BY ARMAND DOMALEWSKI
Plunging back into the world of High School Parliamentary Debate a few weekends ago after a long break was a refreshing experience; in the same way that you don’t really notice your boyfriend’s weight gain if you see him everyday but are stunned by it if you don’t see him until a month after the breakup when he descends into a binge of tears and Taco Bell, I saw a lot of changes in Parliamentary debate.
The most important change, however, is that parli has gotten BIG. Stanford had 131 entries total in parliamentary debate. It was the largest HS parli tournament IN HISTORY. Parli is here, parli is big, and parli is legitimate.
So why doesn’t it get the respect it deserves?
There are a few issues here:
A. Parliamentary debate issues ZERO judging instructions. I’ve been at tournaments that have offered instructional sheets for public forum, that explicitly lay oriented debate format, and none for parli. The fact that something as basic as “no new arguments in the last speech” and “you cannot vote your personal biases” still decides rounds ALL THE TIME is ridiculous and could be resolved with a five minute instructional video. I have taught first time judges how to flow parli five minutes prior to a round; there’s no excuse for this.
B. Qualified critics. I understand that parliamentary debate is more lay oriented than LD or CX; but the fact that there are zero hired judges for these tourneys is frustrating. This is especially the issue with deep elimination rounds; as tournaments become emptier and emptier, we’re left with the most random of whatever is available. I judged a round with parents who openly expressed frustration at being forced to decide rounds where their basic lack of english prevented them from understanding the tournament. I think a 10-15% requirement for experienced critics would be extremely helpful.
C. No disclosure. The purpose of having critics at the end of the room is to do two things, as Coach Crossman pointed out: (1) adjudicate the round and (2) provide feedback for debaters (this has a side effect of helping judges learn about the event too—the discussion between judges and debaters provides a great forum for expanding knowledge). Paper ballots are a ridiculously poor substitute—you can’t ask questions, handwriting is horrible, and it’s difficult to address the entirety of the round in a ballot. I always write “oral RFD” and discuss the round with debaters; not a single debater has ever complained and said “Man, I wish you had written that down for me.”
D. No judging philosophies. Students should not discover what their critic wants when they walk into the room, or try to to guess based off of race and age and dress (as they do now) how to adapt. You cannot be for adaptation and then tell me that they have to spend prep time crafting cases with zero knowledge of their critic. Coaches can simply submit “parent judge, first time” as part of their registration and that would make a world of difference.
These are EASY, BASIC, things we can do as a community. Not a single one of these would impose any significant extra costs in time or money (there are potential issues you guys may be thinking of when it comes to these, and if you have those concerns I’ll address them, but trust me, all of this is very easily doable).
Before I go into specifics, I think I should outline what I think makes for a “good” resolution. A good resolution should accomplish two basic things: it should be educational and it should offer fair division of ground to both sides. Topics that do not incentivize learning and research, or topics that make it very difficult for one side to win are bad topics, for reasons that I think are fairly self evident.
Side Note: This division of ground should apply at all skill levels: there are topics in which advanced teams can make decent arguments on each side—but if both teams are at a low skill level and have only access to the most obvious arguments, it should not immediately result in a crushing victory for one side or the other. People who say “oh you could have thought of x, y, and z” are placing a much higher burden on one team over the other purely based on the resolution. That’s not fair.
So let’s talk about some specific problems.
A. Metaphor resolutions should not exist, period. There is no wiggle room here. First of all, they force the aff into a horrible double bind. Either they pick a plan or a definition that allows the debate to be narrowed into something tangible and risk topicality (and are thus left in a grey area where they have to guess which narrow interpretation they can pick that the judge will think is reasonable) or they just go for generic examples, resulting in a debate about whether my examples of times when change was mistaken for progress are more important than your examples of times when change was not mistaken for progress. This is bad for two specific reasons:
1. It allows for abusive affs that the negative cannot prepare for, destroying fairness.
2. Or it forces us into generic metaphor debates, which make the debate arbitrary, destroying fairness, but also discourage students from researching current events, destroying education.
There should never be a metaphor topic at any parliamentary debate tournament ever. I am not open to compromise on this; no other format of debate does this, not even public forum. No. Never.
B. The problems with policy topics. There are a lot of ways our community messes up the policy topic.
1. We should never use “this House.” There is never an advantage to using “this House.” At the very best, the resolution is impossible to do with any other actor except the USFG, so it simply forces the teams to USFG—which a USFG in the resolution could have done. At worst, it encourages kids to create impossible strategies (such as when a team tried to have a private organization legalize organ donation) or abusive ones (when they pick an obscure actor the negative can’t predict). If you want the affirmative to use nontraditional actors, go for it! Just specify them in the resolution so the negative can prep a counterplan strategy for a better actor or think about why your actor is bad.
2. We should not create impossible resolutions. The “international minimum wage” resolution at Stanford had teams running everything from the UN to the WTO to my favorite, a coalition of NATO, the EU, and Brazil. There is no international actor capable of unilaterally raising the minimum wage across the globe. The fact that the authors of the resolution did not do the basic work to figure that ought shows me just how little our event is respected by various tournament directors.
3. Resolutions should have a clear direction. It is unfair to the negative team to force them to prep both sides of a case while the affirmative only has to prep one; every single time, you are cutting the negative’s prep time in half. “The USFG should reform the tax code” means that the aff can choose to raise or lower taxes and prep one; the neg has to prep both. That is unfair.
4. Resolutions should be taken from relevant current events. This is the most important thing I have to say.
Debaters respond, like all humans, to incentives. Most debaters are incentivized by the ballot. Their out of round activity will be oriented towards increasing the probability of winning that ballot. Therefore, we should design resolutions that reward teams that do things we want kids to do. I firmly believe that two things we want our kids to do is learn about the world and learn how to work hard.
Resolutions about policies that have zero literature base (such as the dissolution of NATO or an international minimum wage) or have not been in the news for decades actively hurt both of those goals. Why would a student read the news and seek to understand how the world works if the probability that anything they learned will come up in a round is almost zero? Why would students work hard to learn and research if the resolutions are so utterly random that their opponents had just a good chance of beating them without doing any work whatsoever?
A competitive event where anyone with natural talent and zero preparation could come in and do very well is simply not a competitive event by definition, and it’s definitely not an educational one.
5. This last argument will be controversial, and I fully expect it won’t go through, but here goes. Policy debate should be the only form of debate, because policy encompasses value and fact.
Bear with me here. I do not mean every round should be a discussion of government action. Remember that policy does not always mean “government should do x.” It just means some actor should do something.
It is the best way to debate because it provides a clear choice between taking an action or pursuing an alternative/squo. In the same way scientists prove things by making hypotheses and testing them, policy makes a plan and tests it against the squo, to determine which is better.
Value debate is much harder to make fair because either it calls for an extremely broad comparison which is ultimately meaningless (there is no empirical way to assess whether health is better than wealth, or what any of those terms even means) or it allows the aff to unpredictably narrow the resolution and make a gut check whether the judge finds that a “fair” narrowing or not. Fact debate is even worse because it’s either a topic that is true/false, which means one side should be guaranteed a win, or it’s really “opinion debate,” and assessing how “correct” your opinion is, frankly, is an impossible task. All of these debates devolve into laundry lists of examples and arguments about why the affirmative’s framework is either abusive or not abusive. Judge intervention becomes almost guaranteed because the structure of the debate is not conducive to objective evaluation.
Again, I want to emphasize—policy debate does not refer to content, it refers to structure. If you want a discussion of whether Batman is better than Superman, have DC re-allocate funding from Superman comics to Batman comics. If you want to say celebrities should be able to have access to privacy, say that some big tabloid should stop following them or impose some new privacy law. You can have fun, diverse topics that still follow a basic plan-advantage structure.
Side Note: There are a lot of reasons value works in LD and not in parli, including much better, denser philosophical resolutions, judges who can understand and resolve philosophical arguments, the access to cards, the month long prep time, cross x, etc.
But again, I think this last point is a battle I probably won’t win, and am willing to concede if the others go through.
So the question remains then, if we should do these things, how do we do them?
In a broader sense, we as a community need to take ownership; debaters and coaches deserve to have a say in how the event they participate in is run. POI took a survey indicating that many of the views I expressed here were pretty strongly supported by the community, and yet are utterly ignored by the powers that be. We can’t keep sitting around and letting that happen.
In a more narrow sense—-either the person who writes the Stanford and MLK topics needs to allow others to participate in the topic writing, be willing to follow the requirements I outlined here, or be replaced. I will personally contact Stanford’s tournament staff if need be, but it’d be much stronger if there was a collective voice behind me.
Taking a more long term view, there needs to be state-wide standards for resolution writing, and the people who write resolutions for the various districts, various invites, and state itself need to be people who are actively engaged in the community. Topics written by those who were a long time ago a part of parli or people who have no connection to parli shouldn’t be accepted. This goes for the judging requirements I outlined as well.
Parliamentary debate is a wonderful, engaging, educational event—but it is not being treated seriously. This needs to stop, and the only way that can happen is we take action.
Hopefully, the next time I plunge back into a parli after a long break (presumably after I’ve spent years in the mudpits of whatever oil rich nation has been frustrating President Jeb Bush), I will return to a parli that is larger, better, and most of all, given the respect it so deeply and richly deserves.
I’m mad as hell, and I won’t take it anymore.
Mr. Domalewski, a regular POI contributor and staunch advocate for better debate resolutions, competed in NPDA parli for Santa Clara University and San Diego State University. He was ranked 15th in the nation during his senior year and placed second at the Pacific Coast Championship. Mr. Domalewski coached Mountain View, Evergreen Valley, and Dougherty Valley. His debaters have won the National Parliamentary Debate Invitational, the Stanford Invitational, the Parliamentary Debate Tournament of Champions, and closed out Santa Clara Spring. Mr. Domalewski has a B.S. in Economics from Santa Clara University and is currently a tax policy research associate focusing on tax credits for alternative energy and low-income housing.