[Author’s note: If you’re completely uninitiated in Topicality, I recommend reading Coach Jen’s Topicality article from Ethos, as well as the article “Debating Topicality” by Stefan Bauschard (Debate coach for Harvard University). It’s an excellent introduction to Topicality, and even if you’re experienced in Topicality, it’s still a great read.]
Ah, Topicality, how sweet the sound. I feel confident in saying that it’s one of, if not the, most potent weapons in a Negative team’s arsenal, especially this year. Topicality (which I’ll refer to as T from now on) has enormous potential every year as a tool, but it’s usually not necessary. But this year is different. I think it’s safe to say that this year’s resolution is, to borrow my coach’s term, absolutely broad-awful. Consider for a moment the sheer size of the resolution that you’re going to have to deal with as a Negative team. I don’t think there are many topics that have a greater amount written on them than the United States’ environmental policy, and we’re going to need to deal with every bit of it. With that in mind, T is no longer just another shiv in the shank cabinet, it has become almost an obligation. It’s up to all of us to run T, and run it often, or risk having 50 cases to prepare for come Nationals-time, just like last year. If we do that, soldier, maybe we can keep this beast from getting claws and fangs. Honestly, there is really no excuse for not running Topicality this year. “Lay judges don’t get it” is not an excuse. If lay judges didn’t vote on Topicality, I wouldn’t have broken at Nationals last year. Besides, if you want to make people in your region vote on Topicality, run it right and run it well. They have to come around eventually.
So, I’m going to be telling you my thoughts on T this year- the T-presses that I think show the most potential for both winning rounds and limiting the resolution, the T-presses to avoid like the plague, and other thoughts on T this year. Let me know what you think in the comments, I’d love to hash out some of these thoughts, especially if you disagree.
T-Presses That I <3
1.) T- “Reform” (vs. Change/Create)
The fact that the resolution says “reform” instead of change opens up a pretty compelling avenue for Negatives. Your interpretation would be something along the lines of “you have to abolish a policy or a part of one in the status quo in order to be topical. You can’t just make a brand new policy.” This is one of my favorite T-presses that I’ve seen so far, for a couple reasons- first of all, you can access big fatty stacks of offense on limits-good argumentation. An interp like that cuts the number of cases more than in half, so your interpretation isn’t just cutting one or two possible cases, you’re cutting a massive number of possible cases from the repertoire of hypothetical Affirmatives. Then all you need to do is win the “limited resolutions good” argument, which is frankly not that difficult.
The second reason that I like this is that it’s the only T-press I’ve ever seen that can convincingly access Framer’s Intent. Think about it- who are you to say what the framers “obviously” intended? You don’t have any basis for it, usually. But in this case, there’s a very good case to be made, because the word “reform” is clearly very different from the word “change”. In fact, the words are so different that it’s hardly a leap in logic to conclude that the framers of the resolution meant for the application of “reform” to be different, even to the point of making the resolution unidirectional. Of course, you don’t really need framer’s intent all that much, because the limits debate is, in my opinion, exceedingly winnable.
2.) T- “Its” (vs. “theirs”)
Right now you’re probably looking at your screen as if I had just told you to run a captialism-bad K. No, don’t be silly. That’s for my video blog! [Cue the Giant Squids of Anger seizing the comments section!] Obviously, because it’s such a precise difference, the “Its” press is not one to be run haphazardly. Of course, you should never run T haphazardly but it applies even more to this one. You can use the “its” press on cases dealing with the states or international organizations, which will probably be pretty darn common. Think environmental federalism, or abolishing the Superfund. Your interpretation would probably be somewhere along the lines of “no advantages from non-federal action.” So, if the aff claims advantages from state or international environmental policy changes, they are saying that the United States Federal Government should change state or international environmental policy, and not just it’s own. It sounds tenuous, and tenuous it might be, but there’s a pretty good case to be made that claiming advantages from state or federal action over-inflates the research burden. The limits debate is certainly tougher than other arguments, but I think it’s winnable.
3.) T- “Environmental policy” (NEPA, EPA, US Code, etc.)
You know what makes me all warm and fuzzy inside? BRIGHTLINES.
If you as a Negative team give a brightline for your T-press, something hard and concrete, where you can say “Judge, THIS is environmental policy, and their case is not it!”, you’re more than halfway to winning T, and therefore, the round. Let’s be honest, in this league, probably 80% of teams know no response to T other than “we meet their interpretation” or “Hey! We gave definitions in the 1AC! No fair running T! It’s our right to define and you’re not allowed to bring up counterdefinitions!” If you can give a brightline for your press that they clearly don’t meet, you’re almost there. If you have solid standards and a good impact story, you’re home free.
In this sense, the environmental policy has one big advantage- the element of surprise. If you can provide a brightline, like “It has to be about NEPA” or “It has to be in the US Code” or “It has to be enforced by the EPA” or something like that, you can catch a majority of affs sleeping, and just roll them off the bed and into the casket. Most affirmatives are prepared to defend that SOME definition, SOMEWHERE, SOMEHOW, makes their case topical. In a lot of cases, these will be the stupid, ridiculously broad definitions. Far, far fewer teams are prepared to defend that their case is topical under NEPA, especially when you’ve done the research ahead of time and you know that it’s not. Of course, you’ll face a tougher standards debate on this argument than on others, but you can still probably pick up several ballots with this one.
Of course, no T-press is guaranteed to win you rounds, but there are some T-presses that are atrociously bad. I find, sadly, that these are probably the most common.
1.) T- “Environmental policy” (the stupid kind)
Ten bucks says I can tell you right now what FAR too many teams are going to run the majority of their T-presses like this year. It sounds a little something like this. “But juuuuuuuudge! This isn’t environmental policyyy! It’s OBVIOUS! It’s energy policy! It’s space policy! It’s trade policy! It’s agricultural policy! It’s anything BUT environmental policy! They OBVIOUSLY won’t have answers prepped to respond to this!”
It may be very true that whatever the case is, in fact energy policy, or agricultural policy, or cultural policy, but here’s the problem: I wish you luck in proving that they’re exclusive. More importantly, on a press like this, you need a brightline. You need to identify exactly where the line between environmental policy and not-environmental policy is, and you need to do it in such a way that the judge doesn’t need to hem and haw and wind up making a judgment call on the question. You should be able to say, “Only policies under x y and z are topical, and this isn’t under any of those. Just like having a brightline makes you look really good, not having a brightline makes you look really dumb. On any T-press, if you don’t have a brightline, you’re automatically at a disadvantage by giving them an easier way into the inevitable “we meet” answer. But if you run environmental policy without a brightline, you’re basically popping out of a giant cake with “HEY, AFFIRMATIVE! MAKE ME LOOK STUPID IN FRONT OF MY PEERS AND FUTURE EMPLOYERS!” written on your chest in neon green lights implanted under your skin. Even if you’re right, the judge is never going to vote on it, because they can just “we meet” out. The aff is presumed to be topical until you prove that they aren’t, and if the judge still has doubt in their mind, you’re done, son. And then you’ll look silly, because you should ideally never ever lose T on a “we meet”.
2.) T- “Significantly”
Everybody, please understand this. This part is a personal plea to every Negative team that I will debate this season.
There is probably no argument that makes me want someone to gouge out my eyes with a rusty salad fork than this one.
“It’s already our policy to look for alternative energies! It’s already our policy to recycle! It’s already our policy to fight climate change! You’re not topical, and even though we can’t articulate any actual offense on this T-press, you should still lose!” Here’s why you should avoid this T-press:
-The aff has the easiest we-meet ever. If they win that their case is a big increase, which they will, they’ll win that it’s a significant increase, and therefore a significant change, and they meet your interpretation.
-The aff has an easy standards debate. Think about it- this interpretation would include new policies, so that kills limits– there’s way more predictability if we’re only allowed to adjust current policies up or down, rather than allowing brand new policies to be made.
-Also, you’re going to have a hard time leveraging good voters on this T-press. More on good voters versus bad ones later.
Of course, the T-presses I just talked about aren’t going to be the only T-related arguments flying around this year. It seems to me that the bigger the resolution is, the more that people try to test the limits of it. So, here are three other arguments under Topicality to prepare and watch out for.
1.) Effects Topicality.
I guarantee that effects topicality, or FXT for short, will come up a lot this year. FXT is when an affirmative says that because their policy will have a substantial effect on the environment, that makes it environmental policy. This is pretty ridiculous. Illegal immigrants crossing the border have been shown to have negative effects on the environment. Does that mean that the border fence is now Topical? No. Of course not. Don’t be silly. It may be tempting as a negative to run FXT as part of your 1NC press, but personally, I’d urge you not to. I think a far better strategy is to let them make their answers to your topicality press from the 1NC, and let them establish FXT themselves. Let them say “oh, because our plan solves global warming and global warming is an environmental issue, that means we’re topical.” Then, you point out that they’re using FXT, and you give the reasons why FXT is bad (it explodes the topic, it’s a slippery slope, et cetera) in the negative block and let the 1AR get crushed under the weight of your analysis and let the 2NR do his happy dance.
2.) T- “United States Federal Government”
Watch out for people trying to use international actors like the U.N In their cases. It’ll be rare, but with the international nature of environmental policy, it’s good to have a press prepped out just in case. The reason this isn’t anywhere above is that I don’t expect it to be a major issue, and it kind of ties in with the “its” press above.
Topicality is good, but that doesn’t mean that extra-topicality is great. (Yes, I’m reduced to puns by this point in the article.) I predict that a lot of cases this year are going to require non-topical action as part of their plan, just like people last year cut farm subsidies so that India would agree to a free trade agreement. If they do, you should have an “extra-topicality bad” brief prepped out just in case. Don’t let them get away with accessing advantages they shouldn’t have.
And, to round out this massive Topicality throwdown, I have a few other miscellaneous thoughts about Topicality in general, not just for this year, but things to know for every year.
1.) Don’t just “We meet”.
I know it’s tempting, when faced with a T-press, to just say “uhhhhh judge, we meet their interpretation. Now let’s get along with why our case is awesome!” You like your case. You want to talk about it. You don’t want to listen to people whine about T. I get that. I’ve been there. But really, if the team running T on you is half-decent and has thought out their argument, just a “we meet” is not going to stop them, and you’re running a big risk. Don’t under-cover T.
2.) Know your standards.
Maybe it’s just me, but sometimes I feel like the standards debate, and T in general for that matter, is where we as debaters separate the men from the boys. Pardon the patriarchy-entrenching idiom. I’m not sure where I am personally on that scale, but I hope that I’m at least to the point where my dad is teaching me how to shave and I’m saving up for an ’86 Subaru or something. So, if you want to answer the other team’s T standards (AND YOU DO), be sure you know your arguments and the warrants. Be prepared to explain why limited interpretations are better than drinking Sunny-D and unicorn giggles, or why “Framer’s Intent” is the dumbest thing since snake mittens. Affirmatives have won T debates purely because the neg didn’t know how to defend their standards and couldn’t answer counter-standards.
3.) Use good voters. (Read: “Jurisdiction is stupid.”)
While voting issues really don’t seem important in a T debate, they can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. If you want a judge to vote for you on T, make sure you choose voting issues that are actually a priori impacts to the real world. Education. Fairness. Competitive equity. Ground loss. These are real voting issues, they are real reasons for a judge to vote for you on Topicality, and- this is important- they make sense to just about everybody. Even if you don’t agree with them, they are easy to understand and are clear reasons to vote against the Aff. Even though some people think they sound “whiny”, which they sometimes can be when run badly, they are the only way to impact T well in a way that actually matters to judges and, more importantly, to the real world. I find that a lot of people mistakenly think that T voters and debate theory in general consists of making a bunch of unsupported assertions about debate and how debate works. “Topical counterplans are bad because they’re affirming the resolution, and that’s our duty as the affirmative, and not theirs as the negative!” is a prime example. There’s no impact there to fairness or education of any kind, really. It’s the same way with some voting issues on Topicality. The best example I can think of is when teams use “jurisdiction” as a voting issue, claiming that the judge somehow doesn’t have the jurisdiction to vote for a non-topical plan. I’m going to speak frankly here when I say that’s absolutely ridiculous. The judge has the “jurisdiction” to vote for whomever they want for whatever reason they want. If I’m in a debate round, and my team wins every argument on the flow and we win the round, but the entire time we’re yelling and cursing at the other team and generally behaving terribly, the judge would vote us down for that and it would serve us right. If you’re in front of a college judge, mention that such an interpretation would exclude performance or kritikal affs, and you’re likely to win the argument right there. Point of all this being, make sure you use voters that are actually impacted and warranted.
((Side note on jurisdiction: jurisdiction can also be a legal term, so you could use a standard of jurisdiction saying that environmental protection is in the jurisdiction of the EPA, so the aff has to change a policy enforced by the EPA, and that would actually be a pretty good standard. Jurisdiction has potential as a standard, but as a voting issue, I think it’s pretty much bankrupt.))
So those are my thoughts on all things Topicality this year. Remember, if you disagree with me on anything, feel free to tell me in the comments and we can talk about it. Thanks for reading. Go debate.