Broad resolutions make for bad PF debate

The founders of Public Forum debate thought they designed an event that could never resemble Policy. But every year, the PFD final round is the fastest of the NSDA Nationals showcases and the past few seasons have featured resolutions that made plan-type advocacies inevitable.

What was once innocuous Ted Turner Debate became slightly more aggressive Public Forum Debate. Now it has morphed into a mishmash event where competitors cram framework and contention level arguments into four minute speeches that are nearly always underdeveloped. Later in the round, as long as judges value technical debate over persuasive presentation, a truly good two minute summary is nearly impossible. First-speakers have to address almost all of the opposing four minute rebuttal before summarizing and extending their arguments. And then they must identify key pieces of defense that make their opponent’s case offense inaccessible. Since most students are trained to think technical debate is important, the time constraint forces most summaries to go too fast and to mention arguments without explaining them. Often, they involve evidence extensions that are somewhere between irresponsible and downright dishonest.

Discouraging debaters from arguing technically is not the solution both because technical debate has significant merits and because there is no good way to control debater styles. Rules, such as dense webs of evidence regulations, ‘no plans,’ and others fail to address the issue. It’s an enormous competitive gamble to point out rules violations under Public Forum’s tight time constraints, especially since many parent judges do not know exactly what the rules are, much less what they mean.

Evidence violations are most common in late speeches, when nobody has the time to point them out, and nobody quite knows what constitutes a plan in PF. Plenty of teams dodge the ‘formalized proposal’ description by labeling multiple plans in case as contentions. Con teams respond by running disadvantages to plans the affirmative didn’t advocate, making for an incoherent debate.

The best way to solve these problems is to write more carefully worded resolutions. In particular, either the cost/benefit analysis specified by the topic should be narrow, or the affirmative plan should be fully laid out in the resolution. Resolutions such as

Resolved: On balance, economic globalization benefits worldwide poverty reduction

are unimaginably broad and encourage each side to pinpoint extremely specific high powered costs and benefits of globalization before messily comparing the two. While a resolution such as

Resolved: On balance, NAFTA benefits the American middle class

is narrow enough to make for a meaningful debate. Instead of debates coming down to ‘the benefits of the internet are greater than the harms of the global arms trade,’ debates would be much more likely to come down to exactly what the framers of the resolution hoped for — is trade good or is trade bad for the American middle class.

From last year,

Resolved: The United States Federal Government ought to pay reparations to African Americans

would have made for a much cleaner debate if it read something like

Resolved: The United States Federal Government ought to pay monetary reparations to African American victims of Federal Housing Administration red-lining.

In public forum, framework usually falls by the wayside (when it doesn’t, it is often underdeveloped or ignored by inexperienced judges) and anti-plan rules are impossible to enforce. So instead of the moral debate the framers of the resolution likely intended, debates on the reparations resolution became a comparison between the benefits of building hospitals in majority African-American neighborhoods to close the racial health gap versus the harms of direct cash transfers to the descendants of victims of slavery. While the research that went into building those positions was certainly valuable, these sorts of debates were not meaningful. It was as if pro and con teams were debating different resolutions.

So, instead of topics like

– Resolved: Current U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East undermines our national security.

– Resolved: To alleviate income inequality in the United States, increased spending on public infrastructure should be prioritized over increased spending on means-tested welfare programs.

– Resolved: Prioritizing economic development over environmental protection is in the best interest of the people of India.

where the affirmative positions are unclear and often require PF-style plans to make sense, the NSDA should craft resolutions that work well with the time constraints and rules of Public Forum debate. Here are some great resolutions from the past few years that fit the model of either narrow cost/benefit analyses or specifying affirmative advocacies:

– Resolved: For-profit prisons in the United States should be banned.

– Resolved: United Nations peacekeepers should have the power to engage in offensive operations.

– Resolved: In the United States, plea bargaining undermines the criminal justice system.

And from the topic wording committee’s peak year,

-October 2008 – Resolved: The United States should significantly increase its use of nuclear energy.

-November 2008 – Resolved: That the United States government should implement universal health care modeled after the French system.

-January 2009 – Resolved: That, by 2040, the federal government should mandate that all new passenger vehicles and light trucks sold in the United States be powered by alternative fuels.

-April 2009 – Resolved: That the Employee Free Choice Act of 2009 serves the best interest of the American people.

-2009 National Speech & Debate Tournament – Resolved: That the United States should normalize relations with Cuba.

After years of judging and competing, it’s become clear that unless Public Forum changes it’s relationship with plans, exceedingly broad resolutions will continue to spawn debates that accentuate our event’s problems.

Some may be concerned that debates on narrow topics could become repetitive and limit research. These concerns have some merit, but they can easily be addressed by writing rich, but not unwieldy resolutions like the ones above. Moreover, the diversity of arguments concern is not as important an issue as ensuring that the negative and affirmative sides are debating the same topic. And limiting the amount of arguments available encourages debaters to learn to defend their positions instead of winning debates by catching teams by surprise, making the debate more educational. As for the research concerns, literature breadth should be among the most important factors the topic wording committee considers when crafting resolutions.

A further, somewhat unrelated note: resolutions become unbalanced when one side of the resolution is allowed to link into the set of all impacts (see the Pro on the November resolution), and the other side can only link into a subset of impacts (see the November resolution, which restricts the Con to privacy impacts). This is the worst way of narrowing down the resolution to make it debatable. If it effectively restricts the side it’s designed to restrict, it makes for structurally one-sided debate. And in order for it not to serve as an effective restriction at the end of the round, the debate would have had to have a convoluted discussion about the wording of the resolution. In some forums, this is productive, but in Public Forum, there isn’t enough time to discuss both these issues and the resolution with any sort of substance. Ultimately in these debates the judge usually decides based on their gut instead of the arguments.

Poor topic wording shapes debates in concerning ways. Members of the PF topic wording committee have either not observed or disregarded these concerns. My hope is that this changes in the coming months.