Answering Topicality, or How the Hell Did You Just Lose on T?

One would think that my first piece of advice about defending the Topicality of your plan is, well, pick a plan that is topical. You don't have to worry about T if your case is topical, right? There are plenty of strategic reasons to choose a case that is (mostly) Topical, but that isn't one of them. Try as you might, you can't just make T arguments go away by choosing the right plan.

To illustrate, a quick war story. My junior year of high school, the debate topic required the Aff to "substantially increase the protection of Marine Natural Resources" or something to that effect. Rosemount LR (that's me and my partner) ran a case that created Marine Protected Areas (MPAs as we called them), basically big "no boats allowed" zones in the ocean. No fishing, no exploration, nothing. The idea is that the healthy ecosystem in the MPAs can keep fish stocks up in the ocean at large.

It's a pretty topical case. That's one of the reasons we chose it, thinking "OK now we won't have to worry about Topicality." Big mistake. Early on in the year, we debated Mankato West GR, who ran a T argument that defined "Natural Resources" as "non-living materials that can be used by humans." The debate went something like this

Rosemount LR: Here's our plan, isn't it nice? It solves some harms and stuff.
Man West GR: It's not topical. Natural resources are rocks and minerals, not fish. Extra topicality is a voting issue.
Rosemount LR: But plan protects rocks too - you can't go mine minerals in the MPA either
Man West GR: But we already said that extra topicality is a voting issue. If you protect anything other than non-living resources you're extra topical.
Rosemount LR: Well, uh, that's a pretty dumb standard.

And it was, except by now it was the 1AR, waaay to late to be pointing this out. Man West GR won this debate easily. They didn't win because they had a better interpretation of the topic (could you imagine an ocean's topic where the aff can't protect fish?), they won because they were better prepared and they exploited a particular place that we were under-prepared. Their argument was bad, but it took us too long to point out the reasons that it was bad. By the time we figured out the flaw in their argument, it was too late. One would think that our "core of the topic case" would have given us the upper hand in a T debate, but our laziness was our undoing.

The point is that you need to be prepared to answer T arguments. Well, ideally you should be prepared to answer any argument, but T arguments are higher-stakes and tend to be harder to answer on the fly.

So how do you answer a Topicality argument? Well, to win a T argument, the negative has to win (1) that your plan doesn't meet their interpretation of the topic, that (2) their interpretation is a good/correct one, and (3) that T is a voting issue. If you couldn't guess, your basic options to answer Topicality are to prove any of these three things false.

First of all, you can argue that your plan meets the neg's interpretation. These arguments are usually tagged with the phrase We Meet. There's not really a whole lot to say about we meet args - Usually when the neg decides to run a T argument it's because they have an interpretation that your plan doesn't meet. That being said, there's usually some way you can spin/explain your plan so you at least have an argument as to why you meet. There are lots of ways to construct this spin, and this will largely be dependent on the specifics of the plan and violation, but there are two kinds of spin that have become popular enough that the community has bestowed on them a name.

Effects Topicality is arguing that your plan, once implemented, results in a topical action. Take a drug legalization case (a perennial example of an effects-topical case, for whatever reason). An aff could argue that legalizing drugs will cause the federal government to shift the resources it currently spends on the "war on drugs" (cops, raids, prisons) to additional treatment facilities. Since many persons living in poverty are also dealing with drug addiction, additional addiction treatment facilities would be a huge social service. Notice that the aff's plan wouldn't be "increase the number of addiction treatment facilities," but they are arguing that more facilities would be an effect of plan.

Of course, if you make an effects T answer, you are going to want to be prepared for the following arguments - that it's a slippery slope, that it makes the topic too big, that mixes burdens between "Solvency" and "Topicality", and that it decreases education about the topic. It's got a name because it's popular, and negatives are generally going to be prepared

The other classic "we meet" spin is Extra Topicality. This is the tactic that Rosemount LR tried in my story - "sure, we protect minerals too!" even though all our case advantages were about fish. Man West made the predictable answers - pretty similar to my list of reasons that effects T is bad above - and we weren't prepared to answer these in the 2AC. How easily you can seperate the "topical part" from the "not topical part" and how not-topical the not-topical-part is are both going to be factors in how easy it is to win with an extra-topical case.

Your next option is to win a Counter-Interpretation, a better interpretation of the topic. Your arguments about why your interpretation is good are going to look a lot like the negative's arguments defending their interpretation, so you might want to read my previous post on topicality. A few more things you should consider in crafting a strategy to defend your interpretation:

  • You better make sure that your plan meets your interpretation, otherwise you are going to lose this debate in a hurry

  • Your interpretation probably lets in a few more cases than theirs - is there anything particularly educational about this class of potential debates?

  • Remember that the size of the topic is not the only question. Another important one is how easily everyone can predict the limits of the topic. An obscure interpretation might be bad just because it's obscure

Your third option is to win some type of no voter argument, that Topicality should not be a voting issue. Now, you're going to have a tough row to hoe to win that T shouldn't be a voter at all, but you've got a better chance of winning that T shouldn't be a voter in this round.

For example, maybe you aren't topical, but maybe the neg isn't really any the worse for it. If they still have access to all the important negative arguments on the topic, then the usual "fairness and education" reasons start to make less sense. Perhaps the negative needs to prove in-round abuse in order to prove that T is a voter.

A related question is how the judge should evaluate the framework debate. If the negative wins that their interpretation is better, they haven't necessarily one that the aff's interpretation is particularly bad. The aff might be able to indict the Competing interpretations framework, telling the judge "don't just vote for the best interpretation. if we prove that there is a debateable interpretation that plan is topical under, don't vote on T."

This isn't a blueprint for a round-winning 2AC T block, but it should inspire you to think the kind of thoughts necessary to stop losing so many rounds on T already.

1 comment:

Rohan said...

One other thing is answering new impact analysis from the block on the standards debate.

I frequently see debates where the block is making arguments about why their standards are more important under a competing interpretations framework, and the 1AR goes up without ever answering these arguments, just extending the original 2AC standards.