About a week ago Bob Overing posted a response to an article that I wrote last year, in which I criticize the way debaters and judges currently understand spikes. I argued that while spikes can serve an important function in debate (alleviating the time crunched 1ar) they also have a tendency to reward skills that have nothing to do with what constitutes good debating. Thus, I advocated that we treat spikes extended in the 1ar the same way we treat arguments made in the 1ar, with the 2nr having full lateral to respond to them. I like his name for this view, ‘the context model of spikes’ (CMS), so am going to help myself to it in this post.

I originally began a post which focused less on responding to Bob’s argument, and more on providing a broader analysis for how debaters should think of brightline arguments and theory standards. I hope to finish that up sometime next week, but realized it was going to be far more time intensive than I originally thought. A longer, and better, piece should be released soon and will focus less on the particulars of my view on spikes, and more broadly on argumentat theory, which I expect debaters will find useful. I’m not a great writer and haven’t edited this post, so forgive me if my arguments are long, circuitous and poorly punctuated.

Bob’s post contains two separate objections to my argument, both of which are supposed ‘line-drawing problems’ with my account.  My argument, very roughly stated, is that that spikes (absent the context model) do not reward skills which track what it means to be a good debater. Bob has two concerns.

Concern 1: “I don’t know where the line gets drawn between tactics that are ‘good debating’ and ones that are sketchy tricks” (Overing). Because I do not have a clear line that explains why only spikes have this problem, Bob is worried that additional arguments (e.g. blippy perms, I-meets, reasonability) that should be in debate are problematized.

Concern 2: “I find it difficult to draw the line for what constitutes a “debate skill” in a principled way” (ibid). Because I do not have a clear account of how we determine what goes into good debating, Bob is worried that my argument won’t hold up at all because there will be too many possible ways to claim that spikes do promote good debating.

Bob labels both of these arguments as problems of line-drawing, however I think that can be misleading. For some reason, in LD, several extremely different types of arguments are often lumped together in debate under the heading ‘no brightline.’ I think that is going on here, and that there are actually two very different styled arguments being employed in these two concerns (the first is a Reductio ad Absurdum and the second is a vagueness challenge). I hope in my forthcoming pieces to analyze in some depth the various argument structures that debaters characterize as brightline arguments, but for now you will just have to take my word for it.

Let’s start with Bob’s second concern as it deals with the premises of my argument rather than the conclusion. Bob claims I do not have a clear way to explain what skills are relevant to good debating. He is right to think that I cannot give clearly demarcated conditions for what makes a skill relevant for good debating. However, that alone is not a problem for my account. Bob commits a Fallacy of Loki’s Wager in assuming that just because I cannot clearly define a concept I cannot use the concept productively in an argument (I don’t know the exact temperature at which a bath is comfortable, but I can still easily tell if the water scalds by dipping my toes in).  Even if I do not have a complete account of what goes into good debating, I can still advance arguments that spikes do not reward good debating, and I advance three such arguments in my original article. I will briefly review two of those arguments for context:

First, I argue that good debating involves winning an argument because a debater can answer the opponent’s objections, not winning an argument because the opponent was unable to respond to it. To illustrate this, imagine a debater who had mastered every debate skill, except they were unable to defend any of their arguments against objections. It seems totally bizarre to say they have perfected debate. However, if someone had mastered every debate skill, except they were unable to hide any of their arguments so that their opponent did not realize they had to answer them (spikes), I would have no problem saying that person had perfected debate. I do not feel like the latter debater is missing some core thing that debate is supposed to teach them.

Second, it seems clear to me that certain learning disabilities, for example my dyslexia that prevented me from being able to flow blips, do not preclude someone from being able to be good at debate. This is the case, even if they preclude someone from being able to catch spikes. But if that’s true, then it seems clear that ability to catch spikes should not be a central skill that affects how the judge evaluates the round.

These arguments strike me as sufficient to show that spikes do not test skills relevant to good debating, even if I cannot clearly explain exactly what good debating involves.

However, there is an additional dimension to Bob’s objection worth addressing. Bob suggests (though does not endorse) the idea that there are skills that spikes test. He argues that they “test skills such as strategic thinking, pre-emption, prediction, case construction and argument interaction. . . Debate is a game, and at this point in LD’s evolution, dealing with spikes is a predictable part of that game! In fact, Marshall admits that ‘tricky debaters…are doing what a good debater should do…mak[ing] strategic choices.'” Bob suggests that appeals to strategy are inadequate, given how they can be parodied. That is a real problem, but it is not the deepest problem with this argumentation.

The deepest problem with this argument is that it conflates two different questions at play when discussing good debate. To illustrate, imagine we are comparing two judges, one who is comparatively more interventionist than the other (myself and Bob). Debaters should debate in front of me differently than how they should debate in front of Bob. Positions that are strategic in front of Bob may be incredibly unstrategic in front of me. We can say of two debaters who did the better debating for Marshall and who did the better debating for Bob. However, there is another sense of better debating we can talk about: whether my judging or Bob’s judging is better for debate as a whole. This question divorces our discussion from what practices are currently successful. The fact that good debating in front of Bob involves x practice is not a reason why x practice is good for Bob to reward. Similarly, just because spikes are a good practice given the current paradigmatic norms of LD, does not mean that spikes are a good practice for paradigmatic norms of LD to reward.

Thus, we can talk about contingent skills, those skills which do help win rounds given the way debate is played, or intrinsic skills, those which debate should be set up to reward. Theory debates, and questions of judge paradigm should appeal to the promotion of intrinsic skills, not contingent ones.

If we look at the skills Bob cites, I think it’s clear that their relation to spikes appeal to contingent skills. Yes, case construction is an intrinsic skill, BUT, use of spikes in case construction is a contingent skill that begs the question of whether spikes are part of a good debate case (intrinsically speaking). Strategic thinking is an intrinsic skill, but strategic use of spikes is a contingent skill based on if spike based strategies are a good debate strategy (intrinsically speaking). I agree that all of the skills Bob cites are good skills and that spikes are involved in those skills, however, none of that provides evidence that spikes are part of the intrinsic features of those skills, so I see no argument against CMS.

Now let us consider Bob’s first argument. Bob is concerned that my argument against spikes, if it succeeds, would have broad implications which require us to change how we evaluate all sorts of short high-reward arguments. Now I have to say, I like this argument a lot because I really dislike a lot of the practices that Bob lists as potentially being excluded. Thus, I would likely consider it a desideratum of my account if it gave reason to paradigmatically reject blippy I-meets or contingent standards, for example.

Unfortunately, I do not think this argument has the broad and beneficial implications that Bob claims it has.

First, it is worth noting that most of what Bob cites are not arguments that are inherently problematic; they are only problematic because of how they are frequently used. For instance, there is nothing inherently problematic about I-meet arguments, but the blipped-out semantic I-meets designed to be an easy way out of legitimate theory shells do seem problematic. The same cannot be said about spikes. All spikes, according to my definition, are arguments that do not affect the judge’s decision unless the opponent makes an argument of a particular type. My technical definition of spikes follows from the skill I understand to be central to debate: we want to reward the ability to defend an argument against objections (rather than hiding an argument) and to make sure that the opponent has a chance to respond once it is clear that they have to. It does not seem, however, that there is a good way to classify blippy and non-blippy perms which directly traces some relevant aspect of debate skill.

Second, my view does not say that we eliminate spikes, it simply requires us to treat them as though they were arguments made in the 1ar. This is an important portion of my view, because there is nothing problematic about preemptive argumentation itself, it is only when that preemptive argumentation succeeds because of an opponent’s inability to answer it, that the arguments are problematic. Thus, extending the ability for an opponent to answer the argument solves that problem without otherwise removing a very real and significant strategic tool.

Both of these considerations are core to accurately understanding my view on spikes, and both seem to preclude any direct application from my argument on spikes to the other issues that Bob discusses, at least without a significant amount of additional argumentation done.

Bob seems to treat my objection to spikes as though my concern with spikes is that they are short, garner a time trade off and help a debater when dropped. That is not the reason I am concerned with spikes. The reason I am concerned with spikes is because the way they are currently treated they decrease the importance of an intrinsic debate skill (responding to objections) and increase the importance of a non-intrinsic debate skill (catching spikes). And there is an easy change to how we treat spikes which undoes that paradigmatic problem.

All in all, I think debaters would be well served to consider what are the intrinsic skills that debate should encourage and evaluate, and identify places where those intrinsic skills differ from the contingent skills that debate does evaluate. It is those places where debate I think is in the most need of a change.




Marshall is a current PhD student in Philosophy at Florida State University. He was Director of Philosophy Curriculum at Premier 2015. As a competitor for Walt Whitman, he won Greenhill, Bronx, the MBA RR and qualified to TOC twice. Last year as a coach, his top debater was ranked #1 on the Premier Top 25 for December and February.