Discover more from Victory Briefs
Fear of Clash by Jake Nebel
I am a pluralist about the value of LD debate. That is, I believe there are multiple features of LD that make it good for its participants, including the development of research skills, communication skills, and critical thinking skills. (The debate about such values and their relative weight is the crucial question in the impacts section of a theory argument.)
Some features of debate, I believe, have a status akin to primary goods. Rawls defined primary goods as things that a rational person typically wants, regardless of his or her other values – e.g., basic rights, opportunity, and wealth. It seems to me that clash is one of the primary goods of LD.
All plausible views about the value of LD are likely to agree on the importance of clash. They may differ with respect to its relative weight, but it will always be significant for one main reason: if the values of our activity did not require clash, then they wouldn't be uniquely facilitated, realized, or promoted by a debate event. If you sever the link between clash (the criterion) and your supreme goods of LD (the value), then it will be hard for you to defend the value. To test this hypothesis, try using your value to justify the importance of LD to an impartial audience (e.g., persuading someone to invest time into the activity) without granting significant derivative value to clash.
Clash explains, in part, judges' strong presumption in favor of topicality. In principle, I love debates about epistemology, IR theory, public policy, and debate itself. But, unless the resolution is clearly about these things, I would not expect the clash on such topics to be very good in LD – probably because both sides are best prepared to debate the resolution. Other things being equal, we determine who did the better debating by evaluating arguments about the resolution, because that is the clash for which both sides are best prepared.
There may be reasons to deviate from the resolution. Those reasons must be weighed against the benefits of clash, and the other reasons to debate the topic.
There are other strategies that detract from clash, without compensating for that loss with an outweighing benefit. I think we should discourage such strategies, and perhaps debaters should make theoretical arguments for voting against them.
Pre-standards arguments typically reduce clash, by shifting the debate's focus away from case arguments and by giving debaters an incentive not to answer objections to their position. Conditional advocacies have a similar effect.
Preclusive standards also seem to detract from clash. The point of a narrow, preclusive standard is to make it acceptable not to answer the other side's arguments about the resolution. Maybe this is justified by the fact that the other side's arguments really don't need to be answered – e.g., because their impacts really don't matter. But that is hardly ever the case. When it is the case, I agree that the framework satisfies the demands of clash.
Arguments that "trigger" new frameworks, positions, or advocacies detract from clash because they reward debaters for not answering objections to their position. That is how the contingent offense is accessed.
Many spikes reduce clash, but it seems hard to draw a meaningful distinction between bad spikes and good preclusive arguments. Here is a rough first pass: spikes about theory arguments, and defensive arguments that do not support the resolution or the affirmative advocacy, avoid clash because they transform rebuttals into wars of competing extensions. Most 1ARs these days are just a series of extensions with minimal comparison, and there seems to be a direct relation between the proportion of AC speech time taken up by irrelevant spikes and the proportion of 1AR time taken up by mere repetition.
How about offensive theory arguments with violations (as opposed to spikes which merely frame the theory debate)? I agree that theory detracts from clash. But I also think good theory arguments compensate us with clash-based benefits (e.g., topicality). And I think the debate about whether theory should be a reverse voting issue turns mostly on questions of clash. I happen to think that reverse voting issues detract from clash more than they contribute to it.
Activist positions which ask for the ballot for reasons unrelated to the resolution usually detract from clash. They can meet the burden of clash when there is a violation or link to the opponent or to the resolution. But when there is no such violation or link, the advantages of voting for the activist position must be weighed against the significant detriment to clash.
Plan-inclusive counter-plans may seem to detract from clash because they make much of the AC irrelevant and shift the debate towards one difference between the two sides. But if the affirmative narrows the topic to a plan, this shift may be justified. After all, the plan avoids clash on large portions of the resolution, and the affirmative debater should be responsible for debating all aspects of the plan. Word PICs are probably illegitimate because they avoid clash even when the affirmative defends the whole resolution.
If we try to systematize this list, I think we can formulate a general test for whether a strategy detracts from clash in an objectionable way:
First, we should ask whether the argument's strategic function is to avoid debate on some issue.
Second, we should ask whether the debater should be expected to debate that issue.
The second question is difficult, and may only be resolvable by evaluating other theory impacts or other arguments in the debate – e.g., whether the warrants for the standard really do justify why some impact has zero weight, or whether the affirmative should really be expected to defend the portion of the advocacy with which the PIC disagrees.
This general test, however, may serve three purposes.
First, it may help debaters to make theoretical objections to, or to formulate theoretical defenses of, certain strategies.
Second, it may help judges evaluate clash-based impacts on the theory debate.
Third, it may help debaters and coaches deliberate about their own strategies. I think this may be the most important. If you want to get better at debate, you should not run away from clash. Clash is the core of debate. You will improve at debate and debate-related skills if you choose to embrace it.