BY SIERRA MACIOROWSKI
Lay theory. Some believe it can never be done, some believe it should never be done, but it’s impossible to avoid it completely-- and I firmly believe that we should not attempt to avoid it. A lot of the the problems with theory in lay rounds result from misunderstanding, on the part of both the competitors and the judge. Teams have a tendency to run theory wrong, not explaining specifically what the problems with an argument -- or lack thereof -- are. But they also tend to under-explain the consequences of a theory shell. Education and fairness are fascinating and important, but do they really constitute something more important than the ability of an affirmative plan to save lives?
The answer, of course, is no-- unless the pre-fiat importance of discursive implications is clarified for the judge. And with so many parent judges with little to no experience in technical jargon, saying those very words probably clarifies nothing. However, there are better ways to debate theory in front of a lay judge. One might, for example, actually explain why the theoretical argument matters, rather than simply stating education and fairness as golden standards which indisputably loom above the post-fiat impacts of life and death.
Of course, theory arguments don’t necessarily need to be run as theory, for lay judges. The amount of unspecific mandates and unclear enforcement mechanisms, effectual topicality and simply inefficient argumentation, which seems to appear at lay tournaments is honestly ridiculous. While debaters can surely not be expected to always know which branch of the federal government is responsible for enforcing a specific plan, leaving out any means of enforcement besides the United States federal government is, for many plans, just silly.
Yes, sometimes normal means is really just normal means, but too many plan texts could be enforced by differing departments to ignore the enforcement mechanism entirely. Thus, running spec doesn’t necessarily need to follow the specific shell for lay judges--- if an opponent doesn’t specify their enforcement, hit them on solvency, to disincentive non educational vagueness.
The point I’m trying to make, though, is that lay theory is important. Parents can easily be confused, and debaters frequently run it wrong, but some recent NorCal tournaments have certainly proved to me that all types of theory, especially critical turns, are vital-- promoting sexism, racism, and inequality through discourse is never acceptable, and our debate community ought to reflect that, rather than allow its members’ speeches to run away with themselves in the utterly wrong directions, simply in order to focus on the more exciting post-fiat impacts.
The problem is, however, that many debaters either have no knowledge of lay theory, or have no inclination to run it. Some believe that’s a good thing-- focusing on ‘old-style’ debate is the interesting part of parli, and trying to bring in theory just destroys the basic foundations of our classic form of debate.
But really? Appeals to tradition are a logical fallacy. We do not have to give up the past to move into the future. And parliamentary debate’s role as a melting pot of all other forms of debate still continues, in part due to the influence of theory. Though, perhaps contrary to popular belief, I don’t endorse attempting to necessarily run five critical turns, two conditional counter-plans, and a fun dispositional counter-plan in front of a lay judge, running basic theory arguments is an essential part of debate-- and without protection against abuse, or the ability to argue against the specificity of a plan text, both sides lose a lot of ground and ability.
Judge adaptation is absolutely necessary, and anyone who attempts to run full theory on a parent judge might be guilty of torture-- but underestimating the ability of lay judges to understand how ignoring the resolution is bad might be going too far.
Of course, parent judges are taught to hate theory, from the moment they step into a tournament, and that, I believe, is also part of the problem. One tournament’s judging instructions say, in a document intended to teach parents debate terminology, “God forbid that this should be a topicality round, but...” before giving very vague information as to what topicality means.
I respect the fact that not all teams believe theory should be used. But teaching parents to dread theory without giving them the opportunity to experience it for themselves is simply unfair. Yes, many debaters may run arguments like topicality without really knowing what they say, or without actually saying anything of interest to parent judges. Yet doesn’t teaching people not to run theory just perpetuate further lack of theoretical ability?
In short, dear debate community, please consider this: you don’t have to embrace theory. You don’t have to like it. You don’t have to do anything. But please, for all of our sakes, at least consider learning it. Teach younger debaters that being untopical, unspecific, and disrespectful is unacceptable, and that they should fight against the latter-- even when a debate round is supposed to only talk about Spiderman and Batman. Teach younger debaters that parents can, perhaps, understand why racism is bad... and teach parents that debate is more than just two sides, but an infinite number of dots on a supposedly blank slate.
This year has seemed to mark many changes in the parliverse. Point of Information launched a separate opinion page (yay!), a petition to a tournament actually succeeded, a tournament with qualified judges was almost 3x larger than expected, new tournaments have emerged... Parli is changing, and more and more amazing teams are out in the field today (Not to imply that amazing teams were not in the field before, of course, but more that the overall quality of debaters is rising). Yet even with those changes, and, dare I say, improvements, some debaters prefer to ignore theory entirely.
Why? Because parli is not policy? Because we should be debating about the resolution? Because critiquing the resolution when the affirmation team is held to it is unfair? The latter I agree with for lay tournaments, certainly. But parli is not policy, and there’s no reason that arguing about parts of a plan instead of parts of an advantage will lead to the collapse of twenty minute prep and handwritten cases. Sorry. That’s a slippery slope. Should we be debating about the resolution? Of course. But we’re not limited in round to only discussing the words of the resolution-- other arguments come into play, depending on the plan, the cases, the impacts.
Theory arguments are just that: arguments-- like anything else. Spec is another argument. Topicality is another argument. A critical turn is another argument. Use them, explain them, and argue them... or don't, if that's not your thing, but consider learning what they are, how to run them with lay judges, and how to refute them for lay judges. It'll pay off in the long run, for you, and for every opponent.
Sierra Maciorowski debates for Sonoma Academy, and is the opinion page editor for Point of Information.