Theory Spikes, Meta-Theory and Embedded Clash: A Case Study of Kinkaid TG v Brentwood JL

In an octas debate at Meadows 2014, Kinkaid TG affirmed against Brentwood JL. The aff read a theory spike in the AC something along these lines:

Aff Outweighs: If the aff and neg both have offense on a particular layer of the debate, grant that the aff offense outweighs to compensate for neg side bias.

By the end of the debate, the neg had handily won several theory arguments but had dropped the spike in both the NC and 2NR. The aff had won some amount of offense against the theory arguments (meeting the burden set up by the spike) and extended the spike in both the 1AR and 2AR, claiming that the aff is now ahead on each theory flow by virtue of having some amount of offense.

The neg won on a 2-1. Shayne Walton and Adam Bistagne voted neg, and I voted aff. My decision was fairly simple: the neg conceded that all weighing goes to the aff. Even if the neg was completely crushing the theory debate, (even if I’m 99% confident in his theory interpretations), there’s at least some amount of aff offense, and in that case, according to the Aff Outweighs spike, I vote aff.

Adam’s decision went a little differently. He argued that even though the aff extended a conceded spike, the neg was so far ahead on theory that the justification for the aff spike, “to compensate for neg side bias,” relied on an impact that was clearly outweighed. The marginal time skew that affects the aff is far less severe than unfairness of the aff case as successfully argued by the neg.

So, who’s right?

I suspect most debaters who rely on tricks, one-liners, hidden burdens, and the like would prefer my decision. Most debaters who want to catch the tricks and oust them with theory (or debaters who can’t flow) would prefer Adam’s.

There are two good reasons for thinking my decision is correct. (1) The aff is the only one who makes a comparative argument between the neg’s theory offense and the aff theory spike. To grant that the neg outweighs would be to insert a weighing argument in favor of the neg when the aff has already made a weighing argument. Of course, the aff’s weighing argument is very general to all neg theory, but it’s a weighing argument nonetheless. This impulse is in line with judges who want to be completely tabula rasa. (2) Aff Outweighs could be interpreted as a burden or a meta-theory argument. The spike claims that there is a specific burden the aff must fulfill to win a theory debate, and if it meets its burden, then you vote aff. In this way, the spike is “meta-theoretical” because it makes a claim about theory arguments. Some might have it that any “meta-theoretical” discussion must be resolved before any lower layer.

To deny (1), one could argue against the extremely radical take on tabula rasa. Simply because the word “outweighs” is used does not mean the aff has won the debate on that flow. The strategic implications of such a view would have debaters claiming “x outweighs for y nonsense reason” at every opportunity, which is absurd. On this view, judges should take into account the strength of the debaters’ arguments and the link to the impact they’re claiming outweighs. A very abstract “ground outweighs” argument doesn’t win a theory debate any more than simply saying “my impact is high probability” wins an advantage-vs-disadvantage debate. Certainly, debaters should make the argument that vacuous weighing is vacuous, but should they have to for judges to evaluate the debate this way?

Responding (2) seems less complicated. Adam’s decision explained that the Aff Outweighs spike and the neg theory argument link to the same impact: fairness. So, it’s within the judge’s purview to decide that the size of the neg’s impact can outweigh the size of the aff’s just as (s)he would in any other context. Even if the neg did not explicitly attack the spike, the neg’s theory argument has “embedded clash” with the aff spike. This line also deflates “meta-theoretical” nature of the spike, but maybe it should be presumed “meta-theoretical” if no arguments are made. Consider a variant of the cross-examination checks spike:

CX Checks: The neg may not read a theory argument without reading the interpretation in CX to ask me if I might modify my advocacy to comply with their interpretation. We should do this to avoid unnecessary theory debates.

Is CX Checks more obviously “meta-theoretical” than Aff Outweighs? Such an assumption would mean major ramifications on the neg’s ability to win a theory debate. Further, it might be even less tabula rasa to assume the spike is “meta-theoretical” if it’s not argued. I made a similar assumption in the octas debate at Meadows.

In the case of a dropped CX Checks spike where the neg does not meet, I think most judges would exclude the neg’s theory argument on face. However, if Adam is right, a handily-won neg theory argument might just outweigh the impetus for accepting CX Checks, dropped or not. If the neg convinces us to care more about his/her theory argument than we do about CX Checks, then why prefer the one-liner to the fully developed theory argument?

Finally, a pragmatic reason to adopt Adam’s view is that it might lessen the impact of short (hidden, vague, tricky, etc.) aff theory spikes, a goal most of us can agree upon.

Comment below your thoughts on these cases. Whose decision was more tab (and should judges be quite so tab)? Are the spikes meta-theoretical (and does meta-theory come first)? Are these aff spikes good debate practice?

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Bob co-directs Premier Debate, coaches his alma mater Loyola High School and debates on the NDT/CEDA circuit for the USC Trojan Debate Squad. His students earned 32 TOC bids in his first two years coaching. As a senior at Loyola, Bob earned 11 bids and was a TOC finalist.

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