American Debate Sediment 3: Argument "theory"

For those unfamiliar with American debating formats, you might be surprised to learn that built into several formats is the ability to engage your opponent on the rules of debate itself. You can argue that the argument your opponent(s) made violates the rules of good debating, hurts either your ability to debate fairly or your ability to "get something" out of the debate, or both, and they should lose because of it. This is called "argument theory," but I like to put scare quotes around the "theory" part because I am deeply suspicious of the ability of this body of common beliefs and practices to serve as theory in any academic use of the term.

This type of debating we sometimes call meta-debate - debating about the rules of the debate - doesn't happen that often in our big political debates. Occasionally you will find it - Newt Gingrich announcing that the purpose of the Republican debate a few weeks ago was not to have Republicans attack one another but to jointly attack Obama would be one moment. Perhaps another one would be whether or not we should televise certain trials, mostly because of the effect it would have on the arguments within the courtroom (audience, even one you are ignoring, has big impacts on how you do things).

In your interpersonal arguments, there's much more meta-debate. Is it fair to bring up that time two years ago when you were particularly insensitive in this argument right now? Perhaps it is, if it's evidence of a trend. But it might not be if it's just a way to derail the deliberation you and your partner are having now. In the end, both partners are very interested in reaching some sort of agreement, or solving the issue in front of them, and accessing past arguments might not work like stare decisis. It more works as a way to communicate your anger or pain with your interlocutor.

Worlds format does not have any space for the meta-debate. There are places like this blog, or the Worlds Forum that was held in Botswana and will be held in Manila too. There are all those conversations we have in the hallways of tournaments, or in briefings about how debate should work. But these are nothing compared to having the meta during a debate, where you are also debating about the issue. Think of it as a big "even/if" argument: Even if you don't think this argument is bad for debate, we still beat it for other reasons. All of this happening at once is like the pre-trial motions, the trial, and the sentencing happening at once. It can get hairy.

Debate "theory" is the collection of norms and practices that help keep debate fair, but more often than not they are a part of the strategy a team will deploy in order to win. The "theory" is more of a collection of normative debate "ideals" that can be accessed in order to create arguments that must be responded to by the other side or they lose. This "theory" doesn't help advance the construction of arguments, but helps teams advance innovative ways to avoid argument - if you can't respond to what I have said, you will lose. Unlike the way most people use the term theory - a way of constructing and understanding the relationship between highly complex ideas or practices - debate "theory" serves as a system of complex norms that participants must learn in order to find victory. It models bureaucracy and legal systems but without the backing or the historical formations that led to the analogues. It's great training in order to learn an abstract system that is difficult to care about, but essential in order to advance your position within such an environment.

Compare debate "theory" to argumentation theory to get a sense of the difference. Debate theory is inward looking and attempts to craft arguments good for debate. Argumentation theory looks outward and is always changing itself to account for nuance and unexplained moves people make in debates. It is elastic to change based on discourse. Debate theory alters discourse to serve it; it forces adaptation in speaking style. Sometimes these changes are incredibly difficult to undo, if you have encountered long term debaters after the fact. I'm very skeptical that debate theory is a "theory" in the intellectual sense of things due to it's function. It's more like ideology, or better yet - a collection of norms and practices - like you would find in a religious order. And what works as very persuasive and symbolically salient within the order does not work too well outside the walls of the monastery.

An example of this is watching any NPDA team who is new to Worlds attempt to prop a motion. They define everything as narrowly as possible, to a very specific case almost and then claim that they only have to defend this small area of the motion. Principled arguments, or arguments about defending the larger parts of the motion are dismissed as not relevant, because they established what they would defend, and expect the opposition to follow suit.

This theory is called "parametrics" and it is not "theory" in so much as it helps us understand relationships within and around argument, but more about fairness. Policy debate, probably the oldest of the formats, uses one motion for the whole tournament season. In this environment, fairness is defended by allowing proposition teams the ability to narrow the debate to keep it interesting, and not to have to defend against every possible issue that could be supported under a motion. Parametrics helps sustain interest and challenge for a whole year's worth of debates by keeping everyone on their toes with what could count as support of the motion. Think of it as debating "case studies" across a year where the list of case studies is not provided, nor is it ever really complete in any sense.

Why does WUDC not have such a system? Looking at the parametrics example I think we can come up with an answer - it just doesn't fit what we are trying to do. I think again, we have two different models of what debate is for. In WUDC, the tradition is to develop speakers who can appeal to a broad public, whatever that might be. In American formats, the goal is to appeal to a particular expert, or even a person who is one of many experts. The analogue would be a lawyer adapting her appeal based on what she knows about this particular judge's view of different legal issues, distinct from the specific matter in the case. I think that's where WUDC and American formats split.

The desire to create things like judge paradigm lists and long discussions about the "right way" to counterprop don't really have a place in Worlds. But there are people who confuse these specific practices with "good debating" on the whole, and want them present in Worlds. All judges in Worlds have one paradigm - the reasonable person. They are to evaluate arguments based on how reasonable and relevant they are to the debate. They are not to judge a team based on how well they used the normative rules of fairness to help them out. We have no need of a complex normative system of rules to debate about (you could argue we have our norms and practices, and you'd be right - but we don't systematize them for use during debates).

Those who wish to add or include the insights of debate "theory" into worlds should question whether they desire to add it to improve Worlds or to improve their comfort with worlds. Adding the grammar of another language to make learning a new language easier will not help your fluency, just make you more comfortable and more angry when nobody understands you. Distinguishing comfort from improvement in regards to debate "theory" is a huge amount of sediment to overcome.