Technical Debating in Public Forum

Jack Johnson | Jul 28, 2021
3 min read

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

Let’s talk about something the PF community does not fully understand: technical argumentation. Or, as some like to call them, “progressive arguments.” For the first time in Public Forum history, a team won the Tournament of Champions running a Kritik. This was unprecedented, and I want to focus on what this means for the format at-large.

When I was a Freshman, progressive arguments were virtually nonexistent in this format. In four short years, they now routinely win the biggest tournaments in the country. The outcome of this year's TOC is further evidence of the inevitable evolution of debate formats away from their original condition and towards whatever persuades people the most. When you give competitors a format, they will use every tool at their disposal to win -- and as we know, people can be convinced by a lot more than substance.

This evolution is tempered by Public Forum's long-standing history of hostility towards technical argumentation. One of the biggest challenges teams face is beating the implicit bias against non-traditional arguments.

In my view, overcoming this challenge is best accomplished in two ways: First, create a nuanced advocacy that leaves no room for interpretation or confusion. If you mail in your progressive argument in PF, and presume the judge understands what the alt is or why the standards matter, you will lose. It’s imperative to compensate for an argument's technical nature by making the speech as approachable and simple as possible. If the team in finals had spread their kritik, for example, it would have probably flown over the heads of the judges. Moreover, if they had paid no attention to evoking emotion or involving personal anecdotes, they likely wouldn’t have been nearly as successful. Putting a human face on an argument is one of the most powerful persuasive tools out there. It also elevates the level of discourse by reminding everyone that people are more than just big numbers at the end of a contention.

The second way to avoid the aforementioned bias is to pick the right judges. It doesn't make sense to run progressive arguments in the majority of your rounds (if your goal is to win) because most PF judges can't evaluate a technical debate accurately. There is a high degree of risk involved in non-traditional arguments: most importantly, the “gut-check” factor. Many judges will choose not to evaluate the argument if it goes against their conception of what PF is "supposed to be."

While some judges will instinctively feel skeptical of progressive arguments, I've also observed a strange pressure for judges to vote on improperly-argued progressive arguments in fear of making an offensive decision. Such is the difficulty of tech rounds: you need to have some degree of trust in your judge/panel if you want to run a progressive argument. If you don't think your judges can understand and evaluate these arguments, don't run them. As time passes, the taboos against these arguments will start to fade. You might not ever be able to convince the mom from Nebraska to vote off of shoe theory, but that's okay! Diversity of argumentation is what keeps rounds fresh and engaging.

My recommendation to young teams is this: learn technical debate. The disparity between traditional rounds and technical rounds will continue to widen. Technical rounds will continue to become more dense and high-level. In a few years, the quality of technical argumentation in PF will approximate that of LD or Policy (time constraint aside.)

At DebateDrills, that’s one of our specialties. We merge the highest levels of competitive success in LD (multiple TOC championships) with a PF-based approach to progressive arguments. The result is a curriculum and course load that treats these subjects with much greater nuance than any other program in PF to date. Check out the courses on our website, and sign up! You’ll be happy you did.

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