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.