Note: I’ll be taking NCFCA as my subject for this article because that is where my experience lies. I assume that many of these points will also apply to Stoa, but that is for Stoa-ers (Stoics?) to decide.
For the first four years of my exposure to speech and debate, NCFCA was all I knew. To my eyes, the league might as well have invented debate because every debate round I had ever watched had been at an NCFCA tournament.
As such, I assumed that NCFCA’s norms and customs were staples of debate—inherent parts of the exercise. Some of these norms are simply stylistic preferences, while others strike at the heart of debate strategy and theory.
Every speech and debate league has both similarities and differences in how they offer an event. The time constraints and fundamental concepts of, for instance, Team Policy debate are the same, whichever league you choose. There is an essence to the event that, by definition, is present everywhere it is offered. But simply because something is nonessential (not a fundamental part of Team Policy) does not mean it is unimportant.
Each league that offers debate has different nonessentials—they put their own spin on what an event looks like. NCFCA is no different: We have our own way of doing things, just like everyone else. For instance: The affirmative sits on the judge’s left, while the negative sits on the judge’s right. Competitors face the judge (not each other) during cross-examination. Debaters are expected to be very courteous. They are expected to speak slowly and make only a small number of points. And, most pertinent to today’s topic, they are expected to read cards of evidence to support most—if not all—of the substantive claims they make.
In NCFCA, if you wish to make a specific factual claim, you need a citation to do so. If you don’t have a source for your argument, the judge likely will not credit your point, even if your opponent fails to contest it. Even if your opponent knows that your argument is true, they can simply point out that you “didn’t read any evidence” for it, and that will suffice as a response. In other words, there is a presumption that most claims are false unless evidence is read to suggest otherwise.
This phenomenon seems to be ubiquitous throughout NCFCA. Judges will sometimes go so far as to explain that if you make any claim any more controversial than “the sun rises in the east,” you need a card of evidence to prove that what you are saying is true.
I don’t like this norm. For one thing, it wastes a significant amount of time. Debaters are forced to cut cards to support many basic facts about the case they are arguing. And then, in the actual round, they have to read those cards if they hope to make the point successfully. The result is that debates take longer to get to the true heart of the disagreement between the two teams than they otherwise would. Large chunks of constructive speeches are spent building a foundation for arguments rather than simply presenting them.
Another result of this norm is that judges get lost in a flood of evidence. With five, ten, or even fifteen cards of evidence being read in a single speech, the audience loses track of what matters. Worse, having a piece of evidence becomes a prerequisite to successfully making an argument. Sensible arguments that are purely composed of rhetoric lose out to less sensible ideas that happen to be academically supported.
Lastly, reading evidence for every point you make does not reflect the real world. This point is cliché but irrefutable: “No one carries around boxes of evidence with them everyday!” “Well,” one might say, “even though people don’t carry around boxes of evidence, they still appeal to the internet when there is a factual disagreement.” Exactly! They appeal to outside sources when there is a factual disagreement. That is how it should work in NCFCA. There should be a presumption of validity to factual claims until the other side disputes the claim, not one of falsity. The culture we have right now makes evidence a prerequisite to argumentation, which consumes valuable time, confuses already-complex issues, and doesn’t reflect reality.
Why has this norm been inculcated in NCFCA debate culture? What end does it serve? The best answer to these questions is fairness. If anyone could make any claim they wanted, then debaters would start making up facts. Judges would be unable to distinguish between credible and bogus claims. Who is going to prevent the audience from being fooled?
Why, the other team will, of course. Judges don’t need debaters to read endless pieces of evidence for the same reason they don’t need to keep track of debaters’ speaking time: The two teams will hold each other in check. If one team claims something that just isn’t right, the other team can simply say so.
I will make several caveats. First, evidence is still critically important. Most facts aren’t common knowledge, and if your opponent is likely to dispute one of your claims, you’d better have evidence to back it up. Otherwise, it’s your word against theirs, a dispute which you, as the claimant, will lose: “The burden of proof lies on him who asserts, not on him who denies.” This applies in a special way to affirmative teams, who have a burden to prove the resolution true in each debate round.
Another caveat is the 2AR—the final speech of the round. Because it is the final speech, the negative team has no opportunity to call attention to any untruths made therein. As such, in the 2AR, new, unsupported claims should be regarded as especially suspect (as they already are).
To be clear, this article is not a manifesto against the use of evidence in general. Searching for evidence is a remarkably educational process, and using evidence is a useful skill to develop. Rather, this article asserts that NCFCA judges require competitors to read evidence even when it is unnecessary; it further argues that this phenomenon ought to be minimized. One way to do so is to give the benefit of the doubt to new claims until they are contested, even if evidence has not been read to support the claim.