3 Reasons for Ideological Flexibility

David Asafu-Adjaye | Jul 28, 2021
7 min read

I've always been interested in the idea of mixing argumentative styles. It seems so common now to attribute people to “camps” or schools of thought as evidenced by the idea that it is normal to refer to policy affs versus the K or critical affs versus topicality as “clash of civilization” debates. This seems to be a natural inclination with debate in general. The separation of debate into different competitive forums such as LD, world schools, policy, PF, etc, each emphasizing different components of argumentation as the focal point of said forum, demonstrates that at a meta-level we all intuitively consider these things to be distinct. However, I also hear a lot of people making a proclamation that all these different types of debates are becoming one and the same. There seems to be a consensus that different forums are all blending together to become policy debate under different rules. Here are some examples. There is now a significant uptake of kids spreading and reading theory in PF. At least three people I know that have done world schools debate have cited multiple rounds where the core controversy of the decision resembles topicality in both form and content. Understanding (not necessarily mastering) plan/counterplan debate is almost a prerequisite for competitive success in LD. While none of these things are intrinsic to policy debate, there is almost a straight line from policy influences to these trends in these different activities. Within LD in particular, there seems to be a trend of taking things from policy debate and absolutely running with it. LD took the concept of theoretical objections and made it into its own type of debate.  LD debaters take any philosophical position under the sun and convert it into a justification for or against an action which isn’t too far off from the early form of the critique. The point is that within all these subcamps (forums of debate), LD has the most different styles of debate under it. Theory, Tricks, K, Phil, LARP; all of these demonstrate that LD is a vast ideological ecosystem and I truly believe that there is value to exploring every part of it. I think having ideological flexibility in debate is a worthwhile endeavor. In debate we have this desire to master certain positions. While that is clearly the objective, that shouldn’t trade off with a basic understanding of other forms of debate.

Reason 1: Engagement
This is probably the most obvious justification for ideological flexibility. In order to be the best, you've got to beat the best, but in order to get there, you have to run through the whole field. In LD debate, this implies that you will have to debate people from every point on the ideological spectrum. You have no idea when and where you will encounter opposition that specializes in something different. You have to be ready for anything and the best way of doing that is by knowing a little bit of everything. So many teams get away with outright ridiculous positions because nobody knows how to engage them effectively. People are so ideologically insulated that simple flaws go unchecked. A simple truth that heavily shapes LD debate is that because positions are so centered on ethical frames, framework is everything. Most debates center around one side winning a framework and then leveraging contention level offense under it. When the opposition has no knowledge of that ethical frame, their only option is to assert a counter framework, standard, ROTB, etc and pray they win. As a result, contention level offense that may be really bad ends up not mattering and those debaters get to leverage their “infinite” knowledge of their framework, instead of having to debate the merits of their whole affirmative. In a world where opponents have the flexibility to make minor engagement with the contention level offense based on their opponent’s framework, they could read some seriously damaging turns and flip the script on the whole debate.  

Reason 2: Talking Across the Aisle
This point is simple and it's more about a potential technique that you can only use if you understand other styles of debate. It's not uncommon, given the large set of argumentative camps, to have a judge in the back that is not privy to your primary argument. If you cannot change that argument (more on that later), your only option is to explain it in a way that will make them understand. One benefit to embracing ideological flexibility is that in the process you pick up things that are very similar to what you know. Debate is debate (or so I have been told) and there is an overlap or parallel to be found somewhere between different forms of debate. Therefore, studying other forms of debate can provide insight on how to explain your arguments in the context of something else. For example, phil debaters that have studied the critique would be able to explain the impact of violating an ethical maxim through the lens of a link argument to a theory of power. Perhaps they might just assert the analogy in order to create some type of familiarity. By no means will that win them the debate, but it will draw significant linkages and potentially close gaps in communication with the judge who, in this example, may have been primarily focused on the K during their career.

Reason 3: Being Unpredictable
This justification only matters if you are willing and able to engage multiple styles which, admittedly, is not for everyone. However, there's no denying that when people prep against opponents, they tend to make a lot of decisions about what things to do based on how they perceive their opponent is able to react. Everything from the choice of the affirmative to the length of the advantage or contention level offense vs the underview, to what preempts are in the underview, all depends on the ideological camp of the opposition. However, if the opposition does not fall into a perfectly mappable ideological camp, it makes it that much harder to prep against them. You should strive to be that opponent. For example, if a debater is known to specialize in the critique but can engage in policy debate, their opponent might choose a soft left affirmative with a really short advantage and weak internal links under the presumption that their opponent will not question them. They would then read a massive underview full of critical preempts. Nothing would be more devastating than standing up and saying the order is 5 off and case with CPs that solve the aff, extinction level DA’s, a util FW and a case press complete with internal link debate and tons of impact defense. This has proven effective in practice. A former TOC champion specializing in LARP debate, made it through quite a few rounds by going for the critique when the expectation was that he would only LARP. Becoming formidable in multiple styles is difficult, but when done effectively makes you much better overall.

As a principle, ideological flexibility is something everyone should value. Debate is about accruing knowledge and whether you have personal biases towards or against arguments, understanding them will always be better than not. In a more practical sense, I have a hunch that those that get a head start now will be in a much better place later. Those same competitors that are influencing argument trends now will be judging those trends in a matter of a year or two. When the first debater read formal clothes theory, I doubt they could have imagined that in only two years, it would give birth to shoes theory, must be from Texas, and or sled theory, all of which have won debates. When a policy team broke a race war aff, I wonder if they realized that the race war would become a core aff on every LD topic the very next year. Argument generations are only going to expand. They build on one another. So, if you do not want to get left behind, you should build as much of a foundation with unfamiliar argument styles as soon as possible

The Opinions Expressed In This Blog Post Are Solely Those of the Author And Not Necessarily Those Of DebateDrills

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