A Reasonable Compromise to Competing Interpretations by Yang Yi

A Reasonable Compromise to Competing Interpretations

Take a survey on the state of debate, and one will find that there exists quite a great deal of dissatisfaction with regard the status quo conceptions of theory debate. Ever since competing interpretations effectively replaced reasonability as the model for evaluating debates, frivolity and trivialness have permeated. And while advocates of reasonability have had some impact, the most common arguments for reasonability are viewed as arbitrary and unpersuasive (for reasons I won’t go into detail here).

I think this view is problematic because it sets up an unnecessary binary- one of reasonability and competing interpretations. However, the two need not be mutually exclusive. In this article, I advocate for a system of reasonability under competing interpretations, in an effort to capture the benefits of both worlds. Run effectively, this approach would allow debaters (especially on the defensive side) to sidestep generic debates for why reasonability trumps competing interpretations. Instead, they can effectively concede the competing interpretations debate, while still garnering many of the benefits of reasonability or even set up multiple layers (reasonability comes first, but even if competing interpretations prevails, evaluate competing interpretations under reasonability).

But first off, what do I mean when I say reasonability under competing interpretations? At face value, the statement seems to contradict- competing interpretations mandates that the judge accept the “better” interpretation, however marginally better, whereas reasonability would justify the judge ignoring some marginal offense to a better interpretation so long as the alternative interpretation was “fair enough” or reasonable. What I mean by reasonability under competing interpretations probably falls under the former rather than the latter, that the judge should accept the “better” interpretation. Where reasonability comes in is in how the judge adjudicates what the “better” interpretation actually is.

One of the reasons theory debate is so difficult and esoteric is due to the fact that is so technical, requiring not only a wide knowledge of theory itself, but also the ability to execute, particularly on the line by line. More often than not, debaters do not execute as well as they should, or even well at all, leading judges to resolve issues such as which standard comes first, or who has a stronger link to such standard by themselves. Often when faced with the prospect of intervention, judges will vote on whom they believed more, or who they thought was marginally ahead.

At the very core, this is a paradigm of judging, that the judges ought to prefer arguments that they believe was justified more, no matter how marginally better that argument was justified. And like all judging paradigms, they can be challenged, especially within the confines of a theory debate. One example of a call to reasonability here could be that the onus is on the debater initiating theory debate to justify beyond a reasonable doubt that they are ahead on the voting issues and the benefit of the doubt is always afforded to the counter- interpretation. So if the judge finds that the neg. is marginally ahead on the reciprocity outweighs ground debate, but is not convinced, they will err in favor of the aff. even though the neg. was probably ahead.

While this may seem to fall into the trap that many other reasonability arguments, I believe that it can be justified and quite non-arbitrary. One particular argument the aff. can make is that running a theory shell is like an accusation, the neg. is accusing the aff. of being unfair/ not educational. The aff. can argue that with regards to accusations, it is better to operate under a paradigm similar to that of “innocent until proven guilty” or the AC is fair/ educational until proven otherwise. This would shift the burden of proof more heavily on the neg., justifying why the judge should side aff. on issues even if they believe the neg. is ahead.

And, debaters can introduce weighing arguments as well. For instance, if the neg. argues that this reasonability paradigm may lead to more abusive affs. getting away with abuse, the aff. could counter that this would also lead to less fair affs. getting branded as abusive and insert reasons why punishing “innocents,” even if we get more “guilty” people is worse than letting both the innocents and guilty free. Technically speaking, if push comes to shove, I think the aff. can even frame this “reasonability” argument as a competing interpretation, the interpretation that fair debaters ought not be punished in order to punish more abusive debaters. If the aff. chooses this route, the aff. does not even need to justify reasonability because they would offer a competing interpretation, just one on the paradigm of theory debate. And yet they would coopt many of the benefits of theory.

Strategically, there are many benefits to this alternative model of theory debate and this model should not be conflated with traditional reasonability. One key difference is under this model, you MUST have a competing interpretation, since you do effectively concede that theory is a matter of competing interpretations since you only argue that you use reasonability to evaluate which is the better interpretation. This isn’t necessarily harmful and could be leveraged against traditional neg. arguments against reasonability i.e. they don’t have to read an interpretation so it becomes very unclear what they actually defend.

Overall, I think this is a start to making theory debate less esoteric, yet still preserving all the sophistication (arguably even adding more nuance). I’ve only recently been thinking about this model of theory debate, so I apologize if certain parts are unclear or if you feel that there could be more elaboration (I haven’t fully conceptualized it myself either). My ultimate goal in this article was to put the idea out there, so the community could get feedback and determine whether this was a viable and welcome alternative to the current conception of theory.


  • Paras Kumar

    Yang–I think your solution of reasonability under competing interps is interesting but not viable as currently constructed. It seems like the arbitrariness that most people find with reasonability just gets pushed back a layer in your world, i.e. where is the line for “justifying beyond a reasonable doubt that you are ahead”?

    I feel you on the esoteric and frivolous nature of theory in the squo though. Here is my solution–what do you think?

    1. Make competing interps an issue of in round abuse. To clarify: you win if you show that your interp is “better”, with the constraint that the only relevant impacts back to fairness and education are standards that cause in round abuse.

    The benefit here is that the notion of its not what you do, its what you justify is no longer relevant. This means potential abuse scenarios automatically get thrown out. I’ve always found those scenarios absurd, since it relies on norm creation, which is empirically a very tenuous argument unless we discuss the extremes (e.g. multiple aprioris, contingent standards, multiple condo cp’s, 3 separate standards in the AC [shoutout to cameron baghai], etc.). I think the last few years has shown that theory is a strategic tool debaters will manipulate to win rounds, even if it comes at the cost of running contradictory shells/practices from one round to the next. Norm creation seems to be a farce.

    My solution also makes arguments like “you’ve literally watched me run this plan 10 times and you know there is a bunch of lit on this aff” much more persuasive. These arguments function as “bullshit checks”, but are largely underutilized in the squo due to the unverifiable nature of the claims and the “it’s not what you do, but its what you justify” arg. If all that matters is if THAT particular round is fair, it seems like the events leading up to the round become much more relevant. It doesn’t solve the issue of non-verifiability though…

    2. Judges need to start with the presumption that the net benefit from winning theory is rejecting the abusive argument in question, not voting down the abusive debater. I’ve really only heard 2 or 3 good args for reject the debater–time skew and deterrence. The time skew argument can be legitimate depending on the severity of the violation but the deterrence argument is again silly in my opinion (see above discussion about norm creation). The onus should be on the debater running theory to spend SIGNIFICANT time (upwards of at least 45 seconds) detailing exactly why the abusive strategy in question made it functionally impossible for them to win both substance and that their opponent was abusive.

    PS: To all you youngins following this conversation, Yang’s point about the lack of analysis in the squo about
    A) which standard has the largest impact back to fairness/education and
    B) isolation and comparison of internal links back to each individual standard
    is 100% spot on. It makes judging so much worse then it already is.

    PPS: I say my solution, but this really isn’t my unique idea at all. I think catherine and larry have both discussed it at lengths before. Not tryna steal no thunder.

    PPPS: Can we start attaching dope music to the end of posts? Here’s my next contribution–it has a 5000 to 16 like to dislike ratio. That’s legit

    • Fritz Pielstick

      For some reason, debaters seem to have forgotten that there is even a distinction between potential abuse and actual abuse at all. I think the last time I saw a debater answer theory by pointing out that none of the abuse claims actually occurred in the round was when I was like a 2nd year out. What happened? Maybe the cultish belief that THERE IS LITERALLY ALWAYS A RISK OF OFFENSE ALL THE TIME has led judges to not give much credence to args about potential abuse, on the premise that demonstrating the mere potential for abuse means there’s still, technically, a risk of actual abuse, so actual abuse still counts as an impact in the round. Or something.

    • Yang Yi

      Hey Paras, I think what we are saying isn’t all that different.

      With regards to your first point, a debater could easily make that claim under my model. Just like reading an argument about how a debater should only win theory if he/she is significantly ahead, a debater could just as easily make the argument that the judge should only evaluate competing interpretations through actual abuse. I feel many debaters just take competing interpretations for granted (competing interpretations because reasonability is arbitrary, next) without realizing that there are many paradigms for evaluating which paradigm is better. At the very core, that the judge ought to buy potential abuse, that they ought to always go with the argument that is won, no matter how slightly, is still a paradigm for how competing interpretations should be adjudicated. I believe that that paradigm can and should be challenged.

    • Yang Yi

      With regards to your second point, Ram asked me a similar question which I’ll post here.

      “As I understand it, your blend of the paradigms involves a sort of burden of proof or err towards the debater responding to theory consideration that means a judge wouldn’t vote for an interpretation that is marginally won. Would controlling the impact of theory address the harms of squo debate? Like in the case where competing interps and drop the debaters based upon norms creation is assumed, your paradigm arguments could imply drop the argument. Here’s an example- the aff defines ought as a moral obligation and reads a kant framework. The neg reads T ought means util as an offensive topicality interpretation, and the standards say non utilitarian frameworks allow for side constraints, triggered deflationary arguments, or reduce clash- which is exactly the type of potential abuse claim that indicts the possibility of more abusive affs under an interpretation. If the standards debate was close, or maybe if this was established as norm, the judge would simply reject the aff’s definition and evaluate offense through a util framework, regardless of reasons why T and/or competing interps implies drop the debater. Wouldn’t this accrue the benefits of deterring frivolous theory, since it’d no longer become an all deciding issue? I’m not sure, perhaps this is compatible with your view? Why did you consider a discussion of the punishment paradigm separate from this new proposed paradigm?”

      My reply: The burden of proof argument is just an example of what I mean, but is not the only thing that can be justified under what I am proposing. Your argument is compatible with my view, just not with my example. It’s not compatible with my example because in my example, the debater doesn’t take a stance on the drop argument/ debater, but instead just on how the judge determines who wins theory. I think it is perfectly acceptable for the aff. to read an alternative argument saying if the neg. is only marginally ahead, then instead of drop the debater, you drop the argument.

      • Paras Kumar


        I don’t really understand your paradigm. Can you clarify if my following description is accurate? I think the idea that

        CI = CI in the squo funneled through the meta-std of only in round abuse

        is a narrower interpretation of the solution you propose. We both seem to be advocating for a shift from the norm of CI, but differ in what that exact shift should be. You say the shift should be to put burden of proof on the person reading theory, thereby allowing “close” theory debates to err aff (or neg depending on who is responding to the shell). My solution doesn’t permit that. In my world, close debates should be resolved on the flow, and whoever controls the marginal link back to fairness or education should win the theory debate. However, what constitues a “link” to fairness or education is filtered through the lens of in round abuse.

        Is that correct? If so, I’ll continue forth with reasons I think a world with my (for lack of a better word) paradigm for evaluating theory is better.

        Hope college is doin you right my friend.


        PS: Regarding Ram’s question–I think controlling the impact to theory is a great start to addressing the harms in squo theory debate, but I don’t think it’s sufficient. A more coherent paradigm for deciding what is and is not considered abusive will go a long way to check back frivolous theory debates.

        I’d be happy to expand if you disagree or have questions.

        PPS: 14,000 to 300 ratio. Not bad

    • Yang Yi

      I also think debaters can get past arbitrariness. At the very worst, even if there is no brightline, that doesn’t mean a judge cannot tell whether a debater won convincingly or not. For instance, there doesn’t exist an exact brightline for when a child becomes an adult, but I can safely make the claim that an 80 year old man is an adult. At the very least, under my example, if the judge is so unsure, he should err on the person defending against theory (and there can be proactive justification for this).

      It’s important to also note that that was just an example. As you yourself mentioned, debaters can make arguments about why only actual abuse matters, etc., arguments that avoid the arbitrariness objection.