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Pink Fluffy Unicorns Dancing on Rainbows, or, Theory is About What it Should Be

posted Apr 9, 2012, 11:32 AM by Anthony Severin   [ updated Apr 9, 2012, 11:33 AM ]

Many people think that debate theory is a game that one may only play before alumni judges. Theory, goes the idea, is an advanced topic taught only after one has mastered the fundamentals of debate; the stock issues, basic refutation, and so on. This is false. Theory is something that can and should be known and used by debaters of all skill levels.

Theory is the framework through which we argue. Theory decides what arguments are acceptable and which arguments are not acceptable. It is responsible for allocating value to certain arguments over others, and, most importantly, it establishes why these conditions/values exist. Just like composers must “feel” the most minute details of music theory, so it is also imperative that debaters develop a comprehension of the framework in which they argue.

When I coach my students, I look for an interest in learning more about theory. A debater once asked me "What rules exist for running a counterplan?" Instantly I knew that this particular debater was interested in excelling in debate (and willing to put in the work to do so), because it showed he was not just thinking about the arguments, but thinking about how the arguments fit together.

This is the power of theory debates: they define the framework through which your judge analyzes arguments. If you can manipulate this framework, you tilt the tables in your favor. Being able to argue that topical counterplans are legit gives you more options to beat an affirmative. Arguing that the affirmative must not specify their funding (that is, an o-spec, or over-specification) gives you a potential solvency take-out. Successfully arguing that the word “policy” actually means “pink fluffy unicorns dancing on rainbows” will destroy the affirmative's topicality defense (I may or may not have been tempted to do this before...). Teams will not be expecting you to force the judge to evaluate such assumptions, and you immediately gain an upper hand if they do not have an equal or greater understanding of theory.

Right. So theory is important. But isn't it confusing? It can be, yes. And theory debates are just annoying to a lay judge, right? Again, yes, it can be. Theory debates have gained these reputations because of shallow theory arguments that occur often. Take for instance the first round that I ever was forced to debate a major theory question. We, for some reason, decided to run a whole-resolutional case against a few friends of ours in front of a judge that had literally been pulled off of the street, handed a ballot and given a 30-second orientation. The negative ran a topical counterplan in response.

If ever was the time not to run a whole-resolutional case with some sketchy theory behind it that I didn't fully understand at the time, that would probably be it. The judge's ballot was basically like "Whaa-- huh? oh. Um. Yeah. Negative team was persuasive. Neg wins."-- and for good reason. We argued something like this: "but, but, but, uh, the negative can't do that because it's encompassed in our case. So we've got two affirmatives in the round... so just pick the real one!"

I'll cut to the chase and tell you where we truly went wrong: we never told the judge why any of this mattered. Why does it matter if the negative plan is encompassed in the affirmative case? Why should the judge think the negative's burden is to negate the resolution? Why should the judge be concerned if they abandon this burden? What does voting affirmative really mean in the context of this round? All of these questions point to a somewhat revolutionary statement which I hope will shape how you think about theory:

Theory is not about what is. Theory is about what should be.

That statement summarizes why we lost the round mentioned earlier. That statement summarizes why theory has gained the reputation that it has. It also summarizes how we can fix this disdain for theory.

I gained a reputation as one of the most technical debaters in my region. I wasn't afraid to run wacky arguments when pressed. I wasn't afraid to attempt to modify the ground my opponents stood on when I felt overmatched. I cannot remember ever losing a theory debate in front of a community judge. I occasionally lost to judges with extensive debate experience and thus predetermined biases, but rarely, if ever, to a community judge. This success stemmed from the practice of the above statement: "Theory is about what should be."

That's easier said than done, though. One must spend many hours reading, writing and researching about debate theory for even a relatively good comprehension. But more than anything, one should think about theory. Theory is simply that: theory. The current structure of debate has come about because people stopped to think about what framework would lead to the best debates. One of the first questions that I usually ask the debaters that I coach is “Why do you think that we establish the time limits that we do?” The answer is rather obvious - to ensure fairness and equal opportunity to present arguments -- but this question encourages the debaters to start thinking and questioning why we do certain things that are usually just taken for granted.

So. The next time you're faced with a theoretical argument, don't argue about what is. And, heavens to Betsy, please don't argue about debate “rules.” Think about what “should be.” Every time you explain to the judge why your topicality argument or vagueness, or whatever argument you may be running matters in the real world, debate gets better. 

Theory is not about what is. Theory is about what should be.