“I Allow for More Discourse”: Why Micropolitical Debaters Should Have to Flip Aff (Article and Bonus Video)

NSD Original Content. “‘I Allow for More Discourse’: Why Micropolitical Debaters Should Have to Flip Aff.” Article by Steven Adler, Staff Writer.

Jalon Alexander of Bodine (PA) reads a micropolitical position affirming against Nathan Lintz of Needham (MA) in the run-off round of the 2011 TOC.

Bodine JA v Needham NL from LD Debate on Vimeo. Special thanks to Erik Legried for filming.

Steven Adler, Staff Writer

I. Introduction

The 2010 and 2011 seasons continued the trend of debaters advancing micropolitical positions as a reason to win the ballot. While these positions are by no means a new development in debate—project teams have had a niche in college policy for years, for example, and various LDers have called for advocacies including but not limited to reforms in outlandish impact framing and overuse of jargon—I believe greater general understanding of debate theory allows us a unique opportunity to shape the future of these positions. Discussion about micropolitics is often very partisan, with one side arguing that its advocacy is key to saving the debate community from itself and the other side arguing the micropoliticians are destroying debate’s nature. Resolving the debate about the pros and cons of micropolitics is beyond the scope of my article; instead, I posit that this partisan framing is a mistake for both groups. I believe that a middle-ground can be carved out to the benefit both of micropolitical debaters and their opponents. Namely, I believe that micropolitical debaters should have to flip Aff in elimination rounds.

Before outlining what I believe to be the benefits of this policy, I think it is important to define precisely what a micropolitical position is. I think the ambiguity in this term perpetuates many of the community’s problems in dealing with the issue; people include all sorts of positions in this category, ranging from criticisms of an opponent’s specific words to arguments read against particularly fast debaters that spreading is bad. I do not believe these positions properly fall under the category of micropolitics, at least not as I discuss it. Instead, I see a micropolitical position as one in which a debater consistently and repeatedly uses their speech as a platform for some broader change within the debate community. For example, I do not believe a round in which the Affirmative swore in CX and the Negative responded by reading a K of the curse word would constitute a prototypical micropolitical round: the debater is not independently calling for some communal change in each of their rounds, but rather isolating the specific behavior of a specific opponent for rejection in this instance. By my count, there were three micropolitical debaters present at the TOC in the past two years: Max McCready, who criticized capitalism in debate; Avi Arfin, who criticized the circuit’s gender biases; and Jalon Alexander, who criticized the racist nature of the activitity. When I mention these examples throughout the article, it is not to disparage or attack these debaters; regardless of my feelings about their specific positions, I deeply respect their ability to put their views on the line in front of such a heated, often dogmatic community. Instead, I wish to use their examples to further the discourse on what I—and presumably, they—see as an important matter.

I also wish to clarify what I mean when I say that micropolitical debaters should have to flip Aff. I am not calling for some institutional reform in which tournament directors track down micropolitical debaters and literally force them to Affirm in elimination rounds; that system would be both nonsensical and procedurally unfeasible. Instead, I call for the community to encourage micropolitical debaters to flip Aff through the use of theory and the development of strong conventions that flipping Aff is the right thing to do. Just as micropolitical debaters wish to change the community’s views on issues like race through in-round discourse and discussion, I too wish to change the community’s views on micropolitics through similar meta-discussions. In other words, I wish to mobilize norms and movements on micropolitics as a response to micropolitics, and I encourage the community to reevaluate the ways in which micropolitics is run. I believe there are significant theoretical benefits to the individual competitors, as well as larger community-based impacts that the micropoliticians would value, thus make flipping Aff beneficial for both sides.

II. Theoretical Benefits

The strongest theoretical justification for micrpolitical debaters flipping Aff comes in the form of a time disadvantage. When a debater reframes the role of the ballot and ignores their opponent’s AC for a larger communal advocacy, the AC’s content is almost entirely moot, leaving the Affirmative at a 13-7 time disadvantage. I believe the AC’s triviality—at least, in most rounds—can be demonstrated by how micropolitical debaters themselves often approach the AC. Arfin, for example, would often ask only one CX question (“Are there any spikes in the case about why I need to discuss the resolution?”) before announcing the order for his NC and heading into his speech. While I certainly think there are things Affirmative debaters can do to mitigate this time discrepancy—for example, extending the AC’s ethical framework to interact with the role of the ballot—these options strike me primarily as defensive rather than outright offensive claims. Thus, the Affirmative is massively disadvantaged in terms of time to generate and leverage offense. If the micropolitical debater were to flip Aff, each debater would have 13 minutes under the given framework.

Of course, any claim of a time disadvantage resulting just from an opponent’s reading a distinct position that functions differently from the AC will have some reasonable objections. I do think, however, that when the distinct position is micropolitical in nature, the harms are uniquely bad and the objections no longer suffice. For example, while micropoliticians might claim their approach to be no different than proposing a different ethical standard to preclude AC offense, I see a number of differences that make their actions theoretically worse. Debaters can at least attempt to link their offense into their opponent’s ethical framework when only a separate standard is presented—linking a utilitarian nuclear war scenario into a deontological NC about contracts by analyzing the government’s contractual obligations to its citizens, for example. I see no such recourse under micropolitics because it entirely reconceives of not just what counts as offense, but also what is even debated: there is no linking in a claim that the juvenile justice system denies the right to jury trials into a frameworking calling for increased African-American participation in debate, because the juvenile justice system is not discussed or embraced as an advocacy in the Negative world. Whereas a merely different standard could preclude the ethical relevance of the Affirmative offense, it would still allow Aff an advocacy to garner that offense in some sense; micropolitics goes beyond that by shifting the advocacy as well so the argument is irrelevant.

Another expected objection from micropolitical debaters is that Aff can just read new micropolitical offense in the 1AR, much as they would read turns against most NCs; this is a flawed objection, too. First, it ignores the argument above that Aff would have quantitatively less time to advance and analyze these arguments. If the aforementioned arguments about the time disadvantage are true, then Neg would have 13 minutes to leverage their offense, whereas Aff would have a maximum of 7. Second, this argument presumes no qualitative distinction in the offense the Affirmative could read—specifically, it suggests that as long as each side can read some offense, the debate is fair; I think this presumption is false. For example, because micropolitical debaters, as per my definition, read their positions consistently and repeatedly, the offense they garner will almost always outweigh on the scope of its impact. Even if Aff wins that he or she is doing something great within this round, the micropolitical debater will claim to be doing something great in every single round, a much broader impact. This argument about qualitative difference might just be a reason why micropolitics in general is bad, but I endorse a softer view—that having the micropolitical debater Affirm at least solves back the quantitative differences, meaning the qualitative advantage is less likely to compound in conjunction with other advantages. Therefore, while the micropolitical debater flipping Aff might not eliminate the entire qualitative distinction, it would certainly lessen the blow.

A third objection from micropolitical debaters might be that their opponents can just answer the framework or role of the ballot and that such an option provides for a fair debate, but I believe this argument is also flawed. If the micropolitical debater is aware that most debaters’ offense under the framework can’t even begin to compare to their offense’s scope, then they primarily need to just prep framework answers. While Aff can certainly attempt to answer the framework, the micropolitical debater has created a functional prep advantage on the round’s key issue—that is, Aff likely cannot win comparable offense elsewhere on the flow, so its only option to restore balance is to win framework, yet the micropolitical Neg knows this and can invest more time in prepping the framework. This prep advantage is furthered by the micropolitical debater knowing they will be introducing micropolitics at the tournament; micropoliticians are far more inclined to spend time prepping micropolitics than are debaters unaware the position will be run who need to commit time to a variety of other arguments. Because those other arguments primarily function under the typical role of the ballot, the marginal time investment to prep more standard arguments is less than to prep micropolitics, so those arguments are favored. Thus, answering the framework is insufficient because Neg has created a skew on the framework issue. While flipping Aff might not entirely solve the ability to over-prep the framework, the standard debater could at least engage the framework discussion from their first speech, as opposed to having to engage the skewed issue with less time to boot. Even if a debater Affirming against a micropolitical Neg could reasonably predict their opponent’s position, there would always be room for Neg to reclarify and shift what their position has been to preclude the arguments leveraged early, so only having the micropolitical debater Affirm allows for equitable framework debate. Again, it is possible the arguments about difficulty in answering the framework might justify micropolitics being bad in general, but I only endorse the softer version: because the framework issue is so difficult to beat back, the debater combating micropolitics should have equal time to leverage offense under the framework (as opposed to losing six minutes when their AC becomes moot). Thus, I think the micropolitical debater should have to flip Aff.

III. Micropolitical Benefits

Beyond the theoretical benefits of micropoliticians Affirming, I think there are perhaps stronger justifications for that policy within micropolitics itself. Some of these—for example, backlash arguments—stem from the theoretical arguments or at least the perceptions that micropolitics on Neg is unfair, but there are also independent arguments that I think could justify the practice.

I think the primary reason micropoliticians should have to Affirm is that more time can be spent discussing their movement if the round begins with a position justifying the advocacy and its benefits. If Aff reads a topical AC that the micropolitician deems irrelevant to their advocacy, however, not only is the six minutes of 1AC discourse lost, but so is a three minute CX period in which the debaters can actually speak simultaneously and generate the genuine dialogue the micropolitician seeks. The nine irrelevant minutes lost constitute over a quarter of an LD round’s speaking time, a massive loss for a cause hoping to inspire people through speech and discussion. Even if every minute is not devoted to the micropolitical advocacy when the micropolitician flips Aff, the discourse is still framed by the presented advocacy and is at least tangentially related. That framing benefit cannot exist, though, until the micropolitical advocacy is presented; that presentation comes earliest when he or she flips Aff. From there, every second is shrouded in the advocacy, and more productive discussion can come about.

I think another justification for micropoliticians flipping Aff comes in proving the authenticity of their movement. When a micropolitical debater flips Neg (given the general Neg side bias), the appearance is that they are still playing a game and trying to milk every strategic benefit they can get. Especially given the delay of important discourse argued above, it seems the micropolitical debater is willing to trade actual discussion of their position for a statistically higher win percentage. While I do give some credence to the argument that winning positions generate more discourse than do losing ones—for example, more people know of Arfin’s advocacy than about McCready’s willingly losing (although that is complicated by Arfin running the position over more tournaments and having some rounds taped)—I do not think these arguments apply in this case. For example, I do not believe it is the winning that generates discourse, but the winning with seemingly genuine intentions and actions. If micropolitical positions were merely strategic ploys, debaters would not engage in the critical analysis of their own behavior that allows the community to change, because the advocacy has been presented as less serious; when the micropolitician flips Aff, it shows how serious they are and allows for more of the desired discourse. By killing the perception that they are just trying to win ballots and not actually trying to change debate, the micropolitician who flips Aff can inspire more debaters to examine their actions and to actually consider the movement’s message.

Additionally, I think the general objection that micropolitical debaters will win less if they Affirm is both untrue and counter-productive to the movement’s supposed benefits. First, it presumes that theory arguments against micropoliticians Negating will not be a relevant win-loss consideration and that typical Aff-Neg win percentages will hold true. This presumption is what I hope to target by writing this article; I hope that theory arguments will become more widespread against micropolitical Negs so that this objection is no longer viable and that the micropolitician is actually better off Affirming. Second, I think even a large decrease in win percentage would be worth it for an increase in quality of discourse. As argued above, I do not believe that winning alone changes the community, but rather certain types of wins. Specifically, I see the discourse that happens in the community as largely a product of issues that come up in the round: when debaters like Catherine Tarsney argued in-round versus Arfin that it didn’t make sense to run his position against girls, that argument got taken to message boards and was discussed in the round’s context. When the micropolitical position is discussed for less time and in less depth, though, as happens when it is first introduced in the NC, there are fewer of these jumping off points from which for discussion to emerge. Even if the position does continue to win on the Negative, it likely will not access as large an improvement as it would have with fewer wins but significantly more discussion. Third, because of the perceptions argued above that reading micropolitics on Neg is unfair, wins on Neg carry a stigma and backlash with them that I believe prevents micropolitical debaters’ movements from ever taking hold. If they truly wish to change the community, they need to be able to change people’s views on the key issues and give off the impression of doing good for debate. When these wins, though, are obscured by “only winning because of the time advantage” or “only winning because they reshifted the round’s focus,” the micropolitical position breeds resentment of how it was run rather than analysis about the problems it criticizes. In other words, it is not just the appearance of still thinking strategically that could kill the movement, but also how running micropolitics on Neg gives community members grounds to dismiss the position as only winning because of factors unrelated to the advocacy itself. If the micropolitician flips Aff, however, it avoids the theory complications, allows for more discursive jumping off points, and forces the community to recognize its wins as legitimate and deserved.

There is only one objection to my position that I think might hold some weight, and that is the question of what a micropolitical debater should do if their position works particularly well (in terms of what it advocates) on the Negative. Even this objection, though, is not enough to outweigh the justifications for micropoliticians Affirming. For one, I cannot imagine a position that properly falls under my definition of micropolitcal but would still require the debater speaking on the Negative side: if the advocacy relies upon some links from the Neg side of the resolution, then it likely is not calling for a broader communal change, but rather is relying upon a performance or an alternate mode of discourse to argue the resolution itself. In other words, while it might not be a traditionally-styled argument, I do not think such an example would fall under my parameters. Even if there were such a position, though, I do not think the stronger links to the Neg side of the resolution would justify reading it on Neg. If the debater read the micropolitical position at all on Aff in prelims (and it is my perception that most micropolitical debaters read their position on both sides), then there is no reason the outround environment is any different than the preliminary one in which they could make the position work. Additionally, given that the micropolitician is already reforming switch-sides debate of sorts by abandoning the resolution, I am not sure if I see a uniquely bad problem in their reading a position “suited for” Neg on the Affirmative. That is not to say I believe switch-side debate does not matter, because I think it does, but just that since micropolitics is already a move away from it, I do not think a slightly larger move would be all that bad given its assorted benefits. Still, I do not anticipate this objection ever being in play because I do not think micropolitics would rely on links to one side of the resolution; these are merely responses why even if that were the case, my aforementioned arguments would be sound. I do not rely upon these arguments to justify why micropolitical debaters should flip Aff; those justifications come primarily in the above paragraphs.

IV. Conclusion

While much discussion of micropolitics has been divided into hard-lining partisan groups calling either for the practice’s necessity or for the need to eliminate micropolitics altogether, I think a more productive space can be carved out in the middle. Specifically, I think that forcing micropolitical debaters to Affirm in outrounds satisfies some of the theoretical concerns of the anti-micropolitics group while also garnering some of the communal benefits micropolitical debaters desire. Although I do not advocate for tournaments or their directors to implement a rule mandating this approach, I do hope that debaters will use LD’s evolving theoretical norms to advocate for what they see as a better micropolitical landscape. Because the debate over micropolitical positions in general is so heated, I believe the most immediate improvement is to reconstruct how they are run by forcing them onto the Affirmative. If micropolitical debaters are effectively forced to Affirm when given a choice, I think both groups will have more of their desires met and can move on to resolving other micropolitical issues in greater depth.