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.


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?