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The Harms of Pre-emptive Argumentation by Dan Alessandro
In recent years, there has been a strong trend towards strategies that center around “pre-emptive” arguments (also known as spikes) in the constructive speeches. Debaters run these arguments with the hope their opponent drops them, so that they can be extended to ensure an easy win. Pre-empts can be deployed on the theory, contention, and framework levels. Although some debaters have had success with these strategies, I argue that debaters should generally avoid employing them. Blocks should be read in response to arguments, not in anticipation of them.
The first concern many coaches and debaters alike have when deciding whether to run an argument is whether it will be “strategic” or likely to win rounds. It’s no secret that debate is a game of time tradeoffs; a good argument is often thought of as one that takes longer to respond to than to read. Debaters use this logic to justify loading up their cases with pre-empts. However, these pre-empts often actually result in a worse time tradeoff for the debater who reads them. I’ll explore some examples of the bad time tradeoffs that pre-empts allow for.
On the theory layer, some affirmatives are full of short, weakly warranted theory interpretations. A few examples of these pre-empts are 1. “The negative must defend the converse of the resolution”, 2. “The affirmative gets RVIs”, and 3. “The negative may not read multiple theory shells”. A smart negative debater will concede as many of these interpretations as possible without seriously compromising their strategy. For each interpretation that the negative meets, the negative gains a time advantage equal to the number of seconds the aff spent reading the pre-empt. When responding to an AC with the 3 spikes above, for instance, if the neg doesn’t read theory, they’ve suddenly burned all the time the aff spent justifying spikes number 2 and 3. Suddenly, the AC has spent 40 seconds reading theory interps that have no relevance in the round. Those 40 seconds represent an opportunity cost of 40 seconds that could have been spent reading more contention-level offense, or reading additional arguments to warrant the aff framework.
One could object that pre-empts are strategic because they force the opponent into a bad strategy. There are a few problems with this argument. First, a smart negative will have several cases and strategies that they’ve prepared, so merely excluding one of those cases doesn’t advantage the aff. Either the neg can simply pick a different strategy, or the pre-empt prevents them from having any viable strategies, in which case it is highly susceptible to theory. Second, the negative gets to make the decision whether to engage the pre-empts or merely adapt their strategy based on them. This means the debater responding to pre-empts always has the upper hand because they get to decide whether the pre-empts become relevant.
The same logic of time tradeoffs applies to pre-emptive weighing arguments on the framework and contention layers. Rather than having arguments for why “deontological theories of morality fail,” a good utilitarian framework would have more offensive justifications for the standard. It’s possible that framework arguments will serve the dual functions of justifying a framework and rebutting an alternative framework. These arguments are strategic, but arguments that merely deny another framework shouldn’t be in a constructive speech. The ideal AC will have 6 minutes of arguments that have a very high chance of being useful in the 1ar regardless of what the 1N strategy is.
The reason affirming is hard largely self-imposed. Debaters don’t spend enough time generating offense. Rather than reading pre-emptive blocks to negative positions, which have a 50-50 chance of being relevant in the 1AR, debaters should save those blocks for the 1AR where they have a 100% chance of being relevant. One other consideration is that neg debaters often leave a lot less prep time before the 2N than they do before the 1N. This means that reading new evidence or arguments that directly clash with the 1N will be more difficult to prepare for and respond to after the 1AR than after the AC.
III. Education/Purpose of debate
Aside from strategic concerns, debaters shouldn’t read pre-emptive arguments because they are antithetical to the purpose of debate. Debate is an activity based on clash and comparison of arguments. The point of debate is to be able to think critically about how arguments interact and be able to generate arguments to rebut what your opponent says. Pre-emptive arguments detract from these important skills in a multitude. Rather than doing evidence comparison in the 1AR, pre-emptive debaters extend arguments about the quality of their evidence e.g. sample size, factors accounted for, etc, to take out their opponents’ evidence. In reality, true evidence comparison can’t occur before the neg has even spoken.
A particularly harmful class of pre-empts is short and vague theory interpretations with drop the debater implications. The sole purpose of these arguments is to avoid debate and merely extend an argument past an opponent for a cheap win. This strategy is hugely uneducational because it entirely strips all other arguments of meaning. Even if debaters choose to ignore the rest of this article and read their 100 blippy theory spikes, at the very least they should make their interpretations extremely clear so that their opponent has a chance to respond to them or meet them.
IV. Strategies against pre-empts
Regardless of the arguments I’ve put forth for the harms of pre-emptive arguments, the sad truth is that debaters will run them. These are a few of the best strategies that can be deployed against cases full of pre-empts.
First, debaters should make an overview argument on their opponent’s case that says something along the lines of “Allow new 2NR/2AR responses to pre-empts that are cross-applied to my case.” There are a few warrants that can be given for this exception to the “no new in the 2” rule. First, the arguments are incomplete when read in the first speech because they have no impact. Even if the warrant of an argument is conceded, the function of the argument and reason it takes out some other argument on the flow isn’t made until the next speech. Second, these arguments are extremely blippy and hard to flow, so it’s unreasonable to hold debaters accountable for answering them unless judges have flowed every single argument.
Second, a strategy that my teammate has recently deployed is a K of pre-emption. You can find this on the neg wiki of “Lexington PC” with the title “Crusade”. The thesis of this position is that when somebody tells you that you can’t make arguments before you’ve even opened your mouth, that harms dissent and open democratic discourse.
Third, debaters should try to gain the positive time tradeoffs that I talked about in part II. If your opponent spends 1 minute justifying why their framework solves a philosophical problem better than contractarianism does, the appropriate response is to read a framework different than contractarianism. In this way, you can waste their speech time through argument selection, which is an excellent time tradeoff.
Fourth, affs should have a few unpredictable strategies ready to restart the debate in the 1AR. These strategies could include generic theory arguments, kritiks, or 4 minutes of turns to the NC. An important point here is that the way pre-emptive debaters win is when their opponents respond to them in predictable ways. One only can pre-empt an argument if they know it’s coming, so if a 1AR can generate a lot of new offense that the NC didn’t predict, that makes for a difficult 2NR.
Fifth, I recommend that all debaters have a “spikes bad” theory shell ready to go. This argument serves two strategic functions. First, it’s a compelling theory argument that the 1AR has to beat back before accessing their offense. Second, debaters reading lots of theory spikes often rely on theory in order to win. Thus, it’s important that the NC generates offense on the theory layer to dissuade the 1AR from going all in on theory. Additionally, “spikes bad” serves as a meta-theory shell in that it critiques the way the aff ran theory, which sets up the 2NR for some compelling weighing if the 1AR chooses to read theory. One important thing to note for any debaters who plan on pursuing this strategy is that it’s extremely important to define what a spike/pre-empt is in your initial interpretation. You should make your interpretation very precise and specific to what your opponent did in order to avoid frivolous “I meets.”
Sixth and finally, when facing a daunting case filled with pre-empts, it’s important to see the big picture. Even if individual pre-emptive arguments make sense by themselves, these arguments often have unexpected implications when run in conjunction. On the framework level, debaters will often set up a litany of side-constraints that all moral theories must be consistent with. Remember that these side-constraints apply to both frameworks and make arguments for why their framework doesn’t meet the constraints. On the theory level, think about how theory spikes interact in unfair ways so you can craft unique theory interpretations with strong abuse stories that are hard to answer.