The Death of Good Theory Debate by Stephen Scopa

While it seems many rounds I judge include “theory” in some form or another, the content of these debates seems much less stimulating and effective these days, as interpretations have become less substantive, counter-interps more unimaginative, and paradigm issues more prevalent than legitimate theoretical clash. Independent of the discussion of whether theory itself is good, it is important to investigate the norms of theory debate. Given that theory will inevitably be read, we should understand how to maximize its strategic, educational, and norms creation benefits. Theory debate serves these three central purposes, and it is best to isolate and discuss a few norms that have become very common, and serve the detriment of these main interests.

Theory serves a few very important roles in debate, independent of strategic considerations. The first is seemingly obvious, in that theory is used to set good norms for the activity. Theory greatly influences the evolution of debate practices, and theory can be a tool to keep bad practices in check with the ballot (see things like a prioris and multiple conditional counter-plans). The ultimate incentive for what arguments to read is undoubtedly whether the argument wins rounds, which means theory’s ability to win rounds against bad practices is essential to the prevention of bad or abusive norms. In the same way losing to a reps K might prevent you from using a specific word, theory makes debaters question what arguments they will read prior to debating to avoid losing to difficult shells to respond to. The trade-off for the ballot simply isn’t worth the possible benefit of reading the argument in the first place. However, certain practices within theory debate are necessary to set norms, as the shell has to: (1) be specific to the practice that is bad and (2) be a good enough argument for it to be difficult to respond to/win against. This will become particularly relevant when examining the way theory has evolved, and why it has become much more esoteric and frivolous, and as I will argue, less strategic.

The second benefit is directly related to the first, but is an avenue not often explored by theory debaters when it comes to argumentation: creating debate to mirror the interests of the debaters. Theory is quite simply a rule-making tool: the rules of debate can be created through the practice of theory in this similar norm-setting fashion. When the community decides a norm is abusive, the prevalence of a shell against that norm should also increase, in order to shape the space to be consistent with what debaters view as valuable. Even if the practice of reading theory itself isn’t educational, the norm setting model of theory is certainly valuable, insofar as we value the ability to make debate better and reflect the community’s interests. Without this ability, debaters would be solely subject to the institutional rules that are often disconnected from the community and resistant to change. Therefore, it seems, if we value debate, we must value the ability to read theory, and endorse the norm setting model.

The third benefit, that is increasingly important in the age of speech docs, is the critical thinking that theory debates require. Unlike any other type of debate, theory incentivizes debaters to think quickly to develop nuanced responses to shells and maximize the efficiency of their arguments in order to make the strongest arguments in the fewest words possible. The most common objection to this is that the content of theory debate is inconsequential in the real world, but there are two clear responses to this claim: First, the content of theory debates, if we are to believe my previous norm setting advantage, is indeed valuable insofar as it encourages debaters to think about the structure of debate itself, and creates students, coaches, and teachers that have a better understanding of what a good model of debate looks like. Secondly, even absent the content of these debates, the nature of theory debates requires a particular extemporaneous ability that has become increasingly absent in modern debate. While it is theoretically possible to script a response to some interpretations, the majority of theory debates should not be, and students gain important debate skills that are heightened in these debates, namely, critical thinking, efficiency, and extemporaneous speaking.  

Absent what is “good” for debate itself, the strategic value of theory seems to be highly underutilized, and when it is deployed, it is used fairly poorly in the form of absurdly obscure and frivolous shells. While my personal threshold for these is pretty low in relation to the circuit, they have certainly become ridiculous when the most common shells I’ve judged include font size, spec status, and highlighting theory – not to mention the number of aff’s with evaluate theory after the 1ar, implicit aff flex on everything, and side bias means vote aff. While (some of) these are (somewhat) clever (in a very bad way), they are highly susceptible to theoretical objections, and if debaters don’t want to debate them anymore, they need to use the power of norms creation to shut them out. This is precisely what I mean when I say that theory is used poorly, in that, debaters read bad shells and don’t capitalize on the opportunity to read good ones. If debaters chose to read theory against genuinely abusive practices, those practices would die down, but because theory in general has become somewhat taboo, the abusive use of theory itself has become the new bad norm. With no theory debaters to capitalize on the easy shell, these practices go unchecked and proliferate. It should also be noted that these frivolous shells fail the test of norms creation. Even if every debater who reads “evaluate the debate after the 1AR” wins, it is both impossible and absurd to adopt that as a new norm, as debaters can’t and won’t conform to it. Therefore, the response to bad practice should simply be utilizing theory against these debaters, both through the norms creation challenge, and the reading of new, inventive, or simply just true theory shells.

Beyond the strategic value of theory, and it’s lost art, there are several practices that I have seen clearly demonstrate the current problem with theory debate, and have led to the proliferation of more theory debates, simultaneously killing the quality and value of these debates.

First, and perhaps most importantly, is the proliferation of affirming/negating is harder arguments. These arguments seemed to start in response to theory in general, as affs tried to avoid having to deal with a theory debate at all, and used these arguments to avoid actual engagement in defending their model of debate. This seems like an easy way to circumvent losing to a theory debater, but this is precisely the problem. As affs began reading side bias, aff flex, and affirming is harder, negatives had to adapt and begin reading negating is harder arguments to compensate. This stems from (1) the reading of these argument in general (2) the lack of specification of how these arguments function/their implication, and (3) giving multiple (and often absurd) implications to these arguments. This has led to demonstratively bad and generic theory debates, as it has become people spamming each side is harder arguments, rather than actually debating why specific practices are bad. This is horrible for the most important aspect of theory, norm setting, as the aff being harder has nothing to do with the specific practice the aff has done that is abusive. It also removes the ability to garner any educational benefit or enhancement of debate skill from theory debates, as these arguments are generally pre-written, and do not require any thought about the content of the norms within debate. They also lead to more “theory” debates, as once one side reads them, the other necessarily has to, even if neither side had any intention on reading theory in the first place, because of the sketchy implications of these arguments. These arguments are particularly bad for debate, and kill the ability to engage in good theory debate, as well as pushing the direction of the round towards theory, which is antithetical to their original intent.

Similarly, the reading of paradigm issues in the aff seems particularly bad for the quality and quantity of theory debates. Reading a massive block of paradigm issues in the aff locks negative debaters into a double bind: that either (1) They respond to the paradigm issues in which case the aff doesn’t go for theory and we have wasted a significant portion of the debate on theory that we would not have otherwise or (2) They don’t respond to the paradigm issues in which case they will lose because you can read any shell and it outweighs anything else in the 1ar and 2n framing is impossible given the paradigm issues. Even in debates where the aff goes for theory in the 1ar, the theory debate has become so flooded with generic and blippy arguments, that it is extremely messy and un-educational. It also seems somewhat pointless, given that nobody reads “no 1ar theory” in the NC if there is no underview, which makes it more strategic for the aff to push the theory debate back a speech and go for the 2ar weighing against a 2n dump of paradigm issues, rather than giving the negative 2 speeches to respond to the shell you haven’t decided to read until the 1ar (this of course, has the caveat of if you are debating a notorious tricks debater and will definitely need 1ar theory). In any case, the loading up of paradigm issues in the aff decreases the quality of debates by encouraging generics and generally more messy debates, as well as increasing the quantity of these poor theory debates by demanding the negative to engage in a debate that neither debater may have planned on engaging in to begin with.

Despite this becoming a more common practice, it seems obvious that reading “converse of the interp” as a counter-interpretation harms the practice of norm setting. While this seems somewhat knit-picky, there is genuine value in preventing this norm for a few reasons. First, under a competing interpretations/norm-setting model, you are voting for a model of debate, and without an explicit interpretation you cannot set a norm for the round because “converse of the interp” does not provide a stable advocacy for you to endorse. This seems intuitive, as you should hold counter-interps to the same standard you hold regular interpretations, and no judge would not vote on an interpretation that said “converse of what the aff did”. Secondly, it seems particularly bad for theory education and critical thinking, as it incentivizes people to defend generic counter-interps which prevents actual argument generation and nuanced theory debate. Rather than thinking of a counter-interpretation that isolates the specific problem with the original shell and making arguments for why your specific practice is good, it is often the case debaters defend “the converse” and use aff/neg flex arguments to justify their counter-interps. This also uniquely hinders norms creation because it diminishes students’ deliberation about good debate norms, as they are not forced to be self-reflexive and generate reasons their specific practice is good, even if the generic shell may be true. This prevents the development of nuance and often leads to poor theory debates, even if the idea that it doesn’t establish a norm is a bit far-fetched. The implication of defending the converse is also extremely problematic for the debater defending themselves against theory, as it means (1) Risk of offense means you vote on the original shell, as there is only defense to the standards without any offensive reasons to prefer alternative model of debate and (2) Competing interps means you vote on the original shell since you cannot evaluate any of the arguments without a coherent counter-interp to endorse.

While I generally don’t believe debaters necessarily need to base their strategies off of what is good for debate, theory debate is unique, in that reading arguments that are better for debate makes them more strategic. In the context of theory, if debate would be better without a certain norm, it is more strategic to read a shell against it, because it is easier to win true shells. This seems intuitive, but debaters have shifted further towards the margins of theory debate, and the shells that once defeated bad norms have become underutilized. I suggest using the reasons you may dislike current theory norms as reasons for interpretations, and as I have outlined above, there seems to be no shortage of arguments against these models of debate.

The current landscape of theory debate is undoubtedly un-educational and quite annoying to judge and engage with, but the practice of theory itself is a necessary tool for debaters to check abuse, has strategic value, and provides educational benefits to students in the activity. Norms are, and have always been, extremely flexible, and hopefully debaters begin to use the tool that proliferated these bad norms to put an end to them. The problem is certainly not with the structure of theory itself, but with the attempt to subvert the process of norms creation with generic content that has killed the value of what is otherwise a strategic and necessary tool for the betterment of the activity.

As a concluding acknowledgement, I’d like to give a quick shout-out to Perry Beckett for helping me formulate some of the arguments in the article, as his views on debate are often similar to mine and he helped me think of some of the bad theory norms that he’s seen in debate over the past year.

Stephen Scopa is a coach for various independent students and American Heritage. His students have championed several tournaments, including Crestian (and RR) twice, Blue Key (and RR), Valley, and Sunvite, and his students have recorded 15 bids and many bid rounds. He is currently studying Philosophy and Religion at Florida State.

Grant Brown