I’ve found that a major downside of dedicating time to speech and debate instead of some other high school extracurricular is that it’s painful not being able to tell everyone about my amazing escapades in certain rounds.  Sure, if I played basketball, anybody could at least understand and appreciate the significance of my telling them about an amazing three-pointer I sank last night, but it’s difficult to elicit the same response from the average person when it comes to some really cool DA I ran two weeks ago at a tournament.  For that reason, my excitement over the weird things I do in rounds tends to get stopped up and then flow out at random times when the opportunity arises.  I consider this blog post as great a chance as ever for the floodgates to come crashing down, so brace yourselves (and yes, I promise that this is at least somewhat relevant to you).

Two weeks ago, I was at my first NCFCA tournament of the season, competing in TP among other events.  The first day was going fairly normally.  It was around 7 PM, and round 4 postings had just gone up.  My partner and I checked them, noted we were neg, and headed off to our room.  A couple minutes after we and the aff team showed up, our judge walked in.  He was a community judge, and he explained to us that, one, he himself was a former debater and had spent a number of years in high school and college in the activity, and, two, that his philosophy was completely tabula rasa; anything and everything goes so long as the debaters could support their position.  The moment he said “anything and everything,” an evil cackle started up in the back of my mind.  To make a long story short, my partner and I won the round by persuading the judge to completely ignore the affirmative plan and instead vote negative because our team was more vocal about racial injustice in America.  Oh, and in the 2NC, I persuaded the judge to give every debater in the round 30 speaks (which he did).

These sorts of arguments are called “kritiks,” and whether you’re familiar with them, repulsed, or intrigued, it’s what we’re discussing today, and in the next several hundred words, I hope to persuade you of the necessity of at least having an understanding of how they work and how to run them.

The What

A bit of background may be in order for those less familiar with this type of argument.  Broadly speaking, a kritik is an argument that asserts the judge should evaluate the round based on anything other than whether the affirmative upholds the resolution.  This can range from kritiks like the one about racial injustice described above, to claims that the judge should vote against the other team for wearing shoes, to arguments that the philosophical underpinnings of the opposing case are flawed independent of the case itself.  

You might be thinking “What?! Ignore the aff plan entirely?  What’s even the point of policy debate then?”  I have a few answers for you:

  1. Just like any other type of argument, kritiks aren’t necessarily incompatible with traditional debate tactics.  In the round described earlier, my partner and I also ran “normal” arguments in conjunction with the kritik and the argument about 30 speaks.
  2. At some level, kritiks may very well be even more valid than debate about the resolution!  Think about it: as much discussion as may go into an hour and fifteen minute debate about the merits of the affirmative policy, that policy is never going to be passed after an affirmative ballot; the debate doesn’t change that.  However, the actions taken by the debaters during the round, unlike the plan, are tangible and have real effects in the real world.  Kritiks recognize and capitalize on this fact.
  3. Keep in mind that although resolutional debate is “normal,” there are no rules that bind you as the debaters to it (unless you’re in Stoa or CCA, at which point you’re advised to click off this article unless for the sake of your own curiosity or your potential future in collegiate debate), and so the nature of debate itself is always up for debate.

Structure

Just like a topicality argument or disadvantages, kritiks tend to be structured.  There’s no universal consensus on the means by which they’re structured, but they’re fairly similar to a T-press in many ways, so that’s the structure I’ll break down as an example:

  1. Interpretation
    Here you explain to the judge how you think the debate should be framed instead of resolutional debate.  Examples of interpretations are voting for teams that are vocal in denouncing socially harmful ideologies, voting for teams that do or don’t take certain actions in the round, and so on.  Anything goes.  Under here you’ll also explain why your framing is superior to that of your opponents (much in the same way you might attack your opponents’ interpretation of the resolution in Topicality under your standards).
  2. Violation
    Here you explain why the other team fails the criteria set forth in the interpretation.  In the example kritik in the first paragraph, the violation I and my partner ran was that the aff team failed to be vocal about racial injustice in either of their constructives and therefore didn’t meet our interp.
  3. Alternative
    Here you explain what the judge should do in light of the fact that the opposing team has failed the interp, which is usually just to vote for your side since you (presumably) meet it.

The Why

I’ve got two reasons for you why it’s worth taking the time to, at a bare minimum, familiarize yourself with kritikal theory:

  1. College
    Congratulations, the voice of your mom is unavoidable even if she’s not in the room, and yes, you need to be thinking about college (I’m operating on the assumption that the majority of you readers out there are considering post-secondary education.  If you, O reader, are not, skip to reason 2).  More so than many high school leagues such as NCFCA, Stoa, CCA, CCofSE, NCFL, and others, collegiate debate tends to make regular use of kritiks, and by familiarizing yourself with them now, you’ll have a jumpstart on the next chapter of your debate career before it even begins.
  2. Unicorn judges
    And by this, I mean the one judge you get who, like the one I described earlier, has previous experience with progressive debating and will listen to any and every argument you can come up with.  Nor are these judges as rare as you might think.  In the last two years of my debate career, I, for one, have come across three judges of this variety, though only in my most recent encounter with one did I capitalize on the opportunity presented to me.  Put simply, kritiks are a sure-fire way to win in front of judges like these given that, especially in homeschool leagues, your opponents will have no idea what is going on, but the judge will be following along fine.  Imagine that you spoke some obscure foreign language, and a judge mentioned in their philosophy that they speak the same language and will accept arguments spoken in it.  That’s the firepower you have up your sleeve with kritiks in these situations.  I’m not saying that these rounds come around often–but when they do, I can assure you that they’ll be worth the little bit of time you spent brushing up on kritikal theory.

As you’ve likely gathered, I’m a huge fan of kritiks and almost-as-huge-of-a-fan of discussing them, so if you have any questions or comments about what’s been discussed here, just let me know down in the comments, and I’d love to chat.

Hope you guys found this helpful!

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Ben Brown is the blog manager for Ethos Debate LLC. He has competed in Team Policy debate for four years, ranking in the top 16 nationally every year of his high school career in addition to having obtained a smattering of national placings in speech. When not debating, Ben can be found wishing he was debating, playing board games, or hanging out with friends and family.

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