Theory debate in LD is much more developed and nuanced than it was just five or six seasons ago. Even so, several terrible theory arguments have recently gained popularity, even among the top theory debaters in the country. These theory arguments are structurally similar to bad theory arguments of seasons past, which were abandoned, so I’m hopeful we might ditch the new ones too.
For this post, I’ll focus on two arguments in particular. First is “neg abuse outweighs aff abuse,” which often appears in aff spike sections like this:
- NAOAA: “Neg abuse outweighs aff abuse because of the inherent time advantage in being neg. If I am unfair, it merely compensates for the 7-4-6-3 time skew, proven empirically. Also, neg can adapt to aff unfairness, but aff can’t as easily since I have to restart in a four-minute 1AR.”
Second is “1AR theory bad,” which often appears in 2NR responses to 1AR theory like this:
- 1ARTB: “Reject all 1AR theory because the aff gets a 7-6 advantage on it. Also, the aff can collapse in the 2AR in response to 2NR choices.”
These two arguments are implausible first because of their assumption that side skew should play a significant role in the outcomes of theory debates. I generally think the common rejoinders – that debaters affirm and negate an equal number of times, that there is a conceptual distinction between unfairness caused by a debater and any side-based advantage, etc. – are knockdown responses, but I won’t cover them in depth here.
The more subtle mistake is in assuming that standards-level theory weighing should be preclusive rather than comparative. Preclusive weighing says theory arguments of type X have lexical priority, i.e. they always trump, theory arguments of type Y. Comparative weighing says theory arguments of type X are more impactful than theory arguments of type Y. Often, preclusive weighing arguments are merely dressed-up comparative weighing arguments. In the context of standards-level weighing, a comparative argument might be:
- Comparative: Ground outweighs predictability because knowing the arguments ahead of time doesn’t help unless I have the ground to respond to them.
This is an okay weighing argument. It doesn’t take into account the specific ground loss or predictability, but it’s cogent and judges have voted on far worse. To gain a tactical edge, however, debaters make the same argument with hyperbolic language and a preclusive prong. For example:
- Preclusive: Ground precludes predictability because knowing the arguments ahead of time is utterly useless unless I have the ground to respond to them. [Preclusive prong:] So any amount of ground loss (under their interpretation) outweighs any amount of unpredictability (under my interpretation).
This type of weighing was common on the standards level many years ago, and bad camp theory files often included long blocks on “predictability outweighs ground,” “clash outweighs time skew,” etc. These arguments phrased comparatively are weak because of their lack of specificity; phrased preclusively they’re downright awful. I should not have to justify that ground and predictability are both important for their impacts to fairness, and one does not always trump the other.
NAOAA and 1ARTB make a fundamental error related to the preclusive-comparative divide. Debaters making these two arguments almost never justify the preclusive prong of the argument, and there is no good justification for it. Consider some more plausible examples of preclusive weighing: theory before substance, metatheory before theory, and fairness before education. Each of these weighing arguments has a strong conceptual reason justifying preclusion; they argue that theory arguments of type X are different in kind from theory arguments of type Y, not merely different in degree.
In our context, there is no conceptual distinction between aff and neg theory arguments nor 1NC and 1AR theory. If the time skew is real and relevant, it merely provides a comparative argument for one over the other. All else being equal, the aff had a harder time and should win the theory debate. But in nearly all theory debates, all else is not equal. We can compare the internal links to fairness. Perhaps the debate does come down to time skew weighing, but there is nothing magical about time skew, as compared to ground or predictability loss, e.g., that should mandate such an outcome.
So why do debaters continue to argue NAOAA and 1ARTB preclusively? And why do judges continue to vote on them argued as such?
For one, these arguments are familiar. They take the same form as bad preclusive weighing of theory debates past, e.g. ground always trumps predictability, which debaters are accustomed to arguing and judges are accustomed to voting on. Two, they’re easy. Extending a dropped NAOAA spike is a lazy way to get out of a messy theory debate, so if judges will vote on it, debaters will continue to argue it. Worst case scenario, as with many spikes, the time lost on extending the bad argument is worth it for the potential upside.
To combat these strategies, debaters should of course make conceptual arguments for why time skew itself is not a valid justification for theory weighing. Debaters should also argue that time skew must always be weighed comparatively against the unfairness claimed by their theory argument. Time skew is not conceptually distinct from ground or predictability and should not be treated as such. Debaters who make these arguments will win because more often than not, the preclusive prong is unjustified, and an opponent argument for it in the next speech would be a new implication of the argument.
Judges should treat these arguments for what their worth, which is not very much. If the preclusive prong is unjustified, then a debater’s rhetoric, stating that all abuse of type X precludes all abuse of type Y, shouldn’t matter. “My warming impact always outweighs their econ impact because the environment is interconnected” isn’t any more legitimate in the face of good case defense than “aff abuse outweighs neg abuse” in the face of a plausible competing theory argument. Judges should also be more willing to evaluate embedded clash. Two competing theory arguments beg for comparison. A poor weighing argument extended on one flow doesn’t justify ignoring another flow entirely.
End Notes Thanks to Xavier Roberts-Gaal and Frances Zhuang for their reactions to this post.
 Variants often include burdens on neg theory, such as “neg must weigh any abuse story against the time skew.” This claim is also obviously wrong for some of the reasons I outline in this post.
 Avid readers of Premier Debate Today will recall this post where I discussed a similar argument made by Tyler Gamble at the 2014 Meadows tournament. There I treated the argument as a unique case study, but now it’s made its way into the circuit mainstream.
 I’m aware that there is also a common resolvability argument for rejecting 1AR theory on the basis that there are not enough speeches to compare aff and neg offense. This claim may be distinct from the “affirming is harder”-style arguments I provide here, but I’m not sure, so I’ll leave it alone for now.
 Thanks to Ollie Sussman for hashing this out in detail in a theory lecture at the Premier17 D.C. camp.
 To illustrate the difference, consider a scenario where Debater 1 wins that there are 10 units of unfairness caused by a type X abuse, and Debater 2 wins that there are 100 units of unfairness caused by a type Y abuse. A preclusive weighing argument would dictate that Debater 1 wins because type X always trumps type Y. A comparative weighing argument might provide an impact magnifier of sorts for type X, so the 10 units should count as 20 or 50 or 90 units, but Debater 2 likely still wins. I use fairness here, but the same could be said of education impacts.
Bob Overing | Co-Director
Bob is a co-director of Premier, coach for Walt Whitman HS, and current Yale Law School student. 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.