BY EVERETT RUTAN

A Policy Underground” and “A Kancer on the Korpus of Parli” suggest a clash of civilizations. To a much older debater they are just the latest iteration in a long discussion that probably started when Lawrence Tribe invented “spread” in the early 1960’s, back when all debate was policy debate. It continued through the invention of LD and PF and now the spread of parli. As a former policy debater (after the invention of spread but before the invention of LD), current coach (18 years), tab director (12 years) and league director (6 years) with a vested interest in the development of high school parliamentary debate I’d like to weigh in.

There Are No Rules

Early in the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid the outlaw Harvey Logan (played by 6’9” actor Ted Cassidy) challenges Butch Cassidy (played by the much shorter and better looking Paul Newman) to a knife fight for leadership of the Hole in the Wall Gang. Butch says they have to discuss the rules first. Harvey bellow “Rules? In a knife fight? No Rules!” Butch immediately kicks him in the groin and beats him senseless while he’s disabled, winning the fight.

Debate is a knife fight. And while I’m not advocating any dirty moves, in fact there are no rules. Even that isn’t a rule, because obviously there are enforced rules regarding the order and timing of speeches, and vaguer ones on things like no new arguments in rebuttal. But contrary to anything you’ve been taught the rules of argument aren’t, there is no burden of proof, none of the duties of any of the speakers are binding. The only thing that matters is the ballot, and anything you say that persuades the judge to vote for you is legitimate, the higher the speaks and ranks the better.

Before the coaches and innocents among you have a fit, I’m not a nihilist. Rather, like Captain Barbarossa said of the Pirate Code, any rules of argument are “more guidelines than actual rules.” But they are guidelines you’d be foolish to ignore. The rules of argument from Aristotle through Toulmin and beyond are the collected wisdom of the ages. The chances you will do better on any given day are slim. Similarly, what your coach has taught you, what you learned at debate camp, what you copied from that really good team you saw in a tournament last month, are, in most cases, better than what you could come up with on your own. Adopt them as your own. But remember that on some day in a particular round something else may work better, and you may manage to think of it. Call it inspiration, genius, dumb luck or maybe just a mistake. But it’s also how we make progress and advance the art.

When in Rome

Good debate is good debate and we largely all know when we’ve seen it. There are, however, many tribes with various and strange customs. The biggest ones you know: policy, LD, PF and parli. Within these there are various sects with strong beliefs on how things should be done. Every league has its own slightly different image of a good debater. This is perfectly natural, but it has consequences that can affect your success.

We all understand, or at least say we understand, the need to adapt. You can go to a job interview in a bathing suit or a ball gown if you like, but if everyone at the firm wears a business suit or, in Silicon Valley, a hoodie, you aren’t doing yourself any favors. To be accepted, blend in. A new event, a new league, a tournament in another part of the country? It pays to find out the presentation style, the cases being used, the type of evidence cited, the common jargon. But there is more substance to it than that.

Customs and common understanding save time and effort. Communication is difficult and expensive. When you present familiar information in an expected format it’s more likely to be understood and accepted. The unfamiliar in form or substance is harder to understand and takes longer to process, and it is suspect, even if only subconsciously. One thing you don’t have in a debate is time. Arguments that are unfamiliar to the judge need more careful explanation. Even if your argument is “better” in some higher court, it won’t count if you can’t get it across to the judge in front of you in the time allotted.

The obverse of economy is laziness. We come to rely on common understanding to use a few words to convey paragraphs. We expect that when we use certain phrases we can skip the rest because of course “everyone knows what we mean.” Aristotle’s enthymeme is based in part on leaving out what listeners already believe. Unless you know the judge, that isn’t the case. You don’t know what the judge knows. Don’t assume that if your argument is rejected, it’s the fault of the judge or his bias. It might be that you never really made a complete argument in the first place.

Make the Argument

Debaters in every format and every league regularly fail to present fully convincing arguments, often in new and inventive ways. One of the most entertaining aspects of judging debate is hearing what slips (literally) off the tongue. But two common methods are particularly relevant here: quoting rules and using jargon.

Quoting rules and accusing your opponent of violating them is not an argument. Remember, there are no rules—unless a speaker has gone over time. Any rule you quote has a logic behind it that led to its creation. Don’t quote the rule; make the argument! Use the reason behind the rule to explain why what was said supports your case or harms your opponent’s case.

For example, the “burden of proof” exists because we reject the idea that one person’s word is better than another’s. If you assert something, you must provide some persuasive demonstration that it is true. Otherwise it’s just “she said, he said.” But try defining “burden of proof” in debate sometime and good luck to you. There is no clear, universal standard. Don’t waste your time telling the judge Gov has the burden of proof or that Opp didn’t prove their case. Go over each argument and explain how it is flawed.

Jargon substitutes key phrases for argument. As presented in debate, most kritiks are jargon. Perhaps the first debater who came up with the first kritik developed a full argument and demonstrated how it applied to the motion at hand. But as they became more common in some communities everyone (well, all the good debaters and judges, anyway :-) ) knew what they meant and you no longer had to spend all that time explaining. Just present a few tag lines and some quotes and the other side automatically reaches for a brief and the paper flies. Most of the time no one questions whether the argument was fully made or is correct in the first place.

The further you get from policy debate the less familiar and the more strange kritiks seem. In 40 years I’ve never heard anyone use a kritik in a business or academic setting (I’m a computer science, math, economics and finance person). Most kritiks are based on some fairly difficult philosophy found in nice fat books with very dense prose. If a kritik is one of four points you are making in your constructive, can you really explain it and how it applies to the particular motion to a neophyte in the two minutes or less that you have? Really? Think about it.

Trust the Judge a Little

I’m surprised at how little debaters credit most judges. I probably thought the same when I was in high school. But talking to them now I find most judges are for the most part pretty good. They try to listen carefully to both sides, weigh the arguments and do their best to give a fair decision. They are not easy marks for debaters. Just because the other team says you broke a rule or can’t use a particular argument doesn’t mean the judge buys it. Usually they don’t.

Professional judges—coaches, former debaters—may be conversant with and open to the latest trends, or they may not. Coaches vary greatly in their knowledge of debate. Their views may change over time. Teaching debate is very different from debating: you learn more. The number of split decisions in final rounds demonstrates that coaches don’t all agree. But they are more likely to notice if an argument isn’t well made, especially if the other teams explains why.

Granted, the non-professional lay judges who volunteer and make high school debate possible don’t “know debate” in that they are not conversant with the “rules” taught at debate camp or the particular arguments popular in your circle. But like most adults they listen to and engage in argument every day. They are used to judging the way real people interact. Debaters should remember that while they have a right to be heard—the right to a judge who listens to what they say and considers it carefully—they do not have a right to be understood. It is the debater’s responsibility to tailor their pitch to the judge so that it is persuasive. I have always thought that this is the second most valuable lesson debate teaches those who are willing to learn it.

Most judges aren’t really interested in the various turf wars—like this one—that are of such concern to some debaters. They’ve given up a day or weekend. They want to hear an intelligent clash between entertaining speakers that they can understand well enough to make what they feel is a fair decision. As Proximo (Oliver Reed in his last movie) advises Maximus (Russell Crowe) in Gladiator, “Win the crowd and you will win your freedom!” or at least this round.

Some Advice

To those coming to parli from policy or other lands where kritiks and similar arguments are common I say learn the customs of the country. At a parli tournament you aren’t likely to have experienced policy judges. That doesn’t mean the judge is unintelligent or close-minded. Be honest with yourself: outside of some debate tribes (and not everyone in those!) and rarefied academic circles most people neither know, understand or like some of your more esoteric arguments. Before you speak ask yourself one question: “Would my non-debater parent/relative/classmate understand and accept the argument I’m about to present in the way I’m about to present it relative to the motion at hand?” If the answer is no, then you are taking an obvious and possibly unnecessary risk. If you lose don’t blame the judge or the parli community.

To the parli traditionalists: lighten up! Kritiks and other common policy arguments can be beaten. They aren’t particularly good arguments in the first place—arguments that depend on surprising an unprepared opponent with unfamiliar information rarely are. But they are arguments that can be very effective weapons in the right hands. In the miniseries Band of Brothers a retreating GI tells Easy Company the Germans are cutting off Bastogne and they are going to be surrounded. Damien Lewis’ character Richard Winter replies, “We're paratroopers, Lieutenant. We're supposed to be surrounded.” You’re parli debaters! You’re supposed to beat arguments you’ve never heard before. Listen carefully, use what they give you, reply in detail. You don’t need to go over to the dark side to win. But you’d be foolish not to review every new argument you hear after the tournament so you’re better prepared the next time.

To all debaters, if you want to win rounds focus on what is important: listen to your opponents, make the arguments, persuade the judge. Most of all, remember that the only thing you can control is your own performance. Will some decisions be unfair? Absolutely! But the question is always “What could I do better?” if not in this round then in the next one. The only good arguments are ones that win the ballot, and past performance is no guarantee of future success. You’re only as good as your next debate.


Everett Rutan is the Executive Director of the Connecticut Debate Association, an extemporaneous debate league. He also runs tab for the parli division at the Yale Invitational and the University of Pennsylvania Liberty Bell Classic. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away he was a successful high school debater.

© 2016 by Everett Rutan. This work may be freely copied for educational purposes with proper attribution.


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