The Fundamenals of Debate Strategy, or Ryan Battles the Pink Robots

For the purposes of this post, I am assuming that you have seen, heard, or read some piece of science fiction involving a robot. If you haven't, please close this web browser, make haste to your local library, and read Isaac Asimov's I, Robot.

The reason that I recommend I, Robot in particular is because every other piece of fiction involving a robot is really just I, Robot in disguise. Asimov's collection of stories introduces and explores the Three Laws of Robotics: a system of rules that control all robot behavior.

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

  2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

You can see these principles in every Robot character written since Asimov. Every good-guy robot follows the three laws (See: Data, Autobots, C-3PO, H.E.L.P.eR, every character in WALL-E). Every bad-guy robot deliberately flaunts the three laws (See: Decepticons, the T-1000, "The Machines" in The Matrix). Every funny robot character is a satire of the three laws. From the pilot episode of Futurama:

Fry: Wait a second. You're a bender, right. We could escape if you would just bend the bars.
Bender: Dream on, skintube! I'm only programmed to bend for constructive purposes. What do I look like, a de-bender?

The great thing about the Three Laws isn't just their influence over science fiction (and real-world robotics, actually), it's how these three simple rules can create such deep, interesting worlds. Asimov uses these rules to transform unthinking mechanical men into three-dimensional, relatable characters. Testing the limits of the Three Laws opens up a world of gripping plot devices. This system of rules takes a paragraph to describe, but you could fill an entire library with the fiction and nonfiction that uses this system to do interesting things.

One of the hard things about being a novice debater is that there are just so many things to remember. Hell, I've only yet covered a handful of topics in my "Intro to Debate" series and I've already introduced over a dozen vocab words. Especially when the rubber meets the road in a round, it's daunting to remember and act on all the "dos and don'ts" that you learn in your first few weeks of debate.

Which is why I'd like to make an attempt at the organizational simplicity of the Three Laws of robotics, applied to debate. Like the Three Laws govern the entirety of robot behavior, my "Three Laws of Debate" are the fundamental basis of a debate round. None of these are written in rulebooks (that I know of), but these three principles are widely accepted norms of how a debate round ought to function. Most of the strategic advice that I have to give stems from these three principles. So without further ado, here's my stab at the Three Laws.

  • An argument, once made, cannot be un-made

  • A conceded argument becomes true

  • No new arguments in rebuttals

Time will tell if these laws prove as powerful and influential as Asimov's (I wouldn't bet on it), but I think that they do a pretty good job setting up the logical foundation of our little game. Allow me to explain some of the implications of the Three Laws of Debate.

An argument, once made, cannot be un-made

We've all said things that we wish we could take back. In debate, just like real life, we are stuck with the consequences of what we choose to say. If the plan I advocate in my 1AC gets trounced by the negative, I can't just introduce a new plan in the 2AC. If my harms scenario gets turned by the negative (let's say that they win that Global Warming is necessary to prevent a coming Ice Age), I can't just say "never mind" and get rid of the advantage. My strategic decisions have consequences, and I must always be "responsible" for my arguments.

Of course, the mere existence of an arugment doesn't guarantee that it is in any way important or useful. Much of that depends on how my opponent reacts to that argument, leading to the second law:

A conceded argument becomes true

If you make an argument, and I concede it whether explicitly (by saying something like "I concede their argument about blah") or implicitly (by not addressing the argument at all, or "dropping" it), then you get to use that argument for whatever you want. This is the fundamental reason that speed developed as a debate strategy: If I can make so many arguments that my opponent cannot answer them all (or cannot deeply answer them all), I force them to choose which arguments to answer and which to concede. Hopefully I can get them to concede something important that I can win the round on.

Of course, concessions aren't usually that clean cut. If I concede an argument that says that the earth is warming, and you concede an argument that says that the earth is cooling, both of those statements can't simultaneously be true. We're stuck having to debate out the relative merits of those arguments. Also, the strength of the conceded argument matters in determining how important the concession is. Conceding a one-line claim-without-warrant that my plan will crash the economy carries much less weight than conceding a well-warranted piece of evidence that my plan will crash the economy. There are different amounts of "true," in other words.

The second law creates an incentive to make as many arguments as possible, but this incentive is checked by the third law,

No new arguments in rebuttals

The classical formulation of this argument is that "Constructive" speeches are for making new arguments and "Rebuttals" are for discussing/evaluating/rebutting arguments that have already been made. Actually, I think that the law is better viewed as a contiuum, where arguments must get "less new" as the debate goes on.

One of the few types that most judges will unashamedly "intervene" against are new 2AR arguments. The rationale is pretty simple: the Negative has no chance to respond, so 2AR arguments are obviously unfair. Progressing backwards through the debate, the 2NR can make new arguments, but all the 2AR generally has to do to defeat them is point out that they are new. The 1AR can usually only make new arguments in response to new arguments in the block. The block can generally make new arguments, though new Topicality arguments are generally frowned upon. The 2AC can do pretty much anything except run a new plan, and the 1AC and 1NC are wide open.

Now, I'm attempting to make a generalization here of what is allowable in each speech, so obviously there are exceptions and caveats, but the point that I am trying to make is that there is a general consensus in the community that arguments must become "less new" as the debate goes on.

My goal for my remaining articles on Strategy is to show, whenver possible, how my random bits of advice are connected to one or more of the three laws. The great experiment of these laws hinges on my ability to do so naturally, and without adding any laws. Like I said, I'm hoping for success but I'm not yet ready to bet on it.


Anonymous said...

As a debater the third law can and is debated often. Although past the 1AR the judge usually intervenes and says that you can't make that argument. Also although you can it is not very strategic to make new arguments in the 2NR so few do.
A better law might be:
No new arguments in the 2NR and 2AC

Anonymous said...

I meant 2AR

Ryan Ricard said...

Yeah, I think that there's a better phrasing of the third law out there somewhere.

"No new arguments in rebuttals" is too strong, since (some) new args in the 1NR are definitely acceptable by most judges.

"Arguments must get less new through the debate" is a little too soft, since new args in the 2AR/2NR are definitely a no-no.

But I'd also like to include the fact that the middle speeches (block/1AR) have their own restrictions on new args.