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Topicality and the China Topic
The November/December topic could become an unmitigated disaster. Some issues are apparent: the topic is vast given the tight November/December schedule, and teams beginning research are already experiencing the unique challenges of exploring literature on an international actor, where much of the high-quality research is not written in English.
However, debaters will face a more significant problem: What does a topical affirmative look like?
The November/December topic is “Resolved: The People’s Republic of China ought to prioritize environmental protection over economic growth.”
Like the January/February 2014 topic (“Developing countries should prioritize environmental protection over resource extraction when the two are in conflict”), many will interpret this wording to mean that the effects of the affirmative's advocacy should determine whether or not it's topical. Roughly, this would look something like arguing that the affirmative is topical because it results in a world with more environmental protection than economic growth. This construction is related to, but slightly different than, the type of "effects topicality" that many will be familiar with in which the affirmative plan results in a topical action or result. This modified version of effects topicality contrasts with the conventional understanding that the mandates or features of the advocacy determine whether a position is topical. Despite the consensus that effects topicality is problematic, many will understandably believe this topic requires the affirmative to violate that principle.
While it seems intuitive that to prioritize one over the other, the affirmative must defend a world where the environment is more protected, and the negative must defend a world with more economic growth, such a reading would make debates unworkable. Lawrence Zhou clearly outlined the problem in his most recent Victory Briefs topic analysis:
“One obvious concern relates to bad faith topicality debates about the effects versus the mandates of the affirmative (here, effects are outcomes of the affirmative’s proposal, while mandates are those that are directly called for by the affirmative’s proposal)… If prioritize refers just to the effects, then whether the affirmative is topical depends solely on how effective China would be at protecting the environment. Some have previously referred to this as the problem of “solvicality” as a way of pointing out the blurred lines between “solvency” (how well does the affirmative’s proposal solve the issues they point out) and “topicality” (does the affirmative’s proposal affirm the resolution). Sometimes, this is also referred to as the problem of “blurred burdens” or “mixing and matching burdens.”
Let’s run through a few of the absurdities that would result from this “blurred burden” conundrum:
"Solvicality": As mentioned above, on this interpretation, a negative argument that “the affirmative doesn’t solve the environmental harms outlined by the AC” would become a topicality objection. Suppose the negative’s argument is proven true, and the affirmative's advocacy does not, in fact, result in the environment being more protected. In that case, the affirmative does not merely fail to solve its advantages – it becomes, retroactively, not topical. By the magic of poor topic construction, mitigating defense becomes a voting issue.
To turn or not to turn: Common affirmative responses to core negative positions (e.g., economy DAs) also become puzzling under this interpretation of the topic. Say the negative argues that an increased focus on environmental protection will spook investors, causing a flight of foreign capital that will harm the Chinese economy. In response, the affirmative may wish to argue that environmental regulations will spur innovation, making the Chinese market more attractive. Does this turn mean the affirmative advocacy has suddenly become not topical in the 1AR? If the affirmative wins the turn and the AC, they will be saying the affirmative results in both environmental protection and economic growth. Are they still arguing that environmental protection should be prioritized? In short, on the "effects view", the affirmative arguably must concede links to negative DAs, and the negative must concede affirmative advantages. That can’t be right! If accepted, the result will be awful debates defined by perverse strategic incentives. For example, as the negative, poor argument construction might be strategic, allowing debaters to bait opponents into making obvious responses that just so happen to render the affirmative not topical.
Affirmative good is bad?: Stranger still, imagine a negative strategy that straightforwardly argues that the affirmative advocacy would boost the Chinese economy and was therefore not topical. This argument could be combined with solvency take-outs that say the affirmative is not topical because it results in growth but not protection. This strategy could even concede that the affirmative is an excellent idea (“it’s great for the economy!”), and for precisely that reason, it’s not topical. Such a model would undermine an essential purpose of debate: to teach students how to be effective advocates.
From these examples and our understanding of classic effects topicality, we can identify a few disadvantages to the “effects interpretation” of the November/December topic.
Stability: "The effects interpretation" means that the affirmative can be topical as of the 1AC, become not topical after the NC (or even the 1AR), and then subsequently flip back again to being topical in later speeches. This is different than how a topicality debate plays out on any other topic, which is a strong reason to be skeptical. The "effects view" goes against everything we know about how topicality should operate - an affirmative is either topical or not, regardless of its advantages or disadvantages. Blurring the question of topicality with whether and how the affirmative is a good idea will result in messy, confusing, and intellectually bankrupt debates.
Truth: The "effects interpretation" becomes a constraint on the reasons for, rather than the advocacy of, the affirmative. If being topical requires either side to concede to certain advantages or disadvantages, then truth becomes irrelevant in the face of poor topic wording. For November/December specifically, a core part of the topic literature focuses on whether various environmental protection measures necessitate economic trade-offs (and vice versa). Artificially sidelining some of the most critical arguments on a topic due to procedural technicalities is contrary to the very idea of reasoned debate. Shouldn’t our goal be for debaters to find the best possible reasons in favor of their positions? Jacob Nails outlined this issue well in the Victory Briefs November/December Topic Roundtable:
“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.”
Limits: The “effects interpretation” also replicates all the disadvantages of classic effects topicality, most obviously by destroying any semblance of reasonable topical limits. Using this interpretation of the November/December topic, any policy that might have an environmental effect could be topical, no matter the “Rube-Goldberg”-esque construction of the link chain it takes to get there. There would be no requirement that these policies are even discussed as environmental protection measures, either in ordinary discourse or the academic literature. For example, COVID-19 lockdown measures resulted in lower CO2 emissions, but no reasonable person would describe lockdowns as an environmental protection policy. The "effects view" kills clash by incentivizing debaters to race away from core topical positions and encouraging unpredictable advocacies designed to evade negative arguments.
So, what should we do?
While an unusual and ambiguous topic wording may make the effects topicality interpretation appear appealing, it’s not the only plausible reading. Our standard model of topicality works just fine. Topicality should operate in precisely the same way on the November/December 2022 topic as it does on every other topic. An affirmative is topical by virtue of the mandates/features of the affirmative advocacy/plan. The standard model is not ruled out by the topic’s wording and would resolve all the problems abovementioned problems.
There are many topical affirmatives on this view. Specifically, we can imagine policies, the elements of which prioritize environmental protection over economic growth in and of themselves. For instance, an affirmative could argue that China should adopt the precautionary principle (or some other legal test that prioritizes environmental protection over economic concerns) in an area of environmental law, China's five-year plan should be changed in a way that prioritizes the environment over economic growth, or China should implement some regulation that by its nature prioritizes one over the other (e.g., by capping some output).
There are so many possibilities, and they all have the virtue of being real advocacies that can be judged on their merits, unrestricted by the artificial constraints created by effects topicality. This view would result in a varied but manageable number of affirmatives while still providing ground for core negative generics. Affirmative advocacies would either be topical or not topical throughout the debate, and an advocacy's substantive advantages or disadvantages levant to the question. Both the affirmative and the negative would be free to advance the best reasons for and against their positions.