What Else is New? A Competing Interpretation on Theory Debate by Carlton Bone
While I have unquestionably been limited in my involvement with the debate community this past year, and much of the preceding year, a recent article entitled, “The Desolation of Theory” by Rebecca Kuang caught me by surprise. I have participated in my share of theory debates, I don’t think I could go as far as calling them “the bubonic plague”. Theory debates aren’t always perfect, but they are far from unsalvageable, and might be better off without articles that take such a pessimistic and critical view of theory.
Rebecca’s arguments assume several things about theory debate which she uses to construct a straw-man for the remainder of her article. She outlines the worst possible impact stories for voters, equivocates between different interpretations, and fails to justify an actual position. While I recognize she did preface her article by calling it a rant, for her to also say she hoped to persuade readers would at least suggest some coherency behind her arguments.
First, I want to challenge the notion that all theory debates stem from pure laziness. The suggestion is ludicrous. Debaters do not initiate theory because an argument is hard to answer and theory is the easy way out. Rather, I would suggest that debaters initiate theory simply because it is another strategic option available in the game: it’s just another argument. Rebecca’s logic suggests that framework debaters contest ethical theories not because it is another legitimate level of argumentation, but instead because contention level arguments are so hard to answer. Debaters have numerous levels to argue on, and choosing theory instead of the substance of an already poorly adapted and questionably legitimate counter-plan is hardly objectionable. Rebecca assumes, rather than arguing for, an outdated model of theory in which theory is strictly a tool to set rules for debate.
Because of the judge’s ability to decide the round on the criteria established in the round, it is important that standards, and voters be justified and impacted thoroughly. Theory jargon increases efficiency, while necessarily sacrificing some level of explanation. However as long as all parties understand the common terminology of the debate, I see no reason to require debaters to elaborate. Additionally, the precedent exists in basically every level of debate, from the increasing colloquial references to the value structure, to counter-plan structure. I feel, and the judges who have voted for me and others as well feel, that the stock warrants for a fairness/education voter are sufficient. Of course, any voter can be torn apart, just like Rebecca was so adeptly able to do with her examples, but the point is that these are warranted claims that, while can be debated, have the necessary strength to merit a ballot.
Theory can be a check on in round abuse, norm setting, or anywhere in between. Because of these principles, we are able to argue the concepts of education and fairness outside of a vacuum and in context of the debate at hand. This is again why the relative important of certain issues to each judge is so important. Because we have judges who vote on criteria in contexts of actual debates held we are able to establish communal norms. Each round debaters can have similar debates on the same issues and judges voting on warranted and sound arguments allows for the perpetuation of better practices. The best example of this is clearly the backlash a prioris recieved when they became more common place, as judges naturally became less tolerant and balance was restored. All that needed to happen were debates on the issue, not critical and borderline intolerant articles written by former debaters.
As for innovation in theory, we need to just look to some of the more successful theory debaters of recent times. All of whom were successful with the same stock arguments purely because of the time and effort they invested into crafting nuanced warrants for traditional voters and standards, and more clever interpretations for the same practices. For instance, we’ve all heard text and topic lit as standards, yet we are only compelled to reason with the arguments behind them when debaters provide specific examples of the literature being excluded, or the portions of text being excluded. Personally, one of my favorite theory debates was topicality, purely because they normally involved an evidenced based clash on definitional and logical constraints on the topic.
In regards to privillege I think Rebecca is confused. If she assumes all debaters enter rounds assuming a level playing field and giving no regard to external factors I am confused. If that were the case, would she expect for every one of her opponents to have a litany of debate coaches from a variety of different debate styles at their disposal or for my opponents to have access to Jeff Liu, unquestionably the best coach-basketball player off the market? Clearly not. The issue of privillege works both ways and has so many confounding variables to attempt and isolate one and account for the relative subjectivity it brings to the round is just absurd. I don’t assume the round to be found on a level playing field, rather I make arguments that rely purely on what I have rather than arguments that exploit what I don’t.
Furthermore, fairness is measured in degrees by most accounts, with things being more or less fair than compared items. To say because we don’t start from an equilibirum of fairness and therefore changes in the fairness throughout the round don’t matter are ridiculous. That’s how debate has to work, otherwise pull-ups would deserve a win becuase they had to debate an objectively better opponent, and debaters newer in the activity would deserve to win because they had fewer chances to actually compete. No matter how we look at it, there are always criteria that we can point at that cause things as being unfair, but theory as an argument, allows us to at least acknowledge those thigns that are in our control in the round, as judges and competitors, and fix them.
As for the specific examples Rebecca listed, I don’t feel the need to address each one. Of course these are all issues that create disparities to begin with, but the point Rebecca doesn’t make (Though to her credit she did promise more on it later) is why these disparities mean in-round abuses don’t matter. We’ve all been told two wrongs, don’t make a right, and one wrong makes everything less wrong right.
No matter your view, I think we should all be mindful of how we approach issues like this. It’s easy to get frustrated and “rant” about things that upset us. When we do that, however, we risk mocking and shaming debaters who in all reality just want to improve their skills and become more talented competitors. Because of this, if issues need to be discussed out of round its paramount we work on giving feedback and setting aside a lot of the emotional baggage that gets in the way of logical discussion. Otherwise we risk inflaming things and not only preventing resolution from happening but even regressing into poor debate styles due to a stubborn unwillingness to compromise.
Rebecca ends in an odd way. She suggests the capable, intelligent community can address these problems after thoroughly cutting down the validity of anyone who could feel differently than her. However, I couldn’t agree with her more in the importance of leaving resolution up to the community at large. Which is why we should set aside hurtful accusations and provide the support that comes from quality RFDs and patient Q and As after round, support that actually motivates debaters to change.