Almost everyone in the world uses the base ten number system, meaning that the value of the place furthest to the right of an integer is ten raised to the zero power (IE, one), and each successive place increases the value of this exponent by one. Ten to the one gives us the tens’ place, ten to the two gives us the hundreds’ place, and so on. This “base” concept transfers across numbers. A base twelve system, for example, would have a ones’ place, a twelves’ place, and a one-hundred-and-forty-fours’ place. But imagine a world in which we all used the base one system, meaning that every digit in a number simply occupies a different ones’ place. If you wanted to write the number four, you’d write “1111,” eight would be “11111111,” and if you wanted to write nine thousand seven hundred and thirty two, forget about it. For obvious reasons, base one is incredibly inefficient compared to base ten. But if everyone was using it, would you want to switch? Sure, you’d be able to write numbers more quickly, but any time you wanted to communicate using base ten, you’d have to explain the system to the person you’re communicating with (not to mention, you’d have to define each digit zero to nine since the only digit in base one is the number one). In other words, even though your system is intrinsically better, you’re forced to put it aside since the communication barrier outweighs what otherwise would be an increase in efficiency.
I propose that the debate community is in a similar quandary with regards to “debate-speak.” By debate-speak, I mean the combination of “debater words” (EG, solvency, counterplan, topicality) as well as the set of concepts which those words describe. I argue here, one, that existing modes of communication are likely inferior, and two, that there’s no obvious solution to this problem.
Let’s imagine there are ten possible universes in which competitive debate exists, and in each of them, debaters have devised a different version of “debate-speak.” What would make one of those systems better than another? The most obvious metric is whether the words we choose to describe certain concepts “make sense” – for example, we could have an argument about which between “topicality” or “resolutionality” is a more intuitive way to describe whether aff affirms the resolution. However, I would argue that the most important (though not obvious) aspect of debate-speak is the set of concepts we choose to describe in shorthand. For example, the concept of significance derives from the fact that most policy resolutions either include “significantly” or “substantially” in their wording. Thus, we came up with a single word to describe the burden aff has, derived from the resolution, to present a non-negligible reform in order to save time when speaking. But in theory, we don’t have to have a word for significance. We could just view significance arguments as a topicality argument against whatever adverb the given resolution happens to use. Alternatively, we could have a different word which describes a concept that encompasses some aspects of significance (though not all) as well as other types of arguments simultaneously.
This matters because even though debate itself doesn’t change depending on the words we use to describe it, the way we view it does. I offer two examples. First, at their core, significance arguments really are just topicality arguments like I described earlier (as a sidenote, I don’t view “should” the same way as other words in the resolution since “should” implies rational decision-making (IE, policy discussion) whereas “significantly” does not). However, we tend to view them as part of the “policy-based” arguments in TP rather than “theory based” arguments (like normal topicality arguments, kritiks, etc.). As a consequence, the way we view debate gets a bit hazy. Even if you eventually realize significance is just topicality at its core, I think I speak for most when I say that it still takes some mental gymnastics to make that fact feel intuitive to yourself; IE, you’re so used to thinking of significance one way, that even if you start thinking of it another way, it doesn’t feel right.
The second example is inherency. If I took a poll of 100 debaters and asked them what inherency is, I would bet that at least 90 of them would answer one or more of the following:
- The question of whether aff’s plan has already passed
- The question of whether a problem exists (seperate from whether the problem is significant)
- The question of whether there’s something about the nature of the current system (EG, an “inherent barrier”) that prevents the aff plan from working
All three of those are already encompassed by other “debate words” we use. If aff’s plan has already passed, then neg can just run topicality on the word “reform” in the resolution. If a problem doesn’t exist, then there necessarily isn’t a significant problem, meaning neg can just run significance ( putting aside whether significance should similarly be lumped in with topicality, of course). If some aspect of the current system necessarily renders the aff plan ineffective, then neg can just run solvency. Thus, the very concept of inherency is arguably redundant at best and confusing at worst.
I’m not necessarily saying that we should stop saying “significance” and “inherency,” but I present the arguments for doing so to illustrate a concept: that the words we use in debate influence the way we think about debate by aiming to provide clarity of thought. Therefore, some modes of debate-speak are more or less confusing than others and thus are better or worse.
If you agree with either of my above arguments about “significance” or “inherency,” then you and I agree that our version of debate-speak is suboptimal. If you disagree with me, then consider this: there are infinitely many different ways to contrive a system of debate-speak. Given that, it is at least almost certain it isn’t as good as it could be, if not completely certain.
What can we do about this problem? To be honest with you, I don’t know. Just like the base one numbers example, even if you think of a better way of talking about debate, your judges and your peers won’t be familiar with it, meaning that by the time you’ve invested the time and trouble of, say, spending three minutes of an eight minute speech explaining something to the judge, your new system is less efficient on net than the alternative.
My hope in writing this article is to bring more awareness to this problem–who knows, maybe one of you reading this article has the solution. I’d love to hear your thoughts (if any) in the comments section; I’ve been thinking about this problem for a while and am interested in what you have to say.
Ben Brown is the blog manager for Ethos Debate LLC. He competed in Team Policy debate throughout high school, winning 1st place at the 2022 NCFCA national championship. When not debating, Ben can be found wishing he was debating, playing board games, or hanging out with friends and family.