Our elite Mastership Sourcebooks for NCFCA and Stoa will release soon! Check them out here!

Dr. Srader, professor at Northwestern Christian University, “What Inherency USED to be,” October 29, 2008

I often tell people that debate is a sport. A day full of debates is physically exhausting, and there are far more things about debate that are physical in nature than newcomers might think, from proper delivery, to efficient file-pulling, to confident nonverbals during cross-examination. But one of the most sports-ish things about debate is the number of lessons that good sports movies offer to debaters. I’m a fan of Miracle, and Rocky, and a lot of others, but my very favorite is Hoosiers. It’s got an endless list of good lessons in it, but at the top of that list is the thread that runs through it from start to finish: fundamentals might not be exciting, but they win games.

When Gene Hackman shows up for the first basketball practice, he finds the players already on the court, being encouraged by last year’s assistant coaches to take as many shots at the basket as possible. His first act is to kick out the assistant coaches and tell them they’ll no longer be needed. He then sets about teaching his players how to play far more intelligently, but with a huge dose of delayed gratification. They learn to pass the ball four times before taking a shot. They learn to think carefully about defense. They practice endless drills that sharpen their reflexes and teach them how to position themselves in any situation, instantly, fluidly, without stopping. And they work themselves to a frazzle, building up their conditioning so that they’ll never run out of energy before their opponents do.

I hate to give away the ending, so I’ll just say this: it works.

Hackman’s approach isn’t a hit at first, because it’s so old-fashioned and so unfocused on what the players enjoy about the game. The debate version of that is the stock issues. Around the time I was born, policy debate was still all about the stock issues, no matter whether you were a newcomer or a national champion in waiting. Presumption was overwhelmingly negative, and negatives won most of their debates. Most rounds included at least a couple of disadvantages, but the biggest share of speaking time on both sides was devoted to a back-and-forth on the affirmative’s need, made up of their significance and inherency, and their plan, with its accompanying solvency arguments. Today, most argumentation textbooks still call this approach a need-plan affirmative. It’s the oldest of old-fashioned setups for a policy debate.

Newer perspectives have come along and displaced the stock issues. In the 1970s, a group of college debate coaches named Allan Lichtman, Daniel Rohrer and Jerome Corsi proposed that debaters and judges ought to participate in a thought experiment that consisted of role-playing actual legislators. Instead of thinking atomistically about the stock issues and answering each one, they should think holistically about the desirability of the plan, and they should do so using the language and perspective of members of Congress. Shortly after, two more debate coaches named David Zarefsky and J. W. Patterson suggested that instead, debaters and judges ought to consider themselves social scientists, treat the resolution as a hypothesis, and treat the back-and-forth between affirmative and negative as an experiment to test it. These new ways of framing the debate struck most debaters as far more challenging, stimulating and exciting than stock issues analysis, and soon only the dinosaurs applied the stock issues to debate.

The funny thing is, many many top debaters go on to law school, and there they find stock issues approaches everywhere. In murder trials, the prosecution has to demonstrate motive, method, and opportunity. In church-state separation cases, judges apply the Lemon v. Kurtzman test, which has three prongs. Other examples exist throughout every area of law. With all the money, power, safety, and even human lives at stake in court proceedings, lawyers and judges still find the stock issues method, which borrows from classical stasis and topoi approaches, to be a perfectly suitable framework, and evidently better than the alternatives.

And actually, of the stock issues, significance and solvency have aged well. Affirmatives like to pile their significance high, because that gives them a hope of outweighing the disadvantages that so many folks treat as the turning point of the debate. Negatives like debating solvency, because it feels to them like attacking the plan. It feels like what they should naturally be doing. But that leaves inherency, and inherency has not aged well. It’s widely treated as a bit of a joke. For many debaters, “going for inherency” is shorthand for being desperate, for having no strategy at all. A judge who votes on inherency must be stodgy and dour, and insist on making debate no fun at all for the debaters. (You might be surprised to learn that the Harvard debate coach, a man from Abilene, Texas, votes on inherency. He’s thought of as an excellent, cutting-edge debate mind, in great demand as a judge, but he reminds people at every opportunity that he thinks inherency is important, and will vote on it.)

I’ve taken too many paragraphs to set this up, but in what remains, I want to describe what inherency used to be, why it was regarded as so very important, and why it’s still important today, even though too many of us treat it as though it isn’t. If I may be blunt, our approach to debate is terribly irrational, because we gloss over a critical piece of the puzzle when we give short shrift to inherency.

Too many debaters are willing to say inherency is just the answer to the question, “Has your plan been passed yet?” If it hasn’t, then you’re inherent. Some will widen the question to “Is the present system solving the problem?” But under this view, if you win significance, you win inherency as well, because if the problem still exists, then obviously the present system hasn’t solved it. What is the view of inherency that isn’t a simple yes-no, or redundant with significance?

Back in the day, significance, inherency and solvency were all tightly woven together, and inherency was the issue that linked significance to solvency. Inherency asked, “What is the root cause of this problem? What is it about this problem that resists solution?” We as human beings don’t typically ignore serious problems, especially if simple solutions are available. So if this problem persists, why is that? What makes it not a simple problem to solve? If we could answer that, then we knew why the present system failed. Then, when it came time to consider solvency, stock issues analysis judges wanted to hear why the affirmative’s plan was carefully constructed to address that root cause, that complication, that made the problem persist.

Think of going to see a doctor. You tell the doctor that you have a headache that hasn’t gone away for six months. The doctor says “Have you tried aspirin?” Yes, you have. “Have you tried Tylenol?” Yes, you have. “Advil?” Yes. “Aleve?” Yes. “Oxycontin?” No, you haven’t tried Oxycontin. “Well, there you go!” says the doctor, and writes out a prescription for Oxycontin. “We’ve found a plan that hasn’t been adopted yet, so Oxycontin it is.”

What’s wrong with that picture?

Wouldn’t it be nice if the doctor had examined you, run some tests, and actually attempted a diagnosis? Wouldn’t you expect the doctor to figure out what’s wrong with you, and explain to you what’s happening, to explain why you had this headache? If, for example, your headache is caused by a brain tumor, wouldn’t chemotherapy be a better solution than a pain reliever? But absent a diagnosis, chemotherapy would obviously be a really, really bad idea.

So you might ask the doctor, “Do you have a diagnosis of what’s giving me this headache?” If the doctor said “That’s so old-fashioned! No doctor actually diagnoses anything anymore. We just say what your symptoms are and give you a pill for those symptoms,” then I bet you’d go look for a doctor who wasn’t a quack. But that’s exactly what we do when we blow through the stock issues and ignore inherency! Our solvency debates are incredibly shallow and incomplete if we haven’t bothered to consider what it is that keeps the problem from resolving itself. Why do we have this problem? What keeps it alive? How can we go beyond describing it to diagnose it? It’s not nearly as exciting an issue as disadvantages, but when it comes to actual rational decisionmaking, it’s far more important.

Another example: if you know nothing at all about cars, and your car one day starts acting up – brakes don’t work, steering is too loose or too stiff – you can just take it to a mechanic and say “fix it,” which is an invitation to the unfortunately large number of unscrupulous mechanics to cheat you. Or, you can learn enough about how a car works to have at least a rough idea of what’s wrong with it, so when the mechanic proposes a solution, you’re equipped to say yes or no to it. If all you do is notice the problem, and then accept a glib-sounding description of the solution, but you don’t bother to find out what keeps the problem alive, then you’re not armed with the information you need to make a rational decision to lay out your hard-earned money for an expensive repair.

What wins debates is far more about what other debaters are doing, and what judges expect, than about what logic dictates. Is it possible that one of you could pull off a Hoosiers, go back to basics, get really good at explaining the importance of inherency, and beat everyone in sight? The funny thing about debate is that doing what no one else is doing is often a recipe for success, because judges are suckers for what they haven’t heard a zillion times, especially if it’s done well, and debaters are very easy to wrong-foot when you catch them with the unexpected. It might be that in your region, in your league, vigorous debates about inherency are the norm. If so, I think that’s an incredibly healthy thing. If that’s not what you see in your debates, then you’ve got an opportunity to make some noise, and to point out that debate may be a game, but it doesn’t have to be a game that’s so divorced from reality that it surrenders to absurdity.

%d bloggers like this: