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November/December 2022 LD Topic Roundtable
Victory Briefs presents a topic roundtable, where we solicit coaches and members of the debate community to provide input on which topic they believe should be selected to debate for the upcoming topic slot.
This first entry covers the three potential topics for the 2022 November/December topic slot.
Voting closes on 9/30/2022. Your vote matters, the last LD topic vote was quite close! According to the NSDA for September/October 2022, “A total of 512 coaches and 1,442 students voted for the resolution. The winning resolution received 40% of the coach vote and 35% of the student vote.”
The potential topics for the 2022 November/December topic slot are as follows:
Resolved: The People’s Republic of China ought to prioritize environmental protection over economic growth.
Resolved: Singapore’s Ethnic Integration Policy is unjust.
Resolved: The Republic of Korea ought to abolish military conscription.
We have invited 5 coaches to provide their reasoning for which topic ought to be selected.
Lawrence Zhou - Military Conscription
To be honest, I think the three potential November/December LD topics are all pretty bad, especially in comparison to the slate of topics we got for the September/October slot. However, one clearly stands out to me as the best—military conscription.
Let’s start with why I think the other options are worse.
The China topic is nothing more than a modified version of the 2014 January/February LD topic: January/February – Resolved: Developing countries should prioritize environmental protection over resource extraction when the two are in conflict. Anyone who debated that topic understood that the negative ground on that topic was horrifically bad not just because there isn’t a very strong argument in favor of destroying the environment (and because destroying the environment often itself undermines economic growth) but because there was simply no good backstop against a tidal wave of tiny specific advocacies aka plans. What is to stop the affirmative from saying that we shouldn’t mine a particular coal vein, shut down a particular dam, or even just affirm the status quo given the recent 14th FYP that already prioritizes environmental protection in a wide variety of domains?
I struggle to think of a single unifying generic that survived the entire season on the last version of this topic (apart from tricky philosophical NCs that didn’t really reflect any serious philosophical work in the area of environmental ethics). The affirmative was always incentivized to pick a tiny area where there was very little for the negative to say and the negative was always forced to retreat to extremist generics (e.g., untenable versions of libertarianism or random kritiks of issues unrelated to the truth or falsity of the resolution) or to be saddled with the unreasonable expectation of producing a specific negative file to every possible affirmative proposal. As someone who has proposed some version of a China topic to the topic committee for the past three years, I’m excited to see a China topic finally make it to the final slate of topics, but I’m unconvinced that this version of the topic would make for a good debate topic.
The Singapore topic is a subject area I view as interesting and under-discussed, but also a poor subject for a two-month debate topic. While there are some articles discussing the issue, a quick skim of Google Scholar on the issue shows very few articles directly about the EIP, with results by page 3 quickly moving to discuss the EIP merely in passing. The core conflict is whether the EIP increased social integration or marginalized the Malay and Indian underclass (or both), an interesting debate but that is basically just a single argument for each side. I don’t think this topic is quite as bad as the initial reactions to it have suggested it would be, but I don’t think this is a topic I would want to debate for two months given the dearth of literature on the issue.
In comparison, I think the military conscription topic is fascinating. The topic burst into the limelight when BTS rekindled a debate about military service in South Korea. There are also excellent philosophical arguments on the topic. Coupled with the unique cultural and historical dynamics of South Korea, I think there are many excellent debates to be had about the importance or necessity of military service. There are interesting debates about conscientious objectors, how conscription interacts with changing population dynamics, and if conscription would help or hinder South Korea in a conventional conflict with North Korea.
In my mind, only the conscription topic has a relatively balanced ground for both sides and has lots of literature to support both sides. The China topic has huge swaths of literature but an inequitable division of ground; the Singapore topic has relatively equitable ground but lacks a robust enough literature base to sustain a two-month debate topic. This is why I think that conscription is the best topic.
That being said, my suspicion is that people will naturally gravitate towards the China topic, drawn in by the allure of an interesting topic area and the novelty of debating from the perspective of the other world superpower (although people have been reading clearly untopical affirmatives about China for several years now). I don’t think it would be the end of the world should the China topic be selected, but I do suspect it will be a pain to prepare as the negative.
Jacob Nails - Military Conscription
My grade: I give the South Korea topic an A, the Singapore topic a B, and the China topic an F.
The Chinese environmentalism resolution is a clear dead last. The only plus I see to this topic is that it exists at the intersection of two geopolitically salient subjects that students would benefit from learning about—China and the environment—but the topic is not well-suited to foster engaging debates on these issues.
The main problems stem from the “value A over B” mechanism. Topics with this style of wording need to be debatable at an abstract level because they tend not to provide enough context to be interpreted as a specific statement of policy. What would it look like for China to pass a law that prioritized the environment over the economy? It could look like about a million things. The number of environmental issues is as innumerable as the set of policies targeting them and the types of economic activities they could conflict with. The Jan-Feb ’14 resolution (“Resolved: Developing countries should prioritize environmental protection over resource extraction when the two are in conflict”) demonstrated this in spades. The policies debaters conjured up were absolutely limitless and culminated in a disaster of a topic.
Broadness and vagueness would not be a problem per se if there were substantive debate to be had about the topic as a principle. The Jan-Feb ’13 resolution (“Resolved: Rehabilitation ought to be valued above retribution in the United States criminal justice system”), for example, produced fine debates because the main conflicts between rehabilitation and retribution stemmed from opposing philosophies of crime and punishment that cut across context. But the size and severity of both environmental and economic issues are primarily empirical and context-dependent questions that can’t be meaningfully gauged in the abstract, and “China” is far from sufficient context to reach any interesting philosophical conclusion about how growth somehow categorically supersedes the environment or vice versa. The topic asks a detail-oriented question without the details to evaluate it.
A related trouble with the resolution is that the two values pitted against one another aren’t inherently at odds. The most recent “prioritize” topic from last season (Mar-Apr ‘21, “Resolved: In a democracy, a free press ought to prioritize objectivity over advocacy”) illustrated both sides of this issue. On the one hand, this topic at its best produced clash over a core controversy, as objectivity and advocacy were two approaches to journalism directly contrasted against one another in the topic literature. On the other hand, debaters would often define “objectivity” in terms like “ensuring factual accuracy in reporting,” which left no real trade-off between objectivity and advocacy, and when this happened it resulted in the two sides talking past each other.
While the blame on that topic could mostly be laid on crafty debaters with dubious definitions, the problem seems much more insoluble on the China topic. The argument over whether growth benefits the environment is not just idle nitpicking, but one of the central resolutional questions. Is this an argument for the negative? It’s not clear. If the two values turn out not to be in conflict, what does it mean to prioritize one? Where does the controversy even lie? The division between sides becomes unclear. And hand-waving these arguments away by assuming an implicit “When in conflict…” constraint on the topic doesn’t make things any better. Not only is it unclear ex-ante which forms of growth will net harm the environment, forcing debaters to muddle topicality and content to determine which examples apply, but limiting the discussion to only the cases where growth is most clearly harmful is to stack the deck against the negative.
And lastly, we’ve seen China crop up as the subject of some rounds on recent topics such as nuclear weapons (Jan-Feb ‘20), lethal autonomous weapons (Jan-Feb ‘21), and appropriation of space (Jan-Feb ‘22). These rounds uniformly produced some of the lowest quality debates on each topic, leaving me skeptical of debaters’ ability to discuss China constructively.
The other two topics are much better.
Turning next to the Singapore topic, some background info is in order. One will need to know about Singapore’s Ethnic Integration Policy or EIP to form an informed opinion on this topic. The EIP instituted ethnic quotas for housing in Singapore, requiring that each neighborhood and housing block reflect Singapore’s overall ethnic makeup (which is majority Chinese, with substantial Malay and Indian minority groups). The purpose of the law is to ensure members of different ethnicities live amongst and interact with each other and to prevent the formation of ethnic enclaves within society (a map of racial demographics in many U.S. cities may give a good indication of what the law aims to avoid). I recommend this talk by Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong for background info on race relations in Singapore (he also touches on his support for the EIP during the Q&A). Critics claim that race-based quotas inflame rather than ameliorate racial tensions and that the law may inadvertently harm minority groups. For example, if a downtown housing block is already at quota for Chinese occupants, only Chinese homeowners will be able to sell to prospective Chinese buyers without exceeding the quota; Malay or Indian home sellers, unable to accept most offers, must settle for a lower price and a longer search for buyers.
First, the pros. The topic is very clear and concise. It’s only six words, half of those being the name of an exact law. Aside from perhaps minor disputes over the exact meaning of “unjust,” the topic leaves little room for ambiguity. It also succeeds at (what I take to be) the main goal of this year’s November-December topic basket, namely, encouraging students to engage with controversies elsewhere in the world. I am certain almost no students had extensive prior knowledge of Singapore’s Ethnic Integration Policy, and, more so than on the other two topics, succeeding on this topic will require they thoroughly familiarize themselves with a new cultural and political context. And while most students will never live in Singapore, a topic that concerns race relations and housing policy can teach lessons of domestic relevance, both in thinking through the topic’s similarities to U.S. issues as well as the many ways in which the Singaporean context is different.
One of the topic’s strengths is also a major downside. Because this topic requires a deep understanding of the current affairs of a distant nation as a pre-condition to informed debates, rounds between debaters who haven’t researched the topic thoroughly will be even poorer than usual. And even where both debaters have done their due diligence, the judge may not have. It is not a safe assumption to hope that a parent volunteering for the weekend has engaged in background reading on Singaporean politics. These debates may end up much worse than they could be due to the inherent knowledge barrier.
Another drawback is that the EIP isn’t the largest controversy ever and so the literature base is somewhat lighter than the average topic. November-December is one of the less intensive topic slots for most regions, so the shallowness isn’t a fatal flaw, but I could just as easily see this topic fitting comfortably in a one-month Public Forum topic slot. In particular, the affirmative might struggle to find support for the law being fundamentally unjust. Not being an expert myself, I consulted a few Singaporeans, and the general impression seems to be that the EIP is relatively popular or at least accepted as the state of things by most of the public. Some expressed concern that the affirmative will have a harder time.
Finally, my topic of choice: South Korean Conscription.
Conscription is a Lincoln-Douglas classic, being the third LD resolution ever debated (Mar-Apr ‘81, “Resolved: military conscription is a superior alternative to a voluntary army”) and with variations on the theme showing up three other times since for Nov-Dec ‘89 (“Resolved: all United States citizens ought to perform a period of national service”), NFL—now NSDA—Nationals ‘09 (“Resolved: Military conscription is unjust”), and Sep-Oct ‘17 (“Resolved: In the United States, national service ought to be compulsory”). That the topic committee has returned to this topic area so many times shows there’s something right about it, and my experience with the 2009 and 2017 iterations supports this.
Conscription sits at the crossroads of the ethical and the political which makes for an ideal Lincoln-Douglas topic. One can ask moral questions about the extent of individual liberty in times of war as well as practical questions about public perception or military effectiveness. The literature on all of these matters is deep and goes back decades, including a wealth of empirical studies to be cited on both sides.
This topic would be the first time conscription, or any topic, has been situated in a South Korean context. While I don’t think the added specification is necessary to facilitate productive debates over conscription, it is also not unwelcome. This topic, just like the EIP topic, is worded clearly and concisely with an unambiguous agent and action, leaving little room for interpretational confusion. Korea gives a modern political setting that makes the debate more concrete and relevant, and conflict on the Korean peninsula is always a timely topic to learn about.
My only word of caution is that I expect debaters to gravitate toward superficial specificity on a topic like this one, preferring to cite the news article of the week that explicitly uses the word “Korea” over the meta-analysis of conscription throughout history that doesn’t. I would resist this impulse.
Amadea Datel – Military Conscription
For the November-December LD topic, I encourage debaters and coaches to vote for the third resolution: Resolved; The Republic of Korea ought to abolish military conscription. South Korea’s mandatory two-year military conscription for young men is a salient, controversial issue. Proponents emphasize its two aims: national security and nation building, which can act as a force multiplier during emergencies (which are on the horizon considering recent tensions with China) and a social equalizer that reinforces individuals' connections to their nation. Meanwhile, its opposers stress that the system is prone to corruption, grants easier service conditions to celebrities, and entrenches gender inequality since the mandate only applies to men. The increasing social opposition to conscription also undermines its original goals since a policy that a significant proportion of the public resents cannot create a sense of national unity. Yet this otherwise aff-biased topic is counterbalanced by the neg’s counterplan options – debaters can advocate reforming South Korea’s military conscription policy by applying it to all regardless of gender or loosening its tight restrictions on exemptions.
The largest issue with the first topic – China’s prioritization of environmental protection over economic growth – is that it is too vague to prove a stasis point for debate, resulting in shallow T debates on the national circuit and definition debates combined with examples that do not clash on local circuits. At first glance, the resolution is neg-biased since “prioritize” implies a forced choice between environmental protection and economic growth, so aff debaters must argue that the government must always place the former over the latter. This is an untenable position because one can always find isolated instances when the government should prioritize economic growth or consider the two equally important since it is impossible to disentangle one from the other. Increasing greenhouse gas emissions will submerge hubs of global commerce underwater, and environmental issues cost the economy billions of dollars each year, with estimates putting the toll at 10 percent of GDP. On the national circuit, I expect to see the opposite problem: an aff side bias because the aff can advocate for any policy that prioritizes the environment over growth, exploding the neg’s prep burden.
Although the second topic, Singapore’s Ethnic Integration Policy, is phrased more clearly, I doubt it can sustain two months of debates. For some background, Singapore introduced the EIP in 1989 to curb ethnic segregation between Malays, Chinese, and Indians by limiting the total percentage of neighborhoods that may be occupied by certain ethnicities. I initially expected this topic to favor the aff due to the wealth of evidence that the policy has exacerbated the housing shortage because the disparities in income between social groups make it impossible for lower-income Malays to purchase housing in Chinese and Indian neighborhoods. The EIP has also inflamed racial tensions by allowing families of certain races to sell their flats for higher than others depending on which ethnic groups are eligible to purchase them and has failed to account for the increasing percentage of mixed-race people. Moreover, evidence of the policy decreasing segregation is speculative at best, considering that the areas with an overconcentration of particular ethnic groups have not changed since the 1980s, and neighborhoods with overrepresentation have sprung up since then due to income disparities. However, I doubt there is more than one topical aff (that abolishes the EIP), which rectifies the aff skew yet contributes to somewhat stale debates that cite the same limited literature base in most rounds.
Thus, the military conscription topic offers the clearest resolution with the most balanced ground on both sides, along with advantages and disadvantages that accommodate the “big-stick” impacts to which debaters inevitably run.
Eva Lamberson – Military Conscription
Before anything else, I just want to express that I’m generally pretty on board for the NovDec topic set. When they were first released, I definitely criticized them for being way too PF-like (which may still be true,) but the more I thought about them the more I realized that, at the very least, each of these topics are an exciting opportunity to move LDers out of their comfort zones and to argue topics that have serious and extremely relevant ethical and political implications beyond just the United States — so, no matter which topic is picked, I’m hopeful we’ll see some robust, non-US-centric debates.
However, all of that optimism aside, I definitely have a preference, and that preference is (by far) South Korean military conscription. I think this topic offers the best balance, both in terms of argument diversity and side bias. Additionally, I appreciate that the ground on this topic is extremely clear (the China topic, for instance, will be fraught with extensive arguments about what it means to ‘prioritize’ something, which I quite frankly just don’t want to listen to.)
First, it’s worth noting that the subject of conscription in the Republic of Korea is actually creating quite a buzz right now, not only in South Korea but internationally. Policy revisions to the Military Service Act are currently being proposed in order to exempt popular boy band BTS from mandatory service, sparking debates among South Korean officials about the nature of exemptions for artists. As silly as this may sound, the increased scrutiny on South Korean conscription should (hopefully) lead to a number of forthcoming articles relevant to the topic, meaning there should be an abundance of cards to cut!
Even before BTS brought it to the limelight, conscription in South Korea has been the subject of both political and academic debate, so there should be a decent literature base to build off of and a diversity of arguments to examine. For instance, there are practical questions about the dwindling numbers of the South Korean military, meaning that eliminating conscription would be catastrophic, especially given heightened tensions between North and South Korea. On the other hand, many aspects of the Military Service Act have raised serious concerns — for instance, the way conscientious objectors are treated or the ways in which conscription affects the political attitudes of South Korean men.
However, the largest reason that I prefer this topic to the others (which, granted, also have good empirical literature bases) is that, in my opinion, it leaves the most room for principled philosophical positions. Even though the topic specifies a particular nation, I think that positions that are either based on or incorporate wholesale philosophical objections or endorsements of conscription could be both extremely strong and extremely interesting. For instance, affirmatives may suggest that mandatory conscription constitutes an unacceptable violation of liberty, or that (especially given South Korea’s harsh treatment of conscientious objectors) such policies are seriously coercive. On the flip side, a negative could argue that conscription is an obligation we owe the state by virtue of the social contract (though, which side this argument actually flips depends on the social contract theory you’re using,) or that mandatory service bolsters democratic values.
Finally, if anyone read my two cents here and thought “Wow, Eva must really have the right takes on these topics!” you can even choose to rank all three topics in the way that I’m going to — if you’re at all curious, it will be: conscription, environment v. econ, Ethnic Integration Policy.
Charles Karcher – Environmental Protection
The topic slate for November and December offers some solid options. After a careful review of the three, my choice is Resolved: The People’s Republic of China ought to prioritize environmental protection over economic growth. (If you have been around for long enough, or if you appreciate debate history, you may recognize the wording of the topic - that’s because it’s a blatant nod to the 2014 January/February/TOC topic, Resolved: Developing countries should prioritize environmental protection over resource extraction when the two are in conflict.)
Here, I will present a brief note that speaks to why I believe that this topic offers a great division of ground, especially for policy-style and critical argumentation.
China’s rapid economic growth since 1978 has become - and will be remembered as - an international spectacle. Not only has the country been able to impressively improve the average quality of life and income of its citizens, it has also established itself as an international economic juggernaut, even as Western countries face routine economic hardships which hamper growth and efforts to maximize economic prowess on the global stage. However, such growth has not come without cost. Even during the 2014 topic, China was a hot point of contention - scholars around the world have observed China’s prioritization of economic growth over consideration for the environment.
The varied environmental challenges that have manifested in China can be used as advantage areas on the affirmative or even be read as plans. One random memory from my childhood is watching a video (that I was too young to fully understand at the time) about the Three Gorges Dam. This project is a great example of how infrastructure projects that yield economically-beneficial fruits can be detrimental to local and regional ecosystems and communities. There are many infrastructure projects that are similar to this, and there is ample discussion about policies that can be passed to mitigate the environmental effects of them.
Prepping and debating against policy affirmatives will be in-depth and engaging. There is a good amount of research on the ‘win-win’ possibilities for economic growth and environmental protection, which will be a useful generic case turn. Moreover, the uniqueness question for economy-related disadvantages is hot at the present.
The topic also offers fresh areas of exploration for critical perspectives. Critical debaters may choose to research topics such as environmental inequalities in China or the role that Ecofeminism can have in remedying its environmental issues. Negative debaters may choose to critique certain affirmative positions on the grounds of Anthropocentric Futurism.
One other interesting thing to ponder is the Belt and Road Initiative. (For those who keep tabs on Public Forum topics, this might ring a bell - in 2019, there was a topic about the European Union and the Belt and Road Initiative.) The BRI is a series of infrastructure projects outside of China that has been criticized as neo-colonial and parasitic to local economies. Given that the resolution does not establish any parameters that speak to whether China’s prioritization has to be global or local, it may be worthwhile to investigate what environmental implications these projects have - here’s a start. An investigation of this subsection of the topic literature is sure to be worthwhile for critical and policy debaters alike.
I’ll be excited to judge debates on any of the topics that are on the slate. Since arriving in Taiwan last month, I’ve seen firsthand the cultural influence of BTS and have heard discussions about its relevance to the South Korean conscription system. Although a bit more restricted in terms of research available, the Singapore topic would be a great option for philosophical and critical debates about the role of the state, Foucauldian biopolitics, and the philosophy of race. Perhaps it is because so much of my early exposure to circuit debate was from rounds recorded in the Spring of 2014, but I am personally inclined toward the China topic. It offers a great division of ground about an issue that will become more pressing in the coming decade, and I believe that it is the best choice of the three topics presented.