“I voted for your opponents because lives are important.” Staring disappointedly at that solitary sentence, I felt overwhelmingly perplexed and perhaps even a tad disappointed.

It has happened to all of us: you compete in a debate, you feel sure that you won, but you somehow lose the ballot to a judge who seems to have missed the point of your argumentation. Instead of voting on logos or ethos, the judge voted solely on pathos.

In this case, my partner and I had just argued against a plan that enacts rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea to pick up migrants who undertake the perilous crossing from North Africa to Europe. We had presented an array of arguments against the plan, and I can assure you that not one of them involved the claim that “lives aren’t important.”

It wasn’t so much that the judge disagreed with our arguments. Instead, she seemed to admit that some of the practical necessities of the plan were lacking. Despite this, she appeared to have become permanently attached to the thematic appeal of the case. And who’s to blame her? No one wants to let people drown. Only an impressively malevolent judge would be naturally opposed to rescuing migrants.

The goal of this article is to help you prevent your judges from feeling impressively malevolent by voting against the emotionally appealing case that you will inevitably find yourself refuting at some point in your career.

Regardless of the resolution, plans such as these are sure to exist in abundance. They all sing the same tune. “People are dying/being abused,” “we have to do something,” and, my personal least favorite, “by voting negative, you are making yourself complicit in atrocity.”

When that one judge — the one who is susceptible to purely emotional rhetoric — and that one case — the one with a healthy dose of emotional appeal — meet, the negative team is in trouble. Deep trouble.

To be clear, not all cases with sentimental appeal are fallacious. Indeed, in my experience, a good number of them are well-constructed policies that happen to address an emotional issue. But that doesn’t mean that judges won’t vote solely on the sentiment anyways. 

How can you fight back? Are you supposed to argue that lives aren’t meaningful or that we shouldn’t fight abuses? Of course not. Though it is difficult, the ability to dismantle these cases is a necessary skill to hone, and it is imperative to understand where to start.

Playing Defense: Usurp and Refocus

In the round described above, my partner and I argued that, for various reasons, the plan to rescue migrants wasn’t going to be effective at achieving its goal and thus shouldn’t be enacted. Typically, this strategy is ideal when arguing against an emotionally appealing case, as it allows you to accept the obvious fact that “lives are important” without losing any ground.

The only problem is that such a strategy does not cut down on the Affirmative case’s pathos. Sure, the plan might not be flawless, but it’s still the right thing to do, isn’t it? We might as well try to fix the problem, right? Surely, it’s better than nothing? It is questions like these that lead to ballots like the one my partner and I received. 

That’s why you have to constantly impact back to your opponent’s harm. Make the judge aware just how much you want to prevent the atrocity in question and how commonsensical such a position is. Explicitly accept what you must, and do everything to refocus the round on the plan’s practical nature.

More importantly, explain why the logistical holes in the policy will allow the problem to continue. If there is a problem with the funding or the timeline, explain how that problem will directly enable the abuse to endure.

If they’ve done their job right, the Affirmative team has outlined exactly how bad their harm is. Capitalize on that. Usurp their emotional appeal. Turn it around, and use it as a weapon. Even the scales by making it seem as though the plan — not the status quo — is the one allowing the atrocities to persist.

Playing Offense: An Absolute Necessity

Even if you mitigate much of your opponents’ advantages, they still have an inherent and deceptively potent advantage. If a judge is presented with a plan that probably won’t work but seems like it is the right thing to do, they very well might still vote for it.

This was why my partner and I lost the debate mentioned earlier: we didn’t answer the question “why not?” That question — “why not try to fix the problem?” — is the Affirmative team’s best friend in this instance. As long as they have all the pathos, you are in quite the predicament.

That’s why you have to do everything you can to explain how people will actively get hurt because of the plan. In some cases, finding offense can be incredibly difficult. For a rescue mission in the Mediterranean Sea, there doesn’t seem to be any downside.

But there’s always something. Though each case will be different, a generic disadvantage is the expense of political capital, which will prevent the status quo from solving the problem independently. Perhaps, in the instant case, anti-migration sentiment would overwhelm Europe and set the next pro-migration policy back by years.

Sometimes it will seem like a stretch, but you have to find something. Even if you take out most of the plan’s practical appeal, you are still in danger, providing that you don’t have any emotional offense of your own. Don’t let your opponents attain a monopoly on sentiment.

Concluding Remarks

Combating emotionally appealing cases may seem difficult at times, especially when they are well-thought-out, but it is by no means impossible. Hopefully, this article has helped you to do precisely that through effective and targeted defense and perhaps even some emotional offense of your own.

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