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The Strategic Value of True Arguments by Adam Torson
"…we have now sunk to a depth where the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men." -- George Orwell, Review of Power: A New Social Analysis by Bertrand Russell in Adelphi (January 1939)
There is an implicit conceit in opening with this particular Orwell quote, and it is that I am among the category of intelligent men. I will readily admit that this is not a settled question, and that in fact I often find myself asking just how it is that I can be so daft as to not recognize the “strategic” value of certain arguments debaters seem utterly determined to make.
Progressive debate is a very technical game, and a set of very insular skills is an important part of determining who is best at it (e.g. the abilities to speak quickly, deploy jargon effectively, line-down evidence, etc.) Still, it seems terribly peculiar that debaters could start to think about an argument’s “strategic” value as entirely separate from whether or not it is true. Could good strategic thinking about debate really incent us to make patently false arguments rather than true ones?
I doubt that very much, and thinking about strategy in this way seems a classic case of the tail wagging the dog. Yet debaters, judges and coaches persist. “Your advocacy may save 18 million lives a year, but that’s morally irrelevant because you failed to link your standard to practical rationality.” “Your NC is necessary but insufficient, which makes it nearly impossible for me to win the round.” “If you take away someone’s property, you violate the right to self-ownership, and genocide can’t be far behind.”
Under the mantle of argument generation, debaters learn that if they can make an argument, they should, even if their objections are inconsistent, underdeveloped, or just plain untrue. Better still if they can falsely claim that the argument has lexical priority over all others. After all, it’s your opponent’s job to answer the argument, right?
What’s worse, debaters have become afraid of these arguments. It is thought unstrategic to run a “turnable” NC even if the only turn ground is manifestly false or easily outweighed. Debaters hide arguments with the intention of extending them as trumps to a blip spread rather than leveraging their case positions against a series of weak objections. Perhaps worst of all, debaters obfuscate their own positions (i.e. make their own arguments worse) so as to avoid giving links into entirely unconvincing sets of arguments on a given topic.
That plausibly true arguments are preferable to patently false ones seems an obvious axiom of debate strategy, but apparently it is in need of some defense. So, a few of the reasons why it is strategically advantageous to run arguments that are probably (or even unequivocally) true:
1. Answers to them will be false.
Debate ultimately comes down to an evaluation of the plausibility of arguments. When debaters elect to deploy simply untrue arguments, they are hoping to win by virtue of an opponent’s mistake or a judge’s mistaken evaluation. This slight-of-hand tactic is unreliable at best.
Starting from a manifestly true position makes most refutation strategies unintimidating for the simple reason that they have to be fatally flawed at the end of the day. Your opponent can throw up roadblocks, but your chances of winning the round depend only on your ability to execute the appropriate response strategy. You don’t need to rely on someone else’s mistake because you are on the right side of the issue.
2. Bad arguments invite bad responses.
Strategies that hope to overcome the manifest implausibility of arguments often create a race to the bottom in terms of argument quality. The fact that you’ve obscured the meaning of your position won’t stop your opponent from making dozens of responses; it will only make those responses equally unclear and make the judge’s evaluation of those arguments all the more unreliable. If your position is plausible and well-supported in the first place, dozens of silly objections look like just that rather than a serious attempt at answering the argument. What’s more, you don’t risk the judge dismissing your position out of hand because it was unclear or just plain ridiculous.
3. It is easier to do pre-tournament prep to deploy true positions.
The quality of your rebuttal strategies can be better when you deploy true arguments. Because yours is a position taken seriously by scholars, answers to objections and interactions between significant arguments will be discussed in the topic literature. You can both prepare more thoroughly before the round and go deeper on these debates than your opponent is able to during the round.
The research process for plausible positions is much more straightforward. It is significantly easier to find good evidentiary support for serious advocacies than for crackpot theories or pro forma objections. And, you don’t have to be academically dishonest in suggesting that the authors you card would ultimately support some absurd position.
4. Perceptual Dominance
It’s hard to look like a good debater when your underlying position is silly or non-existent (as when debaters make every argument they can think of without rhyme or reason). Untrue arguments are unlikely to cohere with your judges sensibilities on the topic, which makes the whole project an uphill climb. At the end of the day the judge is going to be looking for reasons not to vote on the argument.
In contrast to the “throw it against the wall and see what sticks” opponent, a debater advocating a reasonable position on the topic looks much more credible and in control. Their mission is to make the round clear, because a clear-headed evaluation will almost always come out in their favor.
Obviously it is not always self-evident which arguments are true and which are false, and this is largely what gets fleshed out in good debate rounds. My argument should not be read to imply that good-faith disagreements about the plausibility of arguments are illegitimate or that it is somehow unstrategic to buck the conventional wisdom. Making the truth of your arguments a primary consideration should not discourage you from intellectual experimentation or creativity; all true ideas are the product of innovation at one point or another.
My point is simply that strategy should be primarily about focusing the debate on issues on which you are likely to be substantively ahead rather than trying to avoid realistic evaluation of arguments altogether. Thinking the debate game is so insular that argument quality can be a secondary consideration is, I think, a serious mistake. In the long run, no amount of strategic thinking can overcome the fact that your arguments are untrue. Don’t let sophisticated technique trump the fundamentals.
*I should note parenthetically that I also believe there are significant reasons to think that separating strategy from argument quality is problematic from an educational perspective. However, that topic is beyond the scope of this article.