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Topicality and other theory arguments often get a bad rap in the debate community. Just ask your judge’s “judging philosophy.” They say things like “I don’t ever buy topical counterplans” or “I don’t vote on Topicality.” I find it funny that some people take such hard stances on these issues – like it’s a rule or something.

The problem is that there are essentially three types of rules in debate.

  1. Explicit league rules.
  2. Assumed rules.
  3. Debatable guidelines.

The first category has its own adjudication system that is outside from the judge in the round. These are things like speech time and evidence ethics. The second category includes things like new arguments in rebuttals and prima facie. The third, the most contentious category is where topical counterplans and Kritiks lie. (As a side note it always makes me sad when leagues like the CCofSE make this third category into explicit rules.)

How do we make decisions about theory issues when there are no explicit rules? Can we run a Topical Counterplan?  How about Topicality – does the affirmative even have to be under the resolution?

I think Topicality is an almost universally accepted assumed rule. It seems by consequence of the league even having a resolution debaters are supposed to debate under it. As far as theory goes, this is probably the closest to a rule it gets. In fact, every other argument flows from the authority of topicality. Why do we even have the ability to argue Solvency, Significance, Disadvantages, or Advantages at all? It’s because the resolution is a policy resolution and gives the Affirmative the authority to create a policy. The resolution tells us that the U.S. should reform its trade policy or foreign policy or _____ policy. All non-theory arguments come from the word “should” in the resolution – because that little word gives the Affirmative fiat: the ability to assume their plan would be passed. Essentially, the impact to every argument is topicality. Every argument is theory. (Please do NOT take this to mean you should impact every argument into a topicality press).

If every normal policy argument impacts to Topicality, then what rests above Topicality? I myself am not entirely sure. Clouds. Mist. An amorphous concept called debate. The ultimate impact to Topicality is simply debate. Debate is debate and debate is debatable. The league defines some standards, but the rest are open to interpretation.

Whether you love or hate theory, you cannot avoid it. Theory is the reason debate exists.

So how do we argue it?

I would advise two things. 1. On the latter two categories of “debate rules,” decide what theory you agree with and stick to it. Figure out for yourself whether you believe the Negative can run Topical Counterplans or not. Then never run an argument contrary to that, even if it might help you in a specific round. 2. Remember that theory is all about impacting.

There are essentially four different categories of theory impacts.

  1. Fairness/Debatablility – arguing that you are right because your standard makes debate fair. This is, for instance, why we limit debate to specific resolutions. This impact applies specifically to debaters themselves.
  2. Education – education is often misused and ineffective as an impact. However, it is still an important argument. It is meant to explain the impact of a theory argument as it specifically applies to the judge. Essentially, these types of impacts explain why debaters should not be allowed to do stupid things. Allowing stupid things would only end up wasting the judge’s freely volunteered time.
  3. Tradition – oftentimes theory standards just exist because that’s the way things are. Debate itself can be its own authority. Debate evolves over time, but in any given competition year the debate community will have assumed standards – like being topical or not running new arguments in rebuttals. This type of argument ties the impact of debate theory to debate itself.
  4. Real World – these impacts explain that debate in competition should function like debate in the real world. These impacts are always the most powerful because they connect with real people. Essentially, they show how a real debate format, like Congress, handles a procedure and applies it to competitive debate theory. For instance, if I am arguing for the legitimacy of Topical Counterplans, I could talk about getting fast food for lunch. If I say I want to go to Chick-Fil-A and you hate chicken, you are likely to say you want to go to Wendy’s for lunch or name some other restaurant. With real world decisions a counter-proposal is a perfectly legitimate argument.

Theory is not rule; it is argument. These four impacts give you powerful tools to win such arguments.

As you debate these arguments, do not forget their four-part structure:

Interpretation: What you believe the correct theory principle is

Standard: Why you believe that is the correct theory principle

Violation: Why your opponent has violated that theory principle

Impact: Why it matters


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