In my previous article I discussed some of the “goals and anti-goals of debate.” It was partially a standalone topic, but it also served as a lead-in to this broader series on what I’ve decided to call Pragmatism Theory (or just “Pragmatism”). This article still won’t get into the weeds of what Pragmatism is or isn’t (aside from what I’ve already said about it), including how to apply it. Instead, this article will discuss ways in which Pragmatism is ignored/overlooked, “alternative” paradigms (which can still largely exist within Pragmatism), and the ultimate “harms of the status quo.”
How Pragmatism is Overlooked
In the simplest of terms, Pragmatism Theory is mostly just “whatever paradigm/theory/rule/definition/etc. makes debate better is what should be preferred.” There is a lot to unpack with that statement (which will be done in a future article), but to some people that claim may not come off as controversial. In fact, it may almost sound obvious when phrased that way. Yet, it’s important to understand the implications in contrast with other theories: it is by implication saying “if following a paradigm like Resolutionism (what Joseph Abell at Ace Peak has described as the core of “Omni Theory”), flow-heavy purist judging, requiring evidence to back up most claims, or something else leads to a bad outcome in a certain situation, one should make exceptions to following those paradigms in that situation.” In other words: none of these paradigms are all-encompassing; they are not the ultimate foundation or scale.
Even Joseph Abell in an article earlier this year gave some similar sentiment about the importance of defending models based on how they make debate better or worse. Yet, in the context of his Omni Theory series, this felt like burying the lede. It also illustrates part of the problem (or “inherency”) with the status quo: this principle may seem obvious when it’s actually pointed out, but it doesn’t always get so explicitly identified and implemented, such as when people are operating on “tradition autopilot.” I have repeatedly seen theory disagreements boil down to trying to justify/reject some novel/controversial action in relation to some tradition/standard like Resolutionism or “burden of proof,” without the sides stopping to consider whether that standard is actually necessary or helpful. This is especially noticeable in those definition debates where the two sides debate as if there is some singular, objective meaning for a subjective word, rather than quickly recognizing that the goal should not be “which definition is ‘objectively correct’” but rather something more like “which definition produces the best debate.”
There are ultimately a lot of specific justifications for recognizing this as a foundational point, but the central idea that covers most of these justifications is “it’s important to have firm foundations for thought.” While some paradigms like Resolutionism may happen to produce the best debate in most situations, they do not by design take a “whatever works best” approach; they follow rules which may not actually produce the best debate in some situations. If we want to really understand and use whatever combination of paradigms works best, Pragmatism is better since it adjusts to aim for the goal of “better debate” and does not inherently exclude anything from consideration.
Resolutionism and “Rule-ism” More Broadly: Their Characteristics and Weaknesses
I have long put a heavy emphasis on paradigms like Resolutionism and what I’ll simply call “Rule-ism” (i.e., paradigm/theory that is derived from a league’s rules, which generally includes Resolutionism). Because Resolutionism is one of the most important examples of Rule-ism (and is a major basis of Ace Peak’s “Omni” Theory), I will primarily focus on it. Still, the general idea underlying Rule-ism tends to follow a pattern such as “The rules say X [e.g., the affirmative must uphold the resolution…]; my interpretation of X says that Y [e.g., topicality] is important; my interpretation of X/Y means that Z [e.g., topical counterplans] is irrelevant/illogical.”
Such a paradigm has the significant benefit of relying on a more predictable and objective foundation (i.e., the rules). Thus, if judges use this paradigm, people just have to debate over what interpretations are valid in that paradigm, rather than whether that foundation is the best possible foundation (e.g., whether or not exceptions ought to be made). Over the years, however, I have also found that despite my respect for Resolutionism, it has some flaws. The following is a list of some of the issues I’ve seen (albeit some are more debatable than others):
- Kritiks (by which I’m referring to “arguments which don’t directly impact to whether the resolution is true or false,” which in some leagues are just called “theory arguments”): A lot of people may have really negative connotations with kritiks, but as I cover in the linked article, some of them are at least somewhat reasonable. For example, I could certainly be persuaded as a judge to judge a team more harshly if they are abusing speed-and-spread tactics to simply get the other team to drop small, facile arguments. However, it’s important to recognize that at least one plausible argument in homeschool leagues counts as a kritik, even though it isn’t always labeled as such:
- Specification (“Spec”) arguments. These basically build on prima facie theory (which arguably is not derived from the rules), saying that “if the affirmative didn’t present a full case in the 1AC, you should not vote for them.” Joseph provides a pretty good explanation of why they are important (for promoting good debate) in the linked article.
- “Topical future inherency”: back in high school, I once encountered a team that was doing fairly well with a case. The problem was that the case focused on a mandate which was supposed to soon be implemented in the real world. The negative strategy thus seemed obvious: just run inherency, saying that the plan will already get implemented and thus they aren’t really changing the status quo. However, one of the affirmative team’s responses was that it doesn’t matter: a future policy reform by the government would fulfill the resolution, and thus even if the inherency point was right in saying that the government would already reform its policy, that doesn’t refute the statement that “The USFG should substantially reform its…” This seems to pose a serious problem for Resolutionism: if an affirmative team just defines “policy” (or “law”) as basically “[that which is currently on the books or in practice],” then Resolutionism seems to allow affirmative teams to just hunt for policies that are already expected to pass with bipartisan approval because they are obviously good policies (perhaps in response to a new event/challenge, such as COVID-19). This would let the affirmative win much more easily and undermine the educational value of the debate.
- Extra-topicality: My old article on extra topicality (XT) comes pretty close to being Rule-ism/Resolutionism taken too far. At one point, I essentially argued that at least under such paradigms, it’s okay to present a plan with crucial extra-topical mandates so long as the “focus” is still on the topical mandates’ justification. While I still think this is okay in moderation, I can see how it can get abused (which even led me to write and include what was essentially a kritik in disguise). Consider for example a plan during Stoa’s agricultural policy year which would 1) legalize marijuana cultivation and 2) also legalize the sale of marijuana. Crucially, this gives significantly more ground to affirmatives by letting them run a wider range of cases—including cases which negatives may not even know to prepare for (since they are only thinking about topical mandates in the context of the status quo).
- Topical counterplans (TCPs): The iconic, hyper-controversial theory topic. I won’t try to rehash all the debate that Ethos has engaged in on this topic, but to heavily condense my personal views: I argue that TCPs are typically illogical from a Resolutionism paradigm, yet they can potentially be beneficial for debate in certain situations, so long as they are kept in check. For example, I have come across affirmative cases/proposals that just seem to be so clearly better than the status quo that negatives are at a major disadvantage—due to no fault of their own. Thus, I could definitely be convinced in some situations to ignore the question of whether TCPs are logical/legitimate, and instead just vote in line with which proposal is better.
- Multi-cases/multi-plans (which go by many names, e.g., alternative justification cases): these are basically where the affirmative runs different plans for different issues (a multi-case) or multiple solutions for a single issue (a multi-plan). The problem is that this arguably undermines education if not also fairness, since it tends to heavily sacrifice depth for breadth. I have yet to see a truly effective multi-case/multi-plan (perhaps largely because of leagues’ norms around things like prima facie), and thus it may not be necessary to kritik such a strategy in order to discourage it, but I do not discount the potential for abuse in niche situations. Yet, Resolutionism seemingly has no qualm with this: “So what if an affirmative runs three cases/plans, then practically kicks out of two of them in the 2AR by focusing almost entirely on whichever case the negative spent the least time covering? It’s not against any written rules, and the aff has still shown the resolution to be true in at least one example.”
Ultimately, one can debate over the examples given here, but I feel that the list above does enough to show that even some of the most important paradigms in debate—including Resolutionism and Rule-ism—have some flaws. I have similarly made arguments against flow-judge “purism” (e.g., it allows room for abuse, it does not accurately emulate “judging” in the real world), which I used to consider the “golden standard” for judging. To be clear, I am definitely not rejecting those paradigms’ usefulness as general guides. Yet, these issues illustrate the need to look deeper and not blindly accept them in their entirety. Instead, it is helpful to really understand the true foundations of what makes a good paradigm/theory/etc. In my next article, I will start to discuss what Pragmatism is (and is not) more specifically.