A theory of theory

A is the interpretation.

Most theory is terrible, and never should be run.  Theory as a strategy is harmful to debate.

B, the violation, is self-evident.

C is the ground.

Judges are routinely voting for things they hate, because the debaters present them little choice.   Theory is everyone’s villain: nobody refers to a theory heavy debate as a classic. We speak of rounds “devolving” to theory battles, designating them for a lower plane of evolution. It leads to unhappy judges, lowered speaker points, and unsatisfying rounds – all assertions that need little warrant.

Theory doesn’t win. Sure, it wins rounds – a lot of them. But it doesn’t tend to win tournaments.   Debaters who resort to theory a lot are the under performers – the debaters who never seem to reach the level of success their skill would suggest for them. The big championships tend to be won by the debaters who engage in it least.   Theory can win when both debaters do it, as the judge wishes to be elsewhere while signing the ballot. Theory can win when the debater using it is much better versed in it than their opponent – a round which the theory debater would have won anyway.   It can also win in the cheap shot round – throwing a trick out there, a snake hidden in the weeds, to snatch a victory from a better debater. The last approach is seductive to sophomores, struggling in their first varsity rounds. It also only works for sophomores – once a debater does it enough, they cease to catch anyone unawares, as their opponents grow alert to the threat.

Theory doesn’t help LD. The more theory has grown in the last four years, the more LD participation numbers have dropped. Theory is not useful beyond debate. What little it does teach – logic, extemping arguments – substantive discussion teaches better. Theory could easily drive students away – it’s boring. It’s a skill that will give them nothing past LD.   We’re left with the debaters who would have stuck around anyway – debaters who are glad to win theory because they’re in it to win, and don’t especially care about how they get there.   Debaters run it as a time sink, which crowds out actual substantive debate by definition.

Theory encourages more abusive affirmatives in the first place. If every debate is just going to devolve to theory anyway, there’s little penalty to breaking realistic norms with intent. Why not run an abusive, shifting and non-topical plan, when you’re going to have to win a theory debate anyway? May as well start off with a lead on substance.   This year, I hear a lot of angst at the rise of critical race theory arguments or other non-topical cases based on identity, which some LDers have imported from policy. I wonder how an LD debater who runs mutually exclusive theory interpretations can possibly object to abandoning topical debate in favor of identity arguments, when what it’s really replacing is theory games involving invented rules.

Theory blocks access to LD.   It’s totally opaque in most cases, as ground arguments speed on by incomprehensibly; I rarely even bother trying to flow it, given I can’t understand and don’t pretend to care. The local debater or debater trying out LD for the first time is just blown out of the round, and then figures they should look at PF or mock trial. There’s nothing wrong with PF or mock trial, but there’s something wrong when someone who really loves philosophy and would be happiest in LD settles for them because they can’t make headway against theory.

Theory is the preserve of those who can afford camp. Research about topical literature is available to all. Research about identity and performance is likewise available to all.   Camp makes arguing these things easier, but it’s not necessary.   Theory, however, can be learned nowhere else.   It rose in part so camps could justify their cost – it’s the only way, short of rigging the topic votes, that a camp can provide arguments guaranteed to be useful in the coming school year.   But their utility comes at a cost; since there’s no external way to learn about theory or practice it, beyond the bounds of a large coaching staff or affording camp, it becomes a gateway issue, a hurdle to those who have neither. It’s hard to teach oneself substantive debate and philosophy, but the internet and the library do afford the chance. It’s impossible to teach oneself theory, since it’s all about technique, and most of that technique is about freezing your opponent out of rounds in the first place.

Theory prevents the formation of actual norms in the community. If we had the occasional theory everyone asserts is necessary – some viable limits on the topic, and the approaches that affirmatives and negatives take with it – then the argument would hold. But in a world where debaters are constantly inventing rules mid-round and accusing their opponents of violating them – when the violation comes ahead of the interpretation – it’s impossible to settle on actual norms. It’s further impossible when the educators are removed from the question. Judges are admonished not to intervene, which means we’re unable to use the debate round as a platform to help establish those norms and get past most of the frivolous theory out there.   Theory can never reach an actual answer in the round; if we did, the debaters who rely on it would just move the goalposts.

Theory has no impact debate. Education and fairness are rarely sketched out arguments, but instead are watchwords, talismans invoked but not explained. Rarely are LD theory impacts actually tailored to the violation; instead they are rote incantations with little value beyond their ritualistic necessity.

Theory is impossible to judge, and to train judges in.   Without a reference to the rest of the world, there’s no way a judge can gauge theory arguments on anything other than crosshatched tallies of argument quantity. I can tell you whether an economic argument or a moral one has internal sense; I cannot do the same of theory arguments. Debaters complain about random outcomes to theory debates, and then those same debaters become judges and understand – now only too late to run something else as a debater.

D, of course, is the impacts.

Theory hurts fairness, freezing the debater without money or resources even further by pinning debates on esoteric nonsense that give automatic wins to those who invoke it. It makes preparation infinite, as you can never prepare for the invented rules of your opponent. It excludes people without the time or the inclination to learn material that never will be useful again.

Theory hurts education. It displaces topical debate, a lot of it. It displaces substantive non-topical debate, too. It lets negatives who haven’t prepared enough get away with using it as a filler. It prevents both sides from having to think about responding to novel arguments, to engage in the crucial skill of applying evidence and reasoning in a way they hadn’t thought of to answer a new position.   It encourages frivolous affs who know full well nothing will be extended.   And it reduces the numbers of debaters, and even programs in LD in the first place.

The last impact is a personal one. If theory keeps being a dominant part of LD, then LD will cease being a dominant presence in my life. Among the many major impacts is a minor one – it’s boring me to tears. I’ll coach something else, if at all, and even recommend that Lexington stop doing it. It’s a waste, of time, effort and money, to play in this self-referential sandbox. I’m not sure why I do it even now. If it lasts much longer, I won’t, and I’ll steer others away it as well.   It doesn’t help matters that next year’s policy topic is one I am really interested in and have technical expertise in.   This minor impact becomes major because I’m not alone in feeling that way.

E is the alternative. OK, so this just became a K.   You’re going to have to cope.

Without some theory, we go back to the land of eighty three NIBS, of floating advocacy, of made up evidence, or whatever else got us started down the path.  But the status quo means the solution has become worse than the illness. So we require means to keep the limits without the excess.

So I propose we add one rule to theory that can sweep aside many others: every interpretation should be warranted with a card.   Before a debater may run theory in a round, they should first justify the interpretation and standard on real grounds in public writing, or have a coach do the same.

That solves many of the harms above. It allows for rules to be fleshed out in an open arena, devoid of the competitive pressures, time limits and necessity to vote a round entails. It could be two competing theory interpretations are both wrong – a judge still must vote for one of them, but in an open forum, the audience may easily reject both.   Therefore, bad rules or norms can be winnowed out. A good proposed norm will stand the scrutiny of many voices, while a harmful or spurious rule will quickly grow a list of arguments against it.

It allows for adult participation in the argument. Adults have no voice in the course of a debate, which is proper – but adults should have a voice in the formation of norms, which itself is the curriculum of debate in a real way.   If theory must be cited, then a coach can generate those citations, or argue against them as easily as a debater.

Publication is no bar to anyone; there’s essentially infinite space on the debate web, and few of the sites aren’t looking for content. Getting a coherent theory article published should be possible for anyone. And once online, they become a resource to those who can’t afford the tuition and travel of camp; a debater can self-educate on theory, and prepare for a circuit tournament from a local league. Theory cards would have to carry the same citations as any other, and the ground and impact level debate would be already developed within those cards.

About the only harm is that it would limit what you could do in a round when something truly bizarre and objectionable emerges. In that case, you might lose a round – a somewhat less serious harm than debate practices eating at the very fabric of the event.   Or, you’d have to think about the arguments raised and the parallels to evidence and theory already established – which would, incidentally, be a critical educational goal of debate in the first place.   Independent thinking isn’t so bad, once you get used to it.