Critical Aff: Debate comes home?

(Author’s note: I figure it’s time to get some older half-finished ideas published or deleted. A few of these next posts are ideas from the past three months that I wanted to share before jumping back in to the deeper end of the pool again.)

Now that I’m done judging the Nebraska and Iowa varsity policy debate circuit for the year, I wanted to share an observation that took place earlier in the season and repeated again last weekend at Nebraska NFL districts. As some in the circuit know, I’m a bit of a fan of retro theory. That comes from growing up with some outstanding debate mentors from previous generations of debate, including Dr. Otto Bauer (former Air Force Academy debate coach and Northwestern University debater from the 1950s, and author of debate theory that included his 1966 and 1999 Fundamentals of Debate) and my great uncle Chuck Evans, a debater and OSS Japanese codebreaker polyglot extraordinaire.

This fall, having returned to policy debate after a 20 year absence, I encountered a bit of a dilemma with respect to the world of kritik. For this three year policy and one year champ LD debater, philosophical debate wasn’t anything new and it certainly wasn’t forgotten after two decades. Indeed, my profession took me far into the realm of risk management theory, information theory, ethics, behavioral economics and existential philosophy. Instead, the challenge for me was seeing how to fit this critical world into the policy paradigm. My earlier writings here reflected some efforts to see this as an attitudinal solvency and while I’m pleased to say that I can fully embrace kritik independent from policy now, it was this trek back to older debate theory that gave me some insight into the legitimacy of kritik.

Dr. David Berube’s outstanding “Non-Policy Debating” was a good initial step back, and though it’s only a decade in reverse in the debate timemachine, it’s an outstanding investment for any serious policy or LD debater. Dr. Berube replied to an email inquiry of mine some months ago per the availability of his 1990s policy lectures and he advised that Non-Policy Debating was the best collection of his various articles and ideas on debate available. While Berube’s writings are well within the era of kritik (post-1993), his evaluation of counterfactual debate gave me the idea of asking the following question:

How would a 1920’s debate judge respond to a critical policy debate round? What would that round look like, running something like Millard South’s “Finnigan’s Wake” critical affirmative against a 1920’s Harvard team?  1% solvency is the bee's knees, my good man!

Aside from some amusing thoughts of an Old Timey debate round, how would a 1920s team and judge react to the Wake and its advocacy? Or any other full resolutional in-round advocacy debate?

The Deep Debate Magic
Berube periodically refers to the era of debate “before plans” – a world long forgotten where debaters advocated or opposed the resolution. Indeed, much of the justification for topical counterplans is predicated on this theory. As that argument goes, when affirmatives stopped defending the entire resolution and instead shifted to defending a tiny strip of ground (defined by the plan), they ceded the undefended land to the negative. Rightfully, as the theory goes, the negative can claim that ceded ground and use it for counterplan argumentation.

This made me even more curious about that mystical world of resolutional debate I had heard about from my mentors. For them, it wasn’t ancient history. In fact, they were likely just one generation apart from that world, with their teachers likely the first to explore the world of plan debate. I prowled Amazon’s used books and snapped up one hundred years of debate theory, including:

(I’ve linked to the first three texts which are fully available on and are well worth reviewing for the retro-theory fans)

Having worked through these and numerous other texts and journal articles, I still haven’t found the smoking gun of when the first plan appeared (though I’m rather confident it occurred in the 1930s). However, it became quickly apparent that even Laycock and Scales would have little difficulty evaluating a critical affirmative/critical negative round, save for the issue of speed/spread. Slowed down, they would readily find the philosophically oriented advocacy of the kritik world to be well within the realm of expectation. Indeed, critical debate was well within the limits of the definition of debate some 103 years ago according to the oldest source I’ve been able to review.

A Universal Debate Standard
My quest to find a foundational theory was very much driven by my recognition that I am not truly tabula rasa. Berube refers to Brey’s 1989 research on CEDA judges, where 30.2% felt they were tab but actually nearly half of these had pre-conditions (I’ve since described myself as pre-conditional tab). These pre-conditions are important to disclose if you have them, and I’d argue that unless you’re willing to throw even presumption out the window, you’ve got them too. Consider this exercise: two teams show up, identical clones. Neither speaks. Neither moves. An entire debate round occurs with not a word uttered nor an action made. Who wins? According to presumption, the Negative. But isn’t this nasty intervention by the judge imposing some pre-conditional awareness of presumption theory? Neither team made presumption a standard! I argue that many of us judges carry that pre-condition and likely many others.

So what does this standard look like? That’s definitely a work for another post (or more than that) but I can assure that Laycock and Scales set an interesting foundation, especially through their proposition analysis and the argumentation analysis sections. My return to 1905 debate was instrumental in identifying my preconditions, aligning me to some of the most minimal standards of debate in which the most atypical critical aff could exist while having a framework to consult when evaluating theory/standards argued equally by both teams. Through this minimal standard, resolutional, in-round advocacy becomes completely legitimate. More interestingly, excess nuclear wars and genocide seem to diminish in importance when weighing rounds. I certainly have more work to do through the observation but felt it worth sharing, especially for those who find kritik to be foreign, problematic, abusive, unfair, or harmful to policy debate. To those friends, I’d strongly encourage them to curl up with our debate forefathers Laylock and Scales and read their 1905 work with the advocacy of a critical affirmative proposing to support the resolution as true based on their arguments. I think they’ll find that the critical affirmative is far from radical and potentially harmful. Indeed, it’s been my conclusion that the world of crazy link-scenario policy debate has come back home.


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