I will begin this article with a brief disclaimer: I have no definitive answer to this quandary. The purpose of this article is not to persuade you of a response to the question in the title but instead to raise the question. It is a topic of significant importance and one that the debate community should wrestle with consciously.
In all forms of debate—especially, from what I can tell, Lincoln Douglas and parliamentary—there is an unspoken assumption that the grounds of discussion must be fair. That is to say, we all implicitly agree that it should not be unreasonably difficult for either side to win.
This assumption has given rise to a different belief: that when interpreting resolutions, the most fair interpretation should be given preference over the most accurate understanding.
I’ll give an example:
Several years ago, NCFCA LD debated whether Preventive war is ethical. “Preventive war” is a disputed term: Experts cannot agree on what it means. As such, speakers on the affirmative side of the resolution would attempt to define preventive war in a narrow way so that they could evade typical NEG applications instead of having to defend them. AFF often responded to NEG examples by saying: “That’s not real preventive war. Preventive war requires XYZ and your example doesn’t involve XYZ.”
If the NEG tried to define preventive war more broadly than the AFF (so they could use their examples), a typical AFF response would be: “That’s not fair! It’s unreasonable to make me defend that application. Of course we all agree that is unethical.”
Debaters make this sort of argument routinely, and they usually present it in roughly the same way: “No one would actually defend this position, so it’s unreasonable to make me defend it.”
At first blush, this is a persuasive argument, and in my experience, it works a significant majority of the time. After all, debate is a constructive activity, and resolutions are supposed to be debatable (i.e., there isn’t supposed to be an obvious answer). The argument is most compelling in cases where competing interpretations of the resolution are equally accurate, and fairness breaks the tie.
But can the argument for fairness overcome the argument for accuracy? That is to say: If interpretation A is more fair but less accurate than interpretation B, should we still go with it?
When the question is phrased this way, some would reply, “absolutely not!” After all, the AFF should be forced to defend “preventive war” as it is in the real world. That is the definition of the AFF’s job in the context of this debate! They cannot justify a niche or creative definition of the term with an appeal to fairness; if preventive war is a horrific concept, the AFF, qua the AFF, has to defend it—even if it’s not fair.
Think of a counterexample to the one given above. Let’s say that, instead of Preventive war is ethical, the resolution was Maoism is the pinnacle of Chinese philosophy. AFF could say to NEG’s accurate definition of Maoism: “No one would defend that. It’s unreasonable to make me defend it. The resolution must be referring to something else.”
But why must it? Why must the resolution be referring to some fair debate? Isn’t it possible that the most accurate interpretation of the resolution is simply unfair (even slightly) to one side or the other? Of course, it is! In those cases, I believe there is a potent argument to be made that the resolution should be interpreted primarily based on its plain meaning, with limited or no regard given to how “fair” that makes the debate.
Patrick McDonald competed in the NCFCA for five years. He is currently attending Hillsdale College in Michigan, The United States of America, where he is pursuing a double major in Politics and History. If you would like to book coaching with Patrick, click here.