In both debate circles and the “real-world”, it’s a shame that bad arguments prevail. But it’s not the blatantly false arguments which remain; rather, it’s the appealing and seemingly simple points which misguide listeners and debaters alike. These arguments become commonplace, permeating the debate space, leading to misunderstanding about rhetoric, debate, and persuasion.

The problem here, as Isaiah argues in his debate manifesto, is that we too readily accept propositions as truth without looking at the underpinning support for them. We take in the “what” and overlook the “why” which clarifies and emboldens the truth. Novice debaters are especially susceptible to this practice—as a student who is unaware of sound argumentation or how to form speeches will pick up the mannerisms and argumentative style of other debaters they see or compete against. Older debaters do not question these common phrases or arguments as they continue in their debate careers, and so the cycle of misunderstood and misguided commentary continues on.

You’ve probably heard many of these arguments tossed around in your area…I have, and I have been frustrated that they’ve moved on from one generation of debaters to the next. With the intent that others use these refutations to forward logical, persuasive, and easily understood theory arguments. I’m going to make the negative case against three common arguments used in debate. My intent is not to just spew content, but to demonstrate a skill that applies to persuasion in the greater sense. Persuading by examining the why of some deeply held beliefs.

You may be wondering why it’s so important to establish true positions on seemingly trivial arguments. And yes, these arguments might not matter after you end your last debate round in high school or college. However, for current debaters, learning the foundational truths behind these arguments make you a more logical and therefore more persuasive debater. And for alumni, analyzing the foundational reasons we believe anything is far too rare of an occurence. Let’s practice that by analyzing the foundations of some deeply-held debate theory.

  • Topicality is a voting issue because a judge has no jurisdiction to vote on an affirmative plan.

I heard this argument in the final round of policy debate at NITOC 2017. So let’s break it down by examining the why. Why must an affirmative plan be topical? Because a judge is physically unable to check the box for an untopical one? No! The goal of the affirmative team is to affirm the resolution. The plan and resolution fit into a logical syllogism which requires a topical plan to be sound and affirmed.

  1. The affirmative plan is a substantial reform of transportation policy by the US federal government.
  2. The US federal government should pass the affirmative plan.
  3. Therefore, the US federal government should substantially reform its transportation policy.

The reason topicality is a voting issue is simple: the plan must be topical to prove the resolution true. The judge can agree that the untopical plan is a great proposal. But that does nothing to prove the resolution true. Essentially, there’s no affirmative team when there is an untopical plan.

  • Inherency means the plan has not or will not pass.

In the JV section of policy debate in my district, I heard this argument quite often. The affirmative touted that because the plan has not passed and will not pass absent action, “inherency is retained.” The misunderstanding here is the purpose of “inherency.” Again, many of the stock issues are related, forming the case for passage of a plan.

  • There’s a big problem. (Significance)
  • It’s not going to be fixed, absent X solution. (Inherency)
  • There’s a solution! (Solvency)

Inherency then, concerns not just if the plan will occur in the status quo, but whether the plan is necessary. You can agree with the significance of the plan’s problems or advantages but still argue that it fails to uphold inherency because there is an existing mechanism that will solve the problem. As Dr. Srader argued, it is tightly interwoven with the harm/root cause and whether the plan is the only way to alleviate that problem. So, just because the plan has not passed or will not pass is not enough to argue the case for the plan. The affirmative has the burden to show that there is a NEED for the plan to alleviate the problems of the current system.

An example is the affirmative arguing for desalination. The problem is a drought, and the solution is implementing desalination plants. If the affirmative were to say “Congress will never pass approval for desalination plants,” but the negative said, “40 days of rain will come starting tomorrow,” even though the affirmative showed the plan wouldn’t be enacted, there would still be no NEED for the plan.

  • Fiat (in general :P)

The debate term fiat, Latin for “let it be done,” is greatly misunderstood and explained even more poorly. People say it means “the plan will be passed upon an affirmative ballot,” or that it means “Congress’ minds will be immediately changed on the issue so it is passed without opposition.” Again, the correct interpretation lies in the answer “why?” Why is fiat necessary?

The resolution is normative (asking what ought to be done rather than what is); thus, the debate should focus on IF the resolution should be affirmed and IF it should be passed rather than whether or not it WILL pass. The plan isn’t actually passed after an affirmative ballot. Rather, fiat is a “tool” to shift the discussion from descriptive to normative. It also is necessary for fairness. I enjoy the following analogy (which is easily understood by anyone) after explaining the normative argument.

  • Fiat is necessary so negatives don’t win every single round by arguing the plan would never pass. If fiat didn’t exist, in years when the political administration stood against the plan and resolutional action, negatives could always win using this strategy. If the resolution was “the US should ban cookies,” and Congress was composed of Cookie Monsters, negatives could always win by saying Cookie Monsters would never vote for the plan. The power of fiat is shifting the debate to whether or not the plan SHOULD be passed or resolution SHOULD be affirmed, to follow resolutional bounds and create a fair debate.

In all these example arguments, what is evident is that unpacking why something is true confirms the truth. Analogies serve to make the argument concrete and appealing to all audiences. There are many more misunderstood arguments in debate. Don’t be afraid to seek the true and reasonable arguments. Start by asking “why?”


Joshua Hu is an intern at Ethos. In the fall he will enter the University of Hawaii at Mānoa as a freshman, studying Accounting and Political Science, with the intent of pursuing a law degree and working in law, business, and/or policy. He debated for four years in a traditional district of the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA), in both Policy and Lincoln-Douglas formats, qualifying to NSDA Nationals his sophomore and senior years. Some of his hobbies include hiking, fishing, cooking, and playing basketball.