[eDebate] Topicality and rules - another argument

LACC Forensics forensics
Thu Jun 14 11:26:49 CDT 2007

While I find Scott's analysis of communication ethics to be very interesting
and have some merit, I think there is yet another angle on this subject that
hasn't received much attention.

The rules that do/should exist in debate (I agree with Scott's analysis on
currently accepted standards for T, BTW - they are weak and pitiful as
arguments go) are not arbitrary as the defenders of "anti-topicality"
suggest. This is where I agree with Andy - that the game/sports analogy
breaks down. I just disagree with why it isn't a perfect analogy for what we
do. The rules that exist in debate are "natural law" in the most classic
sense. Our rules don't come from the topic committee or the ethics committee
the way they come from the NBA or the NFL. The governing bodies of sports
meet annually to change rules for the sole purpose of maintaining the
competitiveness of the game in a manner that is exciting to fans. There is
no such process for debate. Other than determining time limits and speaking
order, governing bodies of debate organizations (at least sane ones) have
generally not legislated such arbitrary rules.

The rules of debate develop out of logic. This is why I get so frustrated
with the anti-topical approach to debate. Politically I am and have always
been a leftist. I don't say liberal because I don't think that term has had
any meaning in our political culture for a long time. Thus, politically, I
am predisposed toward those who reject the system. However, when it comes to
debate, I have two problems with this approach: 1 - the reasons I hear
articulated are false/disingenuous, 2 - they are logically flawed.

Let me first address the disingenuous: While I am NOT claiming that everyone
who runs non-topical affirmatives is lying about their motives, I know from
direct admission that some are. One direct and unavoidable consequence of
this movement is that its success has spawned imitators. There are programs
that write non-topical affirmatives, not because they have a particular
issue that matters more to them than the resolutional question, but because
they know that in front of certain judges it is the only chance they have of
getting the ballot against a team that they know always runs kritikal
positions on the neg. Someone asked me in a backchannel recently what I
meant when I said that some people in the activity are unethical - this is
one example of such. Yet, I understand the motivation that leads to this
approach. In some, if not many, instances the promoters of anti-topicality
have spawned more non-topical affirmatives, not because others agree with
them but because they are forced to adapt to the judging preferences of
their critics.

Secondly, the so-called arguments for the anti-topicality approach are not
(arguments). Has anyone noticed the regressive decline of the
kritikal/anti-topical side of the activity over the years? Originally, the
most common justification for this approach was that personalized debate
produced better activism. That was empirically disproven with example upon
example of outstanding activists who are great at what they do because when
they debated, they played by the rules and learned how to argue. The next
claim advanced was that traditional debate is exclusionary and we could
increase the participation of traditionally marginalized groups by not
expecting them to learn the rules and by allowing them to debate about what
matters to them personally. This too has proven to be false or only true in
limited areas and I think even those examples are due far more to the
personalities of the coaches involved than the subject matter of the
arguments run. Every year, I lose debaters who are members of every
marginalized group in our society (because they are all represented in my
community more than any other college in the country) because, as novices,
they walk into a debate and hear a non-topical case, or a performative
presentation, or a kritikal argument that doesn't address the resolutional
question and they say to me, "this is not what I signed up for." Doesn't it
strike anyone as incongruent that so many of the teams that are arguing
about oppression are made up of and coached by white males? Finally, the
anti-topicality community has collapsed to "we don't want to" as their
reason for not being topical. In other words, all of the lofty reasons have
devolved into little more than anarchy. The same path of devolution is
evident in the kritikal approach on the negative. There was a time when
kritikal teams actually made an effort to articulate alternatives because
that is what logic demanded. But, as each alternative was summarily defeated
by logical arguments, all alternatives eventually devolved into "reject".
This devolution is so obvious that in most of the kritikal debates that I
judge these days (because a lot of Cali tournaments aren't big enough for
MPJ) the negative cannot even articulate what they are rejecting or why.

The reason affirmative teams should be restrained by topicality is simple:
logic requires it. This is not a rule in the sense that it is not an
arbitrary guideline handed down by a paternal organization for the purpose
of creating competition or constraining creativity. It is a rule the same
way that a social contract is a rule - because it makes sense. And this is
fundamentally where the "arguments" against topicality ultimately break
down. Topical constraints make sense logically and try as they might, none
of the anti-topicalists have come up with a persausive, logical rejection of
this fact. Fundamentally, their only position is "we don't want to." As the
person who started this thread (this time anyway) I find it very interesting
that in weeks of discussion, not one person has made even the slightest
attempt to refute my original argument that one of the reasons debating
topicality is good is that we engage in topicality debates every day and
that students who learn how to debate topicality are significantly more
successful in those topicality debates outside of the activity than anyone

The anti-topicalists are off the mark because they are engaged in a constant
"straw-person" argument. They never answer the underlying logical questions,
they simply seize on the unfortunate wording of a post and try to exploit
that wording to make the author sound like an oppressor and then use
inflammatory rhetoric to drown out the actual logic of the argument that was
made. Tim, for example chose to use the word penalty and that gave the
anti-topicalists ground to attack him while making it sound like they were
attacking his argument. So, here is another approach to the same idea that
uses less oppressive sounding language: I vote negative when an affirmative
is non-topical (and assuming the neg effectively argues T) not to penalize
the Aff, but because logically, the Aff has given me nothing I can vote for
because they have failed at their intrinsic responsibility to answer the
resolutional question. It's not so much a penalty as it is a logical
necessity. As an educator, I can't give a student credit on an exam when
they haven't answered the question I asked but instead decided to write
about something that they personally think is more important.

As usual, there are other comments I could (and later will) make, but at
this point, I doubt too many people are still reading. If you have been
reading, I hope you will consider this slightly different analysis of the
value of topicality.



More information about the Mailman mailing list