The Tabula Rasa Myth: Navigating Paradigm Issues in Topicality

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

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

This post is meant to address what seems to be a longstanding and ongoing problem in Lincoln Douglas debate today. The quality of clash in topicality debates have seemingly decreased. Debaters are more likely to deliver speeches that emphasize winning some arguments over others. This is perfectly reasonable as long as there is some comparative work between the arguments one is winning and what they are losing. From an alarming number of debates, this work is missing and yet judges seem to deliver decisions that assume a level of argumentative interaction that was missing. At first glance, this seems like intervention, but I would argue that most if not all competitive debates come down to some level of arbitrariness that gets misconstrued as intervention. Particularly in these debates where two ships pass in the night, the judge who is forced to render a decision often makes one in line with their ideological disposition. This means one of two things. Either all decisions but especially decisions in T debates come down to “intervention” or the community needs a new standard for what constitutes intervention. There is next to no utility in discussing the latter as it would require a long back and forth and the debate community would likely never buy into a universal standard on something as subjective as intervention. However, there is great value in accepting and discussing how to navigate the former. Understanding that this form of intervention is inevitable might better help people begin to map out situations when judges’ ideological dispositions differ from their own.


For starters, it’s worth analyzing this in Topicality debates because it seems to be the area of debate where judge biases built from years of conditioning and reinforcement matter and impact evaluation the most. The so-called “clash of civilizations” metaphor may not always accurately describe the schism between two styles of debate but when thinking through the vast orientations people have to arguments in Topicality, they are indeed a civilization away. Let’s take an example. A few months ago, I judged a debate where the 2NR collapsed to Topicality and the 2AR collapsed to an impact turn. I voted affirmative as both the risk and magnitude of the impact turn massively outweighed the marginal offense from what I thought was a decent though inefficient 2NR on T. I preface this by saying when I say the 2AR collapsed I mean that there was 25 seconds of defense played to the interpretation and the rest was the impact turn. A substantial risk with enormous reward! I was then post rounded on the basis that a conceded T flow was game over no matter how inefficient I thought the execution was. It was then insinuated that I had hacked against the kid reading topicality because of a predisposition against the argument. While I disagree with that characterization of the decision, it does bring up an interesting possibility. The 2AR was far from blameless as the impact weighing was also minimal. So, what made me pull the trigger aff if it could have gone one way or another? In my mind, the least “interventionist” decision in that context was to default to the debater that did weighing, which made what should have been an impossible decision easier than expected. However, it’s very possible that two judges who were adjudicating that debate could have come to complete decisions because they unconsciously evaluated the debate differently. Given how probable it is that judges will evaluate debates based on their past experience, it’s important to know the different ways that bias might become relevant and adapt to navigate and maybe even capitalize on it.

Fill-In the Blank

The carbon monoxide of judge bias! This is probably the most insidious of them because it can’t be easily checked or recognized. Judges are not just disconnected from the other debates they have judged. No debate is judged in a vacuum. As such, judges often make the mistake of filling in debates with things that they may have heard before even if those things were not necessarily said. Judges may often justify this by claiming that what they filled in was “implied” but more often that not the judge autonomically attached an argument that did not exist previously because that is what they (as a human) are hard wired to do. As a result, judges often vote for arguments that are overinflated in value which makes it impossible for debaters to respond to because they are (and should be) expected to respond to the arguments the two debaters made in the round, not the best version of an argument a judge heard three years ago. This especially happens in T debates where the prevalence of buzzwords makes it more likely that judges’ impulse to fill in responses will be triggered. Judges can often be caught voting for argument only in name but never in substance in Topicality debates. While it is unintentional and difficult to check, once judges recognize it, they should use a higher standard to scrutinize those gaps instead of filling them in. It will force better debating, aid in clearer lines of division between the winner and loser in decision-making, and overall makes the experience more enjoyable for everyone involved. I dread making the next point because it requires moving away from what I have just described as a best practice. However, until judges start actively increasing the bar for argument development, students might be able to capitalize on this. Sometimes, the use of buzzwords in front of a judge that will auto-fill can help break your way although I definitely would just recommend developing your arguments more. The more useful way to capitalize on this is to flag when your opponent has extended an argument through ink using these buzzwords. This does two things. First, it redirects the judge’s attention and allows them to focus on what the debate is not what it could be. Second, if your assessment of the extension is correct, it functions as defense and gives a good ethos boost to the rest of the speech.

Procedural Over Everything

Let me preface this by saying that the sentiment of this statement is logical. It makes sense for the procedural to come before substance given the way Lincoln Douglas debates have evolved and how the community has come to accept this as the norm. However, it is time to stop confusing logical statements with definitively true ones or good ones. The idea that somehow no other section of the debate matters once T is read needs to be debated out. Most justifications for why the case or impact turns don't apply are often disgustingly shallow but again get assumed to be true. I can't really blame judges on this one though. Too many FW debates in LD are characterized by the assertion that the impact turns apply or not without justifying why those impact turns are not framed or constrained by the initial premise of FW. On both sides of the aisle, the meta debate about the strength of FW to diminish everything else because “fairness” needs to become a bigger part of the debate. Time constraints in LD do not make this any less important because otherwise judges will just assert based on their defaults and your complaints post-round will not change the decision.


This is not a referendum on how FW debates should go down. This is meant to supplement a comprehensive view that these debates should include a deeper level of clash on the paradigm issues. Perhaps students feel as though they cannot change these issues so they may abdicate that all together. Judges need to work harder on not being entirely wedded to their paradigmatic views to create a competitive incentive for students to have these meta-level debates. And above all else, until these changes become more commonplace, students need to place more emphasis on communicating to judges given their paradigmatic preferences because tabula rasa is and will always be just a myth.

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