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.