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ERRATA: This post referred to “this year’s national champions” at one point in a way that could’ve meant any of several teams and people. At least one national championship team this year specifically adopted a strategy like is recommended here. The sentence has been edited and some particular national champs invited to share their story on this blog.

file9051263254096During the 2002–03 homeschool debate topic, my partner, friends, and I wrote some letters to Congress about policies that year. In one case – stateless children in the CNMI – we even had emails and dialogue with the people affected by the policy we wrote Congress about, that got passed that year (we even got a thank you note from a Congressperson on helping inform them).

Would you run a case that doesn’t matter, just to win more debate rounds? I don’t think you should. Plato would say you’re shaping your soul, every minute of every day, and the hours you’ll spend on debate learning to defend something that doesn’t matter and hawk bad wares wires your soul forever. Do you want to be the compromiser?

Well I’m disappointed with homeschool debaters. Last year, I felt the cases lacked vision. I doubt many regional champions and top competitors really belive their case should happen in real life. Sure, perhaps being small-minded is what judges want to hear, but I think you should commit to advocate for big ideas that matter – even if that makes you into a William Wilberforce, who doesn’t get traction on ending slavery for nearly a decade.

Proof from Last Year

20 minutes of research at ssrn.com on the “federal court system” has demonstrated the amount of real problems, that aren’t just big/powerful/sensational decisions at the top of businesses or Government houses, and affect many people:

  • Children at immigration hearings without translators who can’t keep up
  • A dysfunctional “hourly rate” appointment of certain public defenders in certain specialized courts, which creates a distorted incentive and fewer positive outcomes
  • Transparency is costly, but we’re marching towards justice system documents being searchable online (imagine big-data pre-judgment of likelihood of your facts winning/losing)
  • Proof that judge selection (forget SCOTUS… all through the system) for appellate levels is overly stilted, and people who’ve never judged a real trial end up setting the precedents that govern them, from their ivory offices
  • Proposals for arbitration and mediation, to develop healthy justice out of conflict, instead of war-zone justice
  • Justice in cyberspace is a rampantly ignored but challenging issue to solve

A similar search will tell you some major issues with China, Japan, South Korea, and related transnational security, trade, and finance issues.

You know what cases I heard the most about last year? Notetaking or questions by juries, which only get called up less than 5% of the time in the first place. Freeze the assets of this one guy in China. Change some silly little tariff from this amount to that amount.


The Root Issue: Value in the Eyes of Others

In this article about Silicon Valley thinking (get loads of money, fast), the author argues that viewing monetary value as the only decider of real value is a moral fallacy. Is a $12B-valued CandyCrush actually worth more than 5 African nations? Is a nurse who chooses to be a poor nurse a waste of life if she could’ve been a rich entrepreneur?

I think debaters commit a similar fallacy. Debaters construct a system of value (what judges vote for most easily) and then attempt to legitimize this way of thinking. I ran into it at Patrick Henry College, when I first joined the debate team and was told “that case idea won’t be accepted by our judging pool, you need to run something much more progressive.” In a game of persuasion, to me that just meant I needed to work to sell these people on something they wouldn’t normally consider – I mean, that’s what I’m trying to get good at!

Stop overparticularizing. Do something big that makes a splash. For example, you could drop all trade barriers, unilaterally, with a country or group of countries. I did that in highschool my 2nd year of debate and did pretty well (9th nationally) with version 23 of our case! You can do it.

How to Be Different

Solve a top 10 problem in the topic. It’s that simple. Don’t sit in your bedroom and think up what you think would sell to judges or be a good case idea. Go engage in the world of ideas and see what really matters.

For China, here’s our overview of the top challenges. We don’t have one for the other topics (sorry!), but we have a table of contents for the agriculture/food safety topic, so use the Prezi as an analogy.

To do THAT you should start here: go research the conferences people in the real world are having on your topic, and figure out what some of the top challenges are.

Then resolve to solve one. Forget saving half the endangered tiger population of India (real case), or fighting brown tree snake infestation in Guam (real case), or letting jurors as questions (real case) – and solve something big like North Korea, the South China Seas, FDA/USDA corruption, business-favoring food safety laws unique to Western Democracies (hint: European food doesn’t seem to kill you), and so on.

You’ll know you’ve hit a nerve if you want to write Congress about your case.


Do you really want to succeed at pawning off something unimportant? Dig in and resolve to solve a big problem that really matters. It’s worth it!

Go debate.

Isaiah_McPeak-squareIsaiah McPeak is the Head Coach at Ethos Debate, and Co-Founder at sports tech company statUP.com. He has over 10 years experience in speech and debate, coaching 5 national champions and placing top 5 in multiple leagues himself. Outside of the debate world, he’s had years experience as an intelligence analyst, writer, rhetoric teacher, and communications coach. He is also the CEO of the new startup, statUP.

Isaiah is also author of Upside Down Debate, a 5-star rated book that teaches debate from a life-transference and Classical Rhetoric perspective.

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