Edited by Karen Xia and Vandita Pendse

The newest norm touted as a win for norm-creation is the brackets bad shell. According to the argument, brackets change the judge’s perception of evidence, so it’s academically dishonest not to clarify whether evidence is bracketed and for what purpose. It’s not uncommon, at least on the West coast, to hear every card in an AC prefaced with “evidence bracketed for grammar and efficiency.”

In my view, it’d be a real shame if this norm persisted. Debaters shouldn’t have to clarify when they use brackets. Ideally, every card would have brackets and judges would default assume so.

It’s important to keep in mind how little offense the shell claims. Judges still don’t know which words are bracketed, so it hardly clarifies the student’s words from the author’s. Judges still don’t see the unbracketed text, so judges can’t check consistency with authorial intent. The only thing this shell claims to change is whether a judge knows that one of hundreds of words to be spewed read is the student’s – though the judge still doesn’t know which word.

Is that small gain worth the cost? I think the shell creates an unworkably high bar for academic honesty. On such a view, even lining down evidence would be suspect because it alters the author’s original text. Tags would also be suspect since most judges frame their interpretation of a card based on the tag that they were given. These practices aren’t inherently academically honest, and neither are brackets. Yes, all of them could be used to misconstrue evidence, but generally, they’re not, so it’s hard to claim that someone’s “cheating.”

Additionally, the abuse story is circular – it already presumes that judges assume every word in a card is the author’s word. If we rejected this norm, judges would know brackets are legitimate, so they wouldn’t assume every word was the author’s. Brackets aren’t deceitful because reasonable judges should have an expectation they’re being used.

Moreover, the shell merely pushes the issue back a step. The problem with brackets is that they might misconstrue evidence, but even with a warning, evidence still might be misconstrued with brackets. If nearly every card has brackets, prefacing each card becomes so commonplace that it fails to signify anything special to look out for to ward against misconstrued evidence.

Ask yourself this: when has a round ever been determined by whether a judge knows that one word, though they don’t know which one, is bracketed in? If you’ve never seen this, and I certainly haven’t, you should probably agree that this is perhaps the most frivolous shell ever to receive the absurdly disproportionate legitimacy it’s been given.

In terms of in-round strategy, debaters should add an extra plank to their counter-interpretations to get terminal defense on the shell’s only piece of offense: Debaters must not misconstrue their evidence.

In response, a brackets bad debater might say the counter-interpretation fails to create a norm since it’s unclear when bracketing evidence constitutes misrepresenting evidence. However, I don’t think this is exactly the argument they want to make. Miscut evidence bad is undoubtedly a norm, even if we may disagree about where to draw the line.

Instead, brackets bad debaters mean to say that bracket warnings prevent grey area violations that the more general “miscut evi bad” norm might be unable to punish. But this argument is straightforwardly false too. The logic could equally imply debaters shouldn’t preface cards with brackets else they may use brackets to push the boundaries of what constitutes “bracketing for efficiency and clarity.”

I genuinely don’t understand how this shell solves anything, but there are real drawbacks to consider. Like any frivolous shell, it adds another barrier to entry for younger debaters trying to learn LD. And if the shell doesn’t solve anything, then we shouldn’t force debaters to waste time prefacing each card with a brackets warning. This disincentive only serves to suck up real, concrete speech time that many acknowledge is already too short.

I also think the shell seriously undervalues the benefits of bracketing. Besides creating the disincentive just mentioned, the brackets shell also discourages bracketing by creating a stigma surrounding the use of brackets since it identifies brackets as a uniquely dubious way of making evidence efficient. We don’t have empirics, but from what I’ve seen, debaters who read brackets bad typically bracket much less themselves.

But we shouldn’t disincentivize brackets. By using brackets, debaters can reduce the number of repeated phrases in a card and make prolix writing more concise. Added efficiency multiplies the amount of evidence that can be read, enhancing the debate overall. To make the card maximally efficient definitely takes time. I’d like to believe that academic dishonesty is largely accidental, and in that case, it would help to have debaters read over their evidence a few more times to better represent the author’s argument.

All in all, this shell does nothing besides discourage a good practice. In a year where there’s been a notably high frequency of unscrupulous practices like clipping and miscutting evidence, it’s fairly clear that brackets bad is just a distraction for anyone seriously concerned with academic honesty.