If you’ve ever played volleyball, you know the terror of a spike. A player slams the ball over the net so hard you have no hope of returning it. In debate, a spike is a little different, but still a powerful offensive tactic.
Referring broadly to preemption, a spike is a component of a speech that attempts to undermine, refute, or otherwise hinder an argument before the other team makes it. There are a wide variety of different ways to spike an argument, and spikes can be a valuable component of your strategy in every speech except the last. Throughout this series, we’ll examine spikes and how they vary throughout the round. I’ll focus on TP because that’s what I’m most familiar with, but the principles are certainly applicable to LD.
In the 1AC, I’d argue that two types of spikes are the most useful: structural spikes that preclude whole lines of argumentation, and persuasive inoculation that preempts arguments you’re expecting to hear. We’ll take these one at a time.
(As a disclaimer, there’s a difference between persuasive inoculation and a true spike. Inoculation guards against a type of rhetoric, whereas a true spike attacks a specific argument. In the 1AC, they’re similar enough that I won’t draw a distinction.)
When I say “structural spikes,” I’m referring to components of a case’s framing/outline/etc. that are built to preclude certain arguments. They’re not “spikes” in the traditional debate sense, but they’re effective forms of preemption that are worth covering here.
As an example, during the China resolution, my partner and I ran a case to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Initially, it was a one mandate case, and the mandate was as follows:
“Mandate 1: Join the AIIB. The US Federal Government will purchase the maximum allowable stock in the AIIB, likely amounting to $230 million USD.”
But people kept bothering us about two things: funding, and how much power we’d have in the bank. So, we added this mandate:
“Mandate 2: Increase Involvement. When more stock becomes available in the Bank, the US will purchase it up to a threshold of 5% vote in the bank, amounting to roughly 4 billion USD, or 0.001% of the federal budget.”
And then people stopped bothering us about those points. We changed our case to avoid a set of arguments. If you’ve ever improved your plan after hitting a nasty argument, you’ve employed this sort of preemption.
This applies to every area of a case. Getting crushed by economic DAs? Run a weighing mechanism about human rights, and get the other team to argue money>people. Losing to Hitler arguments? Run a definition that says Hitler was actually a globalist, not a nationalist. Everyone uses this sort of preemption, even without realizing it.
A word of warning/notes on strategy
When employing structural spikes, make sure to pick your battles. A common mistake intermediate debaters will make is to try to create a case against which no arguments exist. They create a ball of structural spikes. The problem, of course, is that the negative team still has to run arguments. Thus, they challenge the structure of the case: they dispute your definitions, weighing mechanisms, and so on, because they have to. And then the round becomes a big, confusing mess. And confused judges vote against change—they vote Neg.
Therefore, I’d advise that you only use structural spikes for arguments you don’t want your opponent to run. If there’s an argument that gets brought up every round, but you always crush it, don’t spike it. A Neg team that runs that argument hurts themselves and helps you. You want to use structural spikes to funnel the debate where you want it. In the AIIB case, Maggie and I found it worked far better when we argued about geopolitics than when we argued about economics. So, we framed the case around geopolitics—engagement vs disinvolvement—and used structural spikes to subvert economic arguments. As a result, quite often, Neg teams lost as soon as they refused to challenge our structural preemption.
Catherine Alles explains the basics of persuasive inoculation here. Ranging anywhere from a sentence to a paragraph, these spikes introduce a counter argument, then explain why it’s wrong. In the 1AC, this isn’t necessarily the same as refutation. You don’t need any strict structure, and your aim isn’t to KO an argument. Rather, your aim is to make its later refutation easier and more persuasive.
How? Provide a reference point. During the federal court system resolution, my partner and I ran a case to repeal portions of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). A common disadvantage was a purported influx of frivolous litigation from prisons, since we’d be making it easier for prisoners to file suit. After a while, we added a line and some evidence in the 1AC that went something like this: “In fact, according to [Ph. D person], prisoners were several times less likely to file frivolous litigation than the rest of the population, even before the PLRA’s passage.”
Now, people still ran the frivolous litigation DA, but they stopped winning on it. Instead of having to bring up new evidence to respond to the argument, we just referenced our case, impacted it, and made Neg look like they weren’t listening. This all took maybe fifteen seconds.
Notes on strategy
As per the above example, you should inoculate against arguments that you know Neg will run, and then capitalize on the spike’s existence by referencing it in your refutation. It benefits you persuasively/psychologically because persuasive inoculation works, as well as strategically, since it makes arguments easier and faster to debunk.
In the next part, we’ll get into my favorite sort of spike: the direct callout. In parting, I’d remind you that spikes, more so than most tactics, require moderation. You have two whole speeches called “rebuttals” to rebut the other team, so don’t try to do it all in the first constructive. Make your spikes few in number, but effective.