Structural Abuse, Substantive Advantages Part 2 of 3 by Salim Damerdji

In Structural Abuse, Substantive Advantages Part 2, Salim takes his argument into direct clash with Overing’s. 

3.1 Recap

Legitimate theory indicts abuse, not strategy. This raises the question: what’s the difference?

The Burdens View claims that structural abuse – that is, real abuse – consists in establishing more winning conditions for yourself than for your opponent. In part one, I argued that The Burdens View fails for two reasons: it lacks a principled justification, and it deflates its own way of distinguishing abuse from strategy.

So much for The Burdens View. In part three we will see if we can revive the view with some modifications. But for now, our attention turns to Overing’s view[i]. Structural abuse gives one side “an arbitrary advantage” and so prevents an “impartial decision about who is more skilled”[ii]. In contrast, substantive advantages flow from debate skill and, consequently, matter to an impartial evaluation of skill. To delineate between arbitrary advantages and advantages that express debate skill, Overing must tease out which skills inherent to the notion of “good debating.” In short, structural abuse occurs when one debater gains an advantage “from a tactic that does not reflect an intrinsic debate skill.”[iii]

3.2 Contingent and Intrinsic Skills

So, what is “good debating”? Marshall Thompson offers some vocabulary. Contingent skills “help win rounds given the way debate is played.” Intrinsic skills are skills that “debate should be set up to reward.” In the status quo, debate activities reward debaters with deep voices. But in an ideal world of debate, this would not be rewarded. Thus, talking in a deep voice is a contingent skill, not an intrinsic skill[iv]. Overing concludes that “an unfair advantage is gained from a tactic that does not reflect an intrinsic debate skill.”

There are two proposed tests that help flesh out what skills are intrinsic to the idea of “good debating.”

Thompson’s test is this: [v] we should ask if “someone who has mastered every debate skill but the one in question could be said to have perfected debate.”

Overing’s test is this: [vi] we should ask if the skill is found across debate events because “if it’s a good tactic everywhere there’s debating, then it just seems like good debating.”

Thompson’s test seems overly demanding for his own purposes. Perfect debating, to my mind, requires a great deal of contingent skills[vii]; perfect debaters should be prepared to win in suboptimal settings, i.e. with judges with quirky preferences or in circuits with questionable norms. Thus, the number of contingent skills encapsulated under the banner of “intrinsic skill” are too extensive to exclude any common practice.

(It is interesting to note that Thompson’s arguments against spikes seems far less plausible when the reader mentally translates ‘good debating’ as ‘good LD debating.’ Perhaps perfection at ‘good debating’ does not require you to flow a dozen blippy spikes. But surely perfection at ‘good LD debating’ does encompass flowing blippy spikes. After all, perfection is a high bar. The take-away is the same as before: in the context of LD, perfecting debate requires a great deal of merely contingent skills that may not be required in an ideal debate format.)

Perhaps Thompson would try to side-step this concern by saying that we should determine which skills are key to debate mastery in an ideal, not sub-optimal, world of debate. If so, then he cannot maintain his test as formulated since his test is about “perfect debating,” period. If he merely meant “perfect debating in an ideal world of debate,” then his test does not convey much information: I am not sure what an ideal world of debate looks like, let alone what perfection entails in that world.

The point of this whole project, as I understand it, is to bypass traditional theory debates. Typically, debaters argue “this practice is not fair or educational, so it does not constitute ‘good debating.’” But here the aim is to argue “this practice does not test ‘good debating’ at all, so it can’t be fair or educational.” The problem for Thompson is that his test will not succeed without some notion of a perfect world of debate that is presumably informed by fairness and education considerations[viii].

Overing’s test avoids those challenges. He can bypass traditional theory considerations because his test does not ask about what happens in an ideal world of LD[ix]. You could say his test is more modest in this way. Yet, it has its own shortcomings as well. There are only a handful of competitive events with insular communities that we can compare to LD, so our data set is somewhat limited. While Overing sees the prevalence of a practice across events as evidence of shared wisdom, others may see it as evidence that progressive coaches in one activity (policy) port their norms into other activities (LD or Parli).

Moreover, it seems like Overing’s test still has the difficulty of distinguishing between contingent skills and intrinsic skills when we try to identify the intrinsic skills tested in other activities. For instance, consider the deep voice example from at the start of this section. Many activities reward deep voices. Per Overing’s test, talking in a deep voice is a skill required by “good debating.” This seems far off the mark. We yield similar results when we consider practices like “cheating when we know we can get away with it” or “presenting bad evidence in a misleadingly favorable light.”

Let’s move on to more general problems with this project.

First, it seems absurd to think benefits from contingent debate skills are unfair. To take Marshall’s case about flowing, his argument justifies that being exceptionally good at flowing is, in fact, unfair because you’ll accrue benefits unrelated to “good debating.” If you cleverly circle voting issues on the flow and, in turn, give a crystal-clear overview, you have abused your opponent.

Second, it is worth recalling Chris Kymn’s In-Round View:[x]

“The ballot is a question of who did the better debating within a given round… In any competitive activity, no match is ever meant to determine that one team is always better than another (if such a concept is possible). The in-round constraint also explains the concepts of “upsets” that inevitably occur in sports or debate rounds”

This applies here too because Overing seems committed to saying that it is unfair to get an advantage in-round from a sub-optimal skill. Perhaps reading four theory shells is not “good debating,” but unbeknownst to Tom it’s the best way of answering Tom’s opponent since they haven’t practiced answering four shells before. Here, a contingent skill – knowing how to answer four shells – determines who wins. Yet, Overing’s model curiously claims this is abusive.

Third, every seemingly unfair position is evidence of an intrinsic skill: strategy. Writing a position that is harder to beat is evidence of a skill that should be rewarded. If structural abuse corresponds to practices that are not evidence of an intrinsic skill, then structural abuse does not exist; every practice is, at least, evidence of some degree of strategy[xi].

Fourth, the concept of “good debating” is an inherently fuzzy one. It might sound agreeable to everyone to stop bad debating, but what this means is less clear. We could develop a dozen more tests like Overing’s and I doubt we would have a different understanding of what constitutes “good debating.” There may be obvious cases of practices that don’t test good debating – like chucking your opponent’s laptop out the window – but we don’t need any tests to know that. Though the concept of “good debating” can do work for us when it comes to noncontroversial, extreme cases, I’m skeptical the notion can do much work for controversial cases like disclosure.

3.3 Moral Decency versus Debater Decency

I suggested just now that the concept of “good debating” is clear enough to exclude extreme practices like chucking your opponent’s laptop out the window. We can also appeal to basic moral decency to exclude these sorts of practices.

There are many basic moral norms that every participant agrees to. For instance, debaters don’t put viruses onto their opponent’s computer or rip up their opponent’s flow or chuck their opponent’s laptop out of the window. These norms reflect basic levels of moral decency; no one has to theorize about the nature of morality or about the nature of debate to know that you shouldn’t do those things. I think it is easy to justify punishing debaters who violate these norms.

First, I’ve argued before that even though the rules of LD are non-optional from an internal perspective, extreme cases of unethical action can justify leaving that internal perspective[xii]. In other words, if you see someone’s laptop sail through the window, you have strong enough reason to stop playing the game of LD and instead punish the troubled teen who did that.

Second, basic moral decency is non-optional for typical human beings. It unfair that only sociopaths could benefit from ripping up their opponent’s flow. Other people have a conscience.

We can punish violations of basic moral norms even when the violation happened before the round. So, if someone hacks their opponent’s Dropbox before the round, a judge aware of the situation should stop the round and not evaluate the line-by-line. I bring this example up because it’s the most compelling example Overing gives for why we should punish pre-round events that affect evaluations of in-round debate skill. I’m suggesting we can draw a different conclusion: we should punish these pre-round events not because they affect evaluations of in-round debate skill, but because they violate norms of basic moral decency.

To justify his view, Overing gives an example about PEDs being excluded from sports because they distort evaluations of intrinsic skill in their respective sports. This glosses over something important. In sports where using PEDs is considered cheating, those sports ban PEDs and test for them. But in Mr Olympia, the international bodybuilding competition, there is no drug testing and everyone takes steroids because it’s the only way they can compete on an equal playing field[xiii]. No one would say Arnold Schwarzenegger, the face of bodybuilding, was a cheater. Point being, pre-round events only constitute cheating when those events violate agreed upon rules of the activity. For LD, that would mean something like tournament rules saying what practices are and are not allowed. For the Greenhill tournament, that means mandatory disclosure. For every other tournament in the country, that does not mean mandatory disclosure.

The up-shot of this is that I can offer a better account than Bob for why it both seems unfair for someone to have a bunch of coaches and why this is not unfair in the sense relevant to justify a ballot story. But first, let’s motivate why this case is a problem for Overing at all. ‘Good debating’ does not seem to encompass parroting back arguments that a coach wrote before the round. It seems unfair that Debater A has three coaches help her before the round, whereas Debater B has no coach. In reply, Overing claims that coaches gather evidence, and reading good evidence tests your opponent’s ability to answer them. But by his own metric, it is not enough to test your opponent’s intrinsic skills; “an unfair advantage is gained from a tactic that does not reflect an intrinsic debate skill” (emphasis added)[xiv]. Put differently, hiring a coach must reflect an intrinsic debate skill – and that notion is preposterous.

I share Kymn’s intuition that it is unfair to be the lonewolf prepping against a big school debater with a huge coaching staff. (I would hope most people agree.) But it still is not the sort of unfairness relevant to a fairness voter. The coaching staff is evidence that your opponent came to be the better debater through unfair means, not that unfairness skews the judge’s evaluation of who ends up doing the better debating. This point generalizes. To quote Kymn:

“the theory shell is a qualifier on the judgment that the opponent came into the round a good debater. But if we accept the innocuous premise that the ballot is about debating in a given round, such a qualifier is irrelevant to the determination of the ballot.”[xv]

And so it is with disclosure. The non-disclosing debater will, all else equal, enter the round as the better debater because their arguments will be harder to answer. Perhaps they gained this advantage through an unfair means, but this is not relevant to the judge’s evaluation of who does the better debating in the round.

In summary, there are two types of pre-round actions we can punish in LD: those that violate tournament rules, and those that violate basic notions of moral decency. All other pre-round events are fair game. Non-disclosure, like having a huge coaching staff, is just one of many ways a debater can acquire an advantage and thereby enter the round as a better debater than they otherwise would have.

3.4 Wrap-up

In all, I’ve identified unique problems associated with Thompson’s test and Overing’s test for delineating intrinsic skills from contingent skills. But no matter which test you can devise, there are five more general problems with the project Overing is trying to pursue:

1) There are cases where it seems perfectly fine to benefit from a contingent debate skill.

2) The model makes it abusive to get an advantage from sub-optimal strategies.

3) No practice is structural abuse since practices always express some level of skill.

4) The notion of ‘good debating’ is too fuzzy to be helpful with grey area cases, which is every interesting case.

5) With few exceptions, ‘good debating’ does not necessitate pre-round events like disclosure to transpire.

Stay tuned for part three where I’ll go into discussion for alternative ways of combatting frivolous theory.

[i] I said before that I would discuss why disclosure does not test or express intrinsic debate skills. But Rahul Gosain’s recent article does a better job at that than I could have done.



[iv] There may be a point where a debater’s voice does, in fact, affect their ability to be the better debater. If your voice is as high-pitched as a dog whistle, surely the fact that your arguments are incomprehensible means you are far from a perfect debater.


[vi] From the comment section.

[vii] Needless to say, flowing well is probably part of being a perfect debater.

[viii] To be sure, Thompson’s arguments against spikes could still stand even if this specific way of hashing out “good debating” fails. I do not wish to engage the debate over spikes; I’m more interested in Overing’s use of this test to show what constitutes structural abuse.

[ix] Notably, Thompson is quite clear that intrinsic skills are skills that should be rewarded in an ideal world of debate. Overing, by contrast, says “perhaps in an ideal world of LD debate” (emphasis added). I think this suggests that Overing anticipated the sort of objection that I’ve levied against Thompson’s view


[xi] Chris Kymn suggested this argument to me. As he mentioned, it’s similar to the argument Emily Massey makes here:


[xiii] Perhaps this isn’t an ideal example. Mr Olympia does technically ban steroids, but it’s only to deflect legal responsibility. No one thinks the ban is meant to be obeyed; they agree to not have testing.



Benjamin Koh