The Need to Streamline Theory Debate
Article by Fritz Pielstick

Theory debates, far more often than case debates, are messy and difficult to properly resolve. This problem is compounded by the fact that the short speech times in LD incentivize debaters to overinvest time on the theory debate, which causes the messy theory debate to grow like a horror movie monster and swallow the round whole.

For what it’s worth, I think that the current norms for theory debate structure have logical basis. Separating the theory debate into four components—one for your interpretation of what debate ought to be, one for why your opponent is inconsistent with that interpretation, one for why your interpretation is good for debate, and one for what we do about it—is a logical and useful way to indict in-round practices in debate. In fact, theory debate is probably one of the few things that LD does better than policy. Most theory debates in policy consist of an interpretation, followed by a laundry list of reasons to prefer the interpretation, and that’s it. LD theory is far more developed and debaters are expected to do more rigorous debating on theory.

The problem is that, too often, even reasonably skilled debaters don’t properly execute the theory debate because of the numerous demands of winning a theory debate. The proliferation of competing interpretations among debaters who initiate the theory debates has triggered an explosion of sloppy interpretation vs. counter-interpretation throw-downs that are marred by poor weighing and sloppy execution. This is not entirely the fault of debaters or coaches. I have watched debates between very skilled debaters in which both debaters were doing a very poor job weighing internal links at the standards level, or explaining why they were consistent or inconsistent with their opponent’s interpretation, or just debating theory in general.

Simply put, I think that theory debates are far too complicated for their own good.

Issue #1: Comparison (or lack thereof) of internal links at the standards level

Under our current system of constructing theory shells, the third component of the shell is standards. Here, debaters are expected to accomplish two tasks. First, they must provide an internal link between their interpretation and whichever standard(s) for fairness they are advocating. Second, they must provide an internal link between the standard(s) and the voter(s) that they advocate. Most competent theory debaters who initiate the theory debate will check both of these boxes when they read the shell. Things get complicated and sloppy when their opponent reads a counter-interpretation and, in an attempt to generate offense at the standards level, starts comparing internal links. Too often, neither debater does a sufficient job of weighing out internal links. Due to a combination of time constraints (most theory debates are initiated in the 1N, so most counter-interpretations are presented in the 1AR), and a tendency to get bogged down in the tech of a theory debate, these boxes just don’t get checked. Or, if they do get checked, the “weighing” that occurs at the standards level is poor. In one prelim round at Cal recently, a negative debater initiated theory in the 1N. In the 2N, this debater argued that “Strategy outweighs ground because without strategy, ground does not matter.” The 2AR then argued, verbatim, that “Ground outweighs strategy because strategy doesn’t matter if you have no ground.” That’s not weighing. That’s not even making an argument. That’s just stating the opposite of the other person’s claim. But, neither of those debaters was even that bad at theory. All things considered, that was probably a slightly above-average theory debate. At least there was some attempt to weigh internal links to fairness. That often doesn’t happen at all. In many cases, the counter-interpretation will advocate a different standard for fairness than the original interpretation, and both debaters will go really hard for the internal link between their interpretation and the standard, and nothing else. This makes theory debates really, really difficult to resolve.

Issue #2: Comparison of voters

Debaters often initiate a theory debate and advocate for two voters, and then proceed to win the internal link debate to one voter, but lose the internal link debate to the other, with no comparison between the voters. This happened in another round at Berkeley. The affirmative debater, due to time constraints, extended only his internal links to fairness, and then gave new 2AR weighing between fairness and education, even though his shell in the 1AR had internal links to both, as did the counter-interpretation that the negative debater read in the 2N. I was willing to pull the trigger on the comparison between fairness and education, but another judge on the panel pointed out that weighing in a vacuum between fairness and education does not make sense because fairness and education are just impacts, and the size of the link of course determines the size of the impact. He is probably correct. Even if fairness is more important than education, a small harm to fairness is probably less important than a large harm to education. But I shudder to think how theory debates would play out if debaters were expected to, in this order, weigh the internal links between their interpretation and the standard, then weigh the internal links between their standard and the voter, and then weigh the between voters, and then do impact analysis on the theory debate, in which they address not only the importance of the two voters, but also how the strength of link they are getting on the theory debate determines the relative size of the impact they are getting on the theory debate. I’ve never seen a theory debate play out like this, and I hope I don’t have to. I’ve been comfortable granting (possibly undeserved) credence to “fairness-versus-education-in-a-vacuum” weighing. Most judges have. But, if we are going to expect debaters to not only do necessary weighing at the standards level, but also give explicit impact analysis on the theory debate, in which they weigh voters relative to their strength of link, we are asking for a slew of irresolvable theory debates. Debaters just aren’t good enough at debate to remember to check all of those boxes. It’s not because debaters are bad, it’s because LD theory debate is often too complicated to be executed properly, particularly at high speeds in short speeches. Asking debaters to accomplish all of those tasks is placing effective theory debating out of the reach of all but the most skilled of theory debaters, which seems to be pointless and uneducational.

Also, much of the weighing that occurs between fairness and education, even when it is in a vacuum, is poor. Usually, weighing is just generic “X controls the internal link Y” analysis with no comparison. This also happened at Berkeley. One debater claimed that fairness controlled the internal link to education, and another debater claimed that education controlled the internal link to fairness, and I was forced to decide whose arguments were less poorly warranted.

Possible Solutions:

This is where things get tricky. I can’t unilaterally offer a solution to make theory debate less of a headache for all involved. That requires more development of norms in the community. Sadly, the only strong way to develop norms, in round, about how theory ought to be debated is through so-called “meta-theory,” which is still subject to the same issues of convolution and messiness, because it is structurally identical to the arguments that it indicts.

But, here are some possible solutions, which I think could potentially alleviate some of these problems:

-Give more credence to reasonability arguments on theory. This would seem to eliminate many messy “interpretation vs. counter-interpretation” debates in which debaters are required, but often fail, to do effective weighing at the standards level. Granting that debaters can be “reasonably fair” would exempt debaters who are answering theory from having to do the rigorous weighing of internal links at the standard. The cult of competing interpretations has catalyzed many of the problems I have indicated, by forcing the expectation upon all the debaters that they must win comparative offense at the standard—something they often fail to do. There may be compelling arguments for a competing interpretations paradigm for evaluating theory, but imposing that paradigm onto theory debates often fosters these messy and irresolvable debates.

-Separate theory into 5 components, instead of 4. This may seem counterintuitive, but it is plausible that separating the “standards” part of the shell into two components—one for the internal link between the interpretation and the standard, and one for the internal link between the standard and the voter—might encourage debaters to more carefully weigh out both internal links, and also make it abundantly clear when a debater has not done enough work on the theory debate to justify their interpretation. Deliberately separating the shell into components that each need to be addressed may serve as a reminder to check all of the boxes.

-Don’t read multiple theory standards that each internally link to the same voter (or different voters). Instead of reading separate standards for fairness (i.e., time, ground, and reciprocity) read one standard, and then present multiple internal links between your interpretation and that standard. This would eliminate debates in which both debaters have a risk of a link between a certain theory standard and the voter, and there is no comparison between the two. Focus the debate solely on one theory standard, and the execution of the theory debate will probably be cleaner on both sides. If both debaters agree to debate theory according to one standard for fairness, the debater reading the counter-interpretation only has to answer back one level of internal links, which saves everyone a lot of headache at the standards level. This solution seems particularly useful because, all things considered, most theory standards probably internally link to ground in some respect.