6 Key Strategies Against Paragraph Theory

Sam Natbony

October 15, 2014

Today’s abuse is often caused by theory itself rather than traditionally abusive arguments such as a prioris and skepticism. Paragraph theory arguments have become prevalent in affirmative cases where debaters load cases with theoretical specifications that constrain the negative advocacy. It is uncommon to watch a round where there isn’t at least one paragraph theory shell in an affirmative case. Some common arguments include interpretations like, “the negative must defend the converse”, “the negative must concede to the aff standard”, “the neg must read a counterplan”, etc. Although these arguments are normally very low quality, they continue to permeate the community and win rounds. In order to understand how to beat this strategy, it is important to first understand what motivates debaters to read these arguments in affirmative cases:

They are very short time investments in affirmative cases, whereas reading a full shell in the 1AR requires allocating substantially more time in an already time-pressed 1AR. Even if the negative doesn’t end up violating most shells, their presence will force the negative to waste a lot of time.

These arguments are normally sprinkled throughout cases, which make them easy to miss, ensuring a quick ballot story for the 1AR.

Many of the theoretical interpretations used are such low quality that the only possible way to win off of them against a competent theory debater is if they are hidden in case.

Although this strategy is extremely gimmicky, it continues to win in plenty of rounds across the circuit simply because people tend to misunderstand the most efficient ways to respond to it. Here are some strategies you can use against debaters who use paragraph theory arguments as a crutch:

FIRST, be dominant in cross-examination. Pin down exactly what you need to do to avoid a theory debate. Many of these theory spikes make it almost impossible for the negative to formulate an advocacy that meets all of the shells. Even if each spike on an individual level makes sense, in the aggregate, they are likely to severely disadvantage the negative. Some good questions to ask in CX are:

What NC can I read that meets every theoretical interpretation in the AC? Say that you do not want to have a theory debate. This will have two strategic implications Either: i) the affirmative will not be able to name an advocacy that meets all of their spikes in which case you have proven your abuse or ii) They are only able to name very narrow and disadvantageous negative positions, which make it structurally harder to negate. In either case, you have successfully supercharged the link for the theory shell you plan to read in the NC.

Please tell me in one sentence what a fair negative advocacy looks like under all of your interpretations. The affirmative will likely proceed to ramble and list off 10 sentences worth of theoretical specifications. While they do that you should undoubtedly make fun of how silly they sound. This question is intended to make the AC seem absurd and get the judge to want to vote for you.

SECOND, generate reasons why they violate their own interpretations. Many times affirmatives will blindly read these shells without making sure they meet all of their own shells. This is preferable to reading counter-interpretations and defense to all their shells since a) it is a smaller time commitment, b) reading counter-interpretations to shells you meet is an utter waste of time, and c) it allows you to hijack their own theory offense, which you can claim outweighs the rest of their shells since this is an abuse story that you BOTH agree upon. If they have 10 paragraph theory arguments in the aff and you read 1-2 violations to each of them and attach a voter, they could have up to 20 arguments they have to deal with in the 1AR, with a minimal time investment on your part. Another strategy is to make numerous “you bites” on one shell that you clearly meet (go for text of the interpretation over spirit if you meet their text, so that you can garner semantic violations), and then make a ton of reasons for why that shell comes first and outweighs the abuse claims from the other shells. This is a unique case where defense on the other shells may actually become quite worthwhile, because it now becomes weighing for why you have a stronger link to the voters on the shell that they violate.

You will not always be able garner high quality violations to AC theory arguments. The important thing to note is that it is okay to make low quality arguments as for why they violate. The arguments in the affirmative are already constructed in a blippy and under-developed manner, so making some arguments of a similar nature is just a part of the game. For example, if they have a reason why the negative must defend the converse and read reasons why skepticism means presumption in the AC, you could say they violate their own shell by claiming skepticism ground through presumption. In reality, they probably do not violate since presumption is not “offense” per say, but the argument still intuitively holds. Finally, if you utilize this strategy, make sure to point out that any interpretations that specify what the “negative” must do, also apply to the affirmative since the standards don’t justify why it is uniquely bad for the negative to employ that strategy.

THIRD, read your own preclusive theory. The best strategy, if available, is to pick a shell that has nothing to do with paragraph theory so that they a) won’t be prepped on it and b) will have to rethink their strategy for the 1AR (for instance, they might have been thinking, if they run theory I’ll go for drop the argument and go for substance). Since these debaters often go for drop the argument, it might be helpful to run a shell that would mean drop the aff advocacy, like T or theory on their omitting to do something in the AC, so dropping the argument would be functionally like dropping them. Try to take the high ground in this theory debate. Since their shells most likely have weak abuse claims, use this opportunity to run theory on something that is genuinely abusive so you have an easier job weighing the shells. One great strategy would be to read a topicality shell since you can both weigh the standards of your T shell against any theory shells they extend in the 1AR, and also, more importantly, structurally preclude their shells by making reasons why T outweighs theory. Some examples of arguments you can make here are:

We have years to craft theory norms but only 2 months to talk about topical norms, so we need to talk about T now since we have less time to make a difference about the way we debate the topic.

The ballot asks who did the better debating and the judge literally cannot evaluate that question if the AC is non-topical because it isn't affirming.

Reading these T preclusion arguments are no-risk for the negative since if T is evaluated before theory, the affirmative can no longer win on the highest theoretical layer since the negative doesn’t have a T burden. The negative also doesn’t have to worry about a 1AR collapse to a counter-interpretation on T with an RVI. The paragraph theory shells in the AC are likely such low quality that affs would be hesitant to open up the RVI debate for fear of losing on a strong counter-interpretation to any one of the numerous junk shells in the AC.

If you decide to read theory on their spikes in the AC it is important not to read generic shells like “spikes bad” or “paragraph theory bad”, but rather read nuanced interpretations that are specific to the way in which they have employed paragraph theory. This will get the 1AR off of frontlines and force the aff to engage in a theory debate they may not be prepared on. One commonly read example is that debaters ‘must number all theory spikes”. I don’t think this is the best strategy for a couple of reasons: First, the marginal offense linking back to the interpretation is not particularly strong. I don’t see a great reason why it is substantially fairer to separate spikes with bolded numbers as opposed to separating them with bolded words such as “moreover” or “furthermore,” which is what most debaters do. Second, I think Cross-examination does truly check abuse in this case. If you asked them during CX (or even prep), they would have probably separated and listed the spikes out for you in a separate document. Third, some of their spikes will be numbered in the AC, which makes you susceptible to a 1AR that goes heavily for drop the argument for the aff and just extends the shells that you dropped and violate. You want to read a shell that is guaranteed to come preclusive to ALL of their spikes.

A good one to read says: “All theoretical interpretations with potential ballot implications read in the AC must have an explicit voter (including drop the debater vs. drop the argument) and a list of potential violations.” A good standard you can read for this interpretation would be strategy skew. Not reading a voter in the AC puts the negative in a double bind where they are forced to either a) read counter-interpretations to all shells they violate with a pre-emptive RVI in case the affirmative makes it offensive in the 1AR. In this instance, the negative wastes a lot of time, since a smart affirmative debater would never attach a voter to a theory debate that the negative is ahead on. Or b) the negative doesn’t read counter-interpretations (under-covers the spikes), in which case the affirmative just attaches a voter and violations in the 1AR. At that point, since the interpretation was conceded, it is too late for the negative to read a new counter-interpretation and accordingly cannot access the RVI. In both parts of the double bind, the negative the negative wastes a ton of time on arguments that are basically defensive. If you employ this strategy, it is important to make an explicit reason why meta-theory comes first. This is strategic since it prevents the affirmative from weighing any of their theory offense in the constructive against the negative’s meta-theory.

In addition, it is important to note that when you read your own preclusive theory, you need to respond to any preclusion that the affirmative reads for his/her own shells in addition to common defensive theory spikes that would interact with negative theory. These include (but are not limited to), “CX Checks”, “Negative must weigh abuse against AC structural skew”, “Drop the argument for the affirmative”, “All negative shells are counter-interpretations”, etc. If the AC is loaded with arguments of this nature, it may not be worth the time investment to read your own theory, and the other strategies listed in this article may be more viable. Regardless, if there are a lot of defensive theory spikes in the AC and access to NC theory is crucial to your strategy, it is important to make an overview claiming that the negative reserves the right to respond to spikes in the 2NR (or at least their new applications) since their implications in the AC are unclear. We will not be discussing answers to these spikes in this article, but stay tuned for an article addressing great responses to common affirmative defensive spikes.

FOURTH, depending on your judge’s views on theory, you can read an offensive counter-interpretation (OCI) against shells in the affirmative case. For example, if they read AFC, you could read an offensive counter-interpretation that says: “The negative must be allowed to contest the affirmative framework.” Many judges do not think these are reasons to vote absent an RVI, but some do. Make sure you check your judge’s paradigm before employing this strategy. Alternatively, if your judge does not vote on OCIs, you could read a long counter-interpretation, with an RVI that is not couched in terms of a fairness claim like reciprocity or strategy skew. It would be illogical to claim, “drop the debater” and then read an RVI with a reciprocity warrant. Instead, make norm-setting arguments that would allow you to access the RVI in instances where you were the one who read the voter. If, the aff reads a voter with drop the debater in the AC, you can obviously read reciprocity warrants for the RVI. Again, be careful with this strategy since smart affirmatives may get up in the next speech and claim you don’t access the RVI because they didn’t read a violation in the affirmative case and then proceed to go for substance.

FIFTH, read reasonability. The shells that are read in ACs as paragraph theory are read in the initial speech for a reason. They are normally junk shells. As such, their links to fairness and educational are normally very small and can be precluded with a well- justified reasonability paradigm. Make sure to structure your reasonability paradigm so that you actually have a bright line for what it means to be reasonable.

SIXTH, you can read some paragraph theory of your own. Even if you are opposed to paragraph theory as a strategy in debate, making some of your own paragraph theory arguments is extremely strategic. Sometimes to beat these abusive strategies, you need to debate on their level in addition to employing the strategies discussed above. I’ve never understood why only affirmatives employ paragraph theory. Negative paragraph theory is more devastating given how time-crunched the 1AR is already. This strategy would be best executed by reading a full shell with a voter and then, while on specific arguments in the AC, embedding paragraph theory interpretations in your block dump. Make sure to cross-apply your voter after reading those embedded paragraph theory shells so your judge knows that they are offensive.

Paragraph theory strategies seem very intimidating on the surface, but in reality, they are easy to handle once you understand why people read them and effective ways at dismantling these ACs. Not all of these strategies will work in every single round, but at least a couple will always be a smart option regardless of the type of paragraph theory that you are debating. Depending on the number of spikes, content of the spikes, and what they actually prevent you from doing in round, you may only want to employ a select number of these strategies or hybrids of a couple of them. In employing these strategies make sure you do only what is necessary to dismiss the paragraph theory arguments in the AC. Do not waste time. Paragraph theory debaters are motivated to read these arguments because they hope you will over-cover somewhere, either on theory or substance. To beat these cases it becomes more important than ever to not only have a viable strategy, but also to have confidence in your ability to allocate time efficiently.

-Note: If you have topics you’d like NSD staffers to clarify or write on please comment them below. Articles to be released soon include strategies against the kritik, answers to common affirmative spikes, tips on crafting nuanced theory interps, and much more.

Thanks to Daisy Massey, Jessica Levy, and Grant Reiter for help