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There is a certain “I’m a stock issues coach” coaching persona that is the equivalent of “I already considered everything, made my decision, and am set in my ways.”

This persona tries to shut down learning certain argument types, usually out of good motive – keep ideas pure, avoid sloppy mistakes in thinking. But the method of avoidance commits that same mistake multiplied several times over.

Here are the top targets on this persona’s idea hit list:

  • “using values/criteria is for LD, not policy”
  • “counterplans, kritiks, and other such ‘non-traditional’ theory is wrongheaded”
  • “[words words words] inherency [words words words]”
  • “I did not recognize your case structure – where are the harms?”

I am pretty familiar with this persona. I learned debate from these people mostly. And it was like learning a foreign language. Do you ever feel that way?

Closing minds, rather than opening them, is the true danger to debate.

The purpose of this post is to free your mind from a relatively short period of development of “debate theory.” So shallow, in fact, that rhetorician Dr. Tallmon doesn’t think you should even call this stuff “debate theory.”

Thesis: The 1980s coach persona arbitrarily freezes a flash of time in the rhetoric timeline and traps students in a box of thinking like a list of rules, instead of freeing their mind to explore the complete treasures that classical rhetoric and modern communications have to offer.

1980s Theories Aren’t Even Traditionalist Debate Thinking

Do you remember how badly your head hurt the first time you read about the four stock issues? WHAT IS INHERENCY?!? I can now say that “structural, attitudinal, and existential trends” are three thought patterns that I learned from inherency and now are habits to how I think every day.

But I only really learned them by applying them to real life. As an intelligence analyst for Marine Corps information products, I learned how to even more deeply analyze trends (inherency), picking up language like drivers, impacts, and vignettes.

Truly speaking, rhetoric (and debate) should be the MOST GENERIC thing you could possibly study. Rhetoric borrows from everywhere else. Any rhetoric that doesn’t, risks the dangers of…

  • puffery via enhanced ability to name a set of tools
  • wasted time because later you must find ways to translate those same named tools into everyday language (remember: EVERY profession uses rhetoric)

You can’t randomly freeze debate at a time you did it and call that “the way.” It’s completely arbitrary.

Did you know that Quintilian and Cicero are familiar with the concept of “stock issues”? Did you know that there is historical debate over whether there are three, four, or five stock issues, AND that these points of stasis don’t include “inherency”?

Things change.

Dr. Srader’s excellent post on What Inherency Used to Be demonstrates that there may be even more that 1980s theory has to offer, if we take it seriously. This post is not about 1980s theory being bad – it’s not. This post is about not latching onto one way to think of concepts and then plugging the ears and singing lalala.

Still, when I meet the coach that thinks they’re a traditionalist but really just digs the 1980s, I struggle to keep it in. Neither Aristotle nor Abraham Lincoln would agree with their debate theorems! Don’t be fooled into thinking 1980s debate thinking is “older” and therefore better; it’s actually modern!

The Two Great Fallacies of 1980s Thinking: Audiences Adapt and Audience Inferiority

The 1980s coach persona commits this dangerous role-reversal for a rhetorician: the audience should adapt to the speaker, not the speaker to the audience.

That’s one of the reasons the 1980s coach persona loves long judge orientations and ballots with the four stock issues in the Reason for Decision section. So did I. When I oriented the judges for the 2005 Region 9 regional tournament in Maryland (before the Stoa split, before draconian league rules on what goes into an orientation), we achieved over 90% of community judges using stock issues on the ballot, and filling up both sides with ink. It took an hour-long orientation, and mega Q&A.

But now I think of critiquing a debate this way: there should be less than 10 minutes of orientation, because the judge already has made a million decisions before today and merely needs to make another. They should understand how the ballot functions, but other than that, merely be reminded of the need to only use arguments from the round when making the decision, and separate speaking from argument.

Three examples from other audience-focused things (which is all communication, btw):

  1. My music is so fast and difficult, that you have to be a musician to appreciate the change to 5/6 time right there.
  2. My lecture on philosophy is so difficult, that only students with a GPA of 3.8 are allowed to listen.
  3. Our holy writings are so holy that they may only be heard in Latin.

The “learn my language to listen to me” mindset has an evil twin: if an audience doesn’t adapt to my box, that audience is mentally inferior. So I’ll “dumb down” my language, because the audience isn’t “stepping up.”

While it’s true that it took a whole lot of work to learn the language of debaterland, effort alone is not inherently valuable. Any community or industry that views those who don’t know its particular language as inferior – whether music, education, national security, computer science – creates an arbitrary “us vs. them” special class, and dehumanizes the “other.”

When I hear a debater complain about community judges, and strongly prefer former debaters or parents, I immediately know the issue: the debater expects not to teach about how to think about the arguments in the round, but instead to merely debate according to predetermined rules of debate thinking. I teach that a master debater sees the “metadebate,” and is adept at debating about the debate, not merely following a logic script.

The 1980s coach persona reading this right now is thinking: “pre-determining that good logic will dictate a debate is a good thing!” That’s fallacy number two! To assume that what is oriented is what makes “logic,” and that a perfectly well-educated, respectable human being that makes up a community judge “lacks logic” until the turning point one hour of their life that is judge orientation, and now they have it… is a simple superiority complex. Until 1980s debate thinking, was no one rational?

Your audience walks into the room having made millions of decisions before, and is going to hear about another decision to be had. Debaters should pick up the language of decisionmaking and speak it.

Interestingly, the debaters probably have it already, because that language is what’s used in every book they’ve read, every historical scenario, every serious conversation about what to do next or what’s important, and pretty much their entire education and life to-date.

Here’s a list of who doesn’t speak or write every day using terms like topicality, inherency, significance, and solvency:

  • Parents
  • Experts
  • Classical rhetoricians
  • The Founding Fathers (oooh aaahh!)
  • Jesus

If any of the above had to listen to you, should you really provide them a template of how to listen to you? Perhaps you have something to learn from them; not the other way ‘round.

Reject the 1980s coach persona notion that audiences are inferior and must learn your language to even participate in what are really normal decisions. It’s just as sophomoric as the sophomore at Patrick Henry College that told me at lunch one time “I’m not going to speak with you because you haven’t yet taken spring semester Logic.”

Instead, learn the language of the world of ideas surrounding your debate topic, and the general language of persuasion discussed by rhetoricians and communications texts outside debaterland. I’ve got a list for you at the end of this post.

Love for and respect of your audience are the key disciplines of a great rhetor.

Fears are Often Exaggerated

In 2001, as a 15-year-old student, I met my first pro debate coach. He was a debate coach at Cedarville University. He decried “the end of the NCFCA” (note: no Stoa existed at this point) because NCFCA had ended topicality rulings after the 2NC.

Most of you – like me at the time – probably don’t know this, but the college league that NCFCA was based on (the National Education Debate Association (NEDA)) was copy/paste almost the exact same rules of the NCFCA for years. One of the first rules to go was this topicality ruling, where the round would end after constructives if the judge was convinced that AFF was off-topic. Otherwise, no more topicality arguments allowed in rebuttals.

It was a traditional rule that got put aside. And then there was much ado about… nothing. The leagues are still here. I’ve heard so many hyperbolic claims by debate coaches, but rarely seen any predictions come to fruition.

1980s debate coaches often teach us to fear things like “values in policy.” Despite the core misunderstanding of what makes value debate value debate (not that debaters “use values” – see more in The Worst Ambiguities in NCFCA and Stoa Debate Theory), coaches who say this are literally making the following argument: the deepest reasons for why we do things may not be considered when making policy decisions.

Really? We can’t talk about WHY we do things when we recommend what be done? It’s restricted to a utilitarian mindset? The 1980s coach persona that wants no values in policy debate is putting your child in a damaging and modernist box. When reforming the justice system, that justice rather than utility should guide the decision is absolutely a fair point (for either team to make). Now the debaters need to connect the policies in question to the deepest values.

What not to fear: different types of arguments. What to fear: putting minds in boxes and not letting them out. Why? This leads me to my next point…

There is a Free Market of Ideas Too

If the ideas are bad, they’ll fall flat. Stop prohibiting debaters from certain arguments. You can make recommendations, but debaters need to discover what works and what does not.

Far better to guide debaters from certain attitudes, like disrespecting their audience.

If a counter-warrant is a poor argument, then it will fail in the free market of ideas in a debate round. Someone once argued against me as their NEG strategy an argument called “Deterministic Causality,” which used philosophers to state that fate had already determined all events and therefore no plan really was needed. This tested us to even prove that inherency and solvency (causality) should exist as notions, which we did. My question is this: should these guys have been prohibited from running the argument, or gotten to taste the failure of an argument they had long fantasized about running?

If what you expected to be non-persuasive actually is persuasive, then why not learn to develop an off-center strategy this year? Learning to zig when others zag is an available lesson from debate.

Am I saying that I advocate poor argumentation? Of course not! I’m saying I advocate understanding why it’s poor, and for some people they need to taste it. Don’t demonize someone for a poor argument; it’s not immoral to run a poor argument. Demonize a debater for a poor mentality; it’s immoral to view your audience as inferior.

But it’s much harder to be the moral police when it’s a crime you also commit.

When an industry only judges itself (screenwriting critics, let’s say!), it begins to tell itself that it likes itself and separate itself from the real world. How many movies that do really well are rated low by so-called critics? The free market judged the movie and found it worthy.

So as a coach you should help debaters learn principles of quality argument, but not restrict them from particulars of individual arguments. Instead, ask tough questions like “which of these two arguments, if you lost one, would be the better one for persuasiveness by the end of the round? Why make the other one, then?”

These questions elicit critical thinking. Saying “topical counterplans are bad” elicits either prejudice or creativity. For me, creativity… that’s why anyone who goes to an Ethos camp learns about how to “imply” a topical counterplan, which is to avoid formal mandates. Instead, one answers “sanction Syria!” with “engagement, not isolation, is the preferable strategy.” This is what would happen in the world of ideas.

Am I in favor of topical counterplans? No, actually. I don’t think they’re logically legit. Is someone immoral for trying? No. Should they always lose? No. Are there some persuasive arguments in favor? Yes… I’ll help you learn them, along with responses I know. Here are some real life examples of this happening… Now you make up your own mind, but promise me this, debater: will you commit to never run an argument you think “I can win with” if you personally do not find it persuasive?

Because I won’t coach you if you don’t make that commitment.

This is an Aristotelian, and far more traditionalist, approach to debate coaching. You can try out different arguments, but you should never learn to hawk wares you do not believe are good for your audience.

The Advantage: Deeper Thinkers

Instead of telling debaters they must conform to a coach’s preconceived mindset, but invite them to be subject to the coach’s persuasion (the tool the coach is attempting to teach). In this view, the debaters are respected enough to process information themselves and make a determination on what to do. The coach serves as a guide, not a rulemaker.

As debaters think for themselves, learning how to think not what to think, they are proceeding into true rhetoric-stage learning. They will own their lessons and internalize them, often through in-round experience and coach-led debriefings.

And this will lead to many “why” questions. Sometimes challenging a coach beyond her depth. That’s ok, because we’re all in this together!

And you’ll end up not skipping things that get lost over time. For example, it took three years of debate for me to understand how the stock issues even mapped to a case. I learned that most people learn the case structures as one body of knowledge, and the stock issues as another. And there they sit, separated.

Do you know that the plan links to topicality, significance is generated pre-fiat and post-fiat, and solvency is only a sub-part of the post-plan substance but isn’t actually THE plan? Well that’s all true, I think 🙂

Which is why we wrote this “Which Stock Issues Where” guide.

Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 8.43.46 PMWhen a student learns the list of stock issues and the list of case structures, the teacher may accidentally forget and gloss over the connection of the two. If the coach is some sort of all-knowing debate theoretician, the coach isn’t going to get questioned enough for the students to really learn. If, instead, the coach is an open-minded teacher who views self as a student along with the other students in the room, then such things end up explored.


And debaters will surprise us with non-traditional innovations, like a case that uses 10 “urgent” scenarios to persuade the audience that national security is more important than privacy, because the audience will experience wanting to make that tradeoff in the 10 scenarios. But it’s kind of more like an interp, at the first speech. I typically don’t like such things, but I think this debater should try it and see how an audience receives it, rather than being shut down by me. The lessons will be much more lasting, and I may be surprised as well.

Case Study: How I Taught Adults to Debate in Just One Hour

So if debate holds all this special wisdom, surely you couldn’t learn it in an hour, right? Well I have been invited several times to train groups of adults to debate. One memorable occasion led to a full exhibition debate round (5v5 in a format I designed where the judges also participated).

A 1980s debate coach takes at least an hour just to teach the stock issues, much less what they’re for and where they came from.

My central premise is this: you ALREADY have the tools needed to debate, you just need help arranging them and occasionally naming them. You do not need to learn new substance. That’s why in high school I developed a personal mantra for so-called debate theory: if I couldn’t find its real-life application, then I wouldn’t use it. If my opponents couldn’t, I wouldn’t let it stand. This worked incredibly well, and led to things like analyzing Jesus or Paul through the lens of stock issues, which are really designed to make a case for action.

I now know that the stock issues fit inside of classical rhetoric’s first canon of rhetoric, Discovery, as a subset of the Common Topics in the subset of Deliberative Discourse, and what the actual stock issues are is a millennia-old debate.

When training adults, I used The Argument Map (which is how we also train novices these days, and includes the concepts of the stock issues) and taught a basic plan-meet-need cause structure of “Problem-Solution” as an outline for the speech. It went great, and they were up there making rational arguments well in no time.

The Normalized Language Challenge

When we first started Ethos, our passion on the point of 1980s debate theory was to help debaters connect their knowledge of debate to the real world. That’s why at every camp I tell students (and parents) to challenge me if they do not understand the real life application of what I’m teaching – because that’s the purpose of teaching it! But I learned the real life application of 1980s debate terms (and even more recent ones), and can explain them.

But around four years ago our notion changed. Instead of teaching this alternate language, then attempting to apply it to the real world, why not reverse the order? Can we teach debate using normalized, everyday language, then slowly give terms to concepts people already understand?

Yes. We can. We’ve tried to tackle that in the upcoming book, Upside-Down Debate. The toughest part is that it’s really two books in one, including both the normalized terms and the language of debaterland, because we don’t want to leave people high and dry. Hopefully, ten years from now, we’re just teaching people debate through normal language.

My challenge to you is this: for any debate concept, can you teach it using normal language? Here’s a short glossary of normalized debate terms to get you started.

The 1980s Debater’s Bookshelf

When people ask me for a book recommendation on debate, I cannot recommend existing works that originate from debaterland. There are certainly great shortcuts to getting started in debate, but most of these works commit one of the following major errors:

  1. No Transference – failure to demonstrate how the concept being discussed crosses over to “real life.” Then why are we learning it?
  2. No “Why” – listing the “five parts of an X” without demonstrating why these should be the five parts of an X. That’s just putting people in boxes, not opening minds. Debate is a sport meant to explore “why,”
  3. Demonstrably Poor Communication – Great communication uses examples, is concrete, and shouldn’t bore you. Again, expecting an audience to un-bore themselves is a pretty dangerous way of thinking! Why expect debaters to become great speakers and thinkers instead of argument-listers, if lists of arguments is their training material?


The Rhetor’s Bookshelf

The “train a 13 year old to read briefs they don’t understand” mindset isn’t going to like this list. Because it’s advanced. Because in classical education, rhetoric-stage learning is advanced. Rhetoric, after all, is the subjectless subject.

The real discipline of rhetoric says train people to think first, and speak second. Unfortunately, many parents and coaches start too early and train polish before deep thought and knowledge. These debaters often struggle not only to research, but to recognize the need for research, since they learned how to fancy-up the shallowness of buying a sourcebook each year and copying what other debaters were saying, just making it sound better.

These are the books I recommend to all debaters and debate coaches:

  • Rhetoric – by Aristotle
  • Made to Stick – by Chip and Dan Heath
  • The Art of Cross Examination – by Francis L. Wellman (recommendation by Ethos coach and 2010 national team policy champion)
  • 60 Ways to Turn a Phrase – by Arthur Quinn
  • Thank You for Arguing – by Jay Heinrichs
  • The Argument Builder – by Shelly Johnson
  • Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student – by Corbett
  • Quintillian’s Institutes of Oratory
  • Anything by Cicero

What now?

As I mentioned, at Ethos camps I encourage students and their parents to point out when they do not see the connection between what I teach and the real life application of what I’m teaching.

Fortunately for you, Ethos camps are coming to seven major cities around the country this summer, and I’d love to have you challenge me there. Check out Ethos’ website for more information on where the camps are and how to sign up.

I look forward to debating with you.



Isaiah McPeak is the Head Coach and CEO of Ethos Debate. He has over 10 years experience in speech and debate, coaching 5 national champions and placing top 5 in multiple leagues himself. Outside of the debate world, he’s had years experience as an intelligence analyst, writer, rhetoric teacher, and communications coach. He is also the CEO of the new startup, statUP.

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