Counterplans. I can’t think of a more divisive issue in policy debate.

Recently, Joshua decided to brave these controversial waters, writing an article about some of the major generic counterplans you can run. In doing so, he prompts a very important follow up: how should affirmative teams respond? Generic counterplans seem to be pretty nifty tools, after all; are there good, generic responses?

As I’ll go over in this article, the responses actually should not be too difficult—especially if you are more familiar with theory—but it’s important that you are well prepared for these kinds of counterplans, because it’s important that you are confident and clear in your response. To clarify, I do not think that all generic counterplans are bad; I think that there are some really excellent ones. However, there aren’t very many strong generic counterplans; as with most generics, I suggest that they should only be used when you have nothing else to run.

The Big 3 Framework

When addressing these kinds of theory issues, I often recommend emphasizing three overarching values (which for now I’ll just call the Big 3): ‘truth’ (in a broad sense), competition/fairness, and educational benefits. Valid theory arguments typically boil down to one of these three principles. However, to be clear, this framework is not meant to be a response in and of itself, but rather, it helps guide and impact your actual responses (which are the following subsections).

Responding to burdens

Joshua recommended laying out burdens for the affirmative team. While there are certainly some important/valid burdens (e.g. burden of proof, stock issues), there can also be ‘bad’ burdens. Some examples of ways to identify and respond to bad burdens are as follows:

  • “No justification.” This is just made up out of thin air; the negative can’t just throw around burdens with no justifications. Thus, it may be perfectly valid to have evidence that is older than 5 years, especially if the evidence’s age doesn’t really matter (e.g. it describes a timeless principle). This impacts to ‘truth’ in the Big 3.
  • “Overly nitpicky.” For example, some people like to run what’s known as “congressional standards” burdens, which can include ridiculously nitpicky or stringent standards “meant to emulate Congress’ standards.” For things like this, it’s okay to just say “but we aren’t Congress, with all their professional lawyers and staffers and procedures; we are high school students trying to practice policy debate within a 90 minute time limit, not replicate an institution which is named after the antonym of progress.” (Something less biting would probably also work, but that line might draw a few laughs from the judge.) These kinds of arguments can impact to any of the Big 3 values.

There are plenty of other types of bad burdens (as well as ways to respond), but ultimately, you should be able to figure out good responses if you remember the Big 3 values.

Now, we can start to really address the actual counterplan aspects.

Responding to the counterplan

  1. Straight response: “The original plan is better”

This may be the most natural, straightforward reaction: just say that the counterplan is not better. While this is certainly a valid approach, I generally would not recommend using it by itself. On the one hand, you likely know your case better and/or you probably have a reason why your plan is the way it is. On the other hand, though, the negative team very well may be on to something, or else they would have attacked your case in a different way. That being said, I can’t give specifics for every type, because it really just depends on the situation. For example, in response to a “study counterplan,” you might say “a study won’t be good: we already know what we need to know, it may not be accurate or its results may be divided/unclear, it will take longer to solve the problem, it will cost us time and money, etc.”

However, as I said, I highly recommend not running this by itself unless you are very confident in the response, and/or they have multiple separate points to address (e.g. disadvantages). Instead, I recommend also adding one of the following responses.

  1. It’s topical

Yes, some of you may be shuddering to think that someone just disputed the validity of topical counterplans—and I do recognize that for some leagues (e.g. NCFCA), the rules aren’t as clear as in Stoa. However, it is very, very arguable that topical counterplans are illegitimate negative strategies, based on straightforward interpretations of the rules. While I won’t pretend that this article proves that topical counterplans are illegitimate, I will at least note that parametrics are logically bankrupt, and without parametrics it is much harder to support topical counterplans’ legitimacy. In short, the debate is about the resolution, and you can’t challenge the resolution by offering more support for it (which, by definition, is what topical counterplans do). Of course, I recognize that the topical counterplan debate is more complex than this, so I may not be able to change your view on topical counterplans. However, what I ultimately want to emphasize is that if you truly know how to argue against topical counterplans, this response should be able to liquidate many of the generic counterplans.

  1. The fairness + educational value combo

If you don’t want to appeal to logic/rules by attacking the topicality of the counterplan, you can try to run a broad collection of arguments/points that impact to fairness and educational benefits. Some of these general arguments are summarized by statements such as:

  • “They are avoiding the substance of the debate.”
  • “They are making a disproportionate/unrealistic fuss over this.”
  • “In the end, the plans are 90-99% the same; you’d practically still be voting for our plan.”
  • “We spend months preparing to defend this policy proposal from thoughtful/substantive attacks, and the negative has just chosen to run this canned argument.”

One statement that I’ll actually spend a bit of time discussing is, at its core, “‘refinement’ counterplans are strategically unbeatable.” This may sound strange or whiny, but in reality, it can be a wholly valid point (in certain situations): first of all, consider that the affirmative has only around 30 minutes to explain, justify, and defend their proposal. The affirmative often cannot even spend 5 minutes explaining their plan in full; most plan texts need to be summarized in less than a few minutes, because the affirmative needs to justify and defend the major aspects of the case with the rest of their constructives. As a result, some plan texts have to be simplified, “rough cuts” or “major details” proposals. However, if we accept certain types of generic counterplans, the negative could just choose to “improve/refine” the affirmative’s plan, rather than spending any time attacking the main substance of the proposal. This might be adding conditions to the mandates, requiring studies, etc. The problem is that this situation becomes a sort of catch-22 or double-bind: if the affirmative spends time giving a “detailed” proposal, the negative can just run standard attacks instead; if the affirmative gives a simplified proposal, the negative could just run generic “improvement” counterplans. Ultimately, the affirmative’s response to such “improvement” counterplans would be to illustrate how it is unfair and non-educational. Of course, this response wouldn’t always be valid, especially if the negative’s counterplan is to remove complexities or additional mandates.

  1. Not exclusive

This is just the standard, basic test for counterplans in general. For those not familiar with this response, it basically just means “Could/should we just do both plans?” If the answer is yes, the counterplan is not exclusive or “competitive,” and thus is not a valid counterplan. (This impacts to “truth” in the Big 3.)

  1. Alt-agents

Unfortunately, I’ll have to address this in a later article, as the debate about alternate-agent (also known as alt-actor) counterplans is somewhat complicated and controversial, much like topical counterplans. However, I will briefly summarize by saying that this is an illegitimate counterplan, simply because “we” are debating as the US federal government (or whatever the resolution’s actor is); we are not debating as “The UN” or “The 50 States.” In fact, if we validate alt-actor counterplans, teams could just give absurd counterplans like “criminals stop committing crimes” or “governments stop violating human rights.”

The importance of confidence and clarity

So far, I’ve detailed some of the strategies/steps for responding, but this last subsection is to emphasize two key characteristics in your response: confidence and clarity. Of course, these are important for persuasion in general, but they are particularly important when discussing theory since the judge may not have as much to go on to judge the arguments. You can dismantle the illogic of topical counterplans piece by piece, but if the negative sounds confident when you sound uncertain, boring, and/or flustered, then you stand a good chance of losing that point. Furthermore, the negative likely will have prepackaged justifications/explanations for what they are doing—possibly even appealing to major oversimplifications or mischaracterizations—which is why it is important that you at least think about how to respond ahead of time.

Conclusion

I’m not a huge fan of most generic counterplans, even though I recognize that some are legitimate. In fact, I recognize that all types of generic counterplans can lead to good debate in the right situations. However, in practice, generic counterplans tend to be just that: generic. There’s nothing wrong with generic arguments inherently, but they often are overused/misapplied to cover up for a lack of preparation or a lack of critical analysis. Of course, even the best of us can be caught unprepared by some cases; if you are desperate as the negative, I typically recommend looking at other options or strategies.

The biggest problem with these generic counterplans is the main point of this article: there are plenty of strong ways for the affirmative to respond, since the counterplans often are arguably illegitimate. These responses range from straightforward comparison to theory-based objections to traditional competitiveness denial. By remembering and referencing the Big 3 framework of ‘truth,’ fairness, and educational benefits, affirmatives should generally be able to craft rather devastating responses.