Competing Interps and the RVI

by Daniel Moerner

Before judging Octas at Valley, a debater asked the panel the following question: “Do you believe that competing interps implies an RVI?” To my surprise, the rest of the panel said yes. I think the rest of the panel was deeply confused about theory debates. It is incredibly obvious that competing interps does not “imply” an RVI, at least as RVI’s are traditionally understood in LD debate. However, it is also true that competing interps should imply that you vote for the debater with the better interpretation—just not because of an RVI. Unfortunately, I have never heard an adequate warrant for competing interps that would justify this strong conclusion.

First, it is analytically false that competing interps, as such, could “imply” an RVI. I think it is unfortunate that competing interps has become a “norm” in LD debate when its exact meaning is still unclear. As best as I understand it, competing interps is a way to evaluate theory debates that rests on two planks:

  1. All theory debates are about our interpretations of theoretical issues, which must be made explicit by both sides. What you vote against is a bad interpretation, not the abuse that lies under that interpretation per se.
  2. We evaluate interpretations based upon their comparative effects on the debate activity as a whole, which can include questions of potential abuse, actual abuse, and the precision of the interpretation’s wording.

Under competing interps, as normally conceived, you should vote for the debater that has the better interp. It is irrelevant if the debater who read the interp or the debater who read the counter-interp is ahead on the debate—you may vote for either. Clearly, however, this is not because you are voting on an RVI. An RVI is itself a theory argument which claims that other (false) theory arguments are unfair. It would be incoherent for a debater winning competing interps to claim that it “implies” an RVI, but not read a specific RVI interpretation with reasons to prefer. Unfortunately, this is exactly what I see people do.

Second, as I suggested above, if one debater wins competing interps, then the reason you vote on the better interpretation has nothing to do with an RVI. However, why should we think such a radical claim about the theory debate is true? Most warrants for competing interps are woefully inadequate. Generally speaking, I hear a one-sentence blip about “judge intervention” or about “discouraging abusive behavior.” These arguments are nowhere near developed enough to imply that I should vote on what is essentially a discourse argument, about out-of-round impacts of picking a theory interpretation. Judges used to accept discourse arguments based on the one sentence blip “We are humans before we are debaters”, but fortunately, the activity has matured. Now, discourse arguments now need cards and in-depth analysis. Theory debates ought to mature as well. The claim that you should vote on the interpretation that is “better for debate” deserves actual analysis and argumentation. Merely arguing that “reasonability” (whatever that means) invites “judge intervention” does not imply that the judge’s role is instead to assess which norms are best for the activity as a whole.

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  • this article is hella tight

  • Competing interpretations doesn’t mean “I win if I prove that I have the best interpretation,” and this misunderstanding is at the root of the problem. Competing Interpretations just means that your opponent doesn’t nullify the theory debate if he proves that his interpretation is “reasonable.” You still have to win an impact to voting on your theory argument in a world of competing interpretations by isolating what ground your opponent’s interpretation wrongly crowds out or what abusive practices/cases your opponent’s interpretation might justify. The same works in reverse: if your opponent wins that her intepretation is better than yours, that doesn’t mean she should win unless she explains why that means she should win. An example might help clarify this:

    Andy is aff, and Nathan is neg. Nathan runs a conditional counterplan. Andy says (a) conditionality is theoretically illegitimate (b) because it forces the aff to debate in multiple worlds thereby (c) bifurcating his offense, skewing his 1AR strategy, and depriving him of stable offense on the CP, and (d) that this is an issue of competing intepretations. Nathan responds by saying (a) conditionality is actually good because it increases negative flexibility, strategic thinking, and that conditionality of some form is probably inevitable and (b) that competing inteprretations means he should win if he proves that conditionality is good. Andy kicks the argument, concedes that conditionality is good and says this is not an offensive reason that his opponent should win absent a specific articulation of an impact to endorsing his view of conditionality.

    Nathan should not win on conditionality for two reasons. First, Andy is right:  Nathan has not isolated a discrete impact to voting for him because he has not identified any way in which Andy’s strategy (either in running an unconditional affirmative advocacy or in reading theory against conditionality) has hurt his ground or has been unfair. Second, “conditionality is good” does not mean that you should win because you read a conditional argument. Maybe if your argument was “conditonality is mandatory and unconditionality is terrible”, but that’s a terrible argument and its sheer awfulness will prevent it from being a winner. 

    The larger point is that “competing interpretations” is not a decision rule–it merely determines what the threshold for overcoming a theory objection is. Neither side should be able to win a theory arugment without a specific articulation of the theoretical illegitimacy of the other side’s substantive arguments. 

  • Rebar Niemi

    I think that larry’s comment identifies one of the big confusions with RVIs. at the end he talks about how the interps themselves don’t generate offense. i definitely agree with him on that, but i think the question of “what generates offense on theory” really requires us to reexamine the RVI as being merely a gateway argument to accessing offense. Since the theory standards/reasons to prefer are ultimately what generate offense on theory (although it could be claimed that the violation is the prior source of offense), RVIs can essentially be understood as the prerequisite to accessing that offense through the voter. A quandary I have is that it seems intuitively correct that if a debater is winning a counterinterp and either turning or outweighing their opponent’s theory offense they should be winning the theory debate. Now the claim of many is that even if all this is true, you still can’t vote for them on theory until they access the offensive implications of the voter through the RVI.

    Using an RVI makes sense from the perspective of “theory offense is conditioned into something that affects the ballot by the voter, you need to have similarly conditioned offense in order to compete” – but wouldn’t say the internal links between your counterstandards or turns and the voter accomplish this? Ultimately I vote on RVIs because i think the current LD metagame practically makes them inevitable – not because I necessarily see a good reason for them to exist/be a common argument.I would say ultimately the problems we’re having with the theory debate in LD is a product of the time skew favoring the negative – the RVI becomes one popular aff counter-weapon, as well as a general counter-weapon against all theory, and right now we’re stuck in a rut. 

    I also think it is kind of screwed up that our analysis of the current theory debate terminates in “well clearly theory offense isn’t sufficient to vote for one side, you need access to a voter” – doesn’t it make more sense if we have a problem with theory offense triggering the ballot too easily to scale down our understanding of theory offense in general – why should what are common interpretational arguments become drop the debater issues? 

    It’s a problem that competing interpretations debates almost always become debates about who should lose the round, and NOT about what the better interpretation to adjudicate the round under is. In my opinion, the argument that reasonability inspires intervention cuts two ways:

    1. reasonability allows judges to accept arguments arbitrarily
    2. reasonability allows judges to deem arguments unreasonable unilaterally

    why don’t we see the preponderance of drop the debater theory voters as the issue? competing interpretations clearly has a less harsh interpretation of what it means to violate theory than reasonability – its not that you’re UNREASONABLE, you just were slightly (or significantly) less competitive – so why doesn’t that become reflected in the theory arguments people do run?

  • Anonymous

    Big +1 to Emily. In addition to what Emily said, I don’t think competing interps necessarily entails norm creation–it could just be about which interpretation is comparatively better in this round in terms of ground or reciprocity. The issues of potential abuse and whether to vote down the debater seem to be separate issues from competing interps, although they are often paired together.

    Rephrasing an interp of “the aff may run a plan” into “the aff must be allowed to run a plan” or the even worse version of the interpretation (at least in my opinion) of “the negative may not prohibit the aff from running a plan” doesn’t seem to solve the problem of the necessity of an RVI: the “must be allowed” and “negative must/may not prohibit the aff” parts of the interpretation seem to be just arbitrary planks to the interpretation. You would need to generate offense to those planks of the interp.

  • I think the weaker sense of competing interpretations (and the one I have found to be more common) is: first, we determine which interpretation is a better rule for debate.  The judge chooses the best interpretation offered in the round, regardless of whether the opposing interpretation is reasonable.  Second, if someone has violated that rule, he/she loses either the round or access to that argument, depending on the implication in the initial theory shell.

    Daniel’s second plank applies to this weaker sense, but not his first.  I haven’t heard anyone argue coherently that “What you vote against is a bad interpretation, not the abuse that lies under that interpretation per se.”  You still vote an argument down in order to prevent abuse (the ultimate goal of deterrence is preventing abuse in another round).  If reasonability implies judge intervention, Daniel’s right that that doesn’t warrant the strong sense of competing interps, but it might warrant the weaker sense, as long as there’s not a better alternative.

    So, under this sense of competing interpretations, if you offer the best interpretation in the round but no one violates it (for instance, “the aff may run a plan”), you don’t win the round because there is no abuse.  This means you would need an RVI to win on theory.  Interpretations like “the negative cannot prohibit the aff from running a plan” rely on RVI arguments to justify them, since they claim that false theory arguments (in the case, the prohibition on plans) are unfair.

  • I think I agree with everything Daniel’s saying. Three quick thoughts, though: First, the terminological confusion is understandable, since (a) the trend for the last couple of years has been to think, bizarrely, that the *only* way to generate offense through responses to a theory shell is with an RVI, which makes people tend to think of RVIs as simply synonymous with offense generated off responses to theory, and (b) the functional effect is pretty similar–in the case of the RVI, the reason to vote stems from the debater having run the theory shell, rather than having advocated the interpretation, but the story still depends on winning reasons why the interpretation is dispreferable (and rather than arguing that initiating offensive theory arguments with dispreferable interpreations ought to be punished, as the RVI would, the claim is that it immediately falls out of competing interpretations that merely advocating a dispreferable interpretation in any context ought to be punished).

    Second, I agree that there haven’t been very good arguments made for competing interpretations in the strong sense Daniel describes (I’m not sure what the weaker sense would be, but I’m sure we could imagine one), but for the moment at least, this lack of warranting tends not to be a strategic issue in the rounds where this sort of offense-to-a-counter-interp issue plays out. Debaters initiating theory are incented to make the “prefer competing interps” argument since it’s a quick way to avoid having to deal with actual vs. potential abuse or threshold-of-abuse issues, and once they’ve made the argument, debaters who are inclined to generate offense to their counter-interps via this feature of competing interpretations have no reason to contest the warranting. That will change, I’m sure, once more debaters start exploiting the silliness of (at least this presentation of) competing interps to generate offense, and as more judges start voting on that offense, but if a straightforward competing interpretations framework is argued for by one debater and conceded by the other, it has to be taken at face value.

    Third and finally, maybe the most interesting question is whether whatever theory paradigm ought to replace competing interpretations would imply any sort of asymmetry in terms of the potential to generate offense on theory debates. From talking to a lot of people about this over the summer, it seems to me like the only meaningful source of such an asymmetry is the distinction between making an argument (or allowing an argument to be made) and preventing or disallowing an argument, via theory. I don’t think this distinction ultimately holds up (in short, because any rule that allows can be equivalently characterized in terms of prohibitions, and vice versa, and because making an argument can’t be worse than asserting that your mere right to make the argument ought to win you the round), but that’s a bigger issue.