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Theory is very common in Lincoln Douglas debate. You’ll often encounter debates about affirmative flexibility vs negative flexibility and strategy skew vs topic education. Unfortunately, you won’t see as many debates about competing interpretations vs reasonability. Competing interpretations is the idea that judges should evaluate two models of debate and vote for the better one. Under this model, any marginal risk of offense is sufficient to win. Reasonability rejects this “risk of offense” paradigm and instead says some abuse is permissible as long as it’s not “unreasonable”. There are several reasons why competing interpretations is a bad paradigm for resolving theory debates.
Competing interpretations justifies infinite theory proliferation.
You can always make your interpretation incrementally more specific. Take the example of disclosure. The most common disclosure interpretation will say “affs must disclose 30 mins before the round.” The national circuit generally agrees that disclosure is good and thus most people comply. Now, what if the neg reads “affs must disclose 31 minutes before the round” with the violation being that the aff disclosed 30 minutes before the round. Because both sides agree disclosure is generally good, the 1AR will have difficulty generating unique offense to the counter-interpretation. And as a general norm for debate, once we accept 31 minutes, what’s stopping the neg from saying you must disclose 32 minutes before the round? Once we accept 32 minutes, why not 33 minutes? Competing interpretations allows the negative to avoid debating the aff every debate by constantly shifting the goal-post in an infinitely regressive manner. This is terrible for education and boring to judge, not to mention it lowers the quality of theory debates.
Theory is not read in a vacuum - it has tradeoffs.
Let’s assume the negative debater wants to read theory. They will have to spend one out of their seven minutes reading theory in the 1NC. As a result, they must read fewer substantive disadvantages against the affirmative. Let’s also assume the shell is frivolous, like “the affirmative must read theory spikes at the top of the 1AC, not at the bottom.” Even if you believe the affirmative received an unfair advantage, is that miniscule advantage worth giving up a whole minute of substance? The answer is no and you see plenty of examples of this logic in the real world. Say a teacher sets a multiple choice test with 100 questions and one student sees part of the first question. The student has now gained an unfair advantage. But should the teacher give the student a 0 and prevent them from taking the test ever again? If yes, the student will lose all of the education they would’ve received from taking the test. Judges voting down debaters because of a risk of offense is just like the teacher failing the student. There may be a slight skew but some degree of unfairness should be permissible.
Fairness is impossible to fully attain.
No one walks into a debate round and expects that it will be perfectly fair. There are endless examples - one side may have better resources, the judge may ideologically lean towards the affirmative’s arguments, the negative didn’t have to disclose the 1NC strategy, etc. These are all examples of unfairness that probably can’t be fixed with theory yet they will inevitably skew the round. For argument’s sake, let’s say the affirmative has better resources and that gives them a 20% better chance of winning. If you read a frivolous theory shell, you may check 1% of the unfairness occurring in the round but leave the other 20% intact. The point of reading theory is now moot as you don’t solve unfairness. The round being 20% unfair instead of 21% fair is functionally the same which justifies reasonability.
The purpose of this article isn’t just to summarize common arguments for reasonability, but rather to explore a debate that is too often taken for granted. Debaters should be more willing to fight for reasonability when answering theory, and this should be a more common debate that occurs.
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