BY RYAN HUND
In the past few years, topicality and related theory arguments have begun to leak into the world of circuit parli. Thus far, due to parli’s unique status as a limited-prep and lay-friendly event, it has remained relatively protected from the arcane world of policy and LD, where fully topical debates are the exception rather than the rule. This article contends that there is no place for advanced theory in parli, and that the community must take action to that effect.
One of the main strategies used to draw prospective team members into parli debate is variety. Parli, we say, doesn’t force you to debate the same thing all year. If you don’t like a resolution, you don’t have to see it ever again post-round. Many students see the value in this, as it expands the breadth of our knowledge and discussion over a vast area. LD and policy, however, operate under a different structure. Their resolutions are broader, allowing for more cases to be made, but were debaters restricted to arguing the resolution, I suspect many would quit out of sheer boredom and frustration. Thus, after the numerous summer camps analyze the resolution to death and suck on its bones, debaters must find other methods to occupy themselves. This quest for variety led to a decades-long evidence arms race, out of which arose topicality arguments, critiques, and numerous other forms of meta-debate.
Parli debate has no such restrictions. Teams receive one topic, and are told to prepare for that topic in a space of only 20 minutes. Thus, the topic becomes the fundamental focus of the debate. This is in contrast to contemporary policy and LD, where the topic merely serves as a limiting factor, and some would even say a roadblock, to the meta-debates currently dominating the circuit. Parli, due to its extemporaneous nature, forces teams onto even ground. There is no time for an affirmative to write kritik blocks or spec answers. Parli functions on an implicit understanding that the topic will be the focus of the debate, with the affirmative tacitly agreeing to create a framework that allows fair ground for debate, and the negative agreeing in turn to go with the flow. And so it might work in an ideal world. Unfortunately, the nature of parli is changing.
Debaters tend to have a reputation for both elitism and cutthroat tactics. These criticisms are generally accurate to various degrees. Debaters have a responsibility to the ballot, with the explicit goal of winning the round above all other concerns. This is obviously understandable - nobody would want to watch a round with competitors who had no desire to win - but there exists a significant amount of room for discussion as to the degree of importance that debaters must place on the ballot. Parli, due in part to its geographically and socially tighter-knit community, as well as its roots in the Westminster system, has always had a reputation for being nobler than other forms of debate. In LD and policy, for example, wacky kritikal and micropolitical arguments are seen as justified, because debaters are encouraged and even expected to pull out every dirty trick in the book in order to secure a win.
In parli, however, we are held to a higher standard. Most parli debaters would scoff at the notion of running an Aff K, because doing so would be unfair to the opposing team. While it may be true that running a pre-written kritik and slightly varying the links from round to round might lead to circuit success, many teams refuse to trick their opponents in this manner, recognizing that while winning is certainly important, fairness and good sportsmanship dictate that teams generally do what is expected of them, with the understanding that the opponents will do the same, leading to a round with frank and open exchange of views rather than a dreaded definitions debate. Many debaters’ most valued memories - mine included - are of rounds in which both teams stuck to their side of the line and focused on an informed, clash-filled topical debate. Unfortunately, advanced theory trickery is becoming more and more common, and taking us as a community down a road from which we cannot return. We must take all necessary action, on both the individual and community levels, to preserve our reputation as the noblest of all events.
As evidence of an event gone wrong, I point to the National Parliamentary Debate Association. NPDA, one of two dominant college parli leagues, uses a similar format to high school parli, but with vastly different results. NPDA debaters rely almost exclusively on spreading, published evidence, and pre-written arguments. Prep time serves not as a time to actually prepare a case, but simply as a test of teams’ speed-writing abilities in transferring their arguments onto different pieces of paper. In effect, NPDA parli is little more than policy with less prep time.
The high school parli community is quickly heading in this direction. Theory can be likened to mutually assured destruction: because framework arguments are a priori, debaters are forced to pull out more and more meta-arguments as the round goes on. Should theory become the norm at the circuit level, it will not take long for the event as a whole to move in a similar direction. The potential harms are clear: parli’s long-held status as the event with the most applicability to real-life situations will disappear, as will its reputation as an easily understood, topical debate event.
This isn’t to say that there is anything inherently wrong with theory arguments. They fill a very important role in other debate events. Parli, however, is different: our uniqueness as an event stems from our wide variety of topic-based discussions, and the educational value contained therein. There will always be times when the affirmative’s definitions are too narrow. Sometimes the plan truly is abusive. But we must take care to not let ourselves travel down the road to meta-debate. It counters parli’s entire reputation as an audience-friendly, beginner-friendly, and current events-focused event.
Ryan Hund debates for Torrey Pines High School.