Basics of LD Theory by Jackson Lallas

Theory is one of the most technical arguments in debate and has been on the rise in recent years throughout the LD circuit. For better or worse, it’s here to stay and theory will continue to be prevalent. Despite its surge in popularity, theory is still the “Achilles Heel” for many debaters. Especially for newcomers to the circuit it can feel impossible to win against theory and hard to understand all of its parts. The aim of this article is to give debaters a basic understanding of theory. I’ll go over its structure, paradigmatic issues surrounding it, and some ways to answer it.

I. Intro to Theory and the Structure of Theory Arguments:

LD is a unique activity in that there are almost no explicit rules other than speech times and side. The rest is left to the debaters who have the power to do nearly whatever they want. Theory is about filing this gap and proposing rules for debate. When a debater makes a theory argument, they indict something that their opponent did which is inconsistent with their (the person who is initiating theory) vision for what debate should be like. As such, theory precedes substantive debate because it determines whether the substantive debate is skewed or good in the first place. Since theory is an appeal to what the rules for debate should be, its most commonly justified in terms of fairness, education, or any other value central to the goals of the activity.

Theory’s complexity mainly comes from the way that we debate it. There are very specific norms for initiating and responding to theory. In almost every instance a theory argument contains four parts: the interpretation, the violation, standards, and the voter(s). Debaters refer to the collection of these parts as theory shells, which are just organized theory arguments. These shells usually organize each of these parts with alphabetical subpoints, with A being the interpretation, B the violation, etc. The next section will explain all four of these parts and build an example theory shell along the way.

The interpretation is the first part of a theory shell and one of the most important. It is a statement of the rule that you are advocating for debate. The interpretation is similar to an advocacy text; debaters endorse that LD should have specific norms just as they support government action in plan texts. Since the interpretation is a rule for debate, there are a few things to keep in mind when writing one.

First, interpretations are prescriptive and not descriptive. The job of the interpretation is to tell us what we should do in debate. This is similar to rules in other activities: we don’t just say in Basketball that double dribbling is frowned upon or not good for the sport, but rather are explicit that players must not double dribble.

The interpretation “Necessary but insufficient burdens (to be abbreviated as nibs) are bad,” only makes the claim that this type of argument is harmful but doesn’t speak to what debaters should do instead. This is especially important because theory debate is comparative. Even if nibs are harmful in some ways, it could be the case that a world without nibs is even worse. Thus, theory interpretations always include a description about what debaters should do and not a claim that an argument as good or bad. An interpretation indicting nibs would look like “All substantive burdens must be necessary and sufficient for both debaters” instead of “Nibs are bad.” Right now our theory shell would look like:

A. Interpretation – All substantive burdens must be necessary and sufficient for both debaters

Another important part to crafting interpretations is to be as specific as possible. The interpretation “Debaters must not be abusive” begs the question of what is abusive, what we should do instead, etc. Vague interpretations also make it easier for your opponent to contest the violation, which I’ll talk about in the next section.

Let’s use the sample interpretation from above, that “All substantive burdens must be necessary and sufficient for both debaters.” The next step after forming an interpretation is to establish a violation. The violation section of a theory shell establishes the ways in which your opponent did not follow or deviated from the interpretation in the round. The term itself is self-explanatory; the violation is what your opponent did that violates the rule you advocate for.

There are two main ways to warrant a violation in round. The first is to refer to something explicitly read in their speech. Let’s say that you are defending the interpretation that “The affirmative must not read a plan, but rather defend the resolution as a whole.” You could use the plan text read in case to warrant that they violated the interpretation. In addition to referring to parts of their case, cross-examination is a good way to get violations. Going back to the nibs example, if your opponent concedes that they can win off of a specific burden, but that you need to both meet the burden and win on other parts of the flow, then they have given you a concession that they are running a nib.

It’s important to use direct examples from case and from cross examination, as a go to strategy for many debaters that are deliberately abusive is to use semantics or try to spin the words of your interpretation to show that they meet it. Having very specific violations makes this strategy a lot more difficult.

For the nibs example, lets suppose you are the affirmative debater against a negative that reads a position that says “ought implies can.” The neg sets up that for the aff to win the aff has to prove that affirming is possible in addition to showing a moral obligation to do the affirmative. The neg also concedes in CX that the aff needs to prove that affirming is possible, but that the aff debater cannot win by showing this alone. This creates a violation from both the negative case and CX discussion. So in round the nibs shell would look like:

A. Interpretation – All substantive burdens must be necessary and sufficient for both debaters

B. Violation – the neg violates in two ways

First, in their case they say that I need to prove that both the affirmative is possible AND that we ought to take the aff action, while they win if they win on either layer.

Second, the neg concedes in CX that the aff can never win by only proving it’s possible to affirm, demonstrating that the case is a necessary but not sufficient condition.

The standards section come after the violation. The job of the standards is show why the interpretation is good. It’s not enough to propose a rule alone, you need to explain why having that rule would be good for debate. Standards are a lot like contentions in an affirmative case. Just as contentions detail the benefits or reasons to affirm, standards show why adopting the theory interpretation is good for debate.

Standards themselves are divided into three subsections: the tag, the warrant, and the internal link. The tag is designed to give a catchphrase summary of your argument. Tags for standards are usually one to two words long, with common tags including “ground, predictability, reciprocity, strategy skew, topic literature, etc.” Having tags is important make your theory shell organized and help the judge differentiate between the different standards in your theory argument. In the contention analogy, the tag “Contention 1: Giving adolescents autonomous medical choices saves lives” indicates to the judge to the judge that the contention will be about protecting lives without going into the micro analysis of how that will happen. A standard tag like “ground” does the same by indicating the types or quality of the arguments you have access to improves when the interpretation is adopted, without going into the specifics of how it happens.

The second part of a standard is the warrant. The warrant justifies why something will happen in a world with or without the interpretation. For instance, if you were making a predictability standard the warrant would provide some justification for why your opponent’s case is unpredictable. Perhaps their authors are towards the end of a general google scholar search on the topic or there is only one article written about their case. The warrant is different from the interpretation in that it doesn’t make prescriptive claims, but rather tries to be both descriptive and predictive about what debate looks like with and without the interpretation.

For example, the warrant doesn’t say “ground loss is bad,” but rather “I lose ground because there are few authors that object to their position, it moots negative generics, etc.” This is again similar to contentions. In the contention that “Giving adolescents autonomous medical choices saves lives,” the affirmative might propose that more adolescents will choose to get vaccinated which will cause fewer deaths from disease. The aff has explained how lives are saved but not why saving lives is important or a good thing (That’s the job of the framework, which theory has a similar section called the voter that will be covered next). The warrant in theory arguments serves the same function as the vaccination warrant in the contention. You can also have more than one warrant within a standard if there are multiple ways that your opponent’s practice harms your standard. Additionally, theory standards are very malleable and there are a wide variety of standard arguments you can make. Don’t feel constrained to the common catchphrases mentioned above, any benefit you think of for your interpretation can be made into a standard.

The third and final part of a standard is the internal link. By this point you’ve shown that there will be harms to ground, topic lit, etc, but what’s missing is analysis about why any of those impacts are important. The theory interpretation “Debaters must use a different color for each sheet of their flow paper” will most likely cause debate rounds to be more colorful and have more variety, but there is no reason why those impacts are important or why we should try to promote colorfulness in debate. Thus the job of the internal link  is to explain why your standard is important, and why debate is harmed when the standard is.

The internal link most commonly comes in the form. (Standard tag) is key to (voter) because of X reason. While most internal links are self evident and probably unnecessary, you should always include them. This is because many judges won’t evaluate theory without internal links, and having good internal links helps with weighing between theory impacts when your opponent doesn’t fully develop their own. Combining the standard with the other sections, the nibs shell now looks like:

A. Interpretation – All substantive burdens must be necessary and sufficient for both debaters

B. Violation – the neg violates in two ways

First, in their case they say that I need to prove that both the affirmative is possible AND that we ought to take the aff action, while they win if they win on either layer.

Second, the neg concedes in CX that the aff can never win by only proving it’s possible to affirm, demonstrating that the case is a necessary but not sufficient condition.

C. Standard

Reciprocity (the tag) – Nibs skew reciprocity by giving one debater more paths to the ballot than the other. My opponent can win the round by winning on any layer, while I have to win all of them to access the ballot. This puts me minimally at a 2 – 1 disadvantage (The prior three sentences are the warrant). Reciprocity is key to fairness because the judge can’t determine who did the better debating if one is disproportionately advantaged over the other (This last sentence is the internal link).

The final section of a theory shell is the voter. A voter completes the syllogism of a theory shell; you’ve detailed your rule, how your opponent violated it, and why your rule is good, but you still need to justify why the judge should vote on or consider your rule. The voter explains why the judge should care about your theory argument. Voters are often warranted in terms of duties that are inherent to judging or the goals of debate as an activity. By far the most common voters are fairness and education, but feel free to read any voter you think of as long as you can warrant why it is important for debate. Putting the nibs bad shell together with a voter, it now looks like:

A. Interpretation – All substantive burdens must be necessary and sufficient for both debaters

B. Violation – the neg violates in two ways

First, in their case they say that I need to prove that both the affirmative is possible AND that we ought to take the aff action, while they win if they win on either layer.

Second, the neg concedes in CX that the aff can never win by only proving it’s possible to affirm, demonstrating that the case is a necessary but not sufficient condition.

C. Standard

Reciprocity (the tag) – Nibs skew reciprocity by giving one debater more paths to the ballot than the other. My opponent can win the round by winning on any layer, while I have to win all of them to access the ballot. This puts me minimally at a 2 – 1 disadvantage (The prior three sentences are the warrant). Reciprocity is key to fairness because the judge can’t determine who did the better debating if one is disproportionately advantaged over the other (This last sentence is the internal link).

D. Voter – Fairness is the voter because debate is a competitive activity based on skill and wins and losses. It’s constitutive of debate – the ballot asks the judge to vote for the better debater which necessitates a fair evaluation of competitors.

And that’s it! You now have a full theory shell that you can read in round. However, reading this shell alone would still leave you with an incomplete, and unstrategic argument. There are still some remaining questions – like what happens when you win theory, how the judge should evaluate theory, etc. These questions are commonly called “Paradigm Issues.”

II. Paradigmatic Issues in Theory

Paradigm issues refer to the judge’s paradigm, meaning the way that the judge should evaluate issues in the theory debate. There are three paradigmatic issues that come up in every round. These are, in order of increasing complexity, “Drop the Argument vs. Drop the Debater,” “The Reverse Voting Issue,” and “Competing Interpretations versus Reasonability.”

Let’s say that you read the above nibs bad shell and won the theory debate in the round, what happens now? Dropping the argument vs. the debater tells the judge what to do when the person initiating theory has won the theory debate. If theory is drop the debater, then the person who initiates theory wins the round if they win the theory debate. This means that even if the neg reads and wins theory, but they are losing the substantive layer, they win the round if theory is drop the debater. In contrast, drop the argument only gets rid of the abusive argument and then has the judge evaluate substance. If theory is drop the argument then the judge does not evaluate whatever your opponent did that led to the violation. You can think of dropping the argument as “striking something from the record.” If an argument is dropped, it’s as if it was never in the round in the first place.

Debaters will usually justify dropping the debater by appealing to deterrence or the time investment to reading theory. Dropping the debater could deter people from making abusive arguments by creating a risk to losing on theory. Theory also causes a time loss for the person initiating it making them even more behind on the already skewed substantive flow, which means that the only remedy might be dropping the debater. Justifying drop the argument is usually done in terms of proportionality or protecting substantive education. If theory is drop the debater than debaters might only read theory as a strategic tool to nullify substantive discussion. It could be disproportional to punish a debater for a loss in an instance of marginal abuse.

The reverse voting issue answers the opposite question to dropping the argument vs debater. The reverse voting issue is almost always abbreviated as “RVI.” Whether or not theory is an RVI determines what happens when the person answering theory wins the theory debate. If theory is an RVI then the person wins the round if they win on theory, regardless of whether or not they are ahead on substance. If theory is not an RVI then the debater answering theory must both beat back the theory shell and win on another layer to win the round.

There are two important things to note with the RVI. First, it only applies when theory is drop the debater. Otherwise theory is not a voting issue in the first place, so it’s nonsensical to claim that it should be an RVI. If your opponent tries to justify an RVI when theory is drop the argument, you can respond by saying that this creates a skew in reciprocity, as now they can win off of theory but there is no way for you to. Second, winning an RVI alone does not mean that you win the round. If you prove that theory is an RVI that just means that you will win if you win the theory debate. Thus to win with an RVI you both need to show that RVI’s are good for debate, and then also win on the theory debate itself.

A common argument against RVI’s is that they create a chilling effect. If theory was an RVI it could chill instances of checking abuse as people would be more cautious to initiate it if they could lose the round by losing theory. An argument in favor of the RVI is similar to the reciprocity argument in the nibs bad shell. If theory is not an RVI then the person responding to theory has to win on both theory and substance, while their opponent wins the round if they win on either layer.

The final paradigmatic issue is competing interpretations versus reasonability. Competing interps vs. reasonability tells the judge how to evaluate the theory debate. This paradigmatic issue provides a method for determining who is winning the theory debate itself.

Under competing interpretations, the winner of the theory debate is the debater who proposes the best rule for the activity. This is done through a direct comparison of “worlds of debate.” Under competing interpretations, the debater answering theory needs to defend an explicit counter interpretation to provide an alternative rule for debate. A counter interpretation has a nearly identical structure to a theory shell. The text of the counter interpretation almost always includes a permission that says debaters may do whatever their opponent’s rule prohibits.

In the nibs example, a counter interpretation could look like: Counter-Interpretation – Debaters may read one necessary but insufficient burden. A counter interpretation usually includes standards that explain why the counter interpretation is good, and can also provide new voters that were absent from the initial theory shell. I’ll go into more detail on the counter interp in the next section.

Under competing interpretations, theory debate is a lot like plan/counterplan debate. The interpretation is the initial plan with advantages for the activity. The counter interpretation is designed to solve as much of the interpretations advantages as possible, while also providing its own distinct advantages. Most forms of competing interpretations ask the judge to look for the very best rule for debate. This means that even if a debater proves that their interpretation is only marginally better than the counter interpretation, they win the theory debate.

Alternatively, the reasonability paradigm says that the judge should not look for the absolute best rule. Instead the judge determines whether or not the debater answering theory was reasonably fair or educational in the round. The simplest forms of reasonability come as a gut-check. The judge will vote on theory only if they believe significant enough abuse has occurred in the round. The judge can ignore theory if they think the interpretation is only marginally good, if there is not enough of a severe violation, or if the debater answering theory was fair/educational enough. Though winning this type of reasonability potentially allows the judge to vote on theory, in many debates this form of reasonability causes theory to be excluded entirely from the decision calculus.

There is another form of reasonability referred to as a “reasonability brightline.” Brightlines advocate that as long as debaters meet a certain threshold with their counter interpretation, then they win the theory debate. Debates with reasonability brightlines play out almost identically to debates under competing interpretations, with the exception that if the debater answering theory wins and meets a reasonability brightline then they win the theory debate regardless of the rest of the line by line. An example reasonability brightline for a debater answering the interpretation “The aff must defend the resolution as a whole” could be:  The aff is reasonable if 1) Their case is disclosed on the NDCA wiki for over 2 months 2) they provide a solvency advocate 3) the aff has proof of academic articles that object to the plan.

As shown in the example above, there can be multiple conditions on a reasonability brightline. Some reasonability brightlines can also work as planks on counter interpretations, and the decision to use a plank or a brightline varies depending on the round. Since there are a variety of possible brightlines that allow different positions, they are each justified with unique reasons why the specific brightline is good for debate.

Debaters that justify competing interpretations say that it’s key to prevent judge intervention. Reasonability could be very arbitrary, as different judges have vastly different views on what is fair or educational, and competing interpretations prevents intervention based on judge preferences. Reasonability can be justified by claiming it prevents a race to the top. Since there could always be a marginally better rule, debaters claim that competing interpretations crowds out substantive education by forcing every round to be about theory.

III. Answering Theory

There are many ways to answer theory, and no one strategy will be optimal for every round. This section will go over some of the options that you have when responding to theory. Sometimes going for only one of them can win you the theory debate, but in most rounds it’s best to combine

The first question you should always ask yourself when your opponent runs theory on you is: “do you violate the interpretation?”. If you don’t violate their interpretation, then you are not causing any of the harms of their standards to occur and the judge has no reason to evaluate their theory argument. Arguments that contest the violation in theory shells are called “I meets”. Always tag these arguments with the phrase “I meet” to indicate to the judge that you are contesting the violation.

In rounds where it is abundantly clear that you meet their theory shell, then it’s okay to make a well explained I meet and move on to the other layers of the flow. However, if there is even a slim shadow of doubt as to whether or not you meet their interpretation you should hedge your bets with at least one more of the following strategies.

The second component of answering theory is the counter interpretation. As explained above, the counter interpretation has an identical format to a theory shell but with the phrase “Counter interpretation” instead of interpretation and a rule that defends what you are doing in the round. A counter interpretation strategy has three components: the counter interp text, standards level debate, and voter weighing.

The first part of a counter interp strategy deals with how you choose the text of your counter interpretation. The counter interpretation text should be designed to solve for as many of the harms of the interpretation as possible. This is done by placing conditions on your counter interpretation, which are referred to as planks. For instance, when answering the theory interpretation “the affirmative must defend the resolution as a whole,” the most basic counter interpretation would be that “The affirmative may defend a plan.” This counter interpretation is unstrategic, as it forces you to defend every possible plan which will amplify the common predictability and ground arguments that plans bad shells read.

Instead, the counter interpretation should be phrased as “the affirmative may defend a plan, as long as the plan has a solvency advocate and the only actor is the United States.” The more specific counter interpretation dramatically limits the types of cases that you have to defend, which mitigates the advantages of their interpretation and makes it easier for you to weigh your own standards against theirs. If you choose to make a more specific counter interpretation be sure to explain why your planks mitigate the abuse in the initial theory shell, because the judge won’t do that work for you.

Once you’ve figured out how you want to phrase your counter interpretation, you should try to develop at least one independent standard for why the counter interp is good for debate. In most theory debates the “truth” or best arguments for the counter interp won’t come from the turns you make on the line by line on their standards, but rather new standards for the counter interpretation itself. This makes it strategic to generate a standard in addition to answering the ones in your opponent’s shell. Standards in counter interpretations follow the exact same structure as standards for regular theory shells.

The standards level debate also includes responses to the standards in your opponent’s theory shell as well. Some common responses to standards come in the form of link turns, impact turns, link defense, and impact defense. A link turn to a standard is a reason why your counter interp is actually better for the standard than the interpretation. This type of argument turns the warrant section of a standard. For instance, a link turn to ground would be a reason why ground increases in the world of the counter interpretation. Impact turns show that their standard is actually bad for the voters in the round. An impact turn turns the internal link within the standards. An impact turn to ground could argue that less ground forces debaters to develop and weigh arguments more, leading to more critical thinking and education. Be careful to not make both a link and an impact turn. If you show that ground is bad but the counter interpretation increases ground, that becomes a reason to reject your counter interpretation.

Link defense and impact defense target the same sections of a theory standard that link and impact turns do, but prove that there is no abuse in their theory shell instead of showing why your counter interp is proactively better. Link defense on ground could show that there are alternative sources of ground that solve for the ground lost, or contest whether or not the ground that was lost in the round is important in the first place. Impact defense to ground would contest whether or not ground is important to the voter in the round. Though defense alone cannot win you the theory debate, defensive arguments can be used to make weighing the counter interpretation against the interpretation easier.

The final section of the counter interpretation strategy is going for a new voter. If your opponent only reads a fairness voter, you can read an education voter in your counter interpretation and use it to outweigh their fairness impacts. However, I would caution against this strategy for two reasons. First, most standards have internal links to almost any voter. This means that even if you read a new voter and win that it outweighs theirs, the standards in the initial shell most likely also link to the new voter and your weighing doesn’t matter. Second, there is a compelling argument that voter weighing should be resolved in terms of strength of link rather than one voter coming before that other. Even if you win that education outweighs fairness, the judge should not vote for a 1% educational increase in comparison to a massive loss to fairness.

A third option for responding to theory is to contest paradigm issues. If the theory shell your opponent reads has only marginal abuse or seems frivolous, reasonability is a good strategy to quickly handle it. Likewise if the argument that they are running theory on isn’t important for you to win the round, you can go for drop the argument. Whenever you are thinking of going for paradigm issues, there are two factors to consider. First, look at the strength of the warrant for their drop the debater, competing interps, and RVI arguments. Often times debaters under-develop these arguments or don’t even talk about one of them. In these instances it could be more strategic to spend time on paradigm issues rather than developing a counter interpretation. Second, be aware of your judge. A lot of judges don’t like theory or have a high threshold for abuse, making it easier to persuade them to drop the argument or evaluate theory based on reasonability.

While there are certainly other options to respond to theory, the above three provide the foundation for most strategies that answer it.

IV. Conclusion

Like many arguments in debate, one of the most effective ways to get better at theory is to run it more often. You’ll learn how to think strategically when going for theory arguments and get to see response strategies in action. There are also a plethora of videos online to see theory debate in action. I hope this article helps, and good luck in your theory debates!