Sunday, September 16, 2012

The PF Debate Case: Theory and Practice - part 1

For more on Public Forum topics, click here.


advocate (verb) = to plead in favor of
advocacy (noun) = the act or process of advocating or supporting a cause or proposal
proponent (noun) = one who argues in favor of something : advocate

refute (verb) = to prove wrong by argument or evidence
refutation (noun) = the act or process of refuting
rebut (verb) = to contradict or oppose by formal legal argument, plea, or countervailing proof
rebuttal (noun) = argument or proof that rebuts

ground(s) = a basis for belief, action, or argument
presume (verb) = to suppose to be true without proof
burden of proof (noun) = the duty of proving a disputed assertion or charge

National Forensics League, District Operations Manual, pg 36 & 44 2011
Public Forum Debate focuses on advocacy of a position derived from the issues presented in the resolution, not a prescribed set of burdens...Neither the pro or con side is permitted to offer a plan or counterplan; rather, they should offer reasoning to support a position of advocacy.


While the topic of this essay could easily be expanded to Policy debate and Lincoln-Douglas debate, I want to limit the topic to a discussion of Public Forum debate.  Public Forum is the somewhat new kid on the block and probably the least defined, least evolved form of debate.  In the beginning it seemed the coaches and founders of PF debate understood what it was not, but only vaguely defined what it was.  It has evolved into anything but an "easy" form of debate.  I find it at times to be very confrontational and owing to the short speech times and cross-fire format, it is often quite intense.  For some reason, no doubt due to the fact citizen judges are employed and because of bias from the participants of other forms of debate, PF debate is seen as some kind "beginner" form of debate.  It definitely is not. 

I personally do not encourage beginners to start with Public Forum even though the topics have a certain air of familiarity to those moderately informed of current events. First of all, it is a lot work because topics change so frequently, additionally, there is a certain expectation that debaters will possess refined presentation skills (I guess like a news channel pundit) which imposes pressures on beginners, speeches are short so it favors the ability to be concise and streamlined in one's argumentation and there is a need to be persuasive to a non-expert, citizen judge which actually requires a great deal of adaptability and skill.  All of these things combine to make PF debate a very difficult form of debate on many levels.  True, while it easily tolerates a wide range of skill levels, the very best PF debaters have worked very hard to hone precise skill-sets which are not nearly as rigorous in other forms of debate. That is my opinion.

The Division of Ground

Like all forms of debate, PF debate starts with a resolution.  The resolution is a claim which divides contrary points of view, the Pro and Con.  It is expected the resolution should provide more or less equal ground for each side of the debate.  The grounds will be the totality of evidence, logic and credibility which enables a side to support its position in the debate.  No one wants to stand up in a debate and make unsupported claims.  One needs to back those claims up with a rationale as to why the claim is true.  That rationale will be the evidence, opinions of experts, empirical data and believability of the sources providing support for the claim.  This is what I mean by the "grounds".  Under present selection methods, it is the duty of National Forensics League coaches to select resolutions which provide a more or less equal division of ground from the list of approved resolutions.

Presumption and Burden of Proof

Most people in the U.S. are familiar with the judicial concept of presumption of innocence.  Defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty.  If a trial were a debate, it would go something like this.  Resolved: Mr. Smith is guilty of the crime of murder in the first degree.  The defense team has the presumption of innocence.  The prosecutor has the burden of proof to convince the jury the resolution is true.  Technically, the defense need not prove anything because the court already presumes Mr. Smith is innocent and if the prosecutor can not prove his case, Mr. Smith can be released without the defense saying anything.  However, as soon the prosecutor begins to put forth evidence and persuasive reasoning to prove the "Pro" position, the defense will need to refute the prosecutor's arguments with counter-evidence in order to maintain the presumption of innocence.  So we see in this illustration the idea that presumption is a kind of mindset that something is true (or false) if other facts or evidence does not demonstrate otherwise (Wood 1991).  And the burden of proof is the requirement that one must prove a claim is true, it is not presumed to be true.  I illustrate these terms for clarity as these words are often brought up and used when speaking about debate and what the duties of each side is in a debate.  Look, at the statement above extracted from the NFL District Operations Manual and we see mention of the burdens.

In law, the purpose of the trial and its corresponding presumptions and burdens is aimed toward protecting the innocent.  Therefore, it is useful to apply presumption of innocence and place the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt upon the prosecution because it serves that purpose.  Academic debate has an entirely different purpose, one aimed toward education.  Education is advanced when both sides are forced to advocate a position (Johnson 1992).  Nevertheless, because, there is little definition about presumption or burdens in debate, a great deal of discretion is left to the judge, and ultimately it is she who decides which side if any may have presumption.  Many judging philosophies may assume there is a certain presumption favoring the status quo, but certain judges may evaluate the risks present in the affirmative case versus the status quo and assign presumption to the affirmative (Hanson).  Moreover, in practice we see that as soon as the Negative side begins to present its counterclaims against the Affirmative case, the standards of evidence and proof supported in academic debate today promote the educational purpose for both sides and presumption only becomes a defacto standard for judges unable to reach a decision in any other way.  It is for this reason, I believe it is necessary to maintain a high standard for evidence in all forms of debate.

Advocacy in Public Forum

Public Forum was initially conceived to appeal to a wider, lay-audience as many felt Policy and Lincoln-Douglas had become too jargon-laced, specialized and thus exclusionary.  In the beginning the focus for Public Forum was more on an analytical, narrative form of speech and there were specific restrictions about what kind of argumentation was allowed in the later speeches.  The Public Forum format has evolved somewhat over the years both by rules and practice and emerged as a very popular, legitimate debate format.

Public Forum debate is the only category in which the Con may speak first, depending on the choices made after the coin flip.  Therefore, if Con speaks first, it would be impossible for Con to refute any claims of the Pro which have yet to be made.  It is necessary for Con to establish a position of advocacy.  Since it is unknown prior to the coin flip, who will speak first, both sides must be capable of presenting a position of advocacy. Perhaps this is the rationale behind the National Forensic League mandate "they [the pro side or con side] should offer reasoning to support a position of advocacy" and it is expected in most cases, each side will establish a position independently of the other side's particular case, based solely on the perceived division of ground implied in the resolution and it is expected these positions will be presented by each side during their constructive speeches.

The Pro-pro and Pro-con Speeches

Let us agree with Merriam-Webster the definition of the verb advocate is "to plead in favor of" and an advocacy would be the act of pleading in favor.  Each side is charged with pleading in favor of their side of the resolution. Therefore, one side is a proponent of the Pro side and one side is a proponent of the Con side and these advocacies should be clearly communicated at some point in the respective constructive speeches.  I would characterize these speeches as the Pro-pro and the Pro-con because each is intended to establish a case which defines a specific position as proponents of the pro position or proponents of the con position.  This should not be a speech which establishes a refutation or argument against another position.  This distinction is important because it helps both the team and the judge understand exactly what ground the team intends to defend.  It narrows the debate to specific opposing points of view and promotes the clash that is desirable in debate. Quite often one sees the judge critique of "no clash" and this often happens when the debate occurs entirely on one side of the flow.  For example, the Con attacks the Pro position and the remainder of the debate focuses entirely on the legitimacy of the Pro case.

At the risk of extending this model terminology a little too far, I would characterize any Con attacks against the Pro position as Con-pro (contrary to Pro) and attacks against Con as Con-con (contrary to Con).  The terminology serves as a nice device to remember that regardless of which side of the debate a team is on, its case will be comprised of Pro (for) and Con (against) type arguments.  If the team is Pro, its case will be Pro-pro (for the Pro) and Con-con (against the Con).  If the team is Con, its case will be Pro-con (for the Con) and Con-pro (against the Pro).  However, and this is my opinion, the weakness of some Con cases is seen in the fact that the "Pro" part of a team's case is often missing. This is not a big problem for Pro because it is expected Pro will affirm the resolution whether they make the first speech or not. Consider the rhetoric often seen in election campaigns.  A candidate may oppose the platform of the opponent with clear and compelling reasoning but the people, while evaluating the candidate's arguments may say, "okay that makes sense, so what is your platform?"  A politician who argues against an opponent without a platform or plan is arguing from a position of weakness.

Deriving Positions From the Resolution

How does a team establish a position of advocacy as opposed to a position of refutation?  I think the simplest answer is to be sure the case tells why a position is desirable, beneficial, just, moral, or otherwise promotes positive attributes.  If your case only explains why another position is undesirable, harmful, unjust, immoral, etc., then the case is refuting rather than building a position.  Sometimes the case itself can present a position because the wording of the resolution makes it obvious.  For example, the October 2011 resolution, Resolved: Private sector investment in human space exploration is preferable to public sector investment, the Pro-pro position would advocate a position in favor of private sector investment and the Pro-con position would advocate a position of public sector investment.  The positions are explicit in the resolution wording. Another obvious example was the November resolution from the same year, Resolved: Direct popular vote should replace electoral vote in presidential elections.  Pro-pro favors direct popular vote and the Pro-con will favor electoral vote.

Most Public Forum resolutions do not present two opposing positions.  Usually there is a single position statement explicit in the resolution which is favored by the Pro and the Con is left to figure out what the Pro-con position should be and so the obvious and easy solution and the one that seems implicit in the wording is simply negate the resolution.  If the resolution says Resolved: Wikileaks is a threat to United States national security, the Pro-con would claim, "no, Wikileaks is not a threat to national security".  Indeed, it would be legitimate to argue that Wikileaks has not done anything which threatens U.S. national security and Con could even win those arguments but at the end of the round, the judge needs to evaluate the risk potential in the Pro advocacy and when looking at the Con side finds nothing to favor Wikileaks except perhaps the evidence that so far, Wikileaks has not been a significant security risk to the U.S.  For me, if the judge votes Con, Con wins from a position of weakness not from a position strength and so it is a risky case from the very beginning.  Let's look at another example, Developed countries have a moral obligation to mitigate the effects of climate change.  This resolution can be negated in several ways.  The Con team can test these possibilities to see which allow the Pro-con to establish a position of advocacy and which are possibly very difficult positions to defend.  One possible position is entities other than developed countries have a moral obligation, perhaps the UN or NGOs should do it. Another is developed countries do not have a moral obligation because states are amoral. Perhaps developed countries have a moral obligation to not mitigate the effects of climate change because there is a high probability of creating more problems than those being solved. Finally, they have a moral obligation to do other things which are more important than mitigating climate change effects such as spending money and resources on reducing the proliferation of nuclear weapons or reducing terrorism.

Building an Advocacy

Hopefully, this portion of the topic establishes a theoretical foundation for Public Forum advocacy as creation of a defensible position derived from the Public Forum resolution.  This is in keeping with the current NFL guidelines.  There are many approaches to writing cases and in the next part I will attempt to illustrate some practical ideas which demonstrate my advocacy ideas for Public Forum debate cases.

Part 2 is here.

Jeffery T. Bile, Propositional Justification: Another View, CEDA Yearbook, Vol. 9, 1988 (pp 54-62)
Bill Brewster, Analysis of Disadvantages: Scenarios and Intrinsicness, Emory University, 1984
John Durkee, Ted Turner Debate: Establishing Theoretical Grounds, Rostrum, 2003
Jim Hanson with Brian Simmonds et al, Sample of The Policy Basics and Advanced Sections, Breaking Down Barriers: How to Debate, West Coast Publishing, undated.
Minh A. Luong, Burden of Proof and Presumption in Lincoln-Douglas Debate: A Call for Reform, Rostrum, 1995
Robert C. Rowland, The Function of Presumption in Academic Debate, CEDA Yearbook 13, 1992
Lisa Seeland, Practical Refutation and an Effective First Affirmative Rebuttal, Rostrum Library, University of Vermont, 2000
Stacy Weida, Karl Stolley, Developing Strong Thesis Statements, Welcome to the Purdue OWL, undated, last edit 2011
Stephen C. Wood and Jean M. DeWitt, Prima Facie Old Distinctions / New Applications, National Forensic Journal, 1991
Dr. Loritta Yeung, Argumentative Strategy: Negation, Lingnan University, Hong Kong, undated

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