In Defense of Topical Switch-Side Debate

David McGinnis

October 31, 2014

Requiring debaters to debate the resolution isn’t unfairly exclusionary, nor does it preclude critical advocacies

Lincoln-Douglas debaters should be required to defend the truth of the resolution when they affirm, and to argue the falsity of the resolution when they negate. The meaning of “truth” and “falsity” are open to some degree of interpretation but, at a minimum, successful debate positions should argue in favor of or in opposition to the text of the resolution.

Debate is a particular kind of activity. It has core defining elements. Some of those elements are defined in various “rule books” — the National Speech and Debate Association has one, as does the National Catholic Forensic League, various local leagues around the country, and even, via their invitation texts, some tournaments.

But unlike most other competitive activities, there is no universally accepted, carefully articulated set of rules for debate that set out exactly what the activity is — what one has to do in order to participate, and what it takes to win.

If, as a result of this regulatory ambiguity, we decide that debate has no defining elements — if debate is simply an activity in which two people speak at a judge for a set amount of time, after which the judge fills out a ballot — then debate has significantly less value as an activity. In fact, under those conditions, it may be impossible to call debate an “activity” at all, since the various people who come to compete in LD debate, under that conception, might be doing completely different kinds of things.

Debate should be a clash of ideas and evidence centered on a shared proposition. Participants should agree beforehand that they will defend the assigned side of the resolution, that they will give speeches of a certain length and which take place in a certain order, and that they will submit to the decision of the judge.

This is so not just because argumentative clash over a shared proposition is a highly valuable activity, but also because the bare fact of accepting a universal task is a necessary, axiomatic element of any competition.

There is no particular reason that 100 yards is an ideal distance to run for a foot race. Arguments could be made that 90 yards is a superior distance (it tests you, but it doesn’t tire you out quite so badly) or that we should really be running 110 yards (because why stop at 100?). But if you enter a 100-yard dash, you evade the point of the activity if you insist that the distance should change for you. The function of a contest is to identify a task — the same task for all participants — and then to determine who best completes that task.

If there is no shared conception of the task to be completed, then there is not, in any meaningful sense, a contest.

Exclusion of Argument Styles

Advocates of “critical advocacies,” including but not limited to non-topical critical positions, often argue that advocates of “traditional” (topical switch-side) debate are attempting to exclude certain kinds of scholarship from debate.

On one level, this isn’t true. Critical advocacy centered on proving the resolution true or false is completely compatible with with topical, switch-side debate. The current LD resolution is: “The right to be forgotten from Internet searches ought to be a civil right.” One of the most powerful arguments for the affirmative deals with the problem of the Internet as a tool for structural violence and abuse, particularly aimed at women. The prevalence of cyber-stalking and “revenge porn” provide both the affirmative and the negative with avenues to explore critical questions of race, gender and class in the context of the resolution, and in service of arguing for or against its truth.

Thus, it isn’t critical advocacy, per se, that is excluded by a commitment to topical debate. Rather, it is non-topical critical advocacy.

And, to be clear, by “topical,” I don’t mean “advocacies that mention the topic.” This weekend, for instance, I judged a round in which the AC asked about my preferences. I said, “I strongly prefer that debate be about the topic.” The debater said, “Don’t worry, we’ll keep it topical.” Then he read an AC in which there was an argument about the topic followed by a pre-fiat critique that argued that I should vote affirmative because of his “speech act,” and its commitment to deconstructing oppression in the debate space. His role of the ballot argument had nothing to do with the topical argument at the top of the AC, and his strategy for winning the round did not depend on his winning the topical argument. In fact, after the first two minutes of the AC, that topical argument was never mentioned again. This is not, to my mind, “topical debate.”

On another level, the complaint that topical debate excludes some strategies is absolutely true. But I don’t think this is a problem. Any performance that doesn’t prove the truth or falsity of the resolution should absolutely be excluded from the range of behaviors that can result in a “win.”

First, I note that the exact same exclusion applies to every other competitive activity. High school football players, for instance, will not win football games by presenting critical advocacies. The same applies to every sport. Participants in academic quiz bowl have to answer quiz questions; presenting critical advocacies will not score points or win competitions. Presenting a Dramatic Interp in a round of Extemporaneous Speaking will not result in a “1” ranking.

Similarly, scoring goals, sinking baskets, or answering quiz questions will not win debate rounds.

If debate, as an activity, has a character — if it is something more than “talk for 13 minutes, and the judge fills out a ballot” — then there is nothing wrong with excluding activities, even discursive activities, that do not involve proving the truth or falsity of the resolution.

If we decide that the only norms in LD debate are the time limits and the ballot — that debaters can say anything during their 13 minutes, as long as it moves the judge to vote for them — then by what logic do we exclude threats? (“Contention I: I know where you live.”) Or bribes? (“Contention II. Here’s twenty bucks.”)

Further, I have never encountered an argument that football, basketball, field hockey or quiz bowl are inherently racist or exclusionary because they do not reward performances that fall outside the range of actions required by the rules of those activities.

Note that this does not mean that these behaviors should be per se excluded from debate, any more than they are absolutely excluded from other activities. If a football team decided collectively that a political statement were more important than a game of football, I can imagine a world where they might take the field and initiate a performance protesting some injustice. Or a world where they boycott a game because of some unfairness. I cannot, however, imagine a world where the football team would insist that their protest constituted “football” and that, because their opponent did not protest as well as they did, that they should be awarded a victory.

Thus, a “traditional” view of debate doesn’t exclude the performance of non-topical critical advocacies; it simply recognizes that they are not “debate” if they do not defend the truth or falsity of the resolution, and thus cannot result in a win. Debaters are still free to present non-topical critiques whenever they choose. However, like the football player, they should not reasonably expect to win.

I am amazed by the tenacity with which proponents of nontopical critical advocacy cling to the notion that they have to be able to “win” in order for their critical project to gain wider acceptance. On the one hand, this seems like obvious misdirection. It is not realistically the case that the presence of a particular kind of debate advocacy in elimination rounds of some tournament is going to increase the probability of “real world change.”

And, while I suspect that nontopical critical debaters are correct that the success of their strategy will lead to its greater prevalence in debate, this doesn’t seem like a positive development, even from the perspective of the young revolutionary. If someone who was already a participant in debate adopts the strategy of nontopical critique because they see that it wins, then it seems likely that you are welcoming opportunistic heretics, rather than committed adherents, into the fold.

Finally, the claim that the “traditional” style excludes the nontopical critical debater is entirely disingenuous, because the same is absolutely true in reverse. The two styles are logically mutually exclusive. A topical debate position impacting to a traditional role of the ballot will have no impact on a nontopical critical advocacy, and vice versa. Thus those on both sides of the issue are arguing for the exclusion of the other. I do not understand, however, why advocates of nontopical critical advocacies think that it is perfectly legitimate for them to expect a topical debater to do a one-eighty and adapt to their approach, but equally illegitimate for the topical debater to expect the same.

In-activity fairness vs. Societal fairness

One of the most common criticisms of non-topical critical debate is that it is unfair, and, in general, I agree with this criticism. If a debater can select a topic different from the issue provided by the central governing body, then that debater has a significant competitive advantage over any opponent. The reasons why have been articulated in countless theory debates.

If a debater can author their own topic, there is no guarantee of side balance. It is probably impossible - and certainly undesirable - to contest a position that racism or sexism should be rejected. And it is certainly the case that the non-topical debater will enjoy a tremendous preparation advantage, given that they know the topic to be discussed prior to the round, while their opponents remain largely in the dark.

Even if, as critical debaters will point out, you can “defeat” their position without “refuting” it — by providing, for instance, an “alternative methodology” — it is still the case that the non-topical debater gets to unilaterally select an entirely other issue for debate without consulting any opponent. The existence of potential strategies doesn’t deny that the non-topical debater gains a significant advantage by having the unilateral power to change the topic.

Frequently, proponents of critical debate will respond to claims of unfairness by pointing out that society, as a whole, is unfair. Some people don’t have access to debate camp or experienced debate coaches; some people can’t afford to travel; some people don’t even have debate teams. Racism, sexism, classism and a variety of pernicious social evils limit the opportunities of some compared to others. Simply by virtue of being born in America, the vast majority of debaters have a huge unearned life advantage over billions of people born in less wealthy nations.

This analysis is obviously true. It behooves us as a society to be mindful of these inequalities, and to make efforts, both individually and structurally, to address them.

We all have an obligation to live lives dedicated to deconstructing and eliminating the world's gross inequalities. This is vitally important in education. But the eradication of inequality is not the only social virtue. The development of other virtues (through equitable competition) is also important, and can even operate to the long-term benefit of those who suffer from social inequity. A debater trained to research a specific topic and to analyze the arguments for both sides may one day use those skills in court or in congress to defend the rights of the trampled-upon. A debater who runs the same critical position topic after topic without ever engaging in specific research or clashing on substantive questions will be less well-prepared to do so. (It should be noted -- the same criticism is also true of debaters whose coaches train them to run the same nonsensical debate theory topic after topic.)

It is a terrible idea, therefore, to suggest that the unfairness of the larger world obviates the need for in-activity competitive fairness.

Again, this is not a position that anyone would take with regard to any other activity. When Rosie Ruiz “won” the 1980 Boston Marathon by taking the subway for most of the route, nobody seriously argued that the unfairness of her performance should be ignored — and her “victory” upheld — because society, in general, is unfair.

The purpose of a contest is to determine which participants can best complete some task. The value of a contest is that it drives us to develop the virtues required to complete the task. Marathons push us to develop physically. Debate drives us to develop the research, argumentation, and analytical skills necessary to debate over a proposition. “Fairness” is an axiomatic requirement of contests, in the sense that the purpose of the contest is to measure the relative abilities of the people who come to the contest, and unfair behaviors invalidate the measure.

It is certainly the case that large issues of societal unfairness impact the relative ability of people to succeed in contests. In all areas of competition, those who have access to greater coaching resources have an advantage over those without coaches. Those with access to adequate nutrition have advantages over those who are hungry.

But it would be wrong to draw the conclusion that because of these issues of unfairness, we should reject the very idea of a fair contest. The contest measures what it measures — the ability of those who come to the starting line, the plate, or the debate round. Social inequality is pernicious and we should solve it, but if we believe that social unfairness invalidates in-activity fairness for our contests, then we should just stop having contests, rather than throwing up our hands and embracing cheating on the premise that since there can never be absolute fairness, we shouldn’t value fairness at all.

Further, it is not obviously the case that the people who benefit from the unfairness created by nontopical debate are also those who experience the greatest societal unfairness. For one thing, the globe’s least advantaged are unlikely to be participating in debate in the first place. And it is unlikely that people living in the global south experience any real benefit as a result of being the subject of an American student’s critical debate position.

Additionally, it is entirely possible that those who benefit from the advantage provided by nontopical advocacies are those with the greatest initial advantages. I recall an instance during the 2009-2010 season when a male debater from a very wealthy suburban school ran a nontopical critique of “gender in debate” against a female debater from a less-well-off school. His argument was that we should reject discussion of the topic in favor of advocating for more opportunities for female debaters. The round was a bid round; the male debater won. Anyone who is seriously concerned about issues of equity should be disturbed by the practice of those with great privilege using the narrative experiences of those with much less privilege as a tool for winning debate rounds, particularly since, in our community, the capacity to win debate rounds is, itself, another form of privilege.

And finally, I have no idea what I -- or anyone -- would say to a student from a less-well-resourced school who walked into a tournament -- say, Blake -- expecting to debate the topic published by the National Speech and Debate Association -- the topic, mind you, that their coach informed them would be the subject of contestation at the event -- only to find out that, instead, they would have to engage a position about something entirely different. I could certainly not forward the argument that this non-circuit debater was awfully fortunate that their opponent was fighting for greater fairness.

“Other debate strategies are nontopical as well; why do you only want to exclude ‘critical’ debate?”

Advocates of non-topical debate sometimes argue that those on the other side of the question are hypocritical because they don't complain about other strategies that are equally non-topical. The prototypical example of this is "debate theory."

Theoretical debate is certainly non-topical. In its original purpose and when done well, however, it operates in the service of topical debate. Theory as a strategic option in LD arose in a time when practices that seemed obviously illegitimate — multiple pre-standards arguments, multiple sufficient aff standards, etc. — were very common.

These strategies were “topical” but made for terrible debates. Debaters and coaches struggled for a long time to try to explain why these strategies were illegitimate. Simply trying to engage these strategies wasn’t effective; accepting a ridiculous burden and then trying to meet it resulted in unreasonable losses more often than not.

Thus, theory, correctly conceived, promotes good topical switch-side debate by checking back the prevalence of these strategies.

That said, I absolutely concede that theory is often misused — it is frequently deployed as a nontopical strategy designed to avoid and obfuscate debate. I loathe that practice, and I have written at length about the danger that this use of theory presents to debate.

So, if the concern is that it is hypocritical to reject one kind of nontopical debate while embracing other kinds of nontopical debate, I feel reasonably comfortable that my position is consistent.


Debate is a thing; it is not a random, amorphous thing, but rather a specific kind of thing with specific characteristics. Topicality should, generally, be one of those characteristics. It is damaging to the activity if the norm that debaters must defend or oppose the topic slips away.

Those advocating for nontopical critical positions want to be able to present argumentative advocacy in the service of ideologies of deep personal import, without the constraint of some proposition determined by a national governing body.

There is a forensics activity specifically designed to facilitate this kind of performance. It is broadly popular, with far more participants, nationally, than LD debate. It has its own national tournament and even its own TOC. And while I have competed in that activity, coached it with great success and truly enjoy watching it, I do not want LD debate to become “Dueling Original Oratory.”