the debater’s position but instead what generates the ballot story or offense for the debater is some relevant aspect of their performance. These positions would then explain why that aspect of their performance means that the judge should vote for them.

        For example: a debater may read a criticality ROB/ROJ, have cards saying that satire is a good method for criticality, and then offer a satirical position. The truth/falsity/accuracy of the satirical position isn’t what generates a reason to vote for the debater, but the satirical act itself does generate such a reason. Performance positions may also chose to entirely forgo debating the resolution and argue that some relevant feature of their performance generates a reason to vote for them.

        Kritikal – this is the most vague concept of the 3, but I think being kritikal just means that some aspect of the position or performance challenges certain assumptions of the opponent, the resolution, or society. Questioning dominant ideology is an example of being kritikal. If we’re referring to a “kritik” traditionally it would be a position that has a structure that has all or most of the following: link/harm/impact/alt/fw. A kritik in general sense would just be a position that articulates an argument that would fall under the umbrella of ‘critical thought’.