How Competing Interpretations Has Ruined Theory Debate


Why I Miss the “NC, AC” Roadmap: How Competing Interpretations Has Ruined Theory Debate
by Daniel Imas

Over the past few years, debate appears to have become esoteric to an unprecedented level. The increasingly common use of dense philosophy and the preponderance of theory debate have certainly contributed to this trend. While the former can usually be checked back by a judge’s understanding, the latter has created a troubling trend that appears to be largely unchecked by judges. In my view, one of the biggest reasons for the downfall of theory debate is the increasing prevalence of competing interpretations. My issues with competing interpretations are threefold: it makes theory debate even more inaccessible and overused than it has to be, it is never justified conceptually to the extent that it is used, and it leads to rounds being lost on absurd abuse scenarios.

Accessibility

By its very nature, theory debate is one of the most arcane parts of debate. What other competitive activity sees participants spend half of their competition trying to figure out what the rules are for the game in the first place? Very few people (if any), at least on the national circuit, would say that theory has no role in LD debate, but competing interpretations, however, takes theory debate to a whole new level. First, it has mounted a significant following of those who believe that no counter-interpretation means you auto-lose. I think that this kind of requirement, even under competing interpretations, is somewhat meaningless, as long as the judge simply assumes that a lack of an explicit interpretation means you just assume the debater is advocating a rule that is the opposite of the original interpretation. Regardless, holding debaters to this kind of standard requires knowledge of theory that extends not only to figuring out how to craft an interpretation/counter-interpretation, but also to crafting one that is strategic so that you don’t lose for something you didn’t do. This is compounded by the fact that LD has no set of resources that debaters can use to learn about the intricacies of theory debate without attending camp or hiring a coach. This obviously isn’t a unique problem with theory, but I believe that competing interpretations severely exacerbates this problem, as other obscure parts of debate i.e. meta-ethics can be read about and other LD-related concepts can be learned from some of the NFL Online videos. Second, it holds debaters to standards that make it impossible to answer abuse claims without knowing what kind of arguments the judge will actually care about. A typical person’s response to someone claiming that they acted unfairly would be to dismiss that claim by arguing that they didn’t hurt them in any way. Under competing interpretations, this is insufficient because a “risk of offense” on the theory debate means that they would lose anyways and any contrived claim is enough because “it’s not what you do, it’s what you justify.” This further drives theory debate in a hopelessly inaccessible direction.

Assumed Justification

My second overall issue with competing interpretations is that it is one of the most for-granted parts of debate. I can’t point to a single round where the justifications for competing interpretations actually prove what judges hold it to mean. Typically, these warrants take the form of one or two sentences that in different words say the same thing: prefer competing interpretations because theory is about setting norms for debate and we want to maximize fairness/education in debate. Not only are these arguments usually inadequate to justify the smaller claim that theory involves setting norms, but they normally claim that the argument justifies that theory is a matter of norms, that we have to maximize fairness/education, that potential abuse is irrelevant as long as the interpretation allows for that abuse, and a plethora of other nebulous assertions. Routinely, judges not only accept these arguments, but also chastise the other debater for not realizing that competing interpretations means they’re responsible for every possible argument that what they did in the round “justifies” because they didn’t exclude it in their counter-interpretation. At very least, if proponents of competing interpretations want it to continue as a common theory practice, something must be done about the unwarranted blips that are used to justify it.

Absurd Abuse Scenarios

Perhaps my biggest issue with competing interpretations is the ridiculous abuse scenarios that it leads people to vote for. The idea that a debater could lose a round for not reading dates or having their case in 12-point instead of 13-point font is frankly absurd. There are two big issues why these abuse scenarios are bad for debate and one solution for this may be less tab judging on theory. First, one of the more common arguments for competing interpretations is that it prevents judge intervention because reasonability involves arbitrary judge thresholds. I think this may demonstrate why debate has over-fetishized tab judging. Judge intervention is usually assumed to be axiomatically bad, but theory seems to call for judge intervention in ways that substantive arguments don’t. Many of the voters that are run are consistent with some level of judge intervention. Arguments about why fairness is necessary to determine who has done the better debating assume that the judge can’t evaluate the substance of the round fairly without meriting some punishment for the other debater, which is a call that really only the judge can determine since they are the ones who are tasked with making an unbiased decision. Claims of setting norms for the activity also seem to leave room for judge intervention, since if a judge’s decision has the ability to create a norm in the activity, presumably they should be able to have some say in what that would entail. Theory might be exactly the right place for judges to exercise discretion. Second, they allow debaters to succeed at the highest levels without having to meaningfully engage the topic at all. Because competing interpretations involves only having to prove a marginal amount of abuse, it encourages debaters to come up with and run absurd, minimal interpretations, knowing that judges will buy their argument as long as they win it technically on the flow. Though some may disagree, I think that there is definitely something to be said for strongly incentivizing substantive approaches to the topic. Debaters more than ever before seem to be coming into rounds with the plan to run theory if there is any possible abuse scenario they could fabricate. Speaker points appear not to be a large enough deterrent, however, since these strategies are still winning and taking debaters into elims of TOC. It seems that the only solution is for judges to hold more stringent requirements for abuse claims. This doesn’t necessarily lead to a situation where the round is totally taken out of the debaters’ hands – the policy debate community has established norms where judges gut-check to make sure that only legitimate abuse scenarios are given credence. This also doesn’t mean that judges have to completely intervene when theory is run and decide whether the position is abusive or not. Instead, they can evaluate the abuse claims from the original shell in light of the responses made, but only vote on it if they think the abuse claim is truly substantiated. The problem of frivolous theory certainly doesn’t seem to be something that will be solved by debaters – if a strategy wins, people will keep using it.

Overall, it seems that theory debate is taking a troubling turn that may not be subverted absent a shift in judging norms. Are we satisfied with the current trends in theory debate? Does preventing judge intervention have to be prioritized above all else? What lies ahead if some change doesn’t occur in theory norms?

  • If the ideas presented in this article gain any traction, LD debate takes 2 steps backward.

    “Perhaps my biggest issue with competing interpretations is the ridiculous abuse scenarios that it leads people to vote for.” This seems to be the most important substantive criticism of competing interpretations.

    First, the article asserts that “debate has over-fetishized tab judging.” I would be really interested in hearing justifications for ad-hoc/round-by-round deviations from a tab approach to judging, especially with regard to evaluating the often most important layer of the debate. You say “theory seems to call for judge intervention in ways that substantive arguments don’t” but give no real analysis here, except that “really only the judge can determine [if he or she can fairly evaluate the substance of the round.]” While that may or may not be the case, it’s wholly irrelevant to the outcome of the debate. T or theory arguments are the determinant of whether or not the round can be fairly adjudicated. Similarly, only the judge may have the expertise to answer a question in the ethics debate, but that fact has no bearing on what arguments are won. Also, there are other justifications for voting issues on T and theory including ethics, jurisdictional arguments, out-of-round impacts, implications of extrinsic models for debate, etc. Your argument is by no means all-encompassing. Lastly, just because added judge intervention is non-unique to a reasonability paradigm for theory doesn’t mean it’s permissible. Yes, judges intervene. We still have reason to minimize judge intervention (for competitive equity, equal access, or to accrue other values from debate, for example. Do I really need to justify why rounds should be evaluated non-arbitrarily?) I don’t think the “norms” approach to individual theory debates is quite right; I’m also not sure why that school of thought is exclusively tied to evaluating T or theory through the comparison of two alternative interpretations.

    The topic education argument is flawed because T and theory have arisen largely in response to strategies that have nothing to do with the topic. Eliminating or reducing the prevalence of T and theory won’t create and topical discussion; it will just enable abusive strategies (a prioris, necessary but insufficient burdens, “triggers” of deflationary ethical
    theories or presumption, etc) to rise to prominence, which prompted the frequency of T and theory in the first place.

    This claim about topic education, along with several of the other claims, relies on a central assumption of the entire article and your discussion: that the majority or a substantial portion of T and theory arguments are disingenuous, i.e. the debaters who propagate them are not really at a competitive disadvantage. This assumption falls in line with a lot of the response to the use of T and theory arguments in LD: “they didn’t HAVE to run that shell,” “the abuse wasn’t THAT bad,” “this theory is frivolous,” “they’re using theory as a time-suck,” “but I can’t answer 3 shells in the AR,” etc. This line of thinking makes no sense to me. If the theory argument is bad, false, unnecessary, or disingenuous, why can’t it simply be defeated? Why can’t debaters and coaches alike stop complaining and learn to defeat bad theory arguments in an efficient manner? As a side note, examples of bad theory given throughout include “not reading dates or having their case in 12-point.” Is the prevalence of theory arguments about dates and font sizes taken for granted? I debated in over 150 rounds last year (watched/discussed many more…) and didn’t hit or hear of any one of these arguments. Did I miss something? It seems that the straw men you construct as representatives of competing interpretations don’t actually exist, but if they do, beat them!

    There’s little tactical distinction between responding to a bad theory argument and responding to a bad disad that easily outweighs a util aff. The skills are the same. There are simple ways to respond to these arguments (e.g. substantive not structural abuse) and more complex ones that see the overall impact of the logical implications of a given rule. Jake’s example was looking at the theoretical disadvantage to losses of autonomy (You say it’s a bad means-based argument, but Jake evaluated autonomy through its concrete impacts. Read his post), and Jacob’s was about the theoretical advantages of voting on marginal abuse vs. voting on substance (You say “most of these psychological clams about deterring people are usually vague and more or less assertions about how people will react.” The debater with the better warranted assertions win. Why would we deviate from this common practice when evaluating theory? Also, Daniel appeals to the idea that a disadvantage to implementation based on judges/debaters is “not an intrinsic problem with reasonability.” Similarly, this disadvantage and many others listed are not intrinsic to competing interpretations, but how debaters and judges respond and react.) Another option is to have a highly specific counter-interpretation that gives the responder greater access to theoretical offense. Not only CAN debaters make these arguments, but they SHOULD. Debaters should have to defend the practices they engage in. For example, maybe 3 shells wouldn’t have been run if there weren’t a slew of unfair spikes in the aff. Debaters shouldn’t whine that T/theory is frivolous if they can’t defend the violation. Jake says “There are…concerns with theory rules that most of us find ridiculous — but debaters should have to think about *why* they’re ridiculous,” Jacob argues “That comparison should be left to the debaters to decide,” and they’re both right. A compelling reason to deviate from tab has yet to be presented. I can’t imagine what judges should “only vote on it if they think the abuse claim is truly substantiated” means, and I don’t want to find out. The article argues, “The problem of frivolous theory certainly doesn’t seem to be something that will be solved by debaters,” yet if it’s truly frivolous, it would lose. This is the crux of the argument. If the arguments in the article are true, they would gain traction in responding to theory in round, and competing interpretations would help them succeed in a race to the top. The market for winning strategies should determine what arguments are run, not Daniel Imas’s paradigmatic whims.

  • Guest

    If the ideas presented in this article gain any
    traction, LD debate takes 2 steps backward.

    “­Perhaps
    my biggest issue with competing interpretations is the ridiculous abuse
    scenarios that it leads people to vote for.” This seems to be the most
    important substantive criticism of competing interpretations.

    First,
    the article asserts that “debate has over-fetishized tab judging.” I would be
    really interested in hearing justifications for ad-hoc/round-by-round
    deviations from a tab approach to judging, especially with regard to evaluating
    the often most important layer of the debate. You say “theory seems to call for
    judge intervention in ways that substantive arguments don’t” but give no real
    analysis here, except that “really only the judge can determine [if he or she
    can fairly evaluate the substance of the round.]” While that may or may not be
    the case, it’s wholly irrelevant to the outcome of the debate. T or theory
    arguments are the determinant of whether or not the round can be fairly adjudicated.
    Similarly, only the judge may have the expertise to answer a question in the
    ethics debate, but that fact has no bearing on what arguments are won. Also,
    there are other justifications for voting issues on T and theory including
    ethics, jurisdictional arguments, out-of-round impacts, implications of
    extrinsic models for debate, etc. Your argument is by no means
    all-encompassing. Lastly, just because added judge intervention is non-unique
    to a reasonability paradigm for theory doesn’t mean it’s permissible. Yes,
    judges intervene. We still have reason to minimize judge intervention (for
    competitive equity, equal access, or to accrue other values from debate, for
    example. Do I really need to justify why rounds should be evaluated
    non-arbitrarily?) I don’t think the “norms” approach to individual theory
    debates is quite right; I’m also not sure why that school of thought is
    exclusively tied to evaluating T or theory through the comparison of two
    alternative interpretations.

    The topic education argument is flawed
    because T and theory have arisen largely in response to strategies that have
    nothing to do with the topic. Eliminating or reducing the prevalence of T and
    theory won’t create and topical discussion; it will just enable abusive
    strategies (a prioris, necessary but insufficient burdens, “triggers” of
    deflationary ethical theories or presumption, etc) to rise to prominence, which
    prompted the frequency of T and theory in the first place.

    This claim about topic education,
    along with several of the other claims, relies on a central assumption of the
    entire article and your discussion: that the majority or a substantial portion
    of T and theory arguments are disingenuous, i.e. the debaters who propagate
    them are not really at a competitive disadvantage. This assumption falls in
    line with a lot of the response to the use of T and theory arguments in LD:
    “they didn’t HAVE to run that shell,” “the abuse wasn’t THAT bad,” “this theory
    is frivolous,” “they’re using theory as a time-suck,” “but I can’t answer 3
    shells in the AR,” etc. This line of thinking makes no sense to me. If the
    theory argument is bad, false, unnecessary, or disingenuous, why can’t it
    simply be defeated? Why can’t debaters and coaches alike stop complaining and
    learn to defeat bad theory arguments in an efficient manner? As a side note,
    examples of bad theory given throughout include “not reading dates or having
    their case in 12-point.” Is the prevalence of theory arguments about dates and
    font sizes taken for granted? I debated in over 150 rounds last year
    (watched/discussed many more…) and didn’t hit or hear of any one of these
    arguments. Did I miss something? It seems that the straw men you construct as
    representatives of competing interpretations don’t actually exist, but if they
    do, beat them!

    There’s
    little tactical distinction between responding to a bad theory argument and
    responding to a bad disad that easily outweighs a util aff. The skills are the
    same. There are simple ways to respond to these arguments (e.g. substantive not
    structural abuse) and more complex ones that see the overall impact of the
    logical implications of a given rule. Jake’s example was looking at the
    theoretical disadvantage to losses of autonomy (You say it’s a bad means-based
    argument, but Jake evaluated autonomy through its concrete impacts. Read his
    post), and Jacob’s was about the theoretical advantages of voting on marginal
    abuse vs. voting on substance (You say “most of these psychological clams about
    deterring people are usually vague and more or less assertions about how people
    will react.” The debater with the better warranted assertions win. Why would we
    deviate from this common practice when evaluating theory? Also, Daniel appeals
    to the idea that a disadvantage to implementation based on judges/debaters is
    “not an intrinsic problem with reasonability.” Similarly, this disadvantage and
    many others listed are not intrinsic to competing interpretations, but how
    debaters and judges respond and react.) Another option is to have a highly
    specific counter-interpretation that gives the responder greater access to
    theoretical offense. Not only CAN debaters make these arguments, but they
    SHOULD. Debaters should have to defend the practices they engage in. For
    example, maybe 3 shells wouldn’t have been run if there weren’t a slew of
    unfair spikes in the aff. Debaters shouldn’t whine that T/theory is frivolous
    if they can’t defend the violation. Jake says “There are…concerns with theory
    rules that most of us find ridiculous — but debaters should have to think about
    *why* they’re ridiculous,” Jacob argues “That comparison should be left to the
    debaters to decide,” and they’re both right. A compelling reason to deviate
    from tab has yet to be presented. I can’t imagine what judges should “only vote
    on it if they think the abuse claim is truly substantiated” means, and I don’t
    want to find out. The article argues, “The problem of frivolous theory
    certainly doesn’t seem to be something that will be solved by debaters,” yet if
    it’s truly frivolous, it would lose. This is the crux of the argument. If the
    arguments in the article are true, they would gain traction in responding to
    theory in round, and competing interpretations would help them succeed in a
    race to the top. The market for winning strategies should determine what arguments
    are run, not Daniel Imas’s paradigmatic whims.

  • In this exclusive, affluent-white-male-dominated activity, we must allow debaters the liberty to indict font size, the numbering of spikes (or lack thereof), and the lack of spaces between paragraphs. Because of fairness. 

    • Call me crazy, but I think there’s a legitimate claim to be made that people can’t put their case in 5 point font in a single block of text containing 13 paragraph theory args. Because of fairness. I assume that your concern is that marginalized debaters shouldn’t have to respond to stupid theory because they made a theoretical claim in a paragraph and that’s fine and good. I think as long as judges gut check on how many speaks they’re going to give to someone who is running theory against an inexperienced debater just didn’t know as opposed to running theory against someone who’s intent was clearly to be a troll things will be fine. I’d prefer to not get 20 speaks but other people may think differently.

  • Anonymous

    Playing devil’s advocate for a minute, might it be that competing interpretations actually leads to inferior norms for debate because in practice it favors the neg, the better theory debater, or the most obscure interpretation? If theory really is an issue of deterring bad norms, then you wouldn’t want to decide the best norm using a biased method.

    The fact that much more favorable theory norms for the aff have emerged in the past year or two despite the prevalence of CI make me optimistic that this is not a major concern, but it is a consideration.

    • Daniel Imas

      You make a good point, though I wouldn’t call current norms favorable for the aff all. I think current trends in theory (i.e. AFC) are just reactionary mechanisms to the current neg win percentages. I have no idea what else could be called a favorable theory norm for the aff.

  • Anonymous

    How can debaters run reasonability without it turning into straight-up judge intervention?

    •  By warranting a brightline for what is reasonable eg: actual abuse.

      • Anonymous

        That seems to just beg the question of what “actual abuse” is. It seems to me that any brightline that is set up under reasonability will ultimately just terminate in judge intervention.

        • Daniel Imas

          This isn’t true at all. All you’re saying is that there are different conceptions of what constitutes actual abuse and debaters can justify why certain ones are better i.e. structural abuse in-round. Also, you’re not justifying why some amount of judge intervention is bad, which is what I say in my article is probably justified by theory debates.

        • Mathew Pregasen

          Reasonability can easily trigger a “demonstration type” of brightline; ie demonstrating how the abuse story actually prohibited you from making, running or executing arguments.  If you can prove that the theory shell is proved by the evidence why it excluded half of your DA’s for example and explain why those DA’s were critical, thats not judge intervention, thats the same thing as persuading the judge on any other ethical platform.  

          Reasonability only triggers intervention if you provide no metric to evaluate the shells and only leave it as an arbitrary meta-standard.  

          • Anonymous

            @ Mathew Pregasen

            Your example is still problematic because it’s still unclear where you draw the line of how much ground loss constitutes dropping your opponent? Your example seems to face the same problems as competing interpretations because if you’re saying that any prohibition from you running an argument is bad, marginal abuse can be won off of. On your point about intervention- it seems like theory debate would still devolve into what metric for evaluating theory is the “most reasonable” for debate

            @ Daniel Imas On your first point- I still think brightlines don’t solve for the harms of competing interps because they still can be used to justify marginal abuse stories. On your second point about judge intervention you say “Many of the voters that are run are consistent with some level of judge intervention. Arguments about why fairness is necessary to determine who has done the better debating assume that the judge can’t evaluate the substance of the round fairly without meriting some punishment for the other debater, which is a call that really only the judge can determine ” I disagree that voters are consistent w/ judge intervention because debaters usually warrant why substance has been skewed (ie time-skew arg about investing time on theory). You make it sound as if judges make an individual choice about whether to evaluate theory without justifying that choice with an in-round argument which is simply not true. Further, you make an unwarranted argument about how norms creation means judges have to use their own personal beliefs when they have the power to create a norm. This is also false because judges should vote off which debater is winning that their interpretation is better.

          • Daniel Imas

            Sure, they can be used to justify marginal abuse stories, but those would be unreasonable brightlines and can easily be argued away. Debaters warrant why some amount of time has been lost, not why that has in any significant way influenced the judge’s ability to determine who did the better debating. Also, it was the debater’s choice to run the theory argument instead of answering it substantively, which is why I’m not sure that this argument makes sense in the first place. I’m not saying judges make a choice whether to evaluate theory, but I’m saying it would be consistent with how the arguments are run for judges to exercise more discretion in theory debates. My argument regarding norms isn’t that judges have to, but that claiming that it sets norms for the debate necessarily implicates the judge who is also a participant in the debate community. If it’s an issue of setting norms for the community, the judge should be able to exercise discretion in what norms they are complicit in.

          • Reasonability is not the argument that the judge should decide “I think” about whether or not abuse has occurred/ground exists. It is the idea that you don’t need offense, that theory can be defeated on impact defense. Example

            “you didn’t number things, vi”
            “We used letters, thats just as clear as numbers”
            “you don’t have any offense for why letters are better than numbers, neg wins under competing interpretations”

            Reasonability is the idea that the team advocating letters can win in the absence of offense, because even if for some reason numbers would give the neg MORE ground letters provide sufficient ground. As such it requires the team arguing for reasonability to describe a threshold just like going for defense against any kind of argument requires.

  • 1. If everyone treated theory as “drop the argument,” except in circumstances where a loss was clearly justified, do you think competing interpretations would still ruin theory debate? 

    2. Your claim that showing that you haven’t harmed someone is enough to show that you’re fair seems more controversial than you acknowledge: 
    A. There is a big philosophical debate about whether moral concepts (including rightness, value, fairness, etc.) are person-affecting or impersonal in nature. Many believe that you can act wrongly, make an outcome worse, or treat others unfairly *even if* you haven’t made things worse for any particular person — e.g., your opponent. If an impersonal view is right, then your claim is mistaken. 
    B. I recall from the survey I took awhile ago that a solid majority of people believed the following: it’s wrong to act in ways that would make things worse if everyone were to do to them. That universalizability/rule-consequentialist view is a serious philosophical contender, and it justifies competing interpretations. (Rebar reminded me of the survey results, which I had forgotten — I’ll post them soon.) 

    3. I worry that, if everyone took a reasonability approach to theory, judges would just enforce what they antecedently believe about theory. I know many judges who rarely change their minds about theory issues, and they would just enforce their current beliefs dogmatically. I also worry that extremely close rounds with excellent debaters would come down to who the judge favors, since she could rely on reasonability as an excuse to vote for her favorite. 

    4. People underestimate really simple disadvantages to ridiculous theory interps. For example, most of us think that debate is better if students have a certain amount of freedom. That principle appeals to important impacts: autonomy fosters good decision-making, responsibility, critical thinking, and other educational benefits. Rules prohibiting minor practices with imperceptible harms (e.g. font size) would be bad because they would infringe on debaters’ freedom to choose. There are other concerns with theory rules that most of us find ridiculous — but debaters should have to think about *why* they’re ridiculous. 

    5. I now think the “risk of offense” argument relies on a misunderstanding. Judges and debaters often assume, when evaluating a competing interps debate, that the interp must be either better or worse than the counterinterp. But there are other options: CI could be equally as good as I; CI could be not worse than I, but not precisely better or equal; CI could be not better than I, but not precisely worse or equal; or it could be indeterminate whether CI is better or worse than I. If you believe (as some philosophers do) that most truths about relative goodness are imprecise, then a lot of BS “risk of offense” arguments on theory do not show that CI is worse than I. 

    • Daniel Imas

      1. This solves some of the issues with frivolous theory, but a) it’s unrealistic because no one will impose said restriction b) it doesn’t solve the accessibility arguments and c) there are scenarios in which is doesn’t make sense to reject the argument because it either constitutes an advocacy or rejecting the argument does nothing i.e. if challenging an overexclusive definition theoretically when the AC offense would fit under both definitions.

      2.
      A. You, as well as I do, know that none of these philosophical concepts are ever justified to any extent in rounds. I also have no idea why there would an impersonal harm if you literally did nothing that could be constituted as harming anyone besides accidentally not omitting to include 2 worlds in your interpretation that suddenly mean you justify every theory abuse possible. Moreover, the way theory voters are currently run is not consistent almost entirely with these types of justifications i.e. fairness is a gateway issue that’s necessary for determining who the better debater is. Lastly, if you want to defend this view, I would prefer that you actually make an argument for it instead of just referencing it as a possible defense because I think it still runs into the problems above.
      B. To be honest, the results of your survey don’t really mean much from my point of view. Everyone in debate could think competing interpretations is god’s gift to man – I still believe that it has had an overwhelmingly negative effect on the community. It’s also entirely arbitrary where you draw the line for a rule that they act according to i.e. this seems to bite into all of the issues that I have with “it’s not what you do, it’s what you justify” since your rule could be very specific but also very vague. Finally, I think if you ask people the direct question of competing interpretations vs. reasonability, they would probably have different opinions on that question. I, for example, have different considerations of value for fairness than I do other normative values like morality. You might claim that this is inconsistent, but I think it’s fairly reasonable to have different evaluative mechanisms for different things that we value.

      3. This is a fair concern, but a) this can be checked back by prefs since most judges with such views will put in their paradigms that they are disinclined to look at certain views b) this is not an intrinsic problem with reasonability (i.e. if judges don’t do that, we would be fine), while the problems I outline with competing interpretations are inescapable, so I’d say this is something we can solve back c) that would be a misinterpretation of what I advocate – judges shouldn’t base things entirely off their view and a significant portion of the theory debate should still be based on in-round argumentation, just with higher thresholds and more of a gut check d) judges already can vote for who they want on close theory debates anyways i.e. there are still split decisions where competing interpretations is run, implying there are justifiable decisions both ways e) at very least, it will discourage theory which is good in the long run because fewer of these scenarios will occur.

      4. This ignores all of the structural issues that I take with competing interpretations outlined above. It’s also incredibly difficult to the point where you would lose a lot of rounds by proving that this one violation of autonomy would outweigh a proven harm to fairness/education (assuming 13 pt font is better). That’s like trying to impact a means-based harm to a consequentialist standard – it doesn’t really make any sense and, at very least, the weighing is very superficial and uninformative. Also, call me crazy, but I don’t think this is something debaters should have to talk and defend about in round. Under competing interpretations, these types of arguments are encouraged, while under reasonability they are strongly discouraged. Why does everyone suddenly have an aversion to talking about the topic and instead incentivizing a debate over stupid, trivial things like font size. 

      5. Jake, as one of the strongest proponents of “risk of offense”, it seems like your claim in this last paragraph contradicts many of the other views that you hold to be true. Yes, people could claim that proof of relative goodness doesn’t meet some kind of standard of proof but a) that seems to collapse to a threshold-based interpretation of theory b) judges would still almost exclusively side with the proven abuse if they believe in risk of offense since that threshold could not exist and competing interps says vote for the better impact c) these scenarios rarely occur – I take issue with scenarios in which there is some marginal benefit i.e. 13 vs. 12 point font and that still meritting claims of punishment. These scenarios occur all the time and I think it’s more important that we check back against these commonplace issues than ones in which “CI could be equally as good as I; CI could be worse than I, but not precisely better or equal; CI could be not better than I, but not precisely worse or equal; or it could be indeterminate whether CI is better or worse than I” since these scenarios rarely, if ever, can really be argued.

      • The fact that I changed my mind is not an objection; you should congratulate me for being smarter than my former self! In any case, the “risk of offense” reason for why presumption is rarely necessary does not entail the “risk of offense” BS people say for why any risk of a link in favor of a sufficiently large impact dominates the debate (or, in this case, any risk of a link to a theory impact). The former is about whether you have any more reason to believe that one side’s advocacy is better than the other’s, which is in fact almost always true. The latter is a mistake about decision theory and expected value calculations. 

        Skipping 3 and 4. With 2, I was not trying to defend those views, although I think they’re both plausible. I was just saying that your assumptions were more controversial, and that the assumptions behind competing interpretations are more familiar, than you acknowledge. 

        Most important is the 1: drop the argument. You’re right: I can’t wave my magic wand to make everyone default to drop the argument with a higher threshold for drop the debater, but neither can you for reasonability, so that’s irrelevant. I will impose said restriction, as will you if you agree with me. 

        I think it solves for much of accessibility because it lowers the stakes. CI with drop the argument would definitely be better for the uninitiated than reasonability with drop the debater. Reasonability with drop the argument seems to make things too easy for the defender, so I think it would lead to a race to the bottom/sketchfest.

        You’re also right that it often doesn’t make sense to reject the argument. When the violation is an advocacy, I think “drop the debater” is justified. The cases I can think of there are T and fiat issues (i.e., scope and status). For T, I’m with you on reasonability. For fiat issues, I’m especially inclined towards competing interps, but those issues are pretty rare these days and easy to avoid. 

        • Daniel Imas

          Why would it be any different if someone wins defense on a theory standard, which is a reason to believe that advocacy is true, versus a substantive claim? Do you believe terminal defense then can exist on theory standards? I’m confused by your response here.

          I disagree with drop the argument making it lower stakes because that just incentivizes debaters to indict a greater scope of their opponent’s advocacy with their interpretation which, if they’re not familiar with competing interpretations, falls into the same accessibility issues. I also think there’s still something to be said for it encouraging theory be run instead of substantive responses because it’s easier to win that something is marginally unfair than, for example, that a certain framework is wrong, also disincentivizing out of round research.

          I probably agree with you on the drop the debater point and definitely on the T point. I haven’t really thought about it much for fiat issues since they don’t come up much.

          • You’re right, I was wrong about the “risk of offense” point being different. If most truths about relative goodness are imprecise, then that casts doubt on whether the judge always has reason to think that one advocacy is better than the other, so presumption is more plausible. You suggested earlier that imprecision and indeterminacy are rare in theory debates, but since most theory debates involve poor weighing, the comparisons often end up being imprecise or indeterminate (e.g., fairness vs education). Most judges now assume that they must decide one way or the other on the comparison, but if you accept imprecision and indeterminacy, that isn’t true. 

            I disagree with your prediction because generating offense would be more strategic than “drop the arg” theory. People run theory mostly to generate another layer they can win on. But I think we’re just speculating about what would happen in the very different world of “drop the argument” as the firm default. It’s hard to get empirical evidence on these sorts of things. How about you elevate your threshold for CI by a lot, and I elevate my threshold for drop the debater by a lot, and we’ll see how the improvements in theory debates compare? 

          • Daniel Imas

            I’m not totally sure what elevating my threshold for competing interpretations would involve. If that means requiring more proof for someone to win it, I’m not really sure how I could maintain that kind of standard consistently. I also think this would constitute a skewed result anyway, given that it depends heavily on who prefs us, which wouldn’t be a random sampling of debaters, especially give that we’re both fairly vocal about our views on theory and otherwise.

          • If you think it’s typically justified by blippy, incomplete arguments, then you could just not accept the blips and require valid arguments instead. Or, you might require that any of the implications commonly associated with competing interps be separately warranted. If it’s not raising the judge’s threshold, I’m not sure what your advocacy is. 

          • Daniel Imas

            Ok, I’m just not really sure what that would accomplish given what I’ve outlined above, though I have revised my paradigm to be more in line with what I outline in this article, not really for experimental reasons but more because I think it’s a better standard for debate and I’m sick of seeing bad theory rounds.

  • I definitely agree with you on the counter interps issue (ie, winning defense and/or offense should be sufficient to take out a shell – a counter interp should only be needed to access benefits specific to that counter interp or an RVI) but I don’t see why that is an issue with competing interps as opposed to just a silly requirement people have/what some people make it out to be (maybe that’s just unclear to me as to which you are saying).  

    Also – “A typical person’s response to someone claiming that they acted unfairly would be to dismiss that claim by arguing that they didn’t hurt them in any way. Under competing interpretations, this is insufficient because a “risk of offense” on the theory debate means that they would lose anyways and any contrived claim is enough because “it’s not what you do, it’s what you justify.” This further drives theory debate in a hopelessly inaccessible direction.” 

    Why can’t this just be checked back by answering the argument? I agree it’s absurd to say just because there is an interp we always evaluate some nebulous risk of offense, but my question here is this a reason we reject competing interps or again we just abandon poor and arbitrary preferences on it?

    And you’re absolutely spot on about “assumed justifications.” The worst part I see here is that it doesn’t seem half the time that it’s even competitive with some reasonable check. It may be the case we advocate different models of debate through literal competing interpretations, but I don’t understand why that is often assumed to be some extreme case where we do whatever would be the “most fair/educational” (the distinction being we can still have fair/educational debate if there’s no severe abuse) and not just deter things that are directly harmful to fairness/education.

    I think something else that should be highlighted is both the strategic value and value in deterring poor theory of using very specific counter interps. Often times one can exploit the problems in an original interp or just be really specific in the counter interp to check back a lot of the abuse claims, which makes it a lot harder for the other debater to leverage large abuse claims.

    Good article though, Daniel.

    • Daniel Imas

      Regarding the first thing, I don’t think this is something that has to be inherent to competing interps, but it is often advocated as a part of it, especially by many advocates of it. I agree, though, that competing interps can exist without it.

      In response to the reject the argument claim, my point is that competing interps is inconsistent with how we as people normally respond to claims of violation of rules – namely to claim that we didn’t violate the rule or that what we did doesn’t have any sort of implication, not that we were proactively MORE fair. Also, it’s unclear where we draw the line for rejecting the argument, especially since under competing interps we would seemingly want to deter any instantiations of abuse as much as possible.

      Your next point is about different views of competing interps. The view that I was taught, and that I see run most of the time in rounds, is that the interp which is more fair/educational should win, with any amount of unfairness/lack of education is enough to prefer one interp. That may just be a difference in how we’ve seen competing interps run, but I haven’t seen it run in the way you talk about and I’m not really sure how that would be employed.

      I agree that specific counterinterps are a good idea for deterring theory, but I outline above why that’s still problematic and why debaters shouldn’t be responsible for abuse that they didn’t commit just because it’s included under the text of their interpretation.

      • Anonymous

        I think you’re right that most of the time debaters assume that the most fair/educational interp should always win under CI, but if that is the root of the problem, why not call that assumption into question?

        I take from your article that you think the current prevalence of trivial theory shells is bad for debate. Perhaps, then, the harm of encouraging more trivial theory by voting on such a shell might outweigh the benefits of using 12- rather than 13-point font even if the debater proved that 12-point is marginally better. In cases like this where the offense on theory is marginal, the best norm to set for debate (in terms of fairness/education) could be the one that ignores the trivial theory altogether.

        A second argument that I think can be made is that fairness might not always be a “gateway issue” in cases of trivial theory. Perhaps the neg is far ahead on substance regardless of which interp you adopt, and there is reason to believe the neg would still be ahead without the marginal timeskew caused by theory (for example, both sides might have spent a proportional amount of each speech on theory, leaving no time skew at all). In cases like this where considering the better interp isn’t required to determine the better debater, the typical one sentence “fairness comes first because it’s a gateway to evaluating substance” doesn’t seem sufficient to justify voting on theory. The theory debater could make the additional argument that voting on theory is still more important (say, for deterrence) than voting on substance, even if evaluating substance is still an option. However, it shouldn’t be hard to win that the benefits of substantive debate outweigh the harms of 13-point font.

        It just seems obvious to me that if the current norms on theory (such as ‘must have counter-interp’, drop the debater, etc) are leading to pointless debates over font size and ellipses then these norms should actually be rejected under a competing interpretations paradigm because they aren’t the best for debate.

        • Daniel Imas

          Regarding your first point about ignoring the abuse from trivial theory shells, it is impossible to point to a line that is a good cut-off for when to ignore a theory shell, especially since that fundamentally seems to undermine a lot of the basis of competing interpretations, which is to discourage any harms to education/fairness. You may claim in response that reasonability also doesn’t appear to have a cut-off, but I outline above why I think judge gut-checks are appropriate. I also think it’s a lot easier to set up that brightline than it is to set one up for what constitutes a trivial theory shell and one of the purported benefits of competing interpretations is that it doesn’t involve judge intervention.

          Regarding your second point, this just points to another issue with competing interpretations – namely, that it doesn’t have anything to do with the theory voters that people read in round. The point of competing interpretations isn’t to stop abuse that skews the round, but to set norms (which is why it matters what your interpretation justifies and not just what you did in-round). If we accept your interpretation of this argument, it simply collapses to reasonability.

          • Anonymous

            I think the fundamental divide between competing interpretations and reasonability is on whether judge intervention is good or bad. Certainly, there are other aspects of theory commonly tied to CI (theory being a voter for deterrence, for example), but if these norms are bad for debate, then CI should reject them. If CI can reject the norms that lead to excessive theory without appealing to judge intervention, then it captures what is in my mind the most compelling benefit of reasonability.

            Your response as I understand it is that rejecting trivial theory shells inevitably requires intervention to determine the cut-off point. I don’t see why that’s the only solution. I’ll take a guess here and assume that you think that 12-point font is at least marginally better than 13-point but that the norm of debaters winning on “12-point good” theory is nevertheless bad for debate. If you have enough justification for this belief to intervene on it under reasonability, then there must be enough justification for a debater to argue for it under CI. 

            The example I gave is that a debater could respond to theory by pointing out the inevitable disadvantage of encouraging more theory whenever you vote for a theory shell. If this outweighs the other debater’s abuse story, then you have in round reasons warranted in terms of fairness and education for ignoring theory, and there is no need for intervention at all. It’s just a matter of debaters including the benefits of substantive debate into their calculations.

          • Daniel Imas

            I disagree that judge intervention is the only meaningful difference. I absolutely think that there are tons of other issues with competing interpretations i.e. everything outlined in the article above about accessibility. 

            At what point do we ignore a theory argument because it discourages theory? There is literally 0 way to weigh between these sorts of claims without establishing what constitutes a sufficient brightline. If you agree that there needs to be a brightline for when we ignore certain theory arguments, then that is a reasonability argument in and of itself. Then the difference becomes in the “it’s not what you do, it’s what you justify” part of competing interpretations, which I explain as bankrupt to theory debate above.

          • Anonymous

            Which is more important, deterring trivial theory or deterring 13-point font? A few arguments in favor of the former immediately come to mind. I would not say there is literally 0 way to weigh between these two. Evaluating the offense on both sides doesn’t seem any harder than adjudicating your average util debate.

            Yes, this creates a functional brightline below which theory wouldn’t matter. No, I don’t think it entails reasonability at all. The idea here doesn’t rely on intervention; it relies on debaters justifying in round why ignoring theory may be the best option. It also doesn’t rely on the judge ignoring theory if the debater is “fair enough” or if there just isn’t enough offense on theory. The debater still needs to prove that voting on substance is the *best* option, not just a good one.

            My point is not that if there is only miniscule offense on theory that the judge should just ignore it. My point is that if there is only miniscule offense on theory, the advantages of voting on substance might outweigh it. That comparison should be left to the debaters to decide.

          • Daniel Imas

            It’s much different than evaluating a util debate because it’s unclear what the possible impact of either is based on the round in which it occurs. 

            I think you’re misinterpreting what reasonability entails. Reasonability in and of itself doesn’t constitute judge intervention – people often conflate it to include it because they say judge’s will insert their own preferences, but it is entirely possible for debaters to argue what constitutes sufficient enough abuse to enforce some kind of punishment. That is a claim made by reasonability, not competing interpretations. The very notion of debating a brightline for what is sufficiently inherently involves some sort of proof that the theory abuse isn’t enough to justify a ballot because we should be looking to substance.

            Competing interpretations still falls into all of the other problems outlined in the article. In particular, no one has really addressed the accessibility claims.

          • You say, “It’s much different than evaluating a util debate because it’s unclear what the possible impact of either is based on the round in which it occurs.” Can you clarify? CI asks us to imagine what would happen if everyone accepted the rule in question. So it’s not specific to the impact in the round in which it occurs.

          • Daniel Imas

            My point is that most of these psychological clams about deterring people are usually vague and more or less assertions about how people will react. I think the stronger point, though, is that it seems to just collapse into a reasonability conception if we attempt to draw a brightline for what constitutes enough to merit punishment.