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I have an important question for you concerning this year’s resolution. I have several debaters who just switched to LD and are arguing the resolution about education and practical skills.

They are taking a balanced negative stance that both practical skills and a liberal arts education are equally necessary. I have advised them not to do this as it presents little clash for the affirmative team and is not the intent of the resolution to treat them on the  same plane. Can you clarify for me?

We had several judges want clarification at our tournament this past weekend.

~email from a coach

There’s nothing wrong with arguing a balanced neg. But there’s a poor way to do it (no clash) and a good way to do it (clash). One should not artificially assume that just because the two terms are in a resolution there is clash, and if some more experienced LD debaters have skipped processing this then a few n00bs are going to pwn them and they’ll be frustrated 😉

Clashful balanced negs: argue that there is no justifiable way to choose between the two, because of how they go hand in hand. This is generally considered a “weaker” or “riskier” NEG strategy and frowned on by many, but it does shift an important burden to AFF to prove that there is discernible contrast. The kind of AFF that will fail here is the one that lazily just slapped together a case with 3 examples of liberal arts being good, and didn’t weigh the other side of the resolution. This is the number 1 mistake I see advanced LDers committing. It fails to even debate, and I encourage NEGs to argue a case that only looks at one side of the rez isn’t even prima facie.

The resolution is a complete statement to analyze and AFF should show not only benefits, but the comprehensive nature of their assertion that these benefits are “better than” (or some other contrastive means). I find many advanced LDers never learned this, and then some half decent parli or policy kids come along and trounce them on the first go-round.

The number 2 mistake I see LDers committing also plays into the equation: pretending that the debate is between extremes, and therefore castigating the opposing term in the resolution. Instead, typically a value resolution picks two EXCELLENT things and asks us to prioritize them. If the case is apocalyptic when discussing practical skills – you won’t be fully human, your industry will be gone and you’ll be poor, your skills aren’t transferable at all – then it’s going to fall flat here. Instead, debaters should realize both sides are excellent and we’re merely prioritizing. Let’s say one is 80% excellent and the other is 75% excellent – the 80% one wins.

That’s why LDers need an effective theory of weighing the terms, more than a simplistic “my value is success.” Here are a few examples.

  • Sequence – whichever is “first” is the foundation and therefore more valuable; alternatively, whichever is “last” was the goal all along
  • Time Spent – whichever we spend more time doing is more valuable; alternatively, whichever we spend our most focused time doing is more important
  • Worth – whichever we are willing to give up more to obtain
  • MISTAKE: Exclusion – if we completely remove the other one, what happens? This is a mistake because it’s patently unreasonable. But most debaters go to this one or the next mistake.
  • MISTAKE: Extreme best vs. extreme worst – analyze the BEST outcomes of your side of the rez and the WORST outcomes of the other side. This is a mistake because it’s an unreasonable comparison. As I say when I debate the students, “you can’t compare the looks of liberal arts on date night to practical skills at the end of a marathon.” Great debaters will compare the best of liberal arts to the best of practical skills (yeah, admitting some things) to determine greater benefit, or the worst of each to determine greater risk.

The list of these standards is non-exhaustive as it is arbitrary. It forces the debater to develop a coherent theory, as to why their arbitrary decision to use one—say, sequence—is the best way to look at the issue. That, in turn, requires warrants in the form of philosophy, statistics, and examples. That’s not easy, and many long-time LDers really like to coast in debate and can do “pretty good” that way.

So great AFFs will overcome the balanced NEGs with arguments like the above, plus burden-shifting. If they’re losing to an argument that seems weak, then rather than artificially educating judges to give them a break, they should learn to articulate why it doesn’t work. Then they’ll have gained the real benefits from debate.

So tell them to dig in, figure it out, and get to the point where when they recognize a “balanced neg” from their opponent they think in their minds “sweet, I’ve got this.”

Also, don’t ostracize the debaters who run a balanced NEG and call out an AFF’s lack of preparation or deep thinking. I actually really enjoy running the strategy myself and find it reasonable (schedule a debate with me as a coaching session if you want to try it out).

Isaiah_McPeak-squareIsaiah McPeak is head coach at Ethos Debate. He has coached 6 national champions at the high school and collegiate level, placed top 5 nationally in 5 leagues, started 5 clubs, and is always trying to get better as a debater and deeper as a rhetorician.
He is an entrepreneur in the technology world and his latest work is statUP – helping athletes earn stats that matter to soccer coaches.
You should book a coaching session with Isaiah or one of his handpicked coaches. 🙂
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