Chris Palmer has suggested that “every [theory] interpretation should be warranted with a card.” The basic idea is that just like a plan or counterplan, every theory argument should have a solvency advocate, a qualified author who has publicly defended the position. I think it’s interesting and fun proposal, and I’m surprised I haven’t seen it as a meta-theory argument this year. In this post, I’ll address Palmer’s arguments for and against it, propose some of my own, and also digress about whether theory is exclusionary.

Arguments in Favor

  1. Norms

As a caveat, I don’t think that in-round theory arguments should be about producing the best communal argument norms for a number of reasons. Anyone interested can read my comments here or end note [1]. That said, I’m not in a debate round. Norm-setting can be a reason for me as a debate theorist to favor a certain view even if it’s not a good theory argument in a debate.

Palmer says that requiring theory advocates would encourage public discussion of theory and therefore, the formation of communal argument norms. The link level of the argument rings true to me. If every theory argument required a theory advocate, far more coaches and debaters would have an incentive to talk about theory online or in various debate journals and magazines. Insofar as these people care about the content of debates, they would want their view represented so it could be effectively leveraged in-round. Given the paucity of coaches and judges who write publicly about debate, this effect is hard to predict or quantify with any certainty, but if it could happen, I’m definitely in favor.

Not enough people are talking about debate in policy or LD. People in the college policy community blame the fact that more and more coaches are ‘hired guns’ who don’t have or aren’t pursuing graduate degrees in communication. Their goal is to win, not to study debate or debate scholarship. In my talk at the 2015 Alta Conference on Argumentation, I lamented the lack of scholarly attention to debate. There are just a few bloggers, a few publishing master’s theses, and a few who consistently talk debate theory at these communication conferences. But there are thousands of people in our community! Overall, it seems there were more people publishing on hypothesis testing in the 1980s. This is astonishing to me given the rapid changes in policy debate in the last 10 years that are trickling into LD. We’re seeing huge shifts in argument content and structure that should be far more interesting to scholars and coaches than old disputes over agent counterplans and the like.

In LD, the lack of discussion in blogs or other publications is more understandable because college LD is smaller and less influential than college policy. This means there are fewer people concerned with argument norms, and fewer scholars concerned with LD specifically. But still, I’d like to see more contributions from the high school coaches and college students who spend so much time week in and week out in the Lincoln-Douglas community. Right now, a few vocal people can easily have a disproportionate influence the discussion online (because there simply isn’t a lot of it), and that doesn’t contribute to good dialogue.

Some might reject the desire for discussion and the production of norms. They favor the free market of ideas across debate rounds for producing the best arguments. In theory, the best arguments win the most and are replicated. The problem is that there are imperfections in the free market of ideas in debate. To name a few:

  • Debates are often too short to meaningfully discuss (Palmer notes this)
  • Good debaters may win rounds with bad arguments
  • Rounds aren’t so public, so there are fewer social costs to forwarding bad ideas
  • Judges can make mistakes
  • Sometimes bad arguments are fun to read, and so they proliferate

All of these complicate the debate round as the best method for creating the best norms. Instead, we should encourage more lively online discussion to weed out bad arguments and promote good ones. An example of this process includes the way many published arguments in favor of evidence disclosure have helped promote its adoption as a norm in LD.

Maybe it’s wishful thinking that leads me to hope online blogging and the like will influence arguments, but I think it’s true. At the very least, we can help clarify concepts to make debates better. I think the old Nelson, Palmer, and Mangus articles about LD paradigms helped debaters argue more effectively about judge paradigms at the time, even if there wasn’t a particular norm adopted as a result. This pedagogical function brings me to the second good argument in favor of theory advocates.

2. Theory Resources

My second reason is another benefit to more online discussion: more resources for learning and teaching theory debate. There should be more resources for learning all types of debate, and Palmer’s proposal is especially good for proliferating resources to learn theory debate. Our Debate for All series on this site is an attempt to provide more accessible content for learning debate concepts, but we can only do so much (We’re always happy to accept content from volunteer writers – contact us!). If the theory advocate requirement produces more free resources for students to learn theory, that’s great because it means more free resources!

That said, I think Palmer goes overboard on this one. Palmer says theory resources are a huge benefit to theory advocates because theory debate is exclusive. He claims that while topic literature and research about identity and performance are available to all, theory debates are inherently exclusive. I’ve heard this thought repeated by a number of coaches and debaters, and I’ve never understood it.

If theory is supposed to be exclusive because of the jargon, then we should also deemphasize policy debate techne. Forget “permutation,” “inherency,” and “fiat.” And in framework debates, stop saying “meta-ethics,” “fallacy of the origin,” and “explanatory power.” When going for the Wilderson kritik, you can’t use the terms “natal alienation,” “ontology,” or “libidinal economy.” The fact of the matter is that the national circuit is a technical sphere of argument (Goodnight 1982). There will be jargon, and I happen to think it’s quite good. In a 45-minute debate round, shorthand helps get to the content. Explaining what a “thumper” is on a politics disad every time you read one only wastes time. Does some jargon need to be explained to make sure we’re all on the same page? Yes, that’s part of effective communication, but in general, jargon is necessary and beneficial (for at least one cite on the benefits of jargon, see here, para. 4).

If theory is supposed to be exclusive because you can only learn it at debate camp, I have largely the same answer. There’s nothing unique about theory that requires debate camp attendance that does not apply to policy-, framework-, and kritik-style debate. It’s hard to learn a lot of LD debate without national travel, resources, or a good coach. While I agree with the general project of minimizing barriers to circuit competition, sometimes removing the barriers removes the competition. For example, spreading is exclusive. Some debaters never learn to spread, show up to a national tournament, and get spread out of the room by the 1AC. If we all decided to slow down, it would be a more inclusive activity (for debaters and judges). The problem is that it would be a different activity, and it would be a heck of a lot less fun. The number of hours spent preparing and practicing LD debate would drastically drop if it slowed down. To be maximally inclusive, we’d ultimately need to restrict LD debates to AC vs. NC with no policy-style positions, kritiks, or dense philosophies, distorting the character of national circuit LD beyond recognition. It’s easy to romanticize the idea that any smart kid from the no-name school who never went to camp and cut his or her social contract case from cards at the library can stroll up to an octas-bid and compete with the best of ‘em. In that world, Lincoln-Douglas would not be the activity we know and love. Call it what you will — it’s “inside baseball” or “the game of kings” — I think we should help everybody who wants to debate by helping them learn how to debate, not by drastically changing what it means to debate in the first place.

As an aside, I personally learned very little about theory debate from my time at debate camp. Most of what I learned came from arguing with my teammates (thanks Adam and Michael), talking with my coach (thanks John), or looking up old policy debate theory articles (thanks Dad). Of course, if you want to learn theory at debate camp, you certainly can, but I think debate camp is most useful for drilling and practice debates in front of instructors you won’t have access to during the year. That’s why at Premier 2015, John and I made an effort to maintain a better than 2:1 student-faculty ratio during our main session and offered an hour of free Skype coaching on each topic to every student who attended.

If theory is supposed to be exclusive because it’s racist, cross-apply my argument from above. Whatever features make theory exclusive are probably shared by the alternative, preferred circuit debate style. I also think that argument is downright offensive. It suggests (or at least evokes the idea) that non-white debaters simply do not have the skills or ability to engage in a theory debate. I’ll acknowledge that some debaters find it so important to discuss some topic other than a theory debate, but this fact does not make theory exclusive of them any more than any other topic the opposing team might bring up.

Palmer says that as an empirical matter, participation in LD has gone down as theory debates have gone up. There is so little evidence for this claim and so many possible confounding variables that it’s not worth discussing.

3. Predictability

Here is where we start to find some analogies between theory advocates and solvency advocates for plans, counterplans and the like. One of the arguments for requiring that counterplans have a solvency advocate is to ensure the position is predictable to the aff. If there’s an advocate, it’s in the literature, and thus, the aff could’ve prepared for it [2].

There used to be this terrible response to all theory that it’s “ex-post facto” and therefore unfair because the alleged violator had no opportunity to comply with the rule. For people who like that idea, the theory advocate requirement makes a lot of sense. If the interpretation is posted and discussed publicly, then there’s less of an excuse for not knowing about it!

This argument may seem silly, but the counterplan analogy gives it some added legitimacy. We require advocates for counterplans, which alone are not round-winning arguments, yet we do not require advocates for theory shells, which are often round-deciding. One might say that the violation ensures some predictability – if the violator did the practice, (s)he should be prepared to defend it. But this goes for counterplans too. If the aff read the plan and advantage, (s)he should be prepared to defend any opportunity costs or alternative means of solving the advantage. So there are other checks, but having an advocate adds an additional level of predictability.

4. Adults

One of Palmer’s arguments is that requiring advocates increases the voice of adults in the formation of norms. I don’t really like this argument because I don’t think adults are in a real special epistemic position for evaluating theory arguments. More voices is great, but I don’t know why they can’t be the voices of smart high school students. In fact, I often think that students have a better handle on the arguments than many of the coaches and judges. Students have bigger incentives to learn and master the content, and they’re closest to the most recent trends because they’re actually in these debates, thinking through the issues.

5. Theory is Bad?

The thrust of Palmer’s article is that theory debate is bad, and so his proposal is supposed to reduce the number of theory debates. I’ll admit that at some point late in the 2012-13 season and into the 2013-14 season, there may have been too much theory. I don’t think that’s the case now, but maybe I just like theory debates. Some of my favorite debaters have been theory-heavy debaters: Brentwood JL, Cypress Bay JS, Loyola MH, and Palo Alto TC. For now, I’m not going to touch Palmer’s theory rant with a ten-foot pole. One debate judge’s trash is another debate judge’s treasure, I guess.

Arguments Against

1. Bizarre Situations

Palmer’s theory advocate rule could prevent necessary theory in cases where the abuse was wildly unpredictable, so no one has written about it. His solution is to “think about…parallels to evidence and theory already established.” This is an option only if the requirement for a theory advocate is less stringent than the normal requirement for a solvency advocate on a plan or counterplan. Usually, we want an advocate to defend close to the entirety of the plan or counterplan text. Perhaps we would need to weaken the definition of ‘advocate’ in this context so that interpretations could be more specific but still meet the advocate requirement.

Without weakening the requirement in this way, Palmer’s entire proposal may aid teams in pursuing unfair tactics. Before, they could debate against any number of possible theory arguments, but now, they know exactly which ones to prepare for because they’re the ones publicized online! So the requirement will have to be relaxed. Maybe the violation must be a similar kind of strategy to the one the author indicts. Or maybe it’s okay if the violation is bad for the same reasons an author has argued something else is bad. Either solution is preferable to not having theory at all in cases of unpredictable abuse.

2. Stifles Creativity

One could argue requiring a carded interpretation decreases innovation in theory debates. The obvious rejoinder is that it shouldn’t harm innovation because it just requires that the idea is published outside of the debate round first. Any debater interested in a new and fresh theory argument can co-author a blog post with a coach or another student. We’re happy to take these types of submissions at Premier Debate Today. If there were enough interest, we could even do a series of student-driven theory research. We’ve posted student writing in the past, and if Palmer’s proposal gained traction, we’d be happy to see more of it.

3. More Theory

I started this post by stating my surprise at not having seen the meta-theory argument that all theory shells should have a theory advocate. One objection could be that Palmer’s suggestion leads to more of this meta-theory. Perhaps he sees it as the ‘one meta-theory to rule them all’ that will wipe out other theory arguments. I agree that if debaters were to employ his argument, there would be less theory overall, but it’s tough to say.

The problem could be mitigated if Palmer’s requirement doesn’t become a whole new theory shell in response to theory. There are a bunch of ways to formulate his requirement that don’t take the form of a new theory shell, even though it’s what I said I would most expect from theory-loving debaters. Maybe his argument is just a predictability disadvantage to an interpretation without an advocate. Or maybe it’s a brightline for reasonability: abuse is reasonable if there is no qualified author who says it’s not. Try out different strategies for employing the theory advocate requirement, and let me know how it goes!

End Notes

[1] My biggest problems with most norm-setting views of theory are i) I’m not sure what it even means for a theory debate to be concerned with norms, ii) theory debates are equally coherent without concern for norms, iii) debaters could read theory without a violation, stating its positive effect on norms if voted up, iv) judges concerned with norms may be inclined to intervene, and v) empirically, individual theory debates have little to no effect on norms.

[2] To be clear, I’m not advocating solvency advocate theory. I just think one of the primary reasons in favor of it also applies here. My main worry with solvency advocate theory is that it might not pinpoint any structural abuse. This objection could apply to Palmer’s proposal if it’s read as a meta-theory argument, but it’s not something I consider at present.

[3] Minor edits to post made 3/12/16, 11/5/17.

Bob Overing
Bob is a Co-Director of Premier, coach for Walt Whitman HS, and current student at Yale Law School and Yale School of Management. As a senior in high school, he was ranked #1, earned 11 bids and took 2nd at TOC. In college, he cleared at CEDA and qualified to the NDT. His students have earned 80 career bids, reached TOC finals, and won many championships.