Competitive debaters are trained to give good answers to difficult questions. So, we are profoundly uncomfortable when we don’t have an answer to a question. And, under most circumstances, we would never dream of refusing to try to answer a question. (Sometimes we have to resort to that, but we never like it, and we usually treat it as a last resort.) Because we are conditioned this way (for good reasons, I might add), we assume that, if our opponents ask us to provide additional evidence for a claim, or if they ask us to take a position on a controversial topic, or if they ask us to offer more details about our proposals, it is our job to do so.
None of that is true. There is only one rule in debate: the Affirmative speaker must prove the resolution. That’s it. While it is often (or usually) to your advantage to provide greater clarity or justification, at no point are you obligated to meet an opponent’s demand for it. This is especially true when the demand is unreasonable or calculated to put you at a disadvantage.
When, you ask, is it best to refuse such requests? That’s an excellent question. Here are two examples, both drawn from Lincoln Douglas Debate. (I’m willing to bet there are analogous phenomena in Team Policy. But if any of our esteemed TP coaches sees me offering poisonous advice, please feel free to engage in some damage control via the comments section.)
1. “What is your bright line?”
It is common in LD debate (and especially in Stoa) for opponents to demand a “bright line,” or an exact specification of the circumstances under which one thing ought to be valued above another. Under fact resolutions, a request for a bright line might be a request for an exact specification of the conditions under which the resolution would be true.
Sometimes, a request for a bright line is reasonable, i.e. when it is really a request for clarification. And I think debaters should be prepared to give as exact a specification of their position as is reasonable to expect given the resolution. But more often than not, a request for a bright line is a “gotcha” question asked by debaters who are fairly certain there is no bright line. That is, the question is designed to embarrass the one answering by forcing him to either (i) admit he has no bright line or (ii) pick one that is implausible. This is what is sometimes happening when, for example, one debater asks another, “When exactly is it okay for the government to violate the right to property?” or “When exactly does someone go from having a right to property in something to no longer having such a right?”
These questions don’t have clear answers, and it’s okay to say that during the round. It’s even better to turn the request back on your opponent. If your opponent demands that you specify exactly when the right to property begins and ends, just say, “I don’t have a position on that. But I’d love to hear your position on it. What do you think?” (If offered during rebuttal, this would obviously need to be put in the third person. But the principle is the same.) This will expose the fact that your opponent doesn’t have a bright line, either. (If they do have a bright line, and it’s really plausible, then you’re in trouble. But that means the request was probably reasonable in the first place, so you should have had an answer ready. Remember, not all requests for a bright line are spurious.)
2. “Do you have an application for that point?”
I’ve already ranted about this at some length in another blog post (and see Patrick McDonald’s recent post about it, too), but LDers often request evidence for claims that don’t require evidence. For instance, some competitors would insist that you provide an application for a contention arguing that justice requires proportional punishment. Of course, there is no such application. No empirical evidence — that is, no evidence drawn from the external world via observation — could establish that proportionality is necessary for justice. You can’t measure justice with litmus paper, a barometer, or a survey. But they will ask anyway. And some debaters will try to give such evidence anyway.
If an opponent asks you for evidence for something that is common sense, you can just point out that it is common sense. If they ask you for empirical evidence for a philosophical claim, you can point out that your claim is philosophical, and that no evidence could establish it anyway. Better yet, you can ask them what kind of evidence they are looking for. If their request for evidence wasn’t reasonable, they won’t have a good answer. (Again, if they do have a good answer, then their request was reasonable all along, and you should have been prepared.) And you can follow up, in your cross-examination or in your next speech, with similarly unreasonable requests for evidence for obvious things (every case — and I mean every single one — makes claims that are un-evidenced, at least implicitly).
3. “How would you implement the resolution?”
(Now, if you are a TPer, you had darned well have a somewhat detailed answer to this one. But you can read the following as a suggestion for what to do when your opponents are looking for an unreasonable level of detail.)
Whatever you do, don’t say, “This is LD, and LD is about ideas, not about the real world.” That’s nonsense. LD is just as much about the real world as any other format of debate (unless we’re going to say that LD resolutions really don’t matter, but if you’re in LD, I doubt you want to say that). But LD is more abstract than other formats, in the sense that it’s usually concerned with the guiding principles behind policy, rather than policy itself. For that reason, there’s no time in an LD round to explicate and defend a detailed policy proposal. You’ve got to convince your judge that the public interest outweighs individual rights when national security is under threat. That’s hard enough. Don’t try to explain what sort of defense spending is necessary under which circumstances and who’s going to pay for it, or how we’re going to settle on compensation for someone whose lawn is expropriated for pipeline construction.
The same tactic from the last two examples works here as well. Just turn the request on your opponent. Say, “I haven’t offered a detailed policy proposal. But if my opponent offers one, I’ll be more than happy to respond with one of my own.” (Be ready to back this up. But don’t bust out the policy proposal unless it’s the only way out.)
4. Concluding Thoughts
Don’t use this post as an excuse to avoid legitimate requests for clarity or evidence. Use it as a guide for handling unreasonable ones. By now, you’ve probably noticed a pattern: don’t let your opponent force you to do something they wouldn’t be comfortable doing themselves. And if they try, force them back.
Noah McKay is a debate coach and sourcebook author at Ethos Debate currently pursuing graduate studies in philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. He has coached individuals and groups in LD for five years.
Appreciate the thoughts! Minor quibble: philosophical points are not by nature not backed by evidence. It is true that philosophers will speak on occasion of principles that are “self-evident”—such as “things exist”—but most philosophical claims rest upon the truth of certain premises (and the validity of the logical combination of them).
Further, philosophy deals with reality, which I’ve often found means that a simple real world example is applicable.
This all is not to take away from your thesis, however; that justice should be served in a manner proportional to the crime is, I believe, obvious and not worth time explaining. But an explanation does exist, nonetheless.
You’re absolutely right about this. I use “philosophical” in a very loose sense in this article — that is, in the way LDers tend to use it — but I’ve noted in writing elsewhere that philosophical claims can be empirical, and that LDers should liberate themselves from the misconception that “evidence” is irrelevant to philosophical claims.
You’re also right that real-world examples help to illustrate more abstract philosophical theses. I’m a huge fan of delivering philosophical content through thought experiments in debate rounds, rather than Kant quotes and such (that might be the worst way to do it).
This is the author, I forgot to note.