Piece by Ryan Lawrence, Director of Forensics at Lynbrook (CA)
Recently, there has been some discussion in the LD community over the role of competing interpretations and the status of theory debates. Some members of the community have proposed that under competing interpretations, a counter-interpretation on theory represents an offensive reason to vote for the affirmative. I find this belief to be misguided and the trend of “offensive counter-interpretations” (OCIs) to be harmful to theory debates. I will begin by outlining some basic assumptions about theory debates that will establish a base-line under which to evaluate the claims made by proponents of the OCI. I will then identify what I believe to be the arguments forwarded by said proponents and finally refute those claims and establish my own reasons for why the logic behind the OCI fails.
Part 1: The Role of Competing Interpretations
Competing interpretations establishes a decision rule for theory. Put another way, it is an understanding of the burden of the debater answering theory. It stipulates that to prove a counter-interpretation acceptable, the debater must prove it to be better than the original interpretation, relatively speaking, without regard for the absolute merits of either interpretation (most notably in terms of the presence of in-round abuse.) To defeat a theory press under competing interpretations, the debater must have a better interpretation, not just one that is adequate.
The principle of competing interpretations does not bring anything to bear on the role of theory in the round, including whether it is a reason to reject the argument or reject the debater, or whether theory is a unidirectional or bidirectional issue. The justifications for competing interpretations may on occasion draw upon assumptions about the role of theory, but those assumptions are not warranted by competing interpretations. It would not be contradictory to argue, for example, that theory is merely a reason to reject the argument/practice, but that competing interpretations should be used to determine the validity of that practice. If under competing interpretations the counter-interpretation is worse, then the practice should be rejected. Similarly then, competing interpretations does not imply anything about the directionality of theory.
Theory arguments are generally considered to be unidirectional (only a round-winner for the debater initiating it) because being fair does not logically conclude in a win. A court room analogy is apt here. If an attorney questions the fairness of allowing a certain piece of evidence to be allowed and loses the motion, the logical conclusion is that the evidence is permitted, not that the opposing side wins the trial on procedural grounds. Proving the evidence is permissible does not mean that the attorney has done anything untoward in questioning its validity. Indeed, in the judicial system, we see such procedural motions as exercises of zealous advocacy and not engaging in them would potentially be a sign of a failure to adequately represent one’s client. Similarly, proving a debate practice to be good does not logically imply that the other debater has done anything untoward in questioning it.
Competing interpretations does not logically intersect with the argument above. Saying that the person answering theory needs to have a better interpretation, not just an adequate one, to prove that they are fair does not in any way alter the logical unidirectional nature of theory.
Part 2: Reverse Voting Issues
In order to alter the unidirectional nature of theory, a reverse voting issue is required. While an RVI could make an argument as to why theory is logically bidirectional, there is no reasonable way to justify such a claim. More often, an RVI will claim that matters of fairness or education should trump theory’s logical role; that even if beating theory doesn’t really mean the debater should win, not letting them win would create some harm we must avoid. A popular form of this argument is to claim that by not being reciprocal, theory short-circuits equal access to the ballot. However, as identified in Part 1, competing interpretations does not add any fuel to this fire. Therefore, there is no assumption made by a debater running theory (even one that advocates competing interpretations) that would warrant an RVI. Any debater answering theory that wishes to win on it would need to introduce an external reason why that should be the case.
Part 3: The Problem of the “Offensive Counter-Interpretation”
The problem is that advocates of the OCI attempt to short-circuit the need to make an RVI argument by playing semantic games with their interpretations. Our example for the purpose of this discussion will be as follows: Priya’s affirmative case advocates a plan and makes framework arguments suggesting that the debate should be focused on the plan, not on the resolution as a whole. Hector initiates theory in the NC, with the interpretation “the affirmative must advocate the resolution as a whole.” He articulates theory as a reason to reject the debater (since most OCI proponents seem to admit that their argument would only matter under this condition.) Priya may provide one of the following three counter-interpretations: a) “the affirmative may advocate a plan”, b) “the affirmative must advocate a plan”, or c) “the negative must permit the affirmative to advocate a plan.” In all three cases, Priya’s reasons to prefer are reasons why plans are good (or perhaps necessary) for debate.
Most people accept that counter-interpretation A (“affirmative may”) would not imply that the affirmative should win. To say otherwise would involve a very different understanding of competing interpretations than that advocated in Part 1 and a very different understanding of the role of theory. There is nothing logically implied by proving that running plans is permissible that says that the person running the plan should win.
However, some have argued that counter-interpretation B (“affirmative must”) is offensive. However, once again, there is nothing logically implied by proving that Priya had to run a plan that suggests that Hector should lose for questioning that necessity. The only difference between counter-interpretations A and B is that the former would permit the affirmative to choose between advocating a plan or advocating the resolution, while the latter would only permit the affirmative to run plans. While this may be relevant to certain arguments on the standards level (e.g. arguments about not being able to predict what framework that affirmative will choose), it is not relevant to the question of theory’s directionality.
Counter-interpretation C is the one that seems to be most popularly defended as offensive and is, in my mind, the worst counter-interpretation for Priya to choose. OCI advocates suggest that since the interpretation says that the negative must have done something, there is now a violation. They are correct. This “counter-interpretation” indeed forwards a conception of debate that the negative violates. Can the affirmative win if they win this interpretation? You bet! So why is it the worst counter-interpretation for Priya to choose? It is not a counter-interpretation at all. It says nothing about what the affirmative should do, and that is what the negative was indicting with their original argument. There is nothing logically incoherent about saying plans are bad for debate, but that the negative should let it slide and not run theory.
If we take a very generous view of the counter-interpretation, we can assume that it means something more like “the negative must permit the affirmative to advocate a plan if they are proven to be fair.” This would make all of Priya’s reasons to prefer about how plans are good (or perhaps necessary) more germane on the violation level, since they are reasons why she is fair. This would implicitly answer the original theory shell and prove a violation to the interpretation. However, still missing is any reason why this argument is true. Why should the negative lose for attempting to prevent the affirmative from running plans?
These arguments are the reasons to prefer “counter-interpretation” C, and (surprise!) are the same arguments that would be made in an RVI. What should now be clear then is that this “offensive counter-interpretation” is just an RVI in disguise, but with no warrant. It does not function as a counter-interpretation to the original shell. It is just a new theory argument that says that the negative’s use of theory in this round was unfair. To be warranted, it needs to make appeals to claims of fairness or education like any other RVI.
The “offensive counter-interpretation” does great harm in conflating the competing-interpretations debate with the RVI debate. Rather than having these two debates occur independently, the OCI confuses the issues and makes the round far more difficult to evaluate. What is more, it also promotes a misunderstanding about some very important theoretical issues that is bad for debaters’ education. There is nothing inherently wrong with people wanting to question whether theory should be a no-risk issue for the person running it. However, these efforts should not resort to semantic gamesmanship but instead confront the issues head-on.