LD explained to Policy

I wrote the below as a missive to a working group of college debate coaches who are exploring alternatives to their standard resolution style.  In the past, policy resolutions have taken the form of “The US Federal Government should < do X >”.  One theory of how to resolve the ongoing dispute between traditional and critical/performance squads is reworking resolutions; agent-less resolutions such as we use in LD are one proposal.  Since we have direct experience with those, I wrote the below to give some words of insight of how resolutions and debates play out in LD.  I’m posting it here because it may be a somewhat useful survey of the current state of LD debate.

How LD agentless resolutions work in practice;
or,
How we learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.

In LD, the agent can be ambiguous because the topics are based around questions of value and morality, not of the benefits and harms of actions.  The topics are therefore descriptive, not prescriptive: they do not mandate an action by the agent even when one is present, but instead describe the moral status of an action or value.  You see the word “ought”, with its moral connotations, more than “should”.  We get “is just” or “is morally permissible” a lot too.

There is no inherency; the aff need not change the status quo, as the resolution is an assertion of moral status.  The affirmative merely has to prove that a topical interpretation of the affirmative side is moral or just or whatever – that interp can exist, and be debatable, entirely in the status quo world.  Therefore, we have no standing negative presumption in LD; the aff has no burden to change the world.  The status quo, in a sense, is defined by who wins the debate.

That does not mean that plans do not exist in LD; they’re simply not necessary.  Most LD rounds do not feature plans or concrete advocacies, though many do.  A plan in LD functions as a concrete example of an affirmative advocacy; an aff can assert that if a government enacted a given plan, and can prove that plan would be 1) topical, 2) moral, and 3) plausible (solvent), then the resolution can be said to be true.  But a parametric aff is just as likely to say that “They’re doing X in Denmark and it works fine and is moral” as a ‘plan’ which exists in the status quo.

The concept of fiat in LD is much the same; I can assert the government does X and Y in order to see what the outcomes are like, and judge the debate on the results.  But fiat can be descriptive: “this thing Montana does?  It’s awesome.  We should all try it.”

Framework

Typical LD debates can usually be decided in one of two ways, as long as it’s a post-fiat debate anyway.  First is a utilitarian debate where the impacts are weighed against each other by risk & magnitude: the kind of stuff that you guys know fine.  We refer to this as the “util debate” or less formally “the LARP”, aka, LD debaters conducting “live-action roleplay” of policy debates.

The second is what we call framework heavy debates, which is not what you call framework.  Our framework is the value/criterion, or standards: the lens through which the judge weighs impacts.  We don’t assume a body count is the only way to go; deontological standards that speak to the value of the lives lead, not simply the number of lives saved, are common in LD.  I refer to it as “Deontology: Because some things are worth dying for.”

As an example, in one debate I judged at the TOC, the affirmative conceded the framework should be equality; whichever side produce the most equal outcome wins.  The affirmative world was more desirable in a number of ways in a utilitarian sense; more people had better lives etc.  In the negative world, everyone had the same rights as the *worst-off* people in the affirmative world.  From a utilitarian perspective, the aff world is a no-brainer; everyone is at least as well off as they are in the neg, but some are even better off.  But given the conceded standard is equality, not overall utility, the negative easily won the debate.  The more that aff read impacts that uniquely benefitted one class of people (in this case, juveniles appearing in the criminal justice system), the more offense the neg gained given the standard.

The underpinnings for a lot of frameworks come from philosophical literature, both traditional and modern; in particular the Kantian principle that for a right to be a right, it must be universal, weighs heavily in a lot of framework debates.  The framework debate is typically conducted through analytic reasoning; we don’t especially care about the authors and their qualifications.  Typically LD judges will want carded warrants for empiric claims, which rest on technical matters requiring expertise, but look primarily to the analytic logic of framework claims. Students will often simply write framework justifications themselves.

Frameworks are often justified with competing stories about how either rights in a society are derived or agreed upon by different voices (Habermas, contractualism, social contract theory), or how one framework is a necessary precondition to the other, and thus supercedes it.

Deontology can outweigh strict utilitarian calculus in a number of ways; the main one reduces to saying that life in a strictly utilitarian world is at some level not worth living, as many may be enslaved to benefit a few. Another is that the utilitarian world cannot guarantee a stable and just society, since the calculus of strict utilitiarianism can change quickly (and is impossible to calculate in reality), so by ignoring rights you create further risk and harm to humanity down the road anyway.  Rule consequentialism attempts to address this by putting the utilitarianism one level up, saying you adopt moral rules based on the outcome those *rules* have on society; so if a society that bans slavery is more just & happy for more people, you adopt that rule and ignore the corner instances where slavery may nominally benefit many and only hurt a few.  It has answers and criticisms based on individual consent, and round and round we go…

Many debates are conducted exclusively on the framework level; the debaters will concede each others’ terminal impacts and instead solely pin the debate on which standard prevails in the round.  It is also accepted that terminal defense is well possible; we have little ‘there’s always a risk of X’ type stuff in our world.  The link level of the debate is therefore more contested as doing so is a more viable strategy than in your world; that reduces the presence of ridiculous impacts of the form “If the immigration bill does not pass WE ARE ALL DOOMED.  DOOMED!” outside of LARP debates, which is y’alls fault anyway.

Pedagogical impacts: the good the bad & the ugly

The good:

LD does a much better job than policy of teaching debaters to see and understand the whole round, not just each flow as a separate organism.  A holistic understanding of the round is critical to framework centric debate, as often times a single logical observation can devastate an opponent’s strategy and lead to a victory.  At its best, this can lead to a very elegant and precise style of debating that encourages sharp reasoning. LDers who run mutually contradictory arguments pay a steep penalty for it and learn quickly not to; we don’t wring our hands much about being merciless to conditionality.

That effect is aided by the shorter length of our rounds; an LD debate is 13 minutes of total speech time and 3 minutes cross ex from each debater. Decision times are therefore much shorter too; judges, too, are often able to keep the whole rounds in our heads, and we read few cards: if the logic isn’t on my flow it’s not on the round.  It is very rare that reading a card changes my mind about a decision; I read only to verify not clarify.

We pay for this benefit by exposing ourselves to the dreaded a-priori spike, where squirrely debaters will sprinkle a dozen ten-word observations into their cases, read them at half the speed of light, and if their opponent drops one of them, that spike will explode into half the 1AR and all the offense.  There’s unease at this approach; it feels like cheating, but it’s hard to draw a line between it and legitimate smart observational debate, and is hard to control without blatant intervention.

Because of that focus on seeing the whole debate, hypotesting (we call it truth testing) is alive and well in LD debate.  There are more comparative  worlds (aka, offense/defense) judges than truth testers, but not hugely so. I’ve judged many debates on a truth testing basis because the debaters argued successfully that I should.  The logic of hypotesting fits moral questions better.  We’re far more likely to debate whole-resolution as well; our resolutions are shorter and more precise anyway, so parametrics aren’t always necessary.

Or stock negative is not a DA – those exist, but aren’t universal – but a general NC, which has its own framework and contentions and impacts, and is in every way simply a shorter (for strategic reasons) version of what an affirmative for the converse of the resolution would look like.  LD resolutions can nearly always been inverted (and sometimes are for competitive balance) and still be perfectly debatable with the same prep.

The bad:

LDers do not produce nearly as much research as policy debaters.  Our files are smaller and more general; our backfiles tend to consist solely of frameworks and theory arguments.  When our debates touch on something policy kids debate a lot, we gleefully will raid your backfiles, and not feel bad about it either.  Our stock material tends to be denser, and more likely to come from books and long articles; our kids are correspondingly worse at finding quick sources that reflect the real world and current news.

Last minute updates aren’t a thing; the date of evidence carries little authority when weighing a moral question; we don’t even tag the year of most cards in our debates.  If something was immoral during the golden age of Athens, it may still be immoral today, whether or not the Senate passed the immigration bill last week.  That may be a good or a bad thing depending on your point of view.

The ugly:

The odd LDer will come along, read y’all’s wiki, and start running politics or 50 states or international relations DAs, but they tend to do a really bad job of cutting them, even by the awful standard of these arguments.  “My evidence is from 2001!”  “Well, good for you?” Thankfully said LDers do not tend to win many debates that way, and back off from it after a bit.

LD is currently in the midst of a festival of really bad theory debates. You are blessed in that you have no idea just how bad I mean when I say “bad”.  Theory is run as a strategy.  Rules are being made up left and right, and everyone’s suddenly a cheater.  Some kids roll with files full of mutually exclusive interpretations and little else.  However, this is a recent trend in LD, and I think (hope!) it’s going to be backlashed away. It probably has more to do with high schoolers being dumb than it does with the nature of LD topics.

Competitive balance

One major impact of that is that LD debate tends to reward a different type of program.  Policy is like MLB baseball; it rewards resources and systems. The stable of 30 people in a war room cutting last minute updates to the politics debate makes a difference.  Specific case-negs to every last aff likewise matters.  Therefore, the same handful of programs that have figured out how to assemble, run, and pay for such operations play at a high level year after year in traditional policy debate; I’m looking at the list of past TOC and NDT winners and seeing a ton of repeats.  Sometimes Tampa Bay pokes through; but usually it’s the Yankees or the Red Sox.

LD is more like the NBA: it tends to reward individual talent, not systems. Plenty of LDers can and do succeed without large operations behind them.  A superstar can trump all; last year both non-advancing TOC semifinalists came from a program that did not exist 3 years ago.  Sure, Greenhill won, but they hadn’t in many years; the list of historical winners is much more diverse in LD than policy.  The only school to ever win back to back TOCs was the same student winning twice.  Kids can compete at a high level with just themselves and maybe a college student coach to help them out.

An effective coach can hope to qualify kids every year, but would not dream of putting together a run of champions year after year the way GBN and Westminster or Northwestern and Georgetown aim to do.  A successful LD program operates by exposing kids to debate, enabling them to travel and compete, and giving them advice and teaching along the way; we can only hope some of those kids thus exposed really get it and go on a run.

Our tournament experiences tend to be more civilized as a result; it’s not necessary to stay up until 2AM cutting updates – though we sometimes do so to cut answers and new strategies if the stuff we rolled into a tournament with crashes and burns.

You might think that LD’s propensity to reward talent instead of resource intensive card operations, its openness to single-debater programs, and the centrality of critical & philosophical literature to our debating all would lead to far greater diversity and perspectives in our world.  You would, to our great shame, be wrong.  LD is largely a rich white boy’s game.  Gender imbalance is about as severe in LD as in policy, and poor treatment of young women has been a recurring issue in the last few years.

Curiously, the gender imbalance used to be not nearly so bad; when LD was conversational speed and more philosophical, often eschewing evidence altogether, in the late 90s, LD in the Northeast at least was dominated by young women.  Nobody knows where the causation lies there.

We have infinitesimally few African-American or Hispanic debaters.  There are few to no serious efforts to remedy that.  A rather uncomfortable incident happened a few years back when an exception was made by the TOC to allow a debater into the field without a bid.  Some of the mitigating circumstances he claimed to justify his inclusion were arguable, but all the same I believed him deserving to compete, and he cleared at the tournament.  But his mere presence in the field and the controversy around it painted a huge target on his back, and lead to an ugly backlash in the community, carried out in person and online.  This wasn’t ever resolved so much as outlasted, and there has not been a prominent Black debater at the TOC since, two years later.

It is well possible to run critical positions with a heavy reliance on the literature of race and identity issues without violating topicality or the norms of LD.  A great number of our topics focus on protecting minority rights, the criminal justice system, and equality issues which lead very naturally to a discourse on racism.  Last year’s most succesful debater spent the entire Jan/Feb topic (which is used at the TOC) talking about racism.

In sum

It’s well possible these lessons/features won’t translate into college policy if it adopts agentless resolutions.  Our shorter format helps in this style of debate: A moral debate is dense, but tends not to be that sprawling; if a moral question cannot be expressed and debated well in 13 minutes each, I’m not sure it can be debated any better in 35.  Our times are flawed at the moment in a way that favors neg debaters, but that’s more allocation than amount.

In college debate, longer times may actually cause rounds to run off the rails; I’m not sure that a policy-format debate with non-agent moral topics wouldn’t be vulnernable even more to the hidden-implication spike type arguments, more tricks and games, and more muddy and insoluable questions. We get plenty of the latter, and it’s hard enough to work through 32 minutes worth of it.

One challenge is that the definition of intervention in a world without an evidence focus can be cloudy.  Some judges, typically younger ones, will swallow just about anything wholesale that either debater asserts.  So, rounds can be won or lost on something that’s totally incoherent and just asserted.  If you say “I don’t understand that and can’t vote on it” some think that’s intervention, though I think it’s “judging.”

But I love the pedagogical results of LD and always have.  It teaches sharp logic and encourages students to question the fundamentals of the world around them.  It keeps asking why.  And it changes, a lot, which mean as a coach I get to keep learning, too.  There have been at least four radical shifts in style and material since I saw my first LD debate in 1994, and the next one will probably happen soon.  Not for us, seventeen hundred condo debates.  For a while we mimicked your world, but for now we’re pulling away from that; but perhaps we’ll go back to it, or do something entirely different.

A thing to remember

Last year was rough for the LD community; we had flying accusations, acrimony, and internet attacks which by their nature afford few defenses.  A good number of people, both debaters and coaches, were attacked online by anonymous voices for things they did not do, which is wrong.  A good number of people were attacked for things they did do, but since the targets were mostly minors or educators and the forum was the internet, that too is wrong.

I stopped writing a lot last year, largely because of these conditions.  To speak up was to align oneself, taking a side where there should be no sides.  I am averse to conflict, and get along with just about everyone in LD.  That’s not by accident; it’s someone I have chosen to be.  I don’t dismiss people who do things I dislike, or even condemn; instead I try to find out their reasons.  Plenty of bad, unethical actions can at least be understood, if not forgiven, once you know the villain’s story.   Plenty of villains, especially at a young age, can be persuaded out of it, helped by the compassion and concern of their “enemies”.

After all, life is just a collection of more or less broken individuals; the best we can do sometimes is try not to harm each other with our jagged edges.  A lot of folks failed to avoid that last year, but many of them were young people with problems of their own, stories of their own, and our debate community failed them as much as it failed their targets.

So in retrospect, it was ill judged on my part to stay out of it.  That was as active a choice as speaking out, after all.  If all the responsible voices are silent, then only irresponsible people speak.  As a result, we never really resolved anything in LD.  We simply outlasted the issues by letting the students who served as lightning rods, unfairly or otherwise, graduate and move on.  I fear we have no better handle on how to address or prevent such things in the future.  That is our shame, and should be our challenge.

Collegiate policy debate is going through a much louder and more fundamental dispute this year.  The divide between teams running arguments based primarily on critical race theory and similar literature, and those who concentrate on the more traditional government plan/disadvantage debate, has grown sharper and more acrimonious.  There’s been active talk about splitting an already small world in half.  The divide is mostly driven by coaches and adults: the debaters seem to be mostly trying to keep their heads down and win rounds.  The nature of how their preference sheets work mean that while the “right wing” and “left wing” debaters regularly confront each other in rounds, their judges and coaches do not, and so the judges and coaches both seem uniquely uncompromising and hostile throughout this past fall.  They view each other at some level as simply enemy generals.

I’m about to be thrust into the middle of it, as I travel to LA next month to tab the USC and CSU Fullerton tournaments, together a “major” tournament swing, occupying the same space an octos bid tournament does in high school.  I will mostly keep a low profile, as it’s not my world; they’re a userbase for Tabroom to me, and I have no direct stake in their dispute.  I appreciate the value of traditional policy debate, even as I laugh at some of its excesses like the politics DA and the consult counterplan.  I can appreciate the need for boundaries like topicality, but at the same time, I cannot help but be persuaded and compelled by the criticisms of the society and debate itself which the “left wing” teams level.  I too am an outsider, though I do not wear that on my skin as others must.  Instead, I have to tell people, which is sometimes an asset, and other times a burden.

Times like last year in LD, and this year in college policy, are when debate disappoints.  When an activity dedicated to discourse and communication fails to address its own issues in a productive forum, but resorts to ad hominems and vitriol, online and in whispered conversations, we have failed in our mission on face.  We contradict our own purpose.

In both instances, the coaches and powers of debate have forgotten something about the nature of tournaments.  They forget that we cannot, and do not, educate only our own teams.  I am your students’ teacher too, and you teach mine.  At tournaments I teach Lexington, but I also teach Bronx, Scarsdale, Whitman, Greenhill, Hockaday, Harvard-Westlake, PV Peninsula… as their coaches teach Lexington.

Debaters can and should compete against one another; one of the secret sauces of debate is that the competitive aspect encourages debaters to use what they learn actively, instead of just repeating it undigested, as on a standardized test.  They have to assimilate information well enough to win rounds on it, and that teaches them a wider body of material with more depth than nearly any high school class.  Debaters can challenge and contend with each other all they want, and not harm debate itself; their competitive drive is our engine.

But coaches should not.  Coaches should see themselves as responsible for the whole of debate, not just their portion of it.  We realize this when prompted, and pay lip service to it occasionally, but do not remember it enough.  Smearing a debater online is a competitive tactic, meant to make the debater less successful; it doesn’t actually address any negative behavior, real or imagined, that debater may have committed.  Attacking judges online for voting on topicality and framework, or for failing to do so, is a competitive tactic, concerned about the wins instead of the message.

In the end, when we start viewing some coaches as “them” and not all part of the grand “us”, be it because of debating style, camps, or worst of all because of race, gender or identity, then we have ceased to be coaches.  The only “us” and “them” is the line between a coach and a debater.  The debaters should play the game, play it hard and fast and to win.  However, as coaches, we lose the right to make winning supersede our responsibility to debate itself, and each others’ debaters.  A good coach is not always a successful coach; and a coach who only aims for success is a bad one.

If I could say something at the start of each tournament, I’d say: be colleagues first and antagonists second.   Say something helpful every tournament to your biggest rival, your least favorite team, and the debater whose style is most unlike your own.  If a debater is upset, ask why; if a debater wins a big round, congratulate them no matter who they defeated to do it, and no matter if you agree with the judges’ decisions.  Wish your opponent good luck before you try and defeat them.  In short: live up to this contest we have built together, and cannot have without each other.