Avoiding Frivolous Theory: The Benefits of Pre-Round Resolutional Interpretations

Avoiding Frivolous Theory: The Benefits of Pre-Round Resolutional Interpretations
Article by Steven Adler

I. Introduction

This article discusses ways to avoid having frivolous theory run in debate rounds. Specifically, I argue that individuals should engage in pre-round discussion with their opponents to clarify the resolutional interpretation for that round (or, as will sometimes happen, to clarify that they disagree about the proper interpretations). I also suggest that judges should promote such discussions. My intention is to persuade Affirmatives to seek out these pre-round agreements and to suggest ways to promote the norm if their opponent insists on preserving their ability to run frivolous theory.

In this article, I refer to theory as frivolous if the debater running it believes it to be unnecessary, or if reasonable agreement between the debaters could have avoided the issue. It is important to note that my recommendations about frivolous theory pertain to questions of what the resolutional burdens should be (e.g. must Affirmative run a plan?) and not to questions of the content people use to fulfill those burden (e.g. are necessary but insufficient burdens allowable?).

I do not wholly outline in this article why frivolous theory is bad. It seems, however, a fairly common belief among the community that frivolous theory is bad for a variety of reasons: it detracts from substantive discussion, might exacerbate negative side bias, and could turn off certain judges from endorsing theory that might actually be significant. The only argument that occurs to me in favor of frivolous theory is that it might allow for critical thinking, but I see no reason debaters could not get that critical thinking through substance, or even through non-frivolous theory. If one believes that frivolous theory is more valuable than alternative debate practices, then the rest of this article will likely be unconvincing, but I assume that most people view frivolous theory as a problem that should ideally be fixed.

II. The Method and Its Benefits

I believe that a good way to decrease the scale of frivolous theory in LD is for debaters to discuss their preferred resolutional interpretation before the round. This discussion should be held in front of the judge so that each debater can be held accountable for their decision and so that debaters may not lie or distort the conversations for their own advantage.

What I envision begins with the Affirmative asking the Negative to propose the resolutional interpretation that they believe to be best for debate. To take the Jan/Feb topic from last year, an example of this could be, “I think the Affirmative should defend treating all juveniles charged with violent felonies in the adult criminal justice system, not just some of them.”

The Affirmative then has two options:

1.) They can accept the interpretation that Negative proposes and begin the debate, with the agreement between the debaters (and the judge’s knowledge) that Negative may not read theory against that norm.

2.) They can counter with a different interpretation that they would rather defend and ask whether the Negative is willing to debate under that interpretation.

• If Negative is willing to accept that interpretation, then the debate begins, with the agreement between the debaters (and the judge’s knowledge) that Negative may not read theory against that norm.

• If Negative refuses to accept the Affirmative’s counter, then the Affirmative is left with the following decision: to accept the Negative’s original interpretation, to propose another interpretation (and to repeat Step 2), or to debate under their desired interpretation and accept that theory will be a part of the round. I believe that if Negative refuses to accept the Affirmative’s interpretation (and insists on debating under some other interpretation), then they should be bound by the debaters (and the judge) to introduce theory, just as they would have been bound not to introduce it had they agreed. In this case, the Affirmative could either delay their theoretical defense until the 1AR, or they could include it as part of their 1AC. (Addendum: I think there is room to carve out a world of pre-round discussion in which Negative would not be bound to running the theory, as long as they communicated their hesitation and Affirmative did not mount the defense of their norm in the 1AC. In this case, Negative would be agreeing to not run theory against certain interpretations, rather than binding itself to running theory against others.)

Currently, frivolous theory is handled in one of two ways: either A.) there is no discussion of the norm each debater prefers, and Negative runs theory whenever it chooses, or B.) the discussion gets played out during the round itself, whether in CX, prep time after the theory has been run, or some other time. Here is why I think pre-round discussion is better than each of the alternatives:

If we accept that frivolous theory is bad, then A seems highly ineffective; there is no check on the debater that forces them to consider whether theory is really necessary, and there is no discussion between the debaters to see if the theory could be avoided. Take, for instance, the argument on the 2011 Jan/Feb topic about whether or not the Affirmative should have to defend punishment: in the world of A, the Negative is free to run either “Must defend punishment” or “May not defend punishment” depending on what the Affirmative does. Allowing the discussion before the round, however, would eliminate the unnecessary theory because Negative would have to decide which they would rather debate under (rather than claim each is undebateable). Pre-round discussion would also eliminate unnecessary theory in the instance that the Affirmative would be fine defending the Negative’s interpretation: if Affirmative does not really care about whether it defends punishment and is fine conceding to whatever interpretation the Negative prefers, then it seems silly to punish them for an inability to read the Negative’s mind. If theory does occur in a world of pre-round discussion, it happens because there is genuine disagreement between the debaters about the best norm and an unwillingness to compete under their opponent’s norm—genuine theoretical differences, rather than contrived frivolous ones.

While solution B does attempt to decrease the amount of frivolous theory and is thus better than A, it is still not preferable to pre-round discussion: first, it requires taking CX time away from substantive issues to ask a series of interpretative questions that debaters dance around because they are in-round and are afraid of giving straight answers. Second, many judges do not listen carefully during CX time, and it would be easy for the agreement to be misunderstood or overlooked entirely; a specially-allotted time before the round would force judges to pay attention because they would know that whatever is agreed upon there necessarily frames the rest of the debate. Third, the untimed nature of the pre-round discussion means that if, for whatever reason, the discussion requires multiple clarification questions or follow-ups, it would not be constrained by the CX time limits (this is distinct from the argument above, which is about debaters’ unwillingness to answer clearly in CX). Essentially, if one believes that the discussion between the debaters is valuable, then one should hold the discussion before the round because it frees the talk from the round’s artificial constraints.

III. Possible Objections

There are a number of questions and objections I envision people having to this idea. Here are some of those questions and how I think they can be properly resolved:

What if people lie?
This is where having the discussion in front of the judge comes in—I think that if Negative agrees to the Affirmative’s interpretation and then runs theory against it anyway, Affirmative would have a very strong theoretical objection to be made. It is probably bad for debate if debaters can agree that they think one norm is best/acceptable for the round, but then to go back on their word and object to it regardless; the non-lying debater should win this dispute every time, particularly if debaters are careful to write out their agreements to make sure they are binding.

What if people want to defend different theoretical norms in different rounds?
Pre-round theory discussions do not prevent people from advocating different norms in different rounds (for example, running Plans Bad one round, and Must Run a Plan in the next). The discussions do, however, force the debaters to consider their incentives of whether the theory is really necessary. The discussions also give the opponents the freedom to comply with the theory-runner’s norms to avoid unnecessary theory. Thus, debaters can still defend different norms in different rounds (as they can in the status quo)—the incentives for running theory in a specific round are just altered so that frivolous theory is less likely to occur.

What if people don’t know what theory is?
I think these situations could serve as teaching moments to help the community move forward on theoretical issues: if a debater seems to not understand theory, it is better to have a benevolent judge or opponent address that issue outside of the round’s constraints than it is for them to flail in response during the round. Pre-round discussion gives these debaters the opportunity to get on-board with the norms and to understand better what might be coming. Even a debater who knows nothing about theory can answer the question, “Are you okay debating about treating all juveniles in the adult criminal justice system, rather than just some?” The judge should certainly take that opportunity to explain the process that is playing out, but I do not think these discussions would require much specialized knowledge. Minimally, debaters could just keep the status quo in certain rounds and not have the pre-round discussion when in front of a judge or debater who might not understand theory.

Won’t these discussions delay tournaments?
I don’t think this practice would take much time at all. Most judges are willing to answer questions before round, and there is already some interaction between debaters as they are each setting up. Pre-round theory discussions would just shift the content of some conversations. I think the whole process could be done with in two minutes quite easily. Frivolous theory also produces messy rounds that judges have a hard time evaluating because the arguments aren’t well-substantiated, so clearing these issues pre-round avoids that time loss.

What if Neg wants to reserve the right to run theory as a strategic tool to answer the AC? Why do they have to choose before the AC?
There are a few reasons. First, I think allowing Negative to choose after the AC just preserves the bad model B discussed above—few would ever commit to not running theory pre-round if they could just delay the decision until after the AC, so none of the benefits of the discussion would be garnered. Second, if the Negative wants to hear the AC contention level first to decide if it has answers and then decide whether to run theory, that strikes me as the frivolous theory people assume to be bad: the abuse does not occur from the actual interpretation (which the Negative has heard before the round and could have objected to), but rather because of a lack of preparation by the Negative. The interpretation was debateable and thus not wholly necessary, which is why the Negative did not immediately object. The Neg has also decided ex post facto that the AC is unacceptable and thus nullifies any ability to discuss alternatives that sidestep the theory debate, because the round has already begun.

Won’t this increase the prevalence of theory if Negs are bound to run it once they reject the AC’s interpretation?
I don’t think this would increase the prevalence of theory debates. There are strong incentives to avoid binding yourself to a certain strategy (like reading a certain theory shell) because it limits your other options, so I think more debaters will be willing to accept reasonable interpretations of their opponents and leave their options open. I also believe this to be true because the pre-round discussion tips off the Affirmative about what theory is to come and thus lets them prepare better for it—it makes beating the Affirmative on theory harder, and thus less enticing. I also think that even if the amount of theory were to rise, it would still be a preferable outcome because the theory would be non-frivolous. Theory debates in a discussion world would emerge because of genuine disagreement on norms in the community and could thus resolve some of those issues with the ballot. In the status quo, however, people don’t really believe in some theoretical norms they defend, and thus little gets decided with those rounds.

What if a debater refuses to have this pre-round discussion? Why would Neg ever give up their frivolous theory option?
It is true that some Negatives will refuse to engage in the discussions. But in that case, I think the theory debate becomes very winnable for the Affirmative: they went out of their way to try to be as fair as possible for the Negative, and their opponent prevented it by not telling them what they wanted. At that point, any “abuse” seems to be the fault of the debater who refused to talk, rather than the debater who failed to read their opponent’s mind. I also think the Affirmative would have a viable claim to read theory in response to this theory about why refusing the discussion is bad, for all the reasons discussed above.

IV. Conclusion

I think that debaters should have pre-round discussions about what resolutional interpretation to use so as to avoid frivolous theory debates. I also think that judges should encourage these discussions by asking the debaters if they would like to have that discussion. While some in the status quo try to avoid frivolous theory by using CX to check objections (and I believe this to be better than nothing), this approach has limitations that a pre-round discussion escapes—namely, the latter is unbounded by artificial constraints of CX and the ways that people behave once the round begins. Others might see no problem with frivolous theory; this article does not engage that issue at-length. If one does believe frivolous theory to be a problem, however, pre-round discussions of resolutional interpretations could begin to solve it. Affirmatives, therefore, should seek out these agreements, and attempt to hold their opponents accountable should they refuse.

  • Anonymous

    Alex, I’m continuing our conversation here so that we can regain some writing room. I agree it would be better if threads could be expanded or opened in other windows, but that’s unfortunately a limitation of the Disqus plug-in, which we don’t control (I’m sure Honda would be open to alternatives if you know of any).

    Anyways, it seems like we’re beginning to agree on more, or at least getting closer to it. Because of that, I’m going to try to merge our points in some cases and see if we can jointly improve on the method, rather than argue a terrific-awful dichotomy.


    I think the issue I have with your example is that you still haven’t responded to how the abuse you specify could happen on any interpretation for the resolution “Y ought to do X.” I have a hard time seeing how the abuse could be caused by the interpretation (or disprove the whole legitimacy of the interpretation, as you put it) if any interpretation on the topic could do the same thing. That seems like it must be something beyond the resolution.

    I agree with you that more specification could resolve some of these issues–I think that just calls for debaters to ask pointed questions and to protect themselves (along the same lines as Negatives have to protect themselves when asking questions in CX–“Will you defend something other than X?” as opposed to “Do you defend X?”). 

    I wonder if there is something more concrete we could do to fix this, though. Your reservations about the system seem to be mostly about people gaming it. What if judges used speaker points to crack down on this perceived gaming? You’ve written previously that then there’s no point of the pre-round discussion, and that judges should just crack down in the status quo, but I think the benefits related to why checking in CX is bad (see: article) would still apply. Do you think this could solve some of your concerns?

    B-Status Quo

    We are in agreement about protecting the Affirmative, but you have concerns about the potential for abusing the Negative. What do you envision as a constructive way to address the abuse potential? I’m certainly open to hearing ideas, because if debaters implement this method in front of me, I’d ideally like to cut down on that (regardless of whether the overall benefits outweigh).

    It seems like being very specific and asking good follow-up questions to protect oneself might be advisable, although it would lengthen the discussions a bit (still not too significantly, though). Do you think that would be a good step?

    C-Game Theory

    You are correct that some people might still play into this gambler archetype you’ve identified, at least in the short-term, and try to exploit the situation. (I still disagree on the degree to which the interpretations can be successfully exploited, but you are right that some might try.) 

    I think the best way to proceed would be either the recommendation above about more follow-up questions, or maybe even some sort of written contract between the debaters that if they debate again (maybe in elimination rounds) they will partake in the pre-round discussion. This seems to formalize the repeated nature and really give them something at stake: in this case, Affirmative could not try to exploit the Negative with the interpretation, or else they’d have no guarantee that their opponent couldn’t do it to them the next time they’re Affirmative.

    I’m really not sure if the above is the best way to draw upon the benefits from repetition, but I do think there’s something that could be done here. I’m interested in hearing your thoughts.

  • I get that Ross is not concerned with avoidable theory debates in the way that Steven is, and yes, that is a disagreement. But I don’t think it is an objection to the most important aspect of Steven’s article — his proposal for what debaters can do. If you want to get into theory debates every round, then you should just refuse to agree on any pre-round interpretations. I think, if you do run theory against something the other debater offered to avoid, your opponent can then make a persuasive theory argument that avoidable theory is bad. And then you can answer that theory argument with your reasons for thinking that even avoidable theory debates are better than substantive debates. But if other debaters do want to avoid unnecessary theory debates, then they have every right to use Steven’s method. It is no objection that other debaters, in their place, would do otherwise. 

    My apologies if this has already been stated or answered somewhere else on this thread. 

  • Alex Kramer

    The most significant issue I have with this proposal so far is that the correct answer for a negative to give is **always** “I don’t know before the round what the most fair, educational, or otherwise legitimate interpretation is, what will you run if I say X, Y, and Z?” which completely defeats the purpose of deciding on an interpretation while still allowing for some sense of competition. Assuming the point of theory is to check back abusive interpretations verified with an in-round violation, and assuming that even the best debaters don’t have complete knowledge of the ramifications of a given resolutional interpretation, a negative debater that opts into this pre-round discussion always places themselves at a significant strategic disadvantage since the affirmative can always run a position that operates under the parameters of the proposed interpretation that would still be theoretically abusive. If the existence of pre-round discourse / agreements can then be used as a theory-based reason to allow aff positions that are consistent with whatever is agreed to pre-round because the neg could have always proposed a more specific interpretation, the neg has no recourse. That seems rather silly, even if this procedure just generates an agreement that theory won’t be run on certain general interpretations, because theoretical abuse (absent arguments potential abuse arguments) stems from specific violations relating to how specific arguments function. All this seems to result in is affs finding ways to abusively exploit what appear to be intuitively reasonable interpretations and using “pre-round discussion” to nullify abuse complaints. One could claim that “legitimate” theory claims could still be made despite the presence of agreements purporting to “resolve” that issue prior to the round, but the resulting question concerning the existence of a method to differentiate “legitimate” from “frivolous” theory in the first place is pretty much the problem that this proposal tried to solve.

    I also have significant issues with with extending a judge’s authority to enforce agreements or behaviors outside of round (relating to the issue of strategic lying / deception / bluffing), but I don’t really have time with midterms coming up to write those up here.

    • Ross Brown

      this reply is dead on

    • Anonymous

      I’m unclear why a position would be abusive if it coheres with the accepted interpretation. If there is something unfair about it, then either the interpretation was misrepresented, in which case that issue can be fleshed out in round, or there is something else suspect about it, in which case Negative can ready theory. Perhaps you could give an example of a way this might function so that we can discuss it more fully?

      I also disagree that it would always be best for Negative to respond that way; if opponents call out the Negative on dancing around the issue, that could be a pretty good theoretical argument. I know that I preferred a whole-res debate to a plan debate on fairness, and I could certainly articulate that as the Negative.

      If the pre-round discussion becomes part of the round’s functional record (as I suggest it should), then I don’t think this is anywhere on the same plane as a judge enforcing pre-tournament behavior like disclosing online (which I know you’ve previously criticized, but maybe this is separate). But that doesn’t seem to be the brunt of your criticism, so I’ll let it sit for now.

      • Alex Kramer

        Apologies in advance for the giant wall of text. I’ve expanded my initial criticism a fair amount through the process of writing this.

        One way you can interpret my initial argument is as claiming that accepting a particular interpretation pre-round never really precludes the possibility of legitimate abuse claims. The basic argument is that the neg can never know that the interpretations they propose as theoretically acceptable are devoid of abuse because they are imperfect beings that cannot know every argument that can be made under those interpretations. The result is that under this sort of system, the optimal aff strategy is to identify what appear to be the stockest / most theoretically reasonable interpretations (the interpretations that a trusting neg are most likely to propose), write monstrously abusive positions that operate under those interpretations, and then use the fact that pre-round discourse / agreements is normatively binding to evade the inevitable in-round theory that would be read after the neg proposes a stock interpretation and the aff agrees to it. In contrast with the status quo, where the aff reads a case that proposes a set of interpretations, and in response, the neg can read theory claiming that some subset of those interpretations are illegitimate, this propsal results in the neg losing key theory ground by agreeing pre-round that a certain interpretation is necessarily theoretically legitimate by nature of mutual agreement. The proposed agreement is nonsensical as “This interpretation is theoretically legitimate until the aff does something abusive with it,” since that brings one back to the original problem of avoiding negs running frivolous abuse claims; it must be “This interpretation is theoretically legitimate.”

        This is why it always makes the most sense under your proposal for the neg to initially ask what arguments the aff would run if a given interpretation were to be adopted. Asking such a question is not a case where “the neg is dancing around the issue,” it is that blindly proposing interpretations is screwing the neg over by allowing the affirmative the ability to exploit without facing theoretical recourse. In some sort of analogue to the question of potential vs. actual abuse in theory debates, it is easy to determine if an argument is abusive once you hear the argument but it is impossible to determine that no abusive argument could be made without hearing what arguments will be made (or knowing all potential arguments that could be made). However, allowing the neg to ask this sort of question would be pretty silly, since its adoption would amount to the neg being able to cherry-pick which aff arguments will be made. So, the neg is stuck (if they follow this proposal), with what amounts to inviting the aff to find a way to make whatever interpretation they suggest as abusive as possible. Sure, the neg could suggest an interpretation that they feel has the least possibility of abuse, but that doesn’t solve the problem that in proposing that interpretation, they are giving up their ability to object when the aff does something unprecedented.

        Such a situation doesn’t seem to be a case where the agreement was “misunderstood” since both the aff and the neg clearly understood the set of interpretations in question; the aff merely was able to exploit them in an abusive manner. It doesn’t make sense to further clarify the agreement after abuse has occurred absent mis-communication of some sort since the point of making such an agreement in the first place is that the neg has the opportunity to propose an arbitrarily specific interpretation (or set of interpretations), which means that the agreed upon interpretations become theoretically acceptable if both parties agree to them. Even if it is not logically inconsistent to allow ex post theory against creative affs that abuse agreed upon interpretations in ways that a neg did not predict, there would remain a question of when such theory is acceptable, which brings the entire project back to the question of when theory is “frivolous.”

        Here’s an example. Consider a generic topic of the form “Resolved: X ought to do Y.” Prior to the round, the neg proposes that:

        * Ought denotes a moral obligation, which in the context of an action, is something that would be impermissible not to do.

        * The affirmative burden is to prove that a moral obligation exists for X to do Y.

        * The negative burden is to prove the a moral obligation does not exist for X to do Y (or, the lack of an obligation).

        All of these seem intuitive and not easily open to abuse by the aff. The aff agrees to these, and the round begins under this mutual agreement. However, the AC has 3 minutes of framework analysis claiming that it is perfectly coherent for an action to be morally obligatory and morally prohibited at the same time without reducing to moral permissibility. As counter-intuitive as this may sound, these arguments do exist, and philosophers do write about this. One potential implication of this is that any NC that only says X doing Y is prohibited are insufficient to prove that a moral obligation does not exist, which eliminates a huge swath of neg ground.

        This sort of argument is not stemming from any sort of misinterpretation of the pre-round agreement, nor is there anything externally “suspect” about it since it only concerned the agreed-upon burdens analysis which the neg proposed – the aff found a way to exploit a seemingly abuse-free interpretation. In a world with your proposal, affs are incentivized to make arguments like this not because such arguments are really fun and awesome, but becuase making common interpretations resolve in super abusive ways is a strategic tool that ex-post facto theory can no longer check.

        Moreover, this general argument can very easily apply to formulation of neg strategy as well – a potentially optimal neg strategy would be to find ways to abuse stock interpretations under the assumption that the aff will trustingly accept those interpretations because they appear reasonable. The result (assuming that each side thinks their opponent does not recognize the potential to do the same) is a system where both sides have an incentive to enter into an pre-round agreement to adopt the most intuitively reasonable interpretation and then proceed to try to abuse it. Obviously, both sides could just genuinely want to debate stock arguments, but attempting to abuse these agreements for strategic gain seems increasingly likely at competitive levels of debate. If one side does not understand this strategy, then the side that does understand it will win through being abusive, while if both parties understand the strategy, but think that their counterpart does not, debates will become a battle of who can out-abuse the other. The final option is that both parties understand that the optimal strategy is to abuse the pre-round agreement, but also understand that their counterparts know the same, which produces a limiting effect in which the parties simply do not create an pre-round agreement because the strategy is only optimal in the case that one’s opponent fails to recognize the potential for abuse (and therefore will opt out of the ability to run theory in the case of abuse). This situation is just the status quo, where the ability to run ex post facto theory actually can back abusive interpretations (as well as stock interpretations that are used in abusive ways). Sure, frivolous theory is a problem, but giving up the possibility to criticize an interpretation after the fact seems far more problematic.

        So basically, the main issue I have does not concern whether or not a debater will fail to uphold the pre-round agreement, it is that the agreement will only rarely be used to actually engage in “good” or “substantive” debate. There are strategic incentives to either a) exploit such an agreement for the purposes of running abusive arguments without theoretical recourse, which seems far worse than the status quo or b) not even engage in an agreement at all because both sides understand that the optimal strategy is for the agreement to be abused and recognize that their opponent knows the same, in which case there is no advantage over the status quo.

        • Anonymous

          Alex, thank you for taking the time to write a thorough reply. I appreciate that we can discuss this issue at-length, rather than a smattering of short criticisms. Still, I will try to keep my answers succinct where feasible.

          I will skip over everything until the example you provide because my response to the above would have been to again ask for a real-world example. I deny the premise that is  possible for an interpretation to cause abuse if fairly represented and agreed upon, so it doesn’t make sense to argue about the assertions to that end without discussing the example that serves as the warrant.

          Here is why your example is a misunderstanding of my argument and is consistent with my view (that these agreed upon interpretations do not still contain the potential for causing abuse):

          In the case of your example, the abuse comes not from the interpretation itself, but from the substantive way the interpretation is argued e.g. the abuse is not from Aff defending obligation and Neg defending lack of obligation, but from Aff introducing a substantive Necessary But Insufficient burden to fulfill these burdens. In this case, Negative could still read theory against this NBI because that is the objectionable part, not the interpretation under which the NBI occurred.

          To be clear, I think your example is a misunderstanding because the abuse derives from the substantive way the argument is made (the NBI) rather than the interpretation. 

          I think this is particularly true given how your example could apply to more or less any interpretation on that topic–for example, that Aff should show it good to do X and Neg should show it not good: Affirmative could read arguments that conflicting reasons for goodness and badness do not deny the initial goodness claims. The interpretation itself, therefore, does not cause the abuse; the substantive fulfilling of the burden does, and that is where theory could be run.

          Regardless, you suggest that it would be bad for Affirmative to be able to ‘exploit’ Negative with these interpretation games, but I fail to see why this would be any worse than the status quo, in which Aff gets exploited by things they’d be willing to defend. At least in this case there’s a chance the interpretation gets resolved–despite your claims, not everyone understands game theory/strategic situations and will proceed the way you suggest.

          Additionally, let’s say everyone did proceed as you suggest and did try to hide their interpretative abuse. I think this might still have a good effect in the long-run: because debate rounds are a REPEATED game/strategic interaction (that is, people engage in debate rounds more than once, albeit not always against the same opponent) they can learn from their past behavior to better coordinate cooperation. In this case, if Affs and Negs keep trying to exploit one another, and consequently get low speaker points from judges upset by this ‘horrid’ trend, they might realize it’s in their best interest to cooperate and end this interpretation games once and for all. If one happens to defect again, they can be punished tit-for-tat as game theorists recommend (in this case, by running theory that the defection was bad).

          Your example does not prove the possibility of abuse from the agreed-upon interpretation
          Even if it does, it is better than the status quo
          People’s repeated involvement in debate rounds might end your problem, if it ever arises, because of the repeated strategic interaction

          • Alex Kramer

            A – About the example:

            Perhpas we have fundamentally different views on what constitutes a necessary but insufficient burden, but I think you’re misinterpreting the example I gave. This sort of framework analysis does not force the neg to do something while simultaneously requiring proof of prohibition (or moral badness), which would be the characteristic trait of a necessary and insufficient argument – it only clarifies that neg ground must be to prove directly that a certain class of obligations do not exist, rather than claiming that the existence of a prohibition cannot indiretly entail the lack of obligation. The sole reason the argument is abusive stems from prohibition ground being key neg ground on “ought” topics (which this interpretation would deny by rendering such ground unnecessary and insufficient). So, it is a situation in which an accepted interpretation still allows for abuse stemming from the aff exploiting something that proceeds entirely from the content of of the agreed-upon interpretation.

            B – About the status quo comparison:

            In an ideal world you would be absolutely correct that adhering to a proposed interpretation would preclude the possibility of abusiveness, because negs can always know that their proposals preclude abuse either by specifying substantive constraints on arguments such that no abusive ground remains or by providing a laundry list of abusive behaviors that are agreed pre-round to have internal links to a theory voter. Regardless, the point of the first two paragraphs I wrote is to provide sufficient reasons for believing that normatively binding interpretations proposed pre-round should, in all non-ideal situations (read: what actually happens in real life), create incentives for one side to exploit the agreement because of imperfect proposals, despite such proposals being agreed upon. This is the analogy to potential abuse – the status quo situation of being able to run theory ex post is in general preferable because it is easy to determine that abuse has happened, while ex ante theory (proposing interpretations prior to the round) is pretty much impossible absent knowing every logical implication of that proposal. It doesn’t make sense to try and prevent theory from being run based on ex ante agreements because then the side that doesn’t exploit the agreement in good faith loses the ability to say that their opponent’s exploitation of the agreement is bad. There is certainly a distinction between frivolous and legitimate theory claims, but the danger is that pushing for binding ex ante agreements to limit frivolous theory claims opens the door for abuse by restricting the use of legitimate theory. To be clear, I am certainly not in support of frivolous theory arguments, and I have nothing against debaters agreeing in good faith pre-round to certain interpretational issues. However, at the point where such agreements start to be adopted as binding for the judge in evaluating theory made in round, it seems like an incredibly poor strategic option for any debater to trustingly engage such a practice, which to me is a fairly persuasive reason to prefer the status quo over the chance that the pre-round interpretation is taken up entirely in good faith.

            C – About the game theory stuff

            Sure, repeated games would influence things. I honestly don’t know how much that would influence the end result, because it introduces a ton of complex external variables like community responses and development, and the like. Even so, I would still think that in a given round, neither debater would wish to engage in a practice that allows for them to be abused if they have very little to gain from it, meaning it still seems more likely for debaters to choose the status quo. At the very least, if the sole reason for solving back my complaint is that legitimate mutual cooperation can be prompted by judges checking back abusing this proposal, that’s entirely nonunique. It would be far simpler for judges to just adopt a norm of tanking the speaks of debaters who read theory as a time suck when there’s no real abuse. If a non-trivial number of prominent judges started enforcing either option, then it would quickly create paradigmatic shifts. However, until either scenario actually happens, it seems to make more sense to analyze proposals like these in non-ideal contexts.

          • Anonymous


            I think you are correct that I misused the term necessary but insufficient, but I still do not think this example proves that the interpretation caused the abuse. 

            If you’ll refer back to my last post, I noted that this argument could easily exist on any interpretation on the topic–for example, Aff showing X to be good and Neg showing it to be not good. 

            Beyond that, you are correct that NBI doesn’t make sense here because Neg is not forced to argue something (there is no necessary condition), but that doesn’t mean no theoretical objection is viable. For instance, a viable interpretation could just be that prohibition must be granted as substantively meeting the Negative burden (given this specific Neg burden).

            Please excuse my misuse of the NBI label–my point was just that, again, the abuse is from the substantive fulfillment of the burden, not the interpretation itself.

            B-Status Quo

            Excuse me if I got lost in the paragraph (there seems to be a lot going on in there, and I’m not sure I followed it all), but I think there are a few ways my proposal avoids the problems you suggest.

            For one, I’ve previously clarified in the addendum that I do not think Neg always has to be bound to running theory if they reject the Aff interp, provided this is clarified before the round. In this case, it allows for some of the post-hearing-the-case determinations you favor.

            For another, a lot of your claims here are contingent on your being correct about non-ideal scenarios and incentives to exploit the interpretations; my arguments above deny the premise that these interpretations could be abusively exploited without recourse.

            You make the relevant comparisons of whether Neg should be able to clarify abuse after hearing the AC vs. committing to an interpretation before the round. But my point about this being better than the status quo is largely about protecting the Affirmative, NOT the Negative. My point is that his ex post facto system really harms the Affirmative, whereas it’s less bad to potentially restrict theory for the Negative since they’re already so far ahead. This is a layer of comparison about which effect would be most significant.

            C-Game Theory

            My point about repeated games is that they make the situation such that debaters will not be abused, and that debaters do have much to gain through cooperation. 

            If you are correct that debaters have incentives to abuse the interpretation system (I dispute this above), my point is just that the greatest payoffs would eventually be gleaned by agreeing to be straight-forward and to not irritate judges with this exploitation. If neither debater is trying to exploit the other through this game, then there is no need for the other debater to exploit them back, or to counter-balance–they’d only be risking their own speaks (and tit-for-tat punishment) by defecting.

            I think your example of judges tanking speaks for frivolous theory is interesting, but my problem with it is that it’s less verifiable: unless the discussion actually plays out and the judge hears whether theory could have been avoided (e.g. the Aff would have accepted the interpretation), the judge can’t really know if the theory was needed. I’m less comfortable making that judgment.


            Term NBI is misused, but I still hold the larger point that the abuse is not caused by the interpretation itself
            In terms of status quo, it’s better to protect the Aff than the Neg, plus I’m doubtful to what degree this would really hurt the Neg
            Same stuff about game theory–eventually best interest would be created through cooperation

          • Alex Kramer

            A – About my example / the potential for getting away with abusing agreements

            I think our disagreement on this point is fairly subtle – the problem boils down to whether your proposal would logically allow debaters to run theory when an agreed-upon interpretation is “substantively fulfilled” in an abusive manner (obviously, you claim it does). This possibility seems incompatible with the notion that a debater is “bound not to introduce [theory]” contesting that interpretation when a pre-round agreement is present, since the way the pre-round agreement is phrased is not conditional. Unfortunately, I think this part got lost in the long-winded post I wrote at 4am last night. If the agreement did take the form “this interpretation is legitimate unless one side attempts to meet it in an abusive manner,” then that would eliminate solvency for frivolous theory – a debater could always run frivolous theory despite the presence of a pre-round agreement by claiming that although the agreed-upon interpretation is awesome in the abstract, the specific way in which their opponent attempted to meet that interpretation was problematic. Hence why the form of the pre-round agreement seems to be required to take the unconditional form “this interpretation is legitimate,” meaning that if a debater meets the interpretation, they are necessarily conforming to the agreement, and their approach is outside of theoretical contestation. In the context of my example, your proposed solution (“neg must get prohibition ground”), seems like it really is only an ex post clarification of an ex ante interpretation since if the original interpretation had included that clause, the problem would be solved. The easy way out of this would be to stipulate such specification / clarification in the pre-round agreement. This would definitely solve the problem, especially in an ideal situation where arbitrary specification would be feasible. However, there seem to be brightline issues in non-ideal situations as it’s unrealistic to expect debaters to provide interpretations with infinite precision. What happens if the neg proposes a coherent (but not completely precise) interpretation, the aff exploits a nuance in it that the neg did not predict, and then the neg reads theory claiming that the specific nuance they did not predict was abusive (and in doing so, clarifies their interpretation ex post? I don’t see how allowing that sort of theory is consistent with your proposal.

            B – About the Squo

            Sorry about the writing style in my initial posts. It probably stemmed from me quickly writing a fair amount on very little sleep. If there’s anything I can help clarify, let me know.

            Also, I’d agree with you that there are definitely more potential benefits for this in protecting the affirmative by limiting the range of potential theory arguments that can be run, so there would be some net benefit in that regard since abusing agreements can be exploited bidirectionally (negs can propose reasonable interpretations for nefarious reasons, just as affs can agree to reasonable interpretations for nefarious reaseons). However, I’m not sure whether a unique benefit to one side is enough to justify a shift from the status quo when (admittedly non-unique) abuse potential still exists, because non-unique abuse potential still seems a net disadvantage to the proposal, even if it isn’t a net disadvantage to a particular side. If there is a definitive way to solve the abuse potential issue that is present when pre-round agreements are normatively binding (along with other stuff I haven’t really thought through much yet relating to the notion of a pre-round agreement being enforced in round by judges), then I’d be much more in favor of this. I just don’t think the abuse potential issue is solved yet in the proposal itself, as opposed to in a world where this proposal were already a norm, and judges (who had already accepted this proposal) would be able to check abuse.

            C – Game theory stuff

            I’m certainly no game theory expert, and I might just be overly cynical, but it seems like even though the greatest payoffs on average could be gleaned through cooperation (rather than exploitation), until a proposal like this becomes an accepted norm, there will be some sort of “gambler” archetype who abuses pre-round attempts at cooperation extended in good faith. This makes sense since if that individual believes that the the majority of the population is “blindly” giving up the opportunity to run theory on certain arguments, then he or she would have reason to believe that an easy way to win would be to abuse those sorts of arguments. Given the highly technical and often “tricky” nature of LD in the status quo, this seems like a highly likely strategy that this proposal ought to be able to deal with internally absent fiating a norm that judges identify and increase the risk of engagin in such practices through speaker points or the ballot. I guess to put it bluntly, “this will be solved eventually” doesn’t seem that satisfying.


            I should not write long and somewhat dense posts at 4am.

            As a side note, the commenting system here quickly becomes really tedious for understanding extended, in-depth conversations since lines become progressively shorter. It would be nice if there was at least an option to view a given thread in a new window or something so that nested posts were more readable.

  • It is certainly legitimate to criticize how Steven refers to “frivolous” theory, but let me defend a weaker claim that I think avoids some of these problems of characterization. Debaters should be able to contract before the debate on how the debate should proceed. We let these sorts of deals be hashed out in cross-examination as is, I see no reason why we shouldn’t let them be hashed out before the round as well. Debaters should be able to mutually agree to theoretical or even normative frameworks, and have those agreements be enforced in-round by the judge. There are a couple of reasons for this:

    1) Debater choice — If debaters want to have a particular type of debate, let them. I won’t take a position on whether substantive debate is better than theoretical debate (although I do think it is). Nevertheless, if the debaters prefer to resolve theoretical questions prior to the round, perhaps in such a way as to give both debaters beneficial interps, to ensure a more substantive debate, then I don’t really see a reason to object. We seem to presuppose, rightly I think, that the activity belongs to the students, and this furthers that goal.

    2) Side bias — I would not go as far as Steven in saying that the neg is *required* to run theory if they reject the aff’s interp, but I think affs should be able to use the neg’s rejection to bolster the aff’s position on a number of issues, including reasonability, RVIs, AFC, what have you. In a world where negs can run theory no matter what the aff does, an attempt to reach a pre-round compromise indicates that the aff was trying to ensure a fair debate (this argument would function similarly to a lot of CX checks arguments, IMO). Of course, the quality of the negotiations, the level of deference to the aff, etc are all debatable issues. This just gives affs another shield against theory.

    3) Norm creation — A common justification for competing interps is that it leads to a search for the best debate norm, but the idea that an adversarial system is the best engine for norm creation is never really questioned (and to be clear, I would not *reject* debate rounds as a source of norm creation). But, it does seem like negotiations prior to the round would yield norms that accommodate the interests of both the aff and the neg, and are presumptively fair.

    I see Ross’s concern, but I don’t think the risk of judges being forced to sit through long discussions is very high. Top debaters will have a reasonable grasp on the issues such that the discussion will really just be offer –> counter offer/acceptance/rejection. If I’m wrong, just impose a cap on the discussion; I don’t really think you need more than 2-3 minutes to strike a deal. This also prevents debaters from pre-determining too much. In any case, don’t see any reason not to give it a shot.

    So, to be clear, differences from Steven’s proposal — 1) what happens if the neg rejects, 2) the scope of issues subject to contract, 3) severing the question of frivolous theory from the proposal itself. Disclaimer: haven’t really read everything so sorry if I missed something.

    • Anonymous

      I agree with basically all of this: I don’t necessarily believe the Neg HAS to run theory if they disagree with the Aff (as the addendum clarifies). I am also fine with people contracting on more expansive issues–I just think the theory issue is the most pressing. Similarly, I talk specifically about “frivolous” theory because this is what, in my perception, most people seem to gripe about when discussing the issues.

      Essentially I just think these pre-round discussions should be more prevalent. “Softer” views of those discussions are probably better than the status quo. I just think something should change.

  • Whether or not this would work or be a good idea, I have the feeling a lot of people would rather read theory as a “strategic” option regardless if you think it’s “frivolous”…

    • Anonymous

      I’m unsure what this is meant to suggest. I agree that not all debaters will comply with agreeing to an interpretation and that some will still run frivolous theory. My suggestion is that their opponents should then leverage their unwillingness to agree pre-round as a theory argument of its own, or as I meets/terminal defense against whatever theory they end up running.

      • That’s fair, I just think it was worth noting that a big problem with these theory debates is why they are initiated to begin with. As far as an attempt to prevent real abuse and progess forward on common ground, I agree with you.

  • Ross Brown

    a couple things:

    a) i personally don’t think that classifying a lot of the theory debates that happen these days as “frivolous” is appropriate. deeming certain theory debates “frivolous” presumes that “substantive” discussion of the topic is inherently better, but there’s absolutely no reason why that’s true. theory debates simply focus on a different aspect of debate (maybe a “strategic” aspect?) than “substantive” debates do, but i’ve never seen anyone offer a coherent argument for why focusing on this strategic aspect is bad. some people claim education, but honestly, especially after several tournaments on any given topic, good debaters aren’t learning anything in their rounds that they didn’t already know from exhaustive preparatory research. on the other hand, theory debates necessitate intense, constant critical thought because there are nearly an infinite number of variables in theory debates that change the way debaters must address them. no amount of pre-round preparation can ensure that a debater doesn’t have to think critically about his opponents’ interpretation and theory standards, whereas that is often not true with “substantive, case debate” (see debaters who just read the same blocks every round and extend whatever their opponent drops to win). i might be the only person in this boat, but toward the end of my debate career, it was the strategic moves associated with things like theory debates that kept me interested in the activity, not re-hashing whether or not we should impose economic sanctions on Iran.

    b) this also might just be my personal bias, but i’m just not really interested in hearing these discussions before the round. i just don’t think i would want to listen to them. also, i can very easily see these conversations spiraling out of control. for instance, maybe in addition to discussing theory interps, debaters will decide they want to identify which standard will be used in the round. maybe they’ll want to talk about certain pieces of evidence and establish the truth or falsity of certain cards. i guess this is a slippery slope, but i can very easily see it happening, and if there’s a precedent set for this, it’s hard to tell where it will stop.

    debaters have speech time for a reason. they should make arguments during their speech time, not before the round starts. 

    edit for formatting reasons

    • Anonymous

      As I said in the article, I am not really looking to discuss whether frivolous theory is good or bad. I respect your view, but my point is just about what specific individuals should do if they believe frivolous theory is a problem.

      Would you really rather hear CX exchanges with neither debater really answering questions and unnecessary procedurals being run? It seems a good amount of people mourn the lack of substantive discussion in LD, and that this proposal could held achieve that end. 

      I don’t think your point about extending to agreement on the standard would happen, or is very relevant: none of the points above about frivolous theory entail some judgment about the value of specific standards. And if the relevant parties in a round agreed that agreeing upon a standard beforehand is good, then why should that not be allowed?

      • Ross Brown

        “as i said in the article, i am not really looking to discuss whether frivolous theory is good or bad”

        i dunno, i kind of feel like when you call an article “avoiding frivolous theory: the benefits of pre-round resolutional interpretations,” you should expect people to engage you in whether or not theory is *actually* frivolous. if it’s not frivolous, then there’s no real reason for these pre-round discussions to occur in the first place, so it’s a claim you should probably address. 

        (also, as a more general comment: i’ve noticed that when you engage people in discussions on this site, you really try to limit what gets discussed to exactly what *you* think should be discussed. (see our last exchange about the micropolitical position your team was running). i don’t think that’s a good way to engage in dialogue on this website, and it’s something you should consider changing).

        in terms of your other points:

        “would you really rather hear cx exchanges with neither debater really answering questions and unnecessary procedurals being run?”

        the way i see it is that if that’s what’s happening, then that’s the debaters’ fault, and they can run theory to deter those kinds of practices. that’s precisely what theory is for. if debaters are really not answering questions in cross-ex and this is frequently affecting the outcomes of rounds, judges should be sympathetic to theory claims about debaters evading cross-ex questions. seems like that’s a much more intuitive solution than having a pre-round discussion of different theory interpretations. and on the question of, “unnecessary procedurals being run,” that just begs the question, as my point is that those procedural questions are not unnecessary.

        “and if the relevant parties in a round agreed that agreeing upon a standard beforehand is good, then why should that not be allowed”

        i mean, obviously it should be *allowed,* but i am not at all interested in hearing an extensive discussion of which standard would be better to use, which is something i think could happen if we start doing what you suggest. obviously i have no proof about this claim, but it’s just my gut reaction.

        • Anonymous

          I disagree about whether or not the limited discussions are something I should change; I don’t want this discussion to turn into an unreadable, too drawn-out chain. That is why I limit the frame of discussion. If you would like to write an article on the benefits of frivolous theory (or whatever term you would prefer to use), you’re more than welcome to.

          I think the theory in this case is frivolous because of the specific definition: the debater running it believes it to be unnecessary, and/or it could be solved by a discussion between the debaters. I don’t think this is the type of good/bad value judgment you assume it to be. I make a distinct value judgment that frivolous theory is bad, that is untied to the definition.

          I’m not sure what you mean by letting debaters run theory on certain practices–I think preventing the bad practice ahead of time is preferable to ex post facto trying to undo its bad harm. I also don’t think my point about necessity begs the question; my point is that some procedurals are objectively unnecessary (i.e. both parties recognize they aren’t really needed).

          I still don’t think it would happen, on the same gut level as yours. I also don’t know why this discussion would now be extensive. You can also communicate this preference of yours as a judge; I am not forcing you to hear out these discussions.

          • Ross Brown

            “I disagree about whether or not the limited discussions are something I should change; I don’t want this discussion to turn into an unreadable, too-drawn-out chain. That is why I limit the frame of discussion.” 

            It doesn’t look like this thread is coming anywhere close to turning into “an unreadable, too-drawn-out chain.” There are like 16 comments right now, man. Your proposal is interesting, but it’s not controversial enough that everyone and their mother is going to come out of the woodworks responding to it. I think the discussion would be more productive if instead of taking a “I wrote it so I get to decide what gets talked about” mentality, you actually encourage people to respond to your article in whatever way they wish. I think the community can decide which posts don’t need to be addressed, if things really get out of line. You, on the other hand, should stay out of it.

            “If you would like to write an article on the benefits of frivolous theory (or whatever term you would prefer to use), you’re more than welcome to.”

            Oh come on, dude. 

            “I think the theory in this case is frivolous because of the specific definition: the debater running it believes it to be unnecessary, and/or it could be solved by a discussion between the debaters.”

            If that’s the case, then I’m afraid your article doesn’t really address the majority of instances in which people even begin to use the term “frivolous theory.” It seems to me like people throw this term around when people are just running theory for the sake of running theory. For instance, when negs run theory every round depending on what interp the aff picks (aff MUST run a plan, or plans bad, for example). I offer a limited defense of these kinds of theoretical positions in my last post, and I’ll wait to defend them further until you respond.

            “I still don’t think the issue with standards would happen, on the same gut level as yours. I also don’t know why this discussion would now be extensive.”

            We can agree to disagree then, I suppose. I don’t know what the second sentence means.
            “You can also communicate this preference of yours as a judge; I am not forcing you to hear out these discussions.”Yeah, obviously. I’m engaging you in this discussion because I assume there are other people who have similar reactions to this proposal, and I wanted to engage you in a constructive dialogue about these issues. Perhaps I hadn’t made this clear enough?

          • Anonymous

            RE: Limited Discussion

            I will not reply to this topic again; feel free to keep writing about it, but I will not respond. Here is what I will say for now: you can continue writing about why unnecessary theory is good here if you’d like–I just won’t be answering that because it’s a tangent I’m uninterested in. If the rest of the community is so riled up, as you suggest, they can discuss it here, too.

            I also don’t know what “Oh come on” means–if you want to write an article and discuss it, do so. If you don’t want to, then don’t.

            RE: Definition of Frivolous

            I’m unclear where the disagreement is here. When Negs are running theory for the sake of running theory, that means they see it as not wholly necessary. Similarly, when they are running it no matter what the Aff does, a disagreement could have solved it. Each of these examples that you claim I overlook are used as examples in the article itself. Where is the disagreement here? 

            Your limited defense of this is something I will not address, as per the above. Here’s why: My article says, “If you think X is bad, you should do Y.” You say: “X is good.” Is your response relevant in a debate round as an impact turn? Absolutely. But it isn’t relevant to the specific question, “how to best solve X if you think that X is bad,” which I address.

            RE: Constructive Dialogue

            I am more than willing to engage in constructive dialogue, as I’ve done with Alex above. His posts aren’t passive-aggressive; they discuss the pertinent-issue; and they don’t talk down to me with an ‘oh come on, dude’ in response to a reasonable suggestion. When you engage as constructively as he does, I’m happy to entertain at-length what you’re saying.

  • Steven, you may think that pre-round discussion will prevent frivolous theory, but I can assure you that my students and I will be putting together our extensive “Pre-round Discussion Bad” file, complete with frontlines, for TOC. Take that!

    • Anonymous

      Sounds reasonable.