There’s few things that make experienced debaters happier than a quality Topicality debate (Hereafter referred to by the common debate lingo of “T”). That’s probably because T is so often mishandled by both teams, to the frustration of everyone in the room. Many judges that dislike T as an argument simply due to how badly it’s often run. This is a tragedy, since T is one of the most interesting and potent arguments you can run. It’s also the gateway to an entirely new way to look at debate, and that’s what we’ll be discussing today.
We need to start at the basics: What is Theory? I’ve heard a fair number of very skilled debaters say that they don’t understand theory, don’t care for it, don’t think it’s important. This is terribly wrong and will put a cap on how skilled a debater you can become.
Theory is a collection of norms that we all accept. The only rules are the ones in the TP Rules, and all they really do is set up the debate. (2 teams, 8 speeches, evidence standards, etc.). The debaters then do stuff within that “debate space”, but what they do is dictated Theory, not by any rules. Nothing says Aff *needs* to read a Plan, with Mandates, Timeline, Agency, etc.. Nothing says Aff needs to read only *one* Plan. Nothing says Neg needs to refute that Aff Plan. These are all Theory ideas that we’ve constructed to make debate what it is today.
Aff reads a Plan because that’s their way to uphold the rez. There’s a Theory argument that says that a single Plan that is net beneficial is enough to uphold the rez. This Theory could be challenged by Neg (but it’s not really in Neg’s interest to do so). Similarly, Neg refutes Aff’s Plan and not another plan because of that same Theory. The “Rules” of the game that we all accept are not actually rules, and learning to debate Theory gives you the power to transcend them.
So, back to T. The basic T Shell is Interp, Violation, Standards, Impact. This is all you need to run nearly any Theory argument. The Interp is a rule about the world that you believe should be enforced. (“Aff cannot run one topical mandate and one non-topical mandate”, or “Aff must run a plan”). The Violation is your logic as to why your opponent has failed your Interp. If you write a good Interp, the Violation should be very easy to defend. The Standards are where it gets exciting. This blew my mind when I realized it, but… Standards are Advantages for your Interp and DAs on any other interp.
You might say, “My Standard 1 is Limits. Judge, Aff could run any case they wanted *unless you accept my Interp*. My Interp prevents Aff from ignoring the rez.” That’s your Harm (Aff can ignore the rez) and Advantage (Aff can no longer do this).
Impacts logically follow from the Standards. If Aff isn’t bound by the rez, they have access to infinite ground, and Neg cannot prepare. This makes the round so unfair to Neg that most rounds go Aff, Neg has no incentive to research (Impact 1: Education Damaged) and ultimately may not compete in such a rigged sport (Impact: Debate Collapses).
This also means that Aff can run DAs on Neg’s Interp. “This Interp would prevent us from accessing most of the foreign policy literature, which reduces the educational incentives of debate”. Neg can also run DAs in the 2NC against an Aff Counter-Interp. These are usually just called Standards, as the judge would be pretty confused by “running a DA on an Interp”, but in reality, that’s what’s happening.
OK, so last piece of wisdom: You can write your own Interp. You can make your own Theory. You can shape the rules of the debate to whatever you wish them to be. You can tear down old Theory that no one remembers how to defend, and construct new and better theoretical frameworks.
This is probably a good time for a disclaimer: This isn’t advice to use Theory to set up an unfair system. If it’s truly unfair, most teams will call it out as such. And remember that most of the current Theory is widespread and well-known for a reason: it’s usually pretty good. I’m just advocating for thinking creatively, innovating, and never assuming the status quo is law simply because it is the status quo.
Unfortunately, Theory debate is very abstract and complex, and not well-known throughout the league. This leads to judges often misunderstanding Theory debate or being biased for certain Theory shells. This usually breaks down across the normal judge categories, so here’s a brief summary:
Community judges: They will be lost unless the argument is common in the league (Like T) and you spend 5+ minutes on it.
Parent judges: Parents really understand that debate is a game and that unfair practices should be shut down to give everyone a fair chance. This means any Fairness Standard/Impact you run will be easy for them to appreciate. But their grasp of complex flow maneuvers is usually limited. Running only one Standard that you invest time and clarity into is usually the right way to win ballots from parents.
Coaches/Alumni: They will usually vote on any argument you win on the flow, but may not be happy about it.
Hopefully you found this helpful. Theory is one of the most powerful weapons a debater can wield, so learning this now is certainly worth your effort.
How would you persuade a judge to vote on a theory argument?
This could be another article in and of itself. The short version is that you persuade the judge that the weight of your pre-fiat impacts is greater than the obnoxious nature of pre-fiat arguments. Pre-fiat impacts (Impacts that happen in the real world of high school TP debate, not the hypothetical debate-world where the judges ballot actually causes change) are qualitatively different than post-fiat impacts, and because they are actually real, they should get weighed first.
This could look like:
“Judge, I grant that my opponent’s case may be a good idea. But that’s not the issue today. The issue is that they’re employing an abusive tactic in direct violation of the Interp that both teams have agreed upon (Presumably Aff dropped your Standards in this example). Their behavior is unfair and actively makes the world worse. And I don’t mean the hypothetical world where your vote actually reshuffles the troop deployments of NATO. I mean the real world where your vote legitimizes and affirms the performance of one team. If you vote for Affirmative, that sends the message to them and to everyone watching that their tactics, however abusive, can still win. In order to reject this tactic and ensure that it doesn’t propagate through the league, vote against Affirmative.”
It’s a hard sell unless your judge really understands the difference between pre-fiat and post-fiat impacts.
Hope that makes sense. If not, I’d be happy to have a discussion about it on Discord, just shoot me a DM.
Opinion on T in congressional debate?