Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The proliferation of new affirmatives- ruining debate 1ac at a time.

Having just come back from the TOC much of what I am writing is fresh on my mind.

But to preempt some people who will be reading this and thinking “Oh your team just lost on a new aff so you’re just grumpy.”

1.) Anyone who knows me or who has discussed this topic with me, knows that I have felt this way since I was debating in college.

2.) I’m pretty sure my labbies over the year have probably heard this at some point or another too.

3.) While my team did lose to a new affirmative, I felt like under the circumstances they reacted in the manner they were coached to, and debated well under the circumstances, I was not frustrated at all.

If you take offense to this, well…. whatever.

I had the privilege of listening to most of the final round of the TOC between Bellarmine (aff) and Westminster (neg) and it was exactly what the final round of one of the most important tournaments of the year should be like. Bellarmine read the same aff they had read since debate camp and Westminster had an incredibly specific strategy involving high tech case arguments and a specific CP. The evidence comparison in the debate displayed both teams knowledge of the other’s evidence and authors. All 3 judges and the spectators all commented that this might be the best debate they had seen all year.

Unfortunately the final round of the TOC this year does not resemble what other big debates or late elimination rounds this year looked like. Most of the debates will usually involve something incredibly obscure, borderline topical aff, with evidence quality that is shouldn’t be good enough to be win one debate, but that will definitely not be good enough to be ever read again. This in turn causes the negative to read an incredibly generic strategy, not make sophisticated case arguments, read an extremely generic Kritik, and ends up with the negative going for something vague and generic that involves little about the topic. Having judged many of these I can say these debates are usually at a significantly lower level then the teams are capable of debating at and ends up being frustrating for all sides. It should also be noted that at the TOC the new affirmative did not have an extremely good record. I’m fairly confident most new affs read did not win and often lost on hyper generic arguments like Heidegger or CO2 fert.

This is not an overall you should read one aff all year long post. There are situations to read new affs, your old one is bad, its not inherent, you are debating a certain style team and want to adapt. I have no issue with reading new affirmatives in theory. My problem with new affirmatives is using them not just for reasons outlined above but when an aff is hardly sustainable to read once just to catch the other team off guard with. New affs on balance encourage bad card cutting. At the TOC this year I can count a minimum of 10 new affs that were read 1 time and then not read again by X team in exchange for either another new aff. If the aff is only good for one debate because its either not true, its evidence is bad or it is truly an extremely bad idea should we be breaking these affs? There is obviously a balance that needs to be struck between winning and education / preserving some value to this activity. Everyone at the TOC wants to win that tournament and they should, but they must also recognize and be willing to accept that some of the strategic decisions they make for arguments they advance could be hurting the activity as a whole.

“Ultimately policy debate is good because it is hard”- Jeff Parcher (in maybe one of the best edebate posts of all time The norm has become for teams to actively run away from debates about their CASE in favor of having negatives ready crappy generic strategy. Call me old school but every time I was affirmative the initial Under Armor commercials came to mind with the adage of you “You must protect this house.” Debaters and their coaches are afraid to protect their house. Write a good aff, read all articles about your aff, know the neg’s authors, know what they negative is likely to do against you and write blocks on it. If your aff is good, and your blocks are solid and you know your aff you should never be afraid of flipping aff or reading the same aff all year long. New affirmatives cause a race AWAY from debates about the aff in favor of the crappy array of generics out there. The best debates I was in or have judged have involved extremely good research and understanding of the aff from both sides and we should be encouraging that type of debating amongst the debaters, not one and done affs.

The more and more I think about this the more I’ve come to believe that this is not the fault of kids or coaches who are cutting bad or potentially lower quality evidence but the fault of debaters and judges. Debaters are not good at calling people out for reading bad evidence and judges have become too comfortable saying “Yeah well I agree it might not be qualified, it might be from a random blog, but I mean they’ve got a card.” It used to be only at the NDT in college that judges would use the “well they have a card” guise for making decisions, but this has now reverberated to almost every debate judged. We’re told not to believe everything we read on the internet, but it seems like in debate rounds a place for intellectual discussion on issues we often settle for evidence from people who are less qualified then the kids debating on the issue. Debaters CALL OUT TEAMS FOR BAD EVIDENCE read. Judges BE WILLING TO SAY THAT DESPITE HAVING A CITE, TAG, AND URL, THE TEXT READ IS NOT EVIDENCE.

I don’t suspect everyone will agree with me, but I do hope that everyone agrees that it is becoming increasingly more common for affirmatives to be afraid of defending their “house.” We do a disservice to the debaters and the quality of the debate if we allow this to continue. If you are a coach challenge your kids to find the best possible aff and learn everything about it. If you are a student, work hard, debate is most satisfying not just when you win but when your pour your heart out defending something and the work you’ve done translates into overall success. Judges, be willing to disregard bad evidence, be sympathetic to good smart arguments made by a team even if not evidenced. Winning is obviously an important function of debate, but if debate becomes a race to the bottom of crappy affirmatives what is the point? We change topics yearly to learn about different arguments and issues, why then do some of the most important rounds and major tournaments ultimately get decided on generics that can be read year round vs unsustainable new affs?


  1. How can the problem be new affirmatives when there were no more than 5 actually new affirmatives broken at the NDT. The more obvious problem is topic selection. The High School topic was worded in such a way that this would be the clear result. While gbs was 1/3 on there new affs the thing that was the clear determiner on whether the affs did well was not the quality of evidence but the amount of work a team did on each aff and how much of the literature they were familiar with. It seems the complaint you are having would only really apply when teams have a coach just hand them an aff before the round.

  2. Not sure what you're saying makes much sense / at a minimum is inconsistent with what I'm saying.

    On list topics the propensity for new affs is smaller... not sure there is much to disagree with that issue

    Yes this topic was poorly worded... another issue I don't disagree with

    It seems like you are conflating 2 key issues tho. Your contention that the affirmatives did well is not a reason they were good for debate. They might have been good for GBS because GBS did well but it does not overall better the quality of debates at the TOC or the community. My point that lots of new affs lost was just a side not not a contention that they don't win either.

    I'm not sure what a one shot coast guard cooking oil aff does to make debate better.

    We should be encouraging kids to work hard and clash with each other, not work hard by running away from the debate. We should strive to have debates resemble that of the final round where its hyper specific debate, not hyper generic ones.


  3. ok, that's a reason why people should cut good new affs, not not read new affs.

  4. The arg was not pick one aff and read it all year long, it was affs should be sustainable and should encourage good debates

  5. Abe,

    The problem isn't the size of the topic. Sure you can do TONS of stuff under the topic. That didn't stop people from breaking questionably topical AFFs throughout the prelims of the TOC.

    I counted at a minimum 15 new affs broken at the TOC, and I would struggle to apply the lable "good aff" to more than two or three of them. The real problem is that there were plenty of good affs that went unbroken and unresearched all year. When there are viable unbroken AFFs that can be sustained for multiple rounds/tournaments, why research/break a one shot aff?

    I suspect that the answer to that question for most teams is an appeal to strategy, but I think that it is ultimately a form of strategy that plays into the hands of the negative aspects of our activity (an over-reliance on tech in the face of common sense and persuasion...and questionable evidence over sound logic).

    - Whit