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“AWESOME!” you bellow out in your head. You just finished writing this epic counterplan, or an amazing T-press. Perhaps you’ve just written a fire procedure or a generic DA that will apply to more than 75% of all cases on a technical level.

You’re super proud of yourself — and you should be! But then you hear the words from the voice of the judge during judging philosophy… and they slowly sink into your heart one by one. “No. Debate. Theory.”

You can’t believe it. You absolutely can’t believe it. You spend hours and hours of work preparing a legitimate and well-researched strategy, and then this judge who barely knows anything comes along and REFUSES to listen to your arguments because he or she has already decided how the round should go and maybe even who should win. 

Well, you tell yourself that you won’t accept this. Confidently, you think to yourself about how you’re going to run the arguments anyways — and better yet, you’re even going to convince the judge that theory arguments are actually inseparable from a team policy debate round. 

But then you stop. How exactly are you going to go about this??? This was exactly my line of thinking during the beginning of the season of my senior year of debate. Over the course of the year, after getting “called out” by tens of these judges, I finally crafted a method by which you can disarm these semi-hostile judges. And then, I made 4th at NCFCA Nationals. Here’s how you can do it too. 

Quick disclaimer: To any judge who has strong opinions on debate, I do not mean to criticize you too much by the writing of this article. I have no ill intentions here. Ultimately, I believe that student dedication should be rewarded and education and fairness towards students should be prioritized here — I’m sure these are qualities we both agree on. Therefore, I urge you to read the entire article and perhaps think about the possibility of giving students a bit more of slack in rounds you judge. 👍

Clarification: The Justin Scale of Judges 

Before we get into the three main ways you can combat hostile judges, I want to make my terms very clear. Starting first with the term “hostile judge.”

Consider the following American political scale we’ve all come to know well:

For the purposes of this article, we’re going to ignore everything to the left of liberals and everything to the right of conservatives. That leaves us with three positions: liberalism, conservatism, and moderate-ism. 

Keep that in the back of your mind as I explain this next part. From my experience in the NCFCA league, I’ve categorized three categories of judges: the coach/advanced parent judge, the community/novice parent judge, and the “hostile”/center parent judge. Let’s break down each category. 

  1. Coach/Advanced Parent Judge. This category is the most experienced judges you’ll ever see in NCFCA. They’re either a coach or an advanced parent judge who’s been doing this for decades and knows their stuff. This category of judges knows the basic debate mantra — that of “debate has no rules” — and none of these judges try to shove any of their pre-existing debate beliefs and theory down your throat. For instance, if AFF made their weighing mechanism and value that of net benefits, and NEG argued that it should be stock issues, then these judges would listen to that debate and not use their preconceived notions on debate. This is akin to the liberalism position above. 
  2. Community/Novice Parent Judge. These judges are clean. They have no or very little prior experience in debate and they’re arguably the easiest judges to argue a case in front of in NCFCA at least. Since they don’t hold any preconceived notions about debate, they can’t force those onto you during the debate round. This is akin to the conservative position above. 
  3. Hostile/Center Parent Judges. These are the HARDEST judges to debate in front of due to their unknown and pre-existing debate theory, knowledge, and tendencies that they require you follow but don’t explain before the round. If you violate one of their “rules,” then you basically have no chance at the ballot. This is akin to the moderate/center position above, and this is the category of judges we’ll be focusing on winning today.

By the way, did you notice how I didn’t include alumni in the above categories? This was on purpose. The reason I didn’t include alumni in the above categories is that they’re really hit or miss. You could get alumni that are in any one of the three aforementioned categories. In fact, you could get an alumnus that did very well in debate at nationals who is between the Community/Novice judge and Hostile/Center Parent judge level. I’ve noticed that many debaters who make it to nationals and even many teams that actually end up breaking, don’t know a ton about debate. They’re just really good speakers and know how to present arguments well. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing to be like that at all by the way! It’s just always good to learn more about debate theory. 

With that, let’s move on to the three ways in which you can turn one of these hostile judges. 

Way #1: Reduce & Recycle Stigmatized Terms

The first way that you can combat a hostile judge is to reduce and recycle stigmatized terms. What do I mean by this? Well first off, we have to look at the round from the perspective of the hostile judge. The hostile judge enters a round and sits down and listens. The majority of their preconceived notions are linked to terms rather than warrants and impacts. 

Therefore, the easiest way to combat the hostile judge’s preconceived notions on terms is to not.Yup, that’s right! Don’t even bother. Why waste your time on trying to convince the judge that you can run a <insert stigmatized term here> when you can rather spend that time PROVING why you can?

Here’s an example: Let’s say that you want to run the weighing mechanism and standard of “net benefits” as the affirmative team. Just don’t mention the word “net benefit” due to the enormous number of NCFCA judges who have preconceived and absolutely wrong ideas about it. Title your weighing mechanism something like “doing the most good” or “making the world a better place” or “common sense policy making” — where it’s only “common sense” to pass policies that have more advantages than disadvantages, regardless of how much the affirmative team solves.

I employed this strategy to great success at nationals in my senior year of team policy debate and I barely lost the weighing mechanism. 

Before we move on to the next way of combating hostile judges, I do want to say that I’m not happy that you as a debater have to use this method. I think that it’s unacceptable that hostile judges come into rounds with preconceived notions about debate terms and I just want to apologize to you for their conduct. Do know that there are better judges out there and even if you do lose to a hostile judge on a preconceived and false notion about a debate term, these judges don’t define the entire league and this shouldn’t define you as a debate. Keep up the good work and you’ll get em next time!!

Way #2: Sometimes Put Your Warrant First 

The second way to combat a hostile judge is to modify four-point refutation. Since you’re reading this article, I’m going to assume you’re an advanced enough debate to know what four-point refutation is, but if you don’t, I HIGHLY recommend you watch this four-video series by one of our very own former (and one of the best I might add) coaches here at Ethos Debate. 

Just for reference, the basic structure of four-point refutation goes as the following: 

  1. Opposing Argument
  2. Claim
  3. Warrant
  4. Impact 

When there’s no argument that you’re specifically refuting, the basics of four-point refutation get boiled down into the three arguments of (1) Claim, (2) Warrant, (3) Impact. Fundamentally, this is how ALL of your arguments in a debate round should be structured. You tag your argument down and then you explain your claim, explain the warrant which is the amazing logical reasons for why the claim is true (and then read a card of evidence to back you up), and then give your impact which is just telling the judge why the argument matters to him, the world, and the debate round as a whole.

Now, what if the following was your argument?

  1. Claim: We should be able to run a topical counterplan in team policy rounds as NEG. 
  2. Warrant: 
    1. (1) Congress can do it, and since this is a team policy round modeled after Congress, so can we. 
    2. (2) It allows for better debates, which increases the educational value. 
    3. (3) It enables fairness by forcing AFFs to always run the best version of their policy, and not the smallest version which has some advantages but no DAs for NEG offensive ground. 
  3. Impact: You should allow us to run a topical counterplan in this round. 

The judge might very well just shut down immediately after your claim when you mention the two words “topical counterplan.” How do you run this argument on a hostile judge in that case?  Well, it’s simple. Switch the warrant and claim, obviously making the needed wording changes to the warrants so that you don’t give away the claim. Here’s an example: 

  1. Warrant: 
    1. (1) Team policy models a Congressional session where you have one party that presents a bill and another party that does one of two things — rejects the bill or accepts part of it but proposes changes or an alternative action. 
    2. (2) Alternative actions allow for increased educational value because you’re allowed to talk about more subjects and analyze the way two policies interact with each other. 
    3. (3) It creates an environment where the other political party has to put forth the best version of their bill, or risk it getting shot down in favor by an alternative action bill that does the same thing in a better way. 
  2. Claim: This is why we have the ability to run a topical counterplan. 
  3. Impact: You should let us run one. 

Notice that in this last example that the judge doesn’t even have a chance to be biased against your position because you’ve already convinced him of it. This method is by far one of the easiest ways to switch a judge’s thinking on a specific hot-button debate issue. 

Way #3: Make Yourself Explicitly Clear & Apologetically Firm

The third way in which you can run theory on a hostile judge is to be explicitly clear and apologetically firm.

First, you must be explicitly clear. What I mean here is that you need to repeat your main points so much that your judge has it practically memorized. If your judge is coming into a round with preconceived notions, then it’s also logical to assume that they’re coming into the round with preconceived notions on what’s the most important arguments. In fact, they might ignore your entire T press or maybe that killer generic DA you have — all because they just didn’t think it was important.

What I like to do in scenarios like this is use wording like the following directly AFTER I give the argument, “I want to make myself explicitly clear, if you even slightly think the link to this disadvantage is true, then we win this round right here. This is THE most important argument to think about and is the first argument you should think about when writing your ballot back at the table.” While you’re reminding the judge of that, go ahead and repeat your main warrant and your main impact to the judge. You can employ this strategy with all kinds of arguments, not just DAs, such as topicality, procedurals, kritiks, counterplans, you name it!

Second, you must be apologetically firm. Chances are that, if the judge told you not to run debate theory such as counterplans at the beginning of the round, and then you ran a counterplan, then the judge is going to be slightly annoyed with you. Don’t stand down though. You’re not really doing anything wrong by using strategies you spent a ton of time working on.

Instead, what you should do is something along the lines of this: “Judge, I know you told us not to run counterplans at the beginning of this round. However, we as the negative respectfully disagree with your instructions. The rules of this league explicitly grant us the power to run theory arguments in the round, but beyond that, we believe that it’s more educational and fair to the negative team.” Obviously, explain those education and fairness warrants a bit more and put some persuasive logic in there, but that’s the basics of how you should go about a hostile judge who went from semi-hostile to the worst position of being extremely annoyed at you.

Conclusion: Go Out There And EDUCATE The League!

Many hostile judges have it all wrong. They think that it’s totally fine — even encouraged — to have their own personal and private interpretation of debate and let that influence the round. This shouldn’t be the case, however. Judges are meant to LISTEN to arguments in round, not come into the round with a decision on how they’re going to vote already.

I wish NCFCA and Stoa as leagues would do more to combat this serious issue that plagues the leagues, but just because the league isn’t doing anything (much), doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t. Thus, go out there and educate the league! Be passionate about what you believe in — that debate has no rules (absent of ethicality rules) and that debaters can run whatever they want in-round. 🔥🔥🔥 There’s no need to be shy about your views because your views that debate should be about the two teams making arguments and not the judge’s personal beliefs isn’t wrong.

In any case, I hope that this article will be useful to you when you hit your next hostile judge. If they challenge you by telling you that you can’t run theory, push back on it and 100% run theory. Hopefully, it’ll work out, but if it doesn’t, come back here and leave a comment telling us about it! We’d love to hear about the story, and hopefully, we’ll be able to give you some advice as well. Also, feel free to personally contact me about such issues. I might even be down to contact the judge in question and explain to them why their position on debate is actually harming the students they judge.

Justin is a three-year alumnus of NCFCA and a junior at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, hoping to receive degrees in computer science and electrical engineering. In his senior year, he went from never competing in an outround to averaging semis or quarters at every national open, including a 4th place at nationals, as well as averaging finals at regional tournaments. His philosophy in debate is that there are no rules. Providing one is ethical, the most persuasive argument flies. At the end of the day, Justin argues you should honor God & have fun! Debate is not all about winning, it’s about the skills you foster. 

You can learn more about Justin by reading his bio, and you can book coaching with him over here. 

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