Saturday, February 25, 2012

Rules For Better Affirmatives in Debate

Gleaning Advice from Ballots
I am of the opinion, that often, debaters lose debates because they fail to provide sufficient offense in the course of the round.  I suppose there are many reasons for this to occur but in most cases, the debater(s) may feel their case has been compromised or hurt by certain arguments of the opposition and so the reaction is to assume a defensive position.  I recently was reviewing some judge's commentary on ballots from a policy debate round in which one of my novice teams, running the affirmative, was hit with an array of arguments from a much more experienced and highly ranked Neg team.  Needless to say, my team lost, soundly.  Fortunately, in this round, the judge panel consisted of seasoned judges, including one well-respected, ex-policy debater and coach.  He provided very helpful insight into how the round was framed and specifics into how our team broke down (lots of info in a very brief but concisely written ballot!).  Those ballots provided very important clues which got me to thinking about how I can turn this into a lesson for other debaters.

Understanding Your Position
While the particular situation which led me to this essay occurred within a policy debate round, I think there are important lessons to be learned for all debaters regardless of category.  It begins with firmly establishing a mindset about what your position is in the round and once established, consider the role of the opposition.  When I suggest one should establish a mindset about their position, that does not necessarily mean one should think about the case or the affirmative position with respect to the resolution.  What I mean is, one should realize that as an affirmative debater, you are taking a position which, in most cases, is counter to the status quo.  In policy debate, without doubt, your advocacy will be counter to the status quo.  In Lincoln Douglas and Public Forum you will be taking a stand on a position which either runs counter to the status quo or at least firmly takes a stand on a topic which otherwise is unsettled in the status quo.  When a debater understands her position in relation to the status quo, it is possible to see that Neg has the job of essentially defending the status quo. Granted, in LD and PF its not always that clearly delineated since Neg's specific advocacy may be outside of the mainstream or equally as unsettled as Aff's.  In general, debate theory claims the burden of proof is on the Affirmative which clearly implies, Aff is taking a stand apart from the accepted norm.  In PF, the idea of burdens of proof is muddled and poorly defined by the NFL but I really think PF debaters can gain from this as well.

The Contra-Neg Mindset
Since Aff takes a stand against the mainstream we may say the general burden of the Neg is to defend the status quo.  In order to accomplish this task, they will present direct arguments in support of their own position, that is to say, they will make their case, and they will attempt to undermine your position by presenting direct and indirect attacks against specific portions of your case.  I think one could easily understand, therefore, after presenting your Affirmative case you will spend the rest of the debate, defending your case and attacking the Neg case. In policy debate, it is very easy to lose sight of the fact Neg has a case, because sometimes their position appears to be an array of attacks.  Perhaps you have encountered LD or PF rounds in which the opponent's "case" was structured as nothing more than an all out assault on your case.  This is where the mindset serves you because you must not lose sight of the fact, Neg does indeed have a case and that case is defend the status quo.

So by now, you are probably thinking, what in the world am I talking about?  The purpose of this post is to help you be a better Affirmative debater. In order to do that, one needs to understand how the Neg position works against the Aff. Let's dig deeper and hopefully the water will become less murky.

The Weakest Part of the Aff Case
I don't need to read your case to understand which is the weakest part.  I know because I understand your burden.  There is safety in numbers and the status quo.  This is the place where the judge came from when she walked into the room. And though the judge, by paradigm, empties herself of preconception, you must realize at some point you are going to say something that jolts the generally accepted way of thinking.  That is the Affirmative burden, to establish a claim which deviates from generally accepted norms.  It is the standard which creates clash and without it there is no debate.  The spark for clash arises when the policy debater says, "thus the plan" and for the LD or PF debater it is found in the words "I affirm" or "We agree" with the resolution but once you knock the room off center, everything you say afterward must work toward convincing the audience that place is the correct place to be, and remaining rooted in the middle or the status quo is the least desirable place to be. What enables the Affirmative to stand apart from the status quo is the framework upon which you build support. Borrowing from a construction metaphor, without a firm foundation and quality structure, the building may fail. Thus the decoration, color of the walls, choice of pretty details, etc provides a certain appeal, the good defensive team will attack the foundation and the structure because these are the weakest parts of the case. Period.

Rule #1 - Don't Worry if the Carpet Gets Dirty
You may be thinking, everyone knows the framework and support are the most important parts of the case.  Good.  But have you ever broken your case down and truly analyzed it?  Which parts of your case are essential framework and which parts are decoration?  I can tell you from experience, quite often when the carpet gets dirty many debaters will spend a great deal of time trying to clean it while the rest of the structure collapses around them. I do not want to diminish the place of decoration, as I already said, it makes a case appealing. But you, as the Affirmative must realize the most important part of the case is what lies underneath and this leads me to the next rule.

Rule #2 - Always Reinforce the Structure
This rule may seem obvious if the structure or foundations of your case are being attacked but what if it is not? You may be faced with two potential scenarios, either a Neg team which does not know how to attack your structure, or a Neg team so advanced you don't realize they are attacking your structure.  It doesn't matter since you should always reinforce your structure, speech after speech.  After all, it is the judge that is the key to winning so you must be aware there is a very good possibility the judge is still internally questioning your framework. One of the worst things you can do, is unbalance the judge with your initial claim and then set about defending and supporting non-consequential attacks against your case and then late in the rebuttals Neg says something which completely tilts the judge. It is analogous to the lucky random shot which just happens to penetrate the ammo magazine and sinks the ship.  There is a whole lot less chance of that happening if you reinforce throughout the round.

The Case With Purpose
Affirmative debaters must realize they are attempting to create a new norm or at least an acceptance for an idea that is counter to commonly accepted ideas of rightness, or justice or behavior or ideology or whatever.  Referring once again to our construction metaphor, I can lay a firm foundation and build a sound structure but I am missing something.  I need to know why I want to construct the building and I need to tell the judge why I want to build.  I could design an elegant and extremely stout draw-bridge, but if I want to build it in the desert, I better have a very good reason for doing so, otherwise it doesn't matter how great the design is.  Simply put, in the next rule.

Rule #3 - Always Explain Why it Matters
If the judge listens to your case delivered with eloquence and impeccable logic, but you fail to tell the judge why she should care, you risk losing the debate.  Never assume the judge knows what you know and will understand the importance of your position.  This is what is commonly known as case impacts and clearly lays out why your claims matter in the grand scheme of things.

Rule #4 - Know When to Attack and When to Defend
I save this part for last because it one of the more subjective parts of this post.  This also brings me back to the policy ballot I was reading. One of the strategies, intentional or not, of the Neg against my novice policy team was throw out an array of arguments and extend them just enough that the novices become focused on cleaning the carpets while Neg created several disadvantage scenarios that went mostly unanswered. In short, the novices were defending when they should have been attacking and as a result the Neg case remained mostly unchallenged and at some point, the Neg wisely dropped the parts of the case the novices become obsessed with.  It was brilliant.  Knowing when to attack and when to defend and what to attack and what to defend is critical to good debate. This wisdom comes from correctly discerning what is important to the judge as well as a good understanding of how debate arguments work.

One of the first keys is always understand the Neg is advocating a position. They are presenting a case.  What I like about policy debate, the Neg side generally orders their advocacy into on-case and off-case arguments.  The first being attacks against your case, the second being advocacy of their position.  In LD or PF the lines between on-case and off-case become blurred.  (This is not necessarily the fault of the debaters but may be inherent problems in how LD and PF debate is designed - but I digress.)  One of the first things Aff must do after listening to the Neg case is take a moment to figure our what is the purpose behind each of the Neg claims.  Was it attack or was it to construct a position in defense of the status quo?  For example, lets say part of the Neg case is aimed at explaining why some aspect of your case is undesirable or leads to bad results.  Should you defend your point or should you attack theirs? While the correct answer can be, "it depends" in general I think most of the time the correct thing to do is attack the claim rather than defend your own.  In most cases, when the Neg is presenting a scenario linked to some aspect of your case which will result in harms, disadvantages, or other kinds of undesirable ends, you must realize they are not as much attacking your case as they are building their own because every disadvantage for you is an advantage for them and advantages are elements which serve to reinforce an advocacy; in this situation, the negative advocacy. Anything which supports the Neg advocacy should be attacked.

On the other hand, when Neg makes a claim that directly refutes one of your claims, this is your signal to defend.  A direct refutation would be one which contradicts yours or otherwise tries to show your claim is erroneous, your evidence is flawed, your impacts are overstated or unlikely or your conclusions are illogical.

Conclusion But Not the End
Debate is what happens after the constructives are delivered and after the constructives is when most debates are lost.  Some of the keys, in my humble opinion, to winning rest in understanding what your burden is with respect to the status quo, properly discerning where the judge's mind is at all times, properly understanding what the Neg is trying to do and then rightly deciding when to attack and when to defend.  The most common mistakes I see in rounds:

  1. Failure to impact the claim. tell me why I should care.
  2. Failure to discern what is important. Stay focused on the big impacts and the main points of your claims. Don't waste much time with secondary, distracting issues. (Don't worry if the carpets get dirty.)
  3. Failure to address Neg claims.  Do not dismiss Neg claims.  If they seem irrelevant, explain why you think so.
  4. Failure to attack. I wish I had a dollar for every time I have seen a team assume a defensive position early in the debate and go down without mustering any meaningful attack against the Neg.  I've heard it, you've hear it, we've all heard it. The best defense is a strong offense. When you spend too much time defending it sends out a message..."I think I'm losing!".

Thank you, judge for a meaningful ballot.  It got me thinking about common Affirmative mistakes and prompted me to write this post.  I hope as a result it helps someone else.

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