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The Importance of Methods Debate in LD
By: Evan Zhao
“Method debates should continue to exist until either (a) everyone is obligated to read justifications for their model of debate or (b) no one has to contest their role of the ballot. Obviously, LD is a young form of debate especially when compared to college debates. But when we look to more developed forms of debates (ie CEDA), rappers and poets no longer read carded justifications for their role of the ballots and still are very prominent in CX. The mindset of the structured LD round with very structured, identical cases is a reflection of the phobia of change and identity in the high school classroom. It is a reflection of the necrophilous learning process where students' own voices are snuffed out and replaced with that of the normal, the institutions. College CX also reflects a classroom: the college classroom, where students are more free in expression, critical thinking, self identification, and fluidity of learning-- a biophilal learning process. The same mindset of standardized testing, the factory line of students, stopping and starting at the sound of the bell, permeates many people's desires of what LD debate should be. People's discomfort with change and identity is the root of this fear of performance and critical debates. Even when I read a nontraditional position, I am still forced to be the one to justify my position while traditional policymaking debaters get a free ROTB and have their model of debate implicitly accepted. This phobia of difference and identity is just another reflection of oppressive educational systems, one that is scared of the poet's voice.”
– Evan Zhao in response to In Defense of Topical Switch-Side Debate
Too often do people immediately create blanket statements about debaters who debate in an unconventional way, whether refusing to affirm the resolution, affirming the resolution in a metaphorical sense, or utilizing the round as a place for challenging oppression.
This refusal to engage the positions presented by non-traditional debaters stems from the belief that their arguments have no place in LD. Many people oversimplify debates by presumptuously evaluating them under their own, often unjustified, model of debate. People thus indite responses to these arguments in terms of “fairness” or “education” on a theoretical level, also within their own model of debate. Oftentimes, we see method debaters fall prey to this mindset that the normal, conventional model of debate is the only model of debate that is functional.
What many people fail to realize is that method and role of the ballot arguments are not arguments that try to function under the conventional model of debate, where tricks, fairness, and stratagems are all that matter. Method and role of the ballot precede theoretical arguments by redefining what matters in the debate round in the first place. In explanation, if someone’s model redefines what constitutes a good debate (such as challenging patriarchy), complaining about fairness is meaningless before justifying a why that traditional conception of fairness matters.
1 – ENGAGING THE UNPREDICTABLE
To read theory against these debaters is to deny this exploration for a better future of the activity. Sure, in the short term of the 40-minute round, your goal might not be the enlightenment of the debate community; but rather, winning the ballot with whatever prep you have available to you. This competitive nature of debate does not mean you have to read 7 perms and 3 theory shells on these debaters. In fact, it would be un-strategic to, seeing as your impacts most likely no longer matter under the alternate model of debate, but you presume your own model is true anyways.
In the instance that you are affirming against a method debater, you probably find yourself stuck defending the less strategic, “mooted” AC offense that no longer seems to be relevant after the NC’s new method proposal. Your job is not to read theory to win. In fact, in the same way you would extemp a shell saying “ROTB args bad”, you can also extemp method arguments, poking flaws in the method provided by your opponent. Debaters who presume their own model of debate to be good also are flawed in their thoughtlessness and compliance with the norm. It seems rather unfair when you can just function under a model of debate with no other justifications beyond, “It’s what a lot of people do.” Thus, aff debaters who are debating under the “conventional” model of debate should oftentimes critically think about their own method and why it’s a good thing. Engaging in the method debate will also reveal to “conventional” debaters where the real flaws are in their model, and you might consider changing your own model of debate. The debater who better defends their model of debate will thus win the round, and if your model of debate is actually bad, then you should probably lose and learn from it.
In the instance that you are negating against a method debater, your ability to function educationally and critically is exponentially increased. As the negative, you definitely should not read 7 minutes of straight theory. You have endless opportunity to make the round a better educational experience while engaging and continuing the exploration that the aff initiates. Once again, you can extemp your own arguments against the aff’s method, or you could even try and negate under their method, if their method is something that does seem to be intuitively a good method. Afterwards, you could reflect on how well that method worked and discuss its setbacks and advantages. Another great, educational way to handle this situation is providing a countermethod, whether by extemping a countermethod you believe is a better model than the aff’s, or even just by reading your own prep about why the “conventional” model of debate is good. You could even use your own AC prep as leverage for a countermethod against the aff. For example, if a Wilderson position really seems to rub you the wrong way, just read a different framework. If your view of “affirming” is actually better than your opponents, then reading your AC would be a great way to contest that.
You’re a debater; use your quick-thinking mind to think of substantive arguments that either contest your opponent’s method or function under your opponent’s method. Either way, you will be forwarding the debate community towards a better future.
2 – LEVELING THE PLAYING FIELD
One also mustn’t forget that models of debate don’t occur in a vacuum; they occur in context. Not every debater can walk into a round with huge files of aff and neg prep provided to them by their team and abundance of coaches. Sure, maybe an optimal model of debate for two wealthy, privileged, big-school boys is for each to read the same AC and NC that everyone else is reading, then to read pre-prepared theory, topicality, turns, DAs, et cetera and to see whose privilege is more prominent.
Topical education is not furthered under the conventionally accepted model of debate. A discussion around the topic is far more inclusive and educational than a topical discussion – a discussion within the topic. The educational value of repeating very similar rounds is very minimal. Many topics end up being limited to 3 or 4 affirmative positions, and a couple very predictable negative positions. Most debaters already understand these positions and their implications in terms of the resolution, so actually carrying out a debate round purely to throw stratagem around is not an educational activity in the least. The signing of the ballot then is just another little win for some well-off debater who played a game because his school and his background provided him with better cards than his opponent. Debaters claim that debating while functioning under a traditional model of debate generates lots of education, but at some point, reading the same blocks and frontlines every round becomes void of education, especially since topic education is mostly done before writing cases, while casually reading unscholarly articles about the topic. Finding a professor or specialist to confirm that education – then reading that same excerpt over and over again every round – is not education. It is just the very opposite – it is complacency and banality in the conventional model of debate. In fact, many people ignore the fact that critical education usually does not manifest itself in policy actions. Lots of people mistake the “political” to be strictly policy-oriented, but rather, knowing what practices are oppressive or bad in the real world leads to us being more aware about how we affect others in the real world. This “critical education” is much more applicable and prevalent to our lives as debaters and human beings, many of whom will not end up being politicians. If someone really wanted genuine policymaking practice, Congress has a comfortable seat open for them.
The fairness of the conventional model of debate is also called into question, and I’ve already mentioned some of the problems above. This conventional model of debate that values predictability and turn ground leaves large schools a huge advantage, more so than they already have. “Social unfairness” permeates into the realm of the debate world. For example, lone wolf debaters who can’t afford to go to a private school with a plethora of coaches and resources are at a disadvantage when it comes to the topical prep they have access to. And sometimes, nondisclosure and unpredictability is a way to solve back for this disparity. Lone wolf debaters can force big school debaters off their pre-prepped T, CPs, DAs, postfiat Ks, and make them engage in a debate that both sides can engage equally. Unpredictable and unconventional positions force debaters to debate on their feet rather than relying on words of their coaches or resources from their team. This is also the best way to determine who the “better debater” was, rather than the more privileged debater. Debaters can still leverage their own prep and their own model of debate in these debates, but rather than having prewritten extensions and frontlines for predictable arguments, they will be forced to engage, for example, using the strategies I provided in section 1.
3 – METHOD DEBATE IS STILL DEBATE
Method debaters get a lot of crap for being lazy, or for not debating the topic. People conclude that, because these debaters don’t play the game by the rules (no matter how meaningless the rules make the game) that they don’t win the game. People often use metaphors alluding to sports players, saying that they do not get trophies for generating discursive challenging of oppressive structures.
The distinction here is that debaters do not debate for physical activity (lol sports), practice of oration (spreading is nothing like Oratory), or for the sake of finding the truth of the resolution (because obviously both topical affs and topical negs win rounds). The purpose of debate is to generate an education while having a vigorous meeting of minds.
This vigorous, educational competition is still there (and maximized) when the method is contested, because alternate, more educational positions are opened up, and the value of the debate itself is contested.
Debating method is very similar to debating a philosophical framework, except it is probably more beneficial to debaters to debate method than philosophy. Offering a competing ROTB or method moves the debate community towards a better model of debate, one that maximizes acceptance, applicable education, and fairness for everyone. By voting for well justified models of debate, judges allow more acceptance and variety in the future of LD. Debaters who win their method and offense under their method deserve to be listened to, not immediately ignored and excluded. Judges, with their ballot, update the institutional norms of debate. So every time a methods debate is concluded, another ballot moves towards making debate a more purposeful activity rather than an exclusionary one. Judge support for acceptance and varying methods is crucial, and conservative hindrances and bigotry are the only things that hinder this progress and moot the purpose of these debates happening in the first place. So if you are one of those people who find methodology debate to be useless, you’re probably a part of the group that is making them useless.
Shout out to Paloma O’Connor and Adam Tomasi, for their feedback and support. Thanks to Sam Greenwald and Aimun Khan for the inspiration and motivation to write this article. Also, a special thanks to Emma Weddle for making significant, much-needed revisions!