Structural Abuse, Substantive Advantages P1: A Criticism of the Burdens View by Salim Damerdji

I thank Martin Sigalow and Chris Kymn for their helpful input for this article.

1. Intro

Is theory just whining? Certainly, some theory arguments sound like whining; after all, some debaters claim that it is abusive to answer the affirmative’s framework because that makes it harder for them to win. But the community does seem to agree that practices like reading a prioris are legitimately abusive. So, when does a strategic advantage become an unfair advantage? The distinction between structural and substantive advantages aims to answer that question: structural advantages are real abuse; substantive advantages are just strategic[i].

As of now, there is no consensus on how to justify and unpack this distinction. In part one, I will discuss the shortcomings of The Burdens View, which I take to be the most common way of distinguishing between structural abuse and substantive advantages. In part two, I will argue that Bob Overing’s recent attempt to use the notion of “good debating” to flesh out the distinction is unproductive, and I will detour to explain why this account does not justify disclosure theory, as Overing suggests[ii]. In part three, I will close by suggesting alternatives to Overing’s view.

2. Background

It has never been clear how to delineate between structural abuse and substantive advantages. This discussion has been going on since at least 2012, and the community has yet to land on a consensus view. My impression, however, is that The Burdens View is the most common way of articulating the distinction.

The Burdens View says that structural abuse is establishing more winning conditions[iii] for yourself than for your opponent. Along these lines, Tom Placido writes that “NIBs and a prioris are classic examples of structural abuse.”[iv] In contrast, substantive advantages are the difficulties involved in satisfying a win condition. For example, reading a healthy variety of contentions may make your opponent’s life harder, but they are substantive – not structural – advantages and thus fair game.

The Burdens View helps combat frivolous theory. Questions of time skew, quality of ground, predictability and so on are irrelevant because the only metric for abuse that matters is whether someone has more win conditions than their opponent. If your arguments are compelling and unexpected and gain strategic time-tradeoffs, it sounds like you are just making “good arguments that are hard to answer,” and that is how everybody wins, as Emily Massey points out[v]. Many will agree this capacity to exclude frivolous theory is a plus for The Burdens View.

One frivolous theory shell that may survive is specification theory. The abuse story is as follows: without specifying every single part of your advocacy, you can shift burdens and force your opponent to answer two advocacies instead of one – that’s structural abuse. There are many replies to make, but here are two. First, the shift is what is structurally abusive, not the aff itself so the aff is not unfair on The Burdens View. Second, changing the meaning of the aff advocacy in the 1AR is just a new argument, and we already reject new arguments. The reason we accept 1AR cards about normal means is that clarification of the aff advocacy is unavoidable; all we can ask is that the clarification is consistent with what the aff already meant. When normal means is muddled, as a spec shell hopes to claim, a 1AR cannot declare a new stance since that changes the meaning of the aff[vi]. Thus, the neg can take any credible stance on normal means they prefer without having to worry about the 1AR de-linking their offense[vii].

You may wonder how The Burdens View fares with topicality:[viii] it seems hard to couch a limits standard or a ground standard in terms of structural abuse; both limits and ground say it is harder to prepare for your side, but that is not structural abuse as defined by The Burdens View. There is a workaround though. If the aff’s topicality interpretation permits truism affs that no reasonable person would find debatable, this is evidence that the aff’s topicality interpretation is not what the resolution meant. As a result, we can still have limits and ground standards that matter[ix].

The primary virtue of The Burdens View is how intuitive it seems. There is widespread consensus that NIBs and a prioris are unfair, whereas most other practices just seem strategic. It seems like this account gets the brightline correct, but the problem is that I have yet to hear a principled explanation[x] for why structural abuse is unfair, while substantive advantages are not. All we can say is something wishy-washy like:

  1. Structural abuse outweighs because of norm-setting. Norms about structural skews apply on every topic, whereas norms about substantive skews only last as long as the topic lasts[xi].


  1. Structural abuse outweighs because at least with substantive abuse you can weigh to neutralize other arguments under the burden[xii].

Debaters may find these generic, vacuous weighing standards useful. But for our purposes, they will not do. For starters, neither applies categorically. A counter-example to (A) is “must have a counter-solvency advocate;” it is clearly indicting substantive “abuse” but spreading that norm would affect more rounds than reaffirming an a prioris bad norm. A counter-example to (B) is the Polls NC; the capacity to weigh cannot remedy, for example, being granted turn ground that is factually incorrect.

Moreover, (A) and (B) are just weak pragmatic considerations that will easily be trumped by other weighing metrics. It would be unfortunate if this is the best we can do.

Here is a bigger problem for The Burdens View. Suppose the neg reads moral skepticism and turns the aff. This is structural abuse if anything is. Answering moral skepticism only shows that moral obligations exist, not that there is a moral obligation to affirm. It is not just hard to win a turn under the neg’s burden structure, moral skepticism is structurally unturnable and thus unfair according to The Burdens View. Here is the problem. Why do turns need to link in under the burden structure? You could instead show the implications of moral skepticism justify affirming[xiii]. You could argue, for instance, that if morality is a social construct about something fictional, then only polls can evaluate what those social constructs say about the resolution, and that polls affirm. You could argue conditional logic means skepticism affirms[xiv]. You could even argue that public universities hate moral skepticism, so they should still affirm just to spite the neg debater. Feel free to shake your head; I think these arguments are bad too. The problem for The Burdens View is that considerations about the quality of ground is irrelevant. This suggests that there is no distinction whatsoever between structural abuse and substantive advantages. When someone imposes a burden that is structurally unturnable, the real problem, if there is a problem, is that it can be hard to turn the implication of the burden. But this deflates the distinction between structural abuse and substantive advantages.

There are other explanations of the distinction between structural abuse and substantive advantages; as a judge, it sometimes feels like the distinction changes from round to round[xv]. Yet, where these accounts agree, they tend to point towards The Burdens View, which seems unsatisfying. It is entirely possible that another account of the distinction succeeds, and I would encourage anyone to add any perspective they may have[xvi].

In 2015, Overing and Scoggin resurfaced the debate with an alternative to The Burdens View. For them, structural abuse gives one side “an arbitrary advantage” and so prevents an “impartial decision about who is more skilled”[xvii]. In contrast, substantive advantages express debate skill and, consequently, matter to an impartial evaluation of skill.

That account, as it stood in 2015, was unhelpful: it was trivially true. Virtually everyone agrees that unfairness is bad insofar as it skews an impartial adjudication of skill. Though the account explains why structural abuse is real abuse while a substantive advantage is not, the story given is not robust enough to delineate between the two. As Overing has recently acknowledged,[xviii] that delineation would require an account of what is an arbitrary advantage and what is an expression of debate skill.

Fortunately for their view, Overing has recently offered an explanation for how we know what is an arbitrary advantage and what advantages express debate skill. He points out that we will need to tease out what skills are inherent to our idea of “good debating.” More on that next time.


[i] I share Emily Massey’s reservations about the term “substantive abuse.” If substantive abuse is no abuse at all, the name is a bit of a misnomer. At least within the context of discussing Bob and Scoggin’s views, the terms “structural advantage” and “substantive advantage” are perhaps more clear.


[iii] I follow Ryan Lawrence’s lead in avoiding the term “necessary but insufficient burden” because the word burden can be twisted to mean almost any task that aids you in winning the round, like winning solvency. Perhaps something similar can be said for “win condition,” but I think the term is more clear, at the least.



[vi] Lavanya Singh deserves credit for pushing me to develop a view that was perhaps underwhelming at first.

[vii] You might think this allows the neg to interpret the aff any way they want, but it does not. Even if the aff’s meaning is muddled, some interpretations of the aff advocacy will still be plainly incorrect.

[viii] This is a concern that Chris Kymn pointed out to me.

[ix] This may be preferable to how topicality proceeds in the status quo. Marginal links to fairness, when filtered through a semantics impact, would no longer be decisive on the T debate because no resolution is ever optimally fair and, as Jake Nebel helpfully reminds us, “sentences do not in general mean what it would be best for them to mean.”

[x] This may be stretching the truth. Consider this argument: Only structural abuse is real abuse. You can do speed drills and do better prep to overcome substantive skews, but only theory can rectify structural abuse [a].

At first glance this seems like a principled defense of The Burdens View, but I do not think it does enough to justify why substantive abuse is fair game. “Be a better debater” is not an adequate way of rectifying a skew my opponent introduced. More must be said about this argument to get it off the ground.

[a] I attribute this argument to my good friend Michael Harris. He used to read an argument like this one in his dump against time-skew justifications for RVIs.

[xi] This is an argument that Martin Sigalow mentioned to me when we discussed this article.

[xii] Former Lynbrook debater Dhruv Walia used to make this argument.

[xiii] Former Saint Louis Park debater Nick Tourville makes this argument here.

[xiv] Christian Tarsney offers a helpful strawman.

[xv] Chris Kymn and Martin Sigalow have had similar experiences.

[xvi] As it happens in LD, sometimes an idea ends up being subjected to a game of telephone that distorts the idea’s original insight.


[xviii] In part one of his series, Overing acknowledges that he and Scoggin “failed to explain how we know when one side’s advantage is derived from debate skill or from unfair behavior.”

Salim Damerdji

14445633_10154535728484812_862784756_nSalim was the 11th speaker and 11th seed at the 2014 TOC. His students at Mission San Jose and MVLA have earned 17 bids in two years, won two quarters bid tournaments, and reached quarters of TOC twice. Salim studies Philosophy and Statistical Science at UCSB, where he also works as a Campus Organizer for The Humane League.

Benjamin Koh