A Pessimistic View of Norms in LD by Salim Damerdji

Many LDers believe that the activity improves with time. The conventional wisdom goes something like this:

All else equal, a true argument beats out a false argument in round. Debaters copy and comply with good norms since it’s easier to win theory and K debates when you’re on the right side of the issue. Thus, good norms win out in the long run, and the activity improves with time.

In this article, I will outline several reasons to be more pessimistic about debate’s capacity to improve with time. As a rule of thumb, we should be skeptical towards most norms prevalent in debate.

For one, LD regularly faces collective memory loss, and it shows in our practices. As former LDers leave, they take their knowledge with them. Eight years ago, for instance, LDers thought deeply about the debate between truth testing and comparing worlds, whereas today the subject invites more self-confident posturing than substance.

It is certainly not like paradigms no longer matter; the dispute affects whether PICs affirm, whether the aff can say “perm do the neg – the CP / K is an instance of the resolution,” whether skepticism and permissibility and presumption matter, whether the aff can “Comply or Conflict” her way out of T violations, whether side-constraint NCs negate if the status quo violates the side-constraint as well, whether you even can drop the argument on T, and so on [1]. Yet, most debaters don’t have nuanced views at all on the paradigm debate.

Even our more nuanced views are built on debate intuitions that are unreliable for two reasons: it’s hard to have intuitions about an activity as esoteric as LD; and second, most debate intuitions are self-serving.

Regarding that first point, I’d wager that most of our debate intuitions are just principles we heard and internalized while at debate camp. Believe as we might, they are not sacrosanct. For instance, I wrote an article against the 50 States CP where I argued that the federal government should pass gun control if gun control is good and they know no other government agencies will pass adequate gun control [2]. (Pretty reasonable, right?) That view was sometimes misunderstood as an attack on all counterplans (neg fiat), a conclusion you could only draw if you replaced our everyday intuition that:

  • I should not take action X if I can pursue a better alternative.

with the jargon-packed pseudo-intuition that:

  • The only reason better alternatives matter in debate is because fiat makes them matter, and debaters can fiat the 50 States CP.

We can accept (A) and reject (B), which is why we can accept counterplans and reject the 50 States CP. We should be skeptical of remarks like (B). Though this abstract, jargon-packed remark sounds vaguely right, it ultimately obscures an important point about the limits of fiat.

My impression is that over-reliance on pseudo-intuition is a much more prevalent phenomenon than is commonly acknowledged. (End note #3 offers another example of a pseudo-intuition that causes confusion.) Plainly put, why should we have such confidence in intuitions about an activity as esoteric as LD? We only need to consider that a high school extracurricular activity has sleep-deprived teenagers shouting about meta-meta-theory and extinction scenarios to remind us that this activity is not always sensible [4]. Let’s be a little less confident in the convictions that led us to here to begin with.

The second reason debate intuitions are unreliable is that they tend to be self-serving. Consider the “you can do it too” argument. As a response to RVIs, “you can read theory too” seems like a legitimate, sensible argument to many. As a response to a prioris bad, “you can read a prioris too” seems self-evidently wrong to many. I’d conjecture that this difference stems from a self-serving bias against arguments the community dislikes: a prioris and RVIs. But self-serving intuitions are obviously unreliable.

The above considerations suggest that our ability to construct norms – in or out of round – is held back by regular collective memory loss and unreliable intuitions. There is a further challenge for creating norms in round: strategy doesn’t reward truth as much as we would like.

Let’s use Nebel T as a case study for how a great rule won’t win enough rounds to get widespread acceptance. (I am assuming here that Nebel T is true. If you disagree with Nebel T, any sidelined but good rule will do.) With enough ad-hoc rationalization, LARPers wrote comprehensive enough frontlines to deter people from reading Nebel T. Instead of challenging these LARPers on Nebel T, debaters realized it would be more strategic to avoid those frontlines and to instead read a different true position that invites fewer pre-written replies. Though truth helps win a debate round, there are many true arguments you can make against a position, and some face more resistance than others. If there is enough willpower among a segment of the debate community to keep a norm alive, they can do it. Because speeches are short, you only need to fill a few minutes of time with plausible arguments to satisfactorily defend a norm. Even if your opponent is on the more defensible side of the issue, they get no credit for having six minutes of good arguments for a norm if their speech time only permits spending two minutes on the issue. Technical skill and preparation will have more influence in who wins than truth since the highest preferred judges try not to intervene, and also because pre-written frontlines provide efficiency and strategy that make up for marginal differences in argument quality. Because of these factors, a sufficiently motivated debater can get good enough at defending a bad norm to deter opponents from going for an objection.

The opposite is also true. With sufficient motivation, debaters can – assuredly, with good intent – frontline a procedural objection that turns out to worsen debate. People often comply with a new norm not because that norm is compelling, but because it is burdensome to compile a defense against arguments in favor of that norm. People will add a disclaimer about brackets, not because brackets are bad, but because it’s often easier to comply with a stupid norm than to throw down against someone’s frontlines [4]. This is a single example to be sure, but the point does generalize to norms with more influence on how LDers debate [5]. This example in conjunction with the lessons we can learn from Nebel T suggests that strategy, not truth, can play the determinant role in which norms are strategic enough to win rounds and thus become widely adopted.

You might object that the fall of the a prioris proves that norm-setting works. Two replies. First, it may be the case that decisively bad norms (like a prioris) lose rounds, but marginally bad norms (like non-topical affs) do not. Second, a prioris have made a resurgence, at least in some parts of the country, for the same reason: preparation disparities can trump truth if one is sufficiently motivated.

Finally, the few people who shape LD norms at a given time have skewed incentives. The vast majority of LDers simply have too low of a profile to meaningfully impact LD norms. The people who do have influence – elite debaters and coaches – are smart, but often have more competitive incentive to be clever than to be right since clever arguments can justify surprising conclusions with strategic in-round implications. Furthermore, they have a competitive incentive to make debate harder for others, which can manifest in creating new rungs of an esoteric ladder for other competitors to climb up. Theory is an easy target for this criticism, but K, LARP, and philosophy debate are no strangers to deliberate obfuscation either.

So far I have shown that we should be skeptical of debate norms. When these norms are ill-conceived, as I argue happens often, they actually make the activity worse. Norms that complicate LD always have at least three disadvantages: first, learning how to adapt to these norms takes time; second, complicated and unpredictable rules make for less enjoyable competitions; third, they have the side-effect of encouraging conformity.

First, it is quite literally a waste of time to learn how to adapt to frivolous rules. The problem is especially poignant for newcomers or anyone with better things to do because every additional wrinkle in the activity increases the learning curve for LD [6]. It takes practically two years for debaters to just get the hang of the activity. While there is value in some norms that make LD more insular – like speed and philosophy debate – our activity as a whole is excessively intimidating. A less esoteric, more streamlined activity would turn fewer prospective students off. Even for the debaters who are willing to invest their time to learn debate esoterica, they have more important things to do! LD enjoys the participation of some of the smartest kids in the country. There’s value to them pursuing their academic obligations and other interests.

The second disadvantage is that LD becomes less enjoyable when it operates on complicated and unpredictable informal rules. Games are enjoyable primarily because we get to see our efforts pay off in victory. But unpredictable and complicated rules make us more likely to lose unpredictably in virtue of not knowing all the rules. Thus, debate is less enjoyable for as long as you don’t know all the informal norms involved and so lose unpredictably.

Third, I worry about the sort of people LD creates when our activity pressures newcomers to embrace many bizarre, highly questionable norms in order to be taken seriously and, consequently, in order to win. Do you remember when you were first told that you must always, always clarify the status of CPs in CX? Or that the magic words “prefer competing interpretations because reasonability is arbitrary” unlocks a trove of easy ways to win on theory? Personally, I pretended this stuff made sense and just went along. Like most LDers who last through senior year, I was deeply invested in LD, saw success in LD as the metric for intelligence, and was willing to jump through all these esoteric hurdles to prove myself. This isn’t good. It has been difficult to change debate’s overly-competitive culture, but it could be easier to ditch the endless number of informal rules and norms that young debaters are pressured to conform to in order to win. LD right now creates fantastic bureaucrats who can cite and manipulate norms to their ends, but there surely would be more value in encouraging real creativity rather than conformity. Of course, many great LDers do creatively re-imagine segments of LD, but this is currently a privilege reserved for the best, while the rest are asked to comply.

So, if this is all true, why are people so confident that LD improves with time? First, our confidence stems in part from not being forced to engage with eras of debate that think differently from us. Second, debaters are fantastic at rationalizing viewpoints, which makes them more confident in their view than is perhaps justified. Third, LDers personally identify with particular debate arguments, and so become more headstrong in the face of compelling rebuttals. Fourth, if you were not willing to conform to an endless list of half-baked rules, you would have been much more likely to have quite LD earlier. For those who have stayed, debate’s informal rules seem self-evident after hearing them from everyone around them.

Our activity may be constantly changing, but not always for the better. Progress is hard to come by, and genuine progress on one front is frequently accompanied by regress elsewhere. Many factors determine which norms become popular, and most of these factors are unrelated to how much these norms improve LD. Thus, we have good reason to be skeptical towards most norms prevalent in debate.

To recap, here are my main points:

  • We regularly face collective memory loss as debaters leave
  • Debate intuitions are unreliable because
    1. No one has intuitions about such an esoteric activity as LD
    2. Debate intuitions tend to be self-serving
  • Good norms don’t always become widely accepted because
    1. It’s easier to win by avoiding prep-outs
    2. There are other good answers to make to a position
    3. Speeches are too short to really test whether a norm is good
    4. Tech matters more than argument quality when you debate pre-written frontlines in front of tab judges
  • There is an incentivize to make clever, esoteric arguments that make debate harder for others.
  • Every norm we add:
    1. Takes time to learn
    2. Makes debate less predictable and more complicated, which makes LD less enjoyable
    3. Induces conformity in novices

My hope is that a clearer view of LD’s shortcomings will help us have a better view on how to make LD better than it is. Here are some cursory thoughts on how to improve debate.

As an in-round solution, debaters can advance a strong case for reasonability by observing that in-round truth infrequently tracks actual truth, that we should be pessimistic about many of the norms we try to justify even out of round, and thus we should avoid punishing debaters for not complying with frivolous norms since frivolous norms tend to make LD worse.

By extension, we should resist the tendency to override any and every substantive dispute with theory. For instance, if there is a substantive reason for why the 50 States CP doesn’t negate, we should reject theoretical reasons to pretend as though the 50 States CP does negate for the sake of some educational benefit. The more we allow theoretical concerns to trump substantive discussions, the less predictable and the more complicated the rules of LD become. Unpredictable rules make competitions plainly unenjoyable.

Out of round, we would do well to encourage First Year Outs to write and publish more articles. Doing so can help prevent their best insights disappear with the wind as they leave the activity. Articles also create permanent resources for newcomers to fully understand the justification behind norms that they’re taught. Plus, articles open up space for the community to question and challenge conventional wisdom in LD.

Last, I think we should strongly resist tendencies for judges to take more and more debate norms for granted [7]. The more that judges play the role of filling in arguments on behalf of debaters dropping buzzwords, the less accessible debate becomes for debaters unfamiliar with those buzzwords and informal norms. It also means that there is less of a requirement for debaters to know how to justify and fully defend the norms that they invoke. To avoid taking the activity into their own hands, judges should consider using the following threshold for a warranted argument: “could someone unfamiliar with this argument hear how their opponent explains it and conceivably understand it as I do?” If not, then it is not a complete argument. While there is more to say about this view, it at least seems initially promising in virtue of avoiding intervention, making debate more accessible, and helping us test our norms further.

Though there is reason to be pessimistic about our norms, we can still improve the activity for the better. I have made a few cursory recommendations, and while they may not be ideal solutions, they at least illustrate the general direction that LD should head in. Minimally, we need to stop acting as though LD norms are self-evidently good. This is especially true as we teach and judge novices who struggle to climb up a seemingly insurmountable learning curve. But more controversially, I want to suggest that we need to streamline the activity so that there are fewer frivolous rules and norms embedded into the fabric of LD. This includes both the norms that debaters enforce on each other as well as the norms that judges use to evaluate debates. In both cases, these norms waste our time, make debate less enjoyable, and discourage creativity.


[1] Carlton Bone wrote about more uncommon implications of the paradigm debate here. http://nsdupdate.com/2014/09/30/back-to-basics-clarifying-the-components-of-proper-framework-debate-by-carlton-bone/

[2] http://nsdupdate.com/2016/01/12/an-argument-against-the-states-cp-by-salim-damerdji/

[3] Here is another example. I have previously claimed that it is tempting but wrong to believe the pseudo-intuition that an RVI is equivalent to every claim that initiating false theory is abusive [a]. Suppose the neg complies with some aff spike, but argues the spike unfairly restricts neg strategy. Additionally, the neg claims this is a voting issue because substance is irreparably skewed once the neg had to read theory to thwart the possibility of debating a round under the unfair requirements of the spike. (This resembles a fairness voter on T.) The spike is not a voting issue for the aff (because the neg never violated the spike), but the NC theory is a voting issue for the neg. Thus, we have a case where the neg has claimed the aff’s theory argument is abusive without claiming it should be a Reciprocal Voting Issue.

[a] http://nsdupdate.com/2014/05/04/revisiting-intuitions-afc-bad-and-rvis-by-salim-damerdji/

[4] More shameless self-plugging: http://premierdebatetoday.com/2015/02/12/a-defense-of-brackets-by-salim-damerdji/

[5] People who disagree on debate ideology will of course disagree on which norms are half-baked and only gained acceptance through acquiescence. I would offer my list, but I’d rather not obscure my point by placing it adjacent to a cranky set of opinions.

[6] Dave McGinnis makes the case better than I can. http://nsdupdate.com/2012/01/31/has-ld-debate-become-too-esoteric/

[7] http://premierdebatetoday.com/2016/12/23/on-enthymemes-and-tab/


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.