It’s nearly impossible to survive in TP without being an unwavering pessimist when it comes to the subject of reform.  Think about it: if you want to win nationals, you have to be able to argue that literally any topical reform is a bad idea.  That is, unless you have an unexplained interest in losing neg rounds.  On the other hand, to win affirmative rounds, you only have to pick one potential change to defend.  A mindset that understands why any given policy should not be passed, therefore, is generally more useful than the alternative.  You might be pulling hairs trying to come up with a viable affirmative case at the beginning of the season, but once you do, it’s relatively smooth sailing from then on out.  Or is it?  I’d like to make a controversial suggestion real quick:

Sometimes, the Affirmative team is objectively right 

Allow me to clarify: when I say “objectively,” I don’t mean that it’s possible to make an absolute determination about the merits of a given policy option.  However, if it were possible to attain the sum of all existing knowledge in the universe as well as the means by which to harness this knowledge for practical purposes, it would become infinitely clear that some cases are objectively “right” while others are objectively “wrong.”  The only reason that debate can exist is because the unknown exists as well.  The implication of this, however, is that there will be many debates when an affirmative presents a case that our hypothetically infinite body of knowledge would deem as right.  Despite this fact, however, virtually no affirmative case goes undefeated for more than 20 or 30 tournament rounds at most, no matter how good the case itself and/or the debaters running it are.  The reason that negative teams are able to beat such cases at all, therefore, is because of a lapse in knowledge; because the affirmative was unable to identify the flaw in the negative team’s position before the round concluded.  The crux of this reality, however, is that the point at which this lapse ends varies by argument.  Let’s use an example:

Imaginary Debate #1:
1AC: “People are starving in Africa.  The plan is to give them foreign aid so they don’t starve.”
1NC: “That won’t work; food can’t stave off starvation.”
2AC: “We have 15 studies proving otherwise”

At this point the negative is forced to either concede the argument or to squirm around while going nowhere.  Effectively, the affirmative has won this point.

Imaginary Debate #2:

1AC: “People are starving in Africa.  The plan is to give them foreign aid so they don’t starve.”
1NC: “That won’t work.  We have a statement from the government of X country threatening to shoot down any American planes crossing the Atlantic, meaning that the aid wouldn’t get there.”
2AC: “Actually, the most recent plane commissioned by the military is bullet proof, so even if they shoot at us, it won’t be an issue.”
2NC/1NR: “Our evidence says that those planes were recalled for engine problems, so you couldn’t use that specific model.  Either you don’t send the aid at all, or you try to do so by using a substandard plane and get shot down.”
1AR: “We have other evidence saying the planes will be functional again in a month, which is before the date that our timeline specifies the aid will be delivered.”

Again, at this point it seems the affirmative has won the argument, meaning the neg is forced to either concede or squirm around.

Both lines of argument reached the same conclusion, that the negative’s concerns were ultimately unfounded.  The difference, however, is that in the latter case, it took more back-and-forth between the teams to reach the conclusion of the matter.  

Alright, where am I going with this?  Here’s the point: as the negative team, you’ll be forced to argue against reforms that are ultimately a good idea in an absolute sense.  Occasionally, you yourself might even agree with the affirmative that the case should be passed; for example, you might be up against your affirmative case, know that virtually all arguments you can think of have crushing responses, and wind up paralyzed, feeling like there’s nothing you can say.  The key to winning negative rounds in these situations, however, is to weaponize the unknown.  Debate itself is a process of uncovering parts of the unknown, and the way that affirmatives win rounds is by uncovering the right parts, by uncovering the parts that show why the negative’s arguments are wrong.  However, in some cases, the amount of stones aff has to flip over in order to refute the neg is greater than other times.  Take the two examples provided above.  In the first, the aff only had to flip stones until the 2AC, while in the other, the nature of the neg’s arguments forced them to do this until the 1AR.  The implication of this is two-fold:

  1. When you’re preparing/researching against a certain case and feel like there aren’t any arguments that are valid, you need to instead start thinking in terms of which arguments will last the largest number of volleys during a debate.  If the number of volleys it can stand is larger than the number that have passed by the time the 2AR is over, then you’ve got a shot at winning the round.  Flow the argument on paper and try to get an idea of whether the natural back-and-forth of the argument lends itself to the affirmative being able to uncover all necessary unknowns to beat it.  In short, pick the arguments that have the most depth.
  2. Stagger.  Whenever you walk into a neg round with a firm belief that the affirmative case isn’t a good idea, you prefer to put your best foot forward in the 1NC so that your strongest arguments get the most airtime and so that you have more time to explain them to the judge and clarify as needed.  In scenarios where you genuinely think the aff case is a good idea, however, staggering the arguments with the most depth till the 2NC decreases the probability of the affirmative getting to the bottom of them by the end of the round since they have one less volley to do so.

I’d like to make one disclaimer quickly: by no means am I telling you to lie in rounds.  The fact is, almost everyone winds up arguing against a case they agree with at some point in their debate career.  You’re forced to take a side that you don’t think is right.  You should not under any circumstances attempt to deceive your opponents, judges, etc.  However, my hope is that this article has given you a few ideas on the best way to approach these situations from a strategic standpoint.  I understand that the strategies contained herein may seem controversial, so if you have any questions or concerns about them, feel free to voice them in the comments section, and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

Hope you guys found this helpful!

Ben Brown is the blog manager for Ethos Debate LLC. He has competed in Team Policy debate for four years, ranking in the top 16 nationally every year of his high school career in addition to having obtained a smattering of national placings in speech. When not debating, Ben can be found wishing he was debating, playing board games, or hanging out with friends and family.

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