Miscellaneous Thoughts from the Disorganized Mind of Marshall Thompson
So my flight out of LaGuardia was canceled last night, and rather than using my time productively, I have instead decided to take an hour or so and write down miscellaneous thoughts about debate that I have and then make them public (honesty I am still surprised at that choice).
Before this point I have generally avoided posting on debate forums because I have found that they do not lead to productive conversation. However, I have tried once or twice this last year with comments and found that a fruitful conversation followed, so this is my next test. If any following conversation here remains kind and thoughtful I may even post some of my thoughts about some more difficult topics.
I will split this article into two sections, which while no doubt united by some underlying conceptual thread, I am going to treat as atomic and unrelated.
- I will first try to give form to my rather well known dislike of spikes.
- I will then give several thoughts on theory debate.
Some of you who read this will already be aware that I do not like spikes. However, it is useful to try and clarify what exactly it is about spikes that I find so troublesome. I recognize that the 1AR is a very short and difficult speech to give. To that end, it often makes sense to sacrifice some time in the AC to save time in the 1AR if you know an argument is likely going to matter. I am all for this practice I think preemptively placing argument in your aff case is great, because it is faster to extend an argument than make an argument and so you save 1AR time by extending from your case.
In contrast, often spikes are used in the hopes that the negative will not answer the argument in the NC speech and that then the argument will get the full force of a ‘conceded argument.’ Here the idea is often ‘this spike is really not good enough to win if contested, however the implication is really good for me so let’s put it in the aff where it is more likely to be missed and thus ‘conceded.’ That practice I do not like at all.
Therefore, I am all for the use of ‘spikes’ to save 1AR time but not to avoid having to defend the arguments that you make. Luckily I think there is a simple solution to this problem. Simply label a certain set of your arguments preemptive for time saving use in the 1AR, and then acknowledge that the negative has no expectation to answer these until they are extended.
Why? What are the reasons for such a practice? It seems that it would obviously decrease the strategic function of some of the arguments in your case, so why would you set it up that way? Well, because it’s a good idea of course, here are my reasons:
The Concept of ‘Good Debate’
The second use of spikes is the attempt to win an argument by not having to defend it. To win the argument because it was conceded rather than because you were able to answer your opponents objections effectively. It seems to me, that the skill set that this reward are not the same skill sets that we want to be assessing when we consider who was the ‘better debater.’ Now I acknowledge that many will disagree about what it mean to be the ‘better debater’ and thus my intuition pump may not generate universal appeal, but it seems to me that being the better debater should track more closely with your ability to defend your arguments, than your ability to hide your arguments. For those to whom that is not intuitive, perhaps the following arguments will provide it more credence (these are more illustrative than anything, I personally think the above intuition pump is just as basic as these).
First, I think that evaluating who is the better debater via who dropped spikes excludes lots of specific individuals, especially those with learning disabilities. I have both moderate dyslexia and extreme dysgraphia. Despite debating for four years with a lot of success I was never able to deal with spikes. I could not ‘mind-sweep’ because my flow was not clear enough to find the arguments I needed, and I was simply too slow a reader to be able to reread through the relevant parts of a case during prep-time.
I was very lucky, my junior year (which was the first year I really competed on the national circuit) spikes were remarkably uncommon. Looking back it was in many ways the low-point for spike. They started to be used some my senior year but not anything like the extent they are used today. I am entirely confident, however, in saying that if spikes had had anywhere near the same prevalence when I started doing ‘circuit’ debate as they do now, I—with the specific ways that dyslexia/dysgraphia has affected me—would never have bothered to try to debate national circuit LD (I don’t intend to imply this is the same for anyone who has dyslexia or dysgraphia, the particular ways that learning disabilities manifest is often difficult to track).
Now, the mere fact that I would have been prevented from succeeding in the activity and possibly from being able to enjoyably compete is not an argument. I never would have been able to succeed at calligraphy, but I would hardly claim we should therefore not make the calligraphy club about handwriting. Instead, what I am suggesting is that the values that debate cares about and should be assessing are not questions of handwriting or notation. We expect notation instrumentally to avoid intervention, but it is not one of the ends of debate in itself. Thus, if there is a viable principle upon which we can decrease this strategic dimension of spikes but maintain non-intervention I think we should do so. I was ‘good’ at philosophy, ‘good’ at argument generation, ‘good’ at research, ‘good’ at casing, ‘great’ at framework comparison etc. It seems to me that as long as I can flow well enough to easily follow a non-tricky aff it was proper that my learning disabilities not be an obstacle to my success. (One other thing to note, while I was a ‘framework debater’ who could never have been good at spikes because of my learning disability I have never met a ‘tricky debater’ who could not have succeeded in debate without tricks simply in virtue of their intelligence and technical proficiency; that is perhaps another reason to favor my account.)
Second, spikes add in a greater dimension of randomness to the round. If they are seen then they are ‘caught’ then they don’t really help you win, if they are not they do. Against most debaters one can ‘reliably’ beat them or will ‘reliably’ lose to them. With cases with lots of spike however, one might generally beat them and then once just miss a spike and it is all over. If the round were to have happened at a different time then the spike might have been caught. This ‘luck’ dimension strikes me as at least giving reason to think it does not track with what we want when assessing who did the better debating.
I hope no one was offended by this section. I realize that my argument could be read as an ‘attack’ on tricky debaters. Claiming they are not good at debate, or else ascribing unfair motives to them. I assure you that is not my intention nor does it follow from what I have said. Debaters are making the best strategic choices available to them, and because of certain norms that often to use spikes. They are doing what a good debater should do, namely make strategic choices about what techniques to use (I did the same with my focus on framework debate, it gave me a strategic benefit to try to only engage in it). What I am instead suggesting is that we should move to a world where spikes are treated as I suggest, so that this strategic incentive is no longer in place.
Here I will give a number of reasons to think that it is unreasonable to expect the negative to answer spikes before they are applied in the 1AR. I recognize that the common assumption is that one may respond to the application of spikes e.g. the ‘violation’ but it is my position that one should actually be able to respond to any part of the argument.
First, you can only assess an argument by knowing the way it is used. Because different uses of the same premise, will give the argument more or less credence. If I have a set of premises that entail a conclusion, those premises may cause me to accept the conclusion. However, I could also, given how much I doubt the conclusion give up on the premises. Thus for instance, if I started with the premise ‘I am not dreaming right now’ (which I do not think I am) that would lead me to think ‘I really am on a bus going to the airport.’ However, if that premise lead me to think ‘that really is my prize watermelon yodeling over the Swiss Alps, I would instead have reason to rethink my premise (perhaps I am dreaming after all). (Incidentally this is one of several reasons why the idea of a ‘skep trigger’ does not make sense. Just because my premise was strong enough to be part of an argument that your moral theory is false, does not mean it is strong enough to be part of an argument that no moral theory is true). .
Now, before someone applies a spike, the strength of the conclusion is not there. Will the RVI apply to I-meets or only counter interpretations? Will the 1AR do something abusive that I will want to read theory against? Does prefer aff offense mean ‘always prefer’ or just ‘give it some higher credence’? Will no Neg RVIs suddenly apply to even if they read 3 new shells in the 1AR? The spike may seem reasonable in the context of the AC, but unreasonable in the context of the 1AR. A good example is a round I saw this last weekend. The affirmative read a spike that basically said the negative can only have one layer of offense (like only substance or only theory). The negative missed it and read theory and an NC. The aff extends it, but then also goes heavily for ‘reasonability’ against the negative theory. Now, by the ‘reasonability threshold’ the 1AR read it was clear that the spike was ‘unreasonable.’ I feel we should all agree that the negative should be allowed to argue that in the context of reasonability in the 1AR the spike should not be applied, however it strikes me that if all spikes are first ‘applied’ in the 1AR and thus the context of the 1AR should be provided to answer the argument.
Therefore, given that one cannot assess the ‘conclusion’ of the spike, because the conclusion assumes the context of the 1AR, there it is unreasonable to expect the negative to try to answer the argument.
A second reason to think this is the specialized vocabulary that has grown up around debate terms. What exactly does it mean to ‘prefer,’ what is ‘comply or conflict,’ what exactly is entailed by ‘competing interpretations,’ what does it mean for X to be a ‘voter,’ what are the conditions of ‘fairness’. I assume that no one thinks that fairness or education are monolithic concepts, thus I might agree with you that the argument is ‘educational’ in the way you use the word education, but not in the sort of education debate should value. Until the entire argument is out there and put to use, there is no framework of verification for what those words mean. Debaters from different regions, camps and contexts will interpret different spikes differently and thus we should wait to verify how it used before being expected to answer it.
Once when expressing this opinion, it was responded that debaters should just make the argument that the implication was unclear and they can have that debate in round. The problem is, that debate starts too late. The negative does not get a chance to contest the application of the spike till the 2nr, and any judge will tell you it is basically impossible to assess a debate that start in the 2nr, the judge will almost always just end up siding with which opinion they think is right (which will again stem from their region, school, camps etc.). No article would be complete without a dubiously applied, decontextualized aphorism of Wittgenstein’s so I will end this argument with “For a large class of cases of the employment of the word ‘meaning’—though not for all—this way can be explained in this way: the meaning of a word is its use in the language” (PI 43, emphasis added).
I have watched a lot of theory debates this year. A lot of them have been poor, and I think part of the reason for that is debaters are not thinking more deeply about the logic of certain types of shells and the underlying application of various standards and voters.
Thoughts on Standards
I think some of the standards people read in debate are odd. To give an example, there is a shell that is often read against position that discuss God’s existence that says it is bad because it encourages judge intervention. Now, I am not here endorsing the use of religious arguments in debate, I think there may well be some reasonable objections to their use (I think focusing more on the person reading them actually, rather than the person answering them or judging them). However, I do not find this argument very plausible. The reason is, because while I think judge intervention is bad I do not think it follows that it’s the debaters in round’s obligation to minimize it. It seems to me that the only way to understand the idea we should prevent judge intervention is to argue that a) debaters should not adapt to judges and b) debaters should not ‘crystalize.’
If I have a judge against a ‘framework debater’ who I know deeply prefers a more policy style consequentialist debate, I will read consequentialism. The reason is that I know the judge is more likely to intervene against my opponent’s framework in favor of my own. There are many judges who I think are more likely to intervene in favor of a util position, or against a theory shell, or in favor of a K, or against a K, than most judges are to intervene for or against any particular religious argument as used in debate.
It seems to me obvious that debaters should not stop adapting just because it may promote judge intervention in certain rounds. It seems that judge intervention is the sort of thing that it is on the judge to avoid, not on debaters to avoid. It may be I am missing something, but I don’t really see any principled difference between these different ways of encouraging judge intervention.
This example however, is simply supposed to be illustrative of the problem with some of the expectations that our theory standards seem to put on debaters. The place I think this is a much bigger deal is in the context of ‘spec’ debates. Now, I will start by explaining the general assumptions I have about spec debates and then explain why I think the way they are read don’t make sense.
- I think specification is good when it allows a position to be read that otherwise could not have been. Thus, it is useful to specify funding if it will allow the negative to read their funding DA.
- Specification trades off with itself. If I spend time specifying in my aff about the cost of the aff policy that trades off with time I can spend explaining how my standard operates/which impacts are preferable/how the policy is implemented etc.
- Different negatives will find different things specified useful. If you are debating a ‘framework debater’ it will be useful to know if your framework applies to individual or only governments, if the type of good you are appealing to can be aggregated and if your framework is a decision making procedure or just a evaluative paradigm. If you debate a more util oriented debater, specifying how we determine a living wage, or which nation the plan is implemented in (I remember one round when I debated, where my opponent ran some spec shell about how they lost important DA ground from me not specify something or other, I figured this person would never have run such a DA and so told them that if they could show me a written out DA that they actual had that they could not get a link to I would concede the round. Long story short, they did not actually have a version of the DA that my failure to disclose supposedly robbed them of).
- It is unreasonable to expect the affirmative to predict what it is that will be useful for the negative to specify in the aff. Different prep, in round decisions based on the judge etc. will all affect the affirmative in their ability to grant the negative link.
- It is unreasonable to expect the aff to spend a large portion of their AC specifying different things to provide the negative a link to any possible strategy that they might have.
It seems to me that if that is true, the sort of spec shells that we currently read are unreasonable in that they hold the affirmative to a burden of knowledge which it unreasonable for the affirmative to have, namely what specific specification the negative would find useful in this round. It is extremely hard to answer a spec shell, because you need to show the opportunity cost to the time spent specifying, that is almost impossible to do, because without access to what the negative planned for this round it’s impossible to know what they should have ‘specked’ instead. Additionally, each individual spec shell has a low opportunity cost. It is only when taken together combined with the fact I cannot predict which shell will be read that the high opportunity cost is present.
Thoughts on Voters
Just as I feel that there is a certain confusion of thought that general surrounds standards debates, I have a similar feeling about the analysis put into voters.
I don’t want to take a stance of if ‘reasonability’ or ‘competing interpretations’ is good, or even try to clarify what those mean. However, I do think it is worth noting that many of these debaters have a number of major problems.
These debates are often estranged from the voter. Thus, a debater will read a voter that says fairness is good because it allows the judge to assess the substantive debate. They will then read an argument for competing interpretations that says it prevents judge intervention. Now, this is odd, if the reason fairness is good that it allows the judge to evaluate substance, it seems as though some judge intervention on theory is good, because presumably the judge will be the best person to judge if they think that the unfairness was so significant that they would not have been able to determine who the better debater on the substance flow was (it’s not like any unfairness is enough to make substance un-assessable). Judge intervention on the theory debate would presumably sometimes at least allow us to achieve the purpose of the voter with great clarity and finesse.
What this means, is I think that debaters need to consider how the argument for the voter affects how one should interpret the voter. If unfairness is bad because it will encourage people to stop debating, than shouldn’t the person running theory have to prove that the practice was sufficiently unfair that not prohibiting it may cause people to leave? Indeed, shouldn’t the theory debater have to weigh that against the chance of people leaving theory because every round there is a high risk of a frivolous theory shell? Now, I think fairness is a voter and that theory debate is important, however, I think that just as I cannot link back consequentialist offense to a deontic standard, so I should have to contextualize my offense to the sort of justification for fairness that are provided.
This seems to me a way through the current difficulty. I certainly don’t want to move in a direction where people start to vote on ‘fairness is not a voter’ and thus we see a rebirth of a prior’s and stuff of that sort. However, I also think that the current use of theory debate is too much, the reason it is too much is because it is actually inconsistent with the reasons why we think theory is valuable in the first place. Many shells might actually make determine the better debater harder to assess after the shell was run than before.
A final point I will close with. One can combine the these two sections about theory debate, and realize that sometimes standards that will link to a generic concept of fairness, will not link to the particular concept of fairness justified by the voter, I think if we began to pursue greater internal coherence in theory shells it will help decrease frivolous theory without also decreasing legitimate theory (unlike for instance RVIs which I think discourage all theory fairly equally).
Ed Note: This is not the first time Premier has covered the topic of spikes and theory in LD. For more, see Scoggin’s discussion of the RVI as a potential solution, Bob’s take on meta-theory and theory spikes in one high-powered debate and his musings on intuitions in theory debates.
Marshall is Director of Philosophy Curriculum at the Premier Debate Institute. As a competitor for Walt Whitman, he won Greenhill, Bronx, the MBA RR and qualified to TOC twice. He studies philosophy at Weaton College and coaches the #1 debater on the Premier Top 25 for December and February.