Theory in Lincoln Douglas Debate Part 1

Seems like a lot of people these days are asking me about Theory in LD. I've had students ask me for strategic guidance in either running or answering Theory arguments, new coaches and judges asking how best to teach or adjudicate this class of argument, and more experienced LD folk asking me about what Theory in LD looks like to someone from the strange land of Policy Debate. Truth be told, I've got plenty of theory-related questions myself. I've got a lot to say here (no surprise), so I'm going to have to do my best to split this up into manageable chunks.

Theory seems to be an area of pretty active experimentation and discussion "on and off the field" as they say, so I suppose it's worth making a disclaimer as well. The following represents my thoughts on the world as I see it, the world as I think other folks see it, and sometimes the world as I'd like it to be. Contents may settle during shipping, and your mileage may vary.

So, first question, what do I mean when I say "Theory Argument?"

Well, let me back up a step and tell you something that you might already know: debate is a game where the rules themselves are malleable. Unlike most other games, the 'rules' of a debate round will be different depending on what happens in the round. There are a few absolutes (who speaks when and for how long, the fact that the resolution exists), but other than that, just about everything else in a debate is a function of community norms, judge preferences, and the arguments on the flow.

As a result of this, one of the tasks we might want to undertake in our 13 minutes of speech time is to define the "rules of the game" for a particular round. Let's call that meta-debate: a debate about this debate. One particular form of meta-debate we can engage in is a Theory argument.

So what is a Theory argument? I'll offer the following definition: a Theory argument is a meta-debate in which a debater does the following:

-Proposes a "rule" for the current debate round (often called an "interpretation")
-Argues that the debater's opponent violates this rule
-Proposes a punishment for violating this rule. Most often, the proposed punishment is to vote against the opponent regardless of what happens in the rest of the debate, IE that the Theory argument should be a "voting issue."

I don't really have any justification for this definition other than my own experience traveling in debatesville, but I think that about 99.9% of the times you hear "next off is Theory," you're about to hear an argument that follows that 3-part pattern. You might not see three parts clearly delineated, but a Theory argument will always have these components in one form or another. You'll likely also hear some justification for the proposed rule, but I left that out of the definition as that would start to blur the line between what is "A Theory Argument" and what is "A Well-Made Theory Argument."

You'll notice that many different arguments could fit into this template, which is why the pre-round question "So what do you think about Theory?" is such a tricky one to answer. I've yet to come up with anything useful to say in response to that question, personally.

So, even though I'll have more to say about "dealing with theory," I hope that the definition begins to shed some light on how a debater might begin to answer theory arguments in the wild. Next time you hear a theory argument, think about: What rule is being proposed? Why am I alleged to have violated this rule? Why is this a good rule for an LD debate round? What justification is offered for the proposed punishment? Hopefully asking yourself (or your opponent, in cross-ex) these questions will begin to shed light on what your responses might be.


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