Head 2 Head Returns: Fairness First

After a three year hiatus, NSD Update’s Head to Head Series Returns! Two people will argue back and forth on a controversial debate topic. They are presented with word restrictions and limits on time for when they must submit their responses. The winner will be declared upon the posting of the next “Head to Head.” Vote and let us know who you thought won!

In a rematch of R1 at the 2014 Glenbrooks, Adam Brown and Wesley Hu go head to head on the topic (recreated below as given to them)

Is “debate fairness” a useful means to create effective dialogue on K debates and the production of real world skills?

We here are explicitly referring to some of the most common arguments for why Fairness controls the internal link to the benefits of a Role of the Ballot (e.g. the Harris’13 and Galloway’07) Subtopics include: the usage of theory arguments against K affs, the role of topicality in K debates, and whether theory arguments axiomatically precede K arguments.

Adam Brown will be arguing that debate fairness is not a useful means, and Wesley will be defending the latter.


First, debate, as it exists now, is hugely exclusive in terms of gender, wealth, school size, and a multitude of other things. Inequalities, perceptions, underlying biases, and other imbalances affect every round, shifting how the judge, the debaters, and any spectators interact. As such, assuming that every slight imbalance of fairness ought to be met with punishment is absurd as it ignores the unavoidable unfair nature of debate (like everything else). If we go by this model, every round should result in theory debates, ultimately creating an activity void of important discussion. Instead, by affirming the unique exchanges and learning experiences that K debate brings to the table, we open up the potential for the debate to be truly liberatory.

Second, debate fairness forces a maintaining of status quo practices under the guise of equal conditions. Out of many repugnant standards, predictability may the worst, literally asking us to only do things that can be expected, regardless of the status quo’s flawed or offensive practices. This ability to silence approaches that lie outside of the status quo definitionally keeps those with repressed voices at the bottom.

Additionally, predictable arguments are in no way guaranteed to be educationally superior. Often times, the most predictable positions are met with the most recycled backfiles of responses (Wilderson, Kant, etc). Positions that risk unfairness while exploring new terrain open up the discussion to a new area in which dialogue is fresh and unique to the round, thus radically increasing the value of that specific commentary in that specific round, even if it is slightly less-drilled with than others. Only by embracing debate as something revolutionarily educational can we create a better community both inside and outside this activity.

Third, the cost of introducing theory into a debate is often overlooked but plays a crucial role in understanding how theory fits into the larger goal of making debate more educational. Theory debates themselves effectively waste the educational potential of a round, reducing the debate to a defense of the legitimacy of a position instead of discussing and questioning the arguments inside that position. This certainly improves debater’s technical skills, but falls short concerning the important discussions that many K’s offer, especially considering each debater’s tiny chance of hitting one another debater within one topic. Thus, for theory debates to be beneficial, they must make up for this destruction of a round that likely would’ve been very educational. Because theory debates fail to set overarching norms in most instances and when they do it is over a very large span of time (relative to a debate career), a more positive view of theory only creates the conditions for repetitive, often trivial discussions of fairness that ultimately amount to nothing. On top of this, these impacts are supercharged for debaters less able to go to many tournaments, as they’ll have even fewer rounds.

While some debates do culminate in a K over theory discussion, that is most always because of the proficiency and skill of the K debater, rejecting the intent of the debater who introduced theory. That debate, while very educational, has the exact same educational benefits as a substantive discussion of the K. Fourth, there is always an ability for any debater to engage with any position, regardless of external qualities (barring serious medical/emotional/etc issues that significantly change the round), whether it be through logical arguments, applying literature bases you are familiar with to a new topic, or anything else. Engaging with these topics allows for new understandings of important critical issues, thus preserving even a sliver of the potential of the round.”


Fairness creates better debates under all roles of the ballot.

First, there’s almost always a fair way to incorporate a particular literature base, even if not during a particular topic, at least during some topic(s) in a debaters career. This is guaranteed by the variety of topics, the norm of plans, and the ingenuity of link chains these days. This means any marginal benefit of fairness makes it good – we’re not choosing between fairness and creative critical arguments, but between the fair and unfair versions of them.

Second, fairness improves quality of engagement. When a debater reads multiple conditional Ks and goes for the conceded one, or extends their non-topical AC that the neg had no carded answers to, no one learns. Fairness gives both sides a chance to think and speak and maximize education.

Third, fairness improves the perceived legitimacy of arguments. Some Ks are often viewed just like low quality extinction disads or frivolous theory – that is, random off case positions used to spread out the aff for an easy win. When made fair, the K is more likely to be perceived of in an intellectually rigorous way rather than just another debate gimmick.

Fourth, unfair positions incentivize avoiding substance. Lots of judges like theory against particularly abusive K strategies (e.g. egregiously non-topical affs) and the argument is stronger. But if the aff is fair then frivolous arguments look and are silly, and debaters are more likely to talk about important issues.

On Adam’s first argument, the main problem is the distinction between fairness and equality. Both debaters cannot be exactly equal, but fairness concerns rules for practices in the round. If I were to challenge Lebron James in basketball, it would not be unfair that he is bigger than me, or has more time and money for training. It would be unfair if I could foul him while playing defense. Fairness in the theory debate is concerned with punishing debaters who do the equivalent of fouling – not debaters who do the equivalent of being big, or having time and money. If I outscored Lebron by hitting his arm every time he shot the ball, I’m not the better basketball player, in the same way that a debater who wins with a strategy of 4 a prioris and 3 conditional PICs isn’t truly the better debater. Furthermore, even if there isn’t a distinction, in round fairness is still uniquely good for engagement, so there would only be theory debates when in round fairness was violated and not every round like Adam says.

The predictability argument is flawed. First, criticism of one standard that debaters say links to fairness doesn’t mean fairness is bad. That would be like saying all disad scenarios are unlikely just because politics scenarios are unlikely. Second, neither change nor the status quo is inherently good or bad. Things can change for the worse or for the better. Preserving the status quo for fairness’s sake is good for every reason that fairness is good.

On the third argument, first, Adam reduces theory’s benefits to “technical skills” while overlooking much more. It forces quick thinking and creativity in a world filled with debaters reading the entirety of their rebuttals. It creates a sense of agency and empowerment for debaters to know they can define rules. Theory debate is often compared to technical legal settings. Second, even if theory decreases in round discussion, that’s fine since much of the education from creative positions is garnered during out of round research, whereas theory’s on the spot critical thinking benefits are much more in round. Third, Adam underestimates norm-setting’s potential. Within a season of Kevin Krotz leading the crusade for brackets theory, everyone was saying “bracketed for clarity/gendered language” at the top of their cases (as evidenced by many cases on the wiki/circuitdebater that year). I could give many more anecdotes.

The fourth argument is way too optimistic. If I read a non-topical aff defending the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, expecting the neg to claim the Copenhagen interpretation and defend that, only a handful of debaters could engage. Additionally, it is often not the content, but the deployment of arguments. Perhaps I can answer all four conditional PICs, but we never get any developed discussion because the neg just extends the one I undercover, so there’s no in round clash. Even if there is some way for a debater to try engaging, that engagement is much better and much more likely to happen if the position is fair.



First – Topics cover a large variety of policy/moral issues, but consistently fail to open up space for other discussions that lie outside these categories. For instance, discussions of the debate community’s accessibility are out of the scope of most any topic and are easily sidestepped by theory in many rounds, ultimately silencing discussion. The same often happens for unique interpretations of the resolution (metaphor, performance, etc), thus imposing a singular, majoritarian understanding of how things should be instead of how things can be. This culture legitimizes shells that impose obscenely strict limits, quelling important discussions in the name of miniscule increases in fairness.

Second – A debate over conditionality is an entirely separate issue. Proponents for critical discussion are against this practice as well as it deviates from a single thesis and creates conditions unlike real discussion. This is a just a weasel-y approach to debate, not an issue of fairness versus critical discussion. Wesley’s arguments concerning topicality lack an explanation as to why carded responses are good. In the first post, I addressed how an emphasis on predictability like this has incentivized backfile responses (as seen with nearly every Wilderson or Kant debate today) on top of a desire to maintain the status quo. Additionally, this post (among others) proves that (ex)debaters can have well thought out and important discussions without pre-cut arguments.

Third – There is no reason why the perceived legitimacy of arguments matters. An important discussion is still an important discussion regardless of how anyone perceives it. What matters is that people engage with positions. Additionally, lots of arguments are considered very silly but are still read by some of the best teams.

Fourth – If an argument is silly, a good debater should be able to beat it and win the round. If an argument is good, a good debater may struggle with it. This same idea applies to the issue of framework versus non-topical affs. Also, judge dispositions do not indicate the truthiness of something.

Conclusion of My Arguments

First – The crux of my first argument is that arguments for a leveled playing field are useless as they only take away from that rounds education. If this is true, then striving for fairness is much less beneficial than creating critical discussion. Additionally, Wesley’s point of in-round fairness being all that matters cannot be taken as the norm for theory given the prevalence of theory debates about out of round issues like disclosure theory and coin flip theory, among others. Finally, Wesley’s argument that “there would only be theory debates when in round fairness was violated” is horrendously optimistic about some debater’s ability to resist reading theory at every instance. My argument concerning predictability and its flaws, while not applicable to every single discussion of fairness, does comment on a large portion of them.

Second – There is no reason why theory is the only argument that creates quick and creative thinking in debate. Instead, it seems like one of the worst things for this, as theory is most always uses the same structure, backfiles, sets of standards, and scenarios. Additionally, theory as a tool of empowerment seems extremely counter-intuitive, given it’s removed application and inability to stretch across rounds. Finally, Wesley’s praising of quick thinking and creativity seems very hypocritical given his earlier criticism of non-topical affs and desire to have pre-cut cards to respond to them with.

Third – Wesley’s example of bracket theory misunderstands how norm setting works. The small blurb read at the start of every round had almost no effect on their case but had a huge potential to avoid a loss. When there’s no tradeoff, it’s not really a hard decision. Despite this, we’ve already largely seen that norm go away, proving that theory isn’t norm setting but norm introducing. Meaningful shifts towards critical discussion would require something much larger, strongly suggesting that theory isn’t the answer.

Fourth – There are many ways to engage in this position, especially because the negative isn’t constrained to the Copenhagen interpretation, but simply to problematize the 1AC. Many K’s or a questioning of science overall or your means to reach your conclusion are all viable. Additionally, if not many debaters can understand a position, then not many judges will either, so a debater would have to explain quite a bit. Finally, important subjects push debaters to learn about different subjects and their interaction between things, often shifting the overall community towards better norms that outweigh small losses of fairness.


This point concerning four conditional PICs is just another weasel-y approach that’s bad for both viewpoints. At worst, this shows that extreme violations of fairness are bad for critical discussion, but that critical discussion is not helped by focuses on fairness. This makes sense, as most things in extreme portions are destabilizing for anything else.


I apologize since I’ll be covering the arguments in the prior speeches a little bit out of order to emphasize how they interact. Where I wanted to start was Adam’s fourth point: that you can engage any position. Adam says there are many approaches to negating a Many-Worlds Interpretation affirmative – I agree – but these all require a high level of technical knowledge and research. You cannot just decide to criticize or question science yourself with no prepared evidence of science’s historical failings. My argument is that there is no way for the neg to reasonably do sufficient research against this aff and all the other potential non-topical affs (a literally limitless number). We fill our dropboxes to the limit with resolutional prep, and every non-topical aff is another resolution. This ties in with my argument that fair conditions are necessary for good dialogue and engagement, which makes them essential for talking about important issues.

Adam tries to dismiss multiple conditional PICs as some “weasel-y approach” that proponents of critical discussion dislike as well. But what does “weasel-y” mean? It seems to me that a “weasel-y” argument is one that is unfair since it sneakily subverts common standards of good debating in the same way that fouling subverts common standards of good basketball. Such an argument is a tricky argument – and theory was first popularized against arguments we literally call tricks, like a prioris and skep triggers. And even if “weasel-y” isn’t equivalent to unfair, it does seem that fair rules for debate are good because excluding structurally unfair approaches to debate also gets rid of the “weasel-y” ones.

On the “line by line” of Adam’s arguments (in which I will also “extend” mine):

Regarding his first, Adam brings up disclosure and coin flip theory as evidence that fairness isn’t just in round. But perhaps this is just a reason that those theory arguments are illegitimate, and though they’re common, people shouldn’t read them. Perhaps the proximity they have to the debate round and how closely they affect the round make them in round – particularly disclosure (Bob Overing characterizes disclosure theory not as indicting failure to disclose, but as indicting reading an undisclosed argument – entirely an in-round decision and practice). Adam has no other answer to the intuitive distinction we have between in-game fairness and absolute equality for any other activity (fouling is not allowed in basketball but being bigger is fine).

On the second, it seems Adam underestimates the creative potential for theory, which entails uniquely high amounts of in-round argument generation. We are increasingly moving away from the shell structure, writing new interpretations that make old backfiles useless (no backfile has a counterinterp to a specific, six-planked shell), and writing tons of new standards (Sunhee Simon read disclosure with a standard of ‘solidarity’ – it probably wasn’t a link to fairness, but the point of creativity within theory still stands). It is liberating to be making all these arguments oneself, and it promotes all sorts of creative thinking.

Notably, there’s also a huge difference between extemping a counterinterp to a theory shell and extemping a 1NC strategy against a non-topical aff about, say, ableism. Whether or not a burden is reciprocal is something debaters can just think through, but they cannot just dive unprepared into a discussion of the medical versus social models of disability.

On the third, Adam’s own dismissal of my arguments about legitimacy and perception contradicts his view that theory doesn’t set norms and only distracts from the issues Ks bring up. Because Ks do bring up important issues, that’s why their being fair would be a good thing. When Ks are viewed as just one other category of tricky debate gimmicks, they’re debated in a less serious way. Perceived illegitimacy doesn’t make the K unimportant – it makes it less likely to be treated as important. Additionally, even the most dedicated theory debaters don’t read “Ks bad.” The fairer Ks become, the more and more asinine theory does, and the more and more likely it is that debaters engage in important conversations about oppression. Judge dispositions don’t indicate truthiness, but they do affect what arguments debaters choose to go for.

And again, I disagree with Adam on norm-setting’s potential. Obviously neither of us have empirics or studies on theory’s ability to set norms. But there are quite a number of anecdotes (prevalence of solvency advocates, decline of skep triggers, prevalence of trigger warnings etc.). Clarifying the intent of bracketing evidence is a small alteration to a case, but most theory interpretations indict the way arguments are read and likely can be met with easy fixes to cases. And this isn’t even important if theory debates themselves are also educationally valuable.

Thanks so much to Adam for having this H2H with me and Ben for organizing it!

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Think they made all the right arguments? Did they miss something? Are they wrong? Are they right? Let us know in the comments down below!

Want to suggest topics or go head to head with somebody else? Message Ben Koh on facebook. We’re looking for contestants still!

Adam Brown

abrown-2016-10-2-300x300Adam debated for Episcopal High School in Houston, Texas for three years. He qualified to TFA State (twice), NSDA Nationals, and the TOC, appearing in outrounds of TFA State, and Nationals, and many national tournaments, ultimately receiving two bids to the TOC. Adam was a student twice at TDC before becoming a staff member there this summer. He will be attending Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio in the fall, looking to double major in philosophy and English with a focus on post-modern philosophy and literature. As a debater and coach, Adam is especially interested in critical pedagogy, post-modern philosophy, argumentation strategy, and perceptual dominance. Outside of debate, Adam likes listening to music, skateboarding, reading, and hanging out with friends.

Wesley Hu

lexfinalistWesley debated for four years for Millburn High School and served as team captain his junior and senior years. He earned five TOC bids, including winning the Newark Invitational and reaching finals of Big Lex. During his senior year, he earned numerous speaker awards, including top speaker at Columbia, second at Harvard, and third at Ridge, Newark, and the TOC. He also co-championed the Penn RR and finished with a winning record at the TOC. At the New Jersey state tournament, he reached semifinals, and in his junior year qualified to NSDA nationals. In the fall, he plans to study Mathematics and Philosophy at Columbia University.

Benjamin Koh