A practical Habermasian structural analysis of the contemporary speech situation of the NPDA debate round. (Part 3)

Aaron J. Alford
32 min readMar 22, 2019


This is part three of a four part series:

Part 1 can be read here

Part 2 can be read here.

Part 3 can be read here.

Part 4 can be read here.

Its part 3! Finally we can talk about… well the topic. Sorry, I am very longwinded about such things.

This analysis will attempt to examine debate in light of Habermas’s understanding of communicative action, and will argue that debate embodies many elements of discourse which Habermas advocated for and through self-reflection debate can be reformed to better embody Habermas’s ideal speech situation. This analysis will demonstrate how debate both constructs society and itself, but also continues to form ties to institutions of power and systemic functionalist methods which can colonize the perspectives of the debaters both in and outside the rounds in the most extreme cases.

This analysis does not seek to comprehensively understand all aspects of discourse in the NPDA, but it will seek to examine the argument formats and “toolbox” norms that make up collegiate debate, and attempt to elaborate how structures of power like coaches, judges, and ballots distort the discourse of debaters into chess pieces focused on efficiency, rather than the high minded pursuit of truth that it claims. This analysis will attempt to demonstrate how the game of debate disciplines the discourses of truth utilized within the debate space, and subjects them to the functionalist needs of the game and the state through the construction of the speech situation itself.

The NPDA forum of competition.

As previously discussed, debate aspires to be a space built for the age of discussion, founded on the principles of practical decision making and deliberative democratic theories of the progressive era (Hogan & Kurr, 2016). The National Parliamentary Debate Association (NPDA) is highly technical version of American parliamentary debate. It is definitively a game, and is highly competitive nationally. Two person parliamentary debate teams examine a different resolution every round, with 20 minutes of preparation time. Debaters are only able to bring what they wrote down on blank paper in prep time into the round. This means that parliamentary debate becomes more about the arguments, because you can’t prove any fact or evidence through citing a source, or check the evidence like one can in CEDA debate. This leads to a very discursive form of debate, that focuses on framing. strategic narratives construction, and impact comparison. After the round, the judge who is usually a coach for another team examines her notes from the debate and selects a winner and assigns speaker points to each speaker, ranking the speakers in the round. Having more speaker points does not necessarily mean you won the round, which is a key difference from some other leagues which emphasize delivery more leading to speaker points becoming a larger factor. The judge discloses their decision to the debaters, and offers a reason for that decision and feedback for each debater.

Tournaments are structured into preliminary rounds and outrounds. Preliminary rounds have every debate team debate between five and nine rounds. After the first two rounds, teams are power matched, which means that teams with the same record go against each other within brackets. The top teams at the tournament, as determined by their round record and to a lesser extent their speaker points, advance to outrounds which are structured like a normal bracketed tournament, with the highest seed debate team going against the lowest. During preliminary rounds there is one judge per debate, but in outrounds they increase the number to at least three.

The round is structured into six speeches, and no preparation time. Each team has an equal amount of speaking time, which is one way debate tried to ensure everyone has an equal voice in the discourse. The affirmative team has the first and last speech, and the negative team has a two back to back speeches in the middle of the round which is called the negative block. This asymmetry to the spacing of time can lead to a number of strategic decisions about how to structure and use time throughout the debate, because the negative has the opportunity to condense their argument to their strongest position in the round, and elaborate on that argument for nearly 12 minutes, and the PMC must answer this in five minutes as well as extending the affirmative argument to win. This structure stresses time management, efficiency, and technical prowess as demonstrated in memorized positions, quick and intuitive responses to the other team, and structural perfection for negotiating the chessboard of debate. Debate becomes a method more similar to a deck building card game, where the arguments read in the round are the deck created by the debaters, and then they play out that deck through verbal discourse.

The order of the speeches.

  1. The prime minister constructive speech is a seven minute long speech, and lays out the entire argument the affirmative team advocates for in the round.
  2. The leader of the opposition constructive speech is an eight minute long speech, and lays out the negative position in response to the affirmative and must answer the entire affirmative argument as well. This is also the speech in which the negative would introduce any procedural arguments, which will be discussed later.
  3. The member of government constructive speech is an eight minute long speech, and responds to the previous speech as well as extending and building upon the prime minister constructive speech. This is the speech where the affirmative would introduce any procedural arguments in response to the negative team’s position.
  4. The member of the opposition constructive speech is an eight minute long speech which responds to the previous speech, and extends and condenses the leader of opposition constructive speech into its final strategic form.
  5. The leader of opposition rebuttal is a four minute long speech in which the leader of the opposition may make no new arguments, but summarizes and extends the member of opposition speech and weighs voting issues.
  6. The prime minister rebuttal is a five minute long speech in which the prime minister responds to the entire negative block (the previous two speeches), extends the affirmative argument, and weighs voting issues.

Each team has an equal amount of time to speak, and each speech serves a different strategic role in the debate round.

Before each round, teams will receive a pairing. The pairing includes the side they are assigned to (affirmative or negative), the location of the round, the team they are against, and crucially the judge they will have. Online published judge philosophies are an expected norm, so debaters are able to look up the judging philosophy of their judge ahead of the round to know their preferences and experience level, and adapt their communicative strategy to the needs of this judge. The most successful debaters adapt their arguments and style to fit the desires of their judges, introducing a macro-level game mechanic into debate.

20 minutes before the round starts a topic is released, and typically debate squads will have all their affirmative teams work together and all their negative teams work together to prepare arguments on both sides. Teams who run themselves, or have coaches that value student argument production, will produce their arguments with only a little guidance to a coach, or none at all. Teams with way more money and support will often have several coaches dictating arguments, this is kind of silly in my opinion. It is allowed and normal for coaches to design and dictate the arguments to debaters, but debaters must write them down by hand during prep time and be able to deliver them without assistance from anyone other than their partner. During rounds, partners are allowed to talk with each other, including during their speeches. There are no evidence cards in the NPDA, seeking for a more reasonable and personal interaction though that certainly has not become the case. This introduces the risk of lying into the debate round as well (Rutledge, 2000).

There are several communicative rules to the space which round out the format overview of the NPDA debate format. Points of order can be called by any debater at any time, should a rule have been violated. They call the point of order, all the timers in the room stop, and then the debaters explains their point. The other team offers their response to that point, and then the judge makes one of three rulings. The judge will typically respond with “under consideration” which means that when they look at their flow after the round they will consider this point and determine for themselves then if it should be accepted. The other two responses are “point well taken” in which case, the judge has accepted the point of order, or “point not well taken” in which case the point of order is rejected. The most common use for a point of order is when the Prime minister makes new arguments in their rebuttal, because the negative can’t respond to these new positions.

Points of information can be called any time in the constructive speeches, but the debater must be recognized by the opposing team during the opposing team’s speech. Points of information are supposed to always seek clarification, as opposed to them being used like a cross examination might be in policy debate, to attack and weaken the other team’s position. When speaking, it is considered courteous to take at least one or two of these questions, though debaters don’t have to respond to points of information if they don’t want to, and are protected from these questions in the first and last minute of their speech.

On a strategic note, it is important to understand how the game is actually judged. Arguments fall into two categories: offense and defense. Defense is an argument that says “their advantage or position is not true,” defense is typically read to take ground away from the other team. Offense is an argument that is a unique reason to vote for the position. Advantages and disadvantages are typically offense, because they are independent reasons to vote for the team. In the NPDA offense is prized above defense because it provides the most strategic reasons to vote for a particular position over defensive arguments, even if the defensive arguments are better developed and better warranted. Defensive and offensive arguments are combined to make up the discourse in debate, and offer a semi-objective way to weigh the arguments in the debate that does not rely on truth. This submits the winners and losers of debate primarily to technique and how well offense and defense were deployed in the round, as opposed to who developed the most compelling and reasonable position.

Rules of the NPDA.

The only real rules in the NPDA which are enforced are time-limits, points of information/points of order, and topic. The rules are always challengeable. Every other rule must be justified with argumentative proofs in round, in a regulative speech act. That said, debate is filled with unwritten rules about argument structure and correct strategy, introducing an element of internal coercion. These unwritten rules vary from region to region, leading to a lot of confusion and frustration at national tournaments for marginalized argumentative styles, such as creative and unique critical strategies that utilize unexpected theories. The structures that follow are the unquestioned dominant norms in the league, though slight variation in order may exist.

Argument structures used in the NPDA

There are a variety of types of arguments available in the NPDA debater tool box. This section will illuminate those structures. Many of the parliamentary debate structures used in the NPDA originated in policy debate and migrated over time. These structures assume a policy resolution, because policy resolutions are the dominant type, especially at national tournaments. It is important to understand these structures in terms of game pieces. Reading a procedural argument, for example, may be a position the team wants to go for and win on, or they may just remove that argument and go for their policy positions. It is essential to understand debate as a game to properly understand the function of these structures, because these structures would likely differ in a league that is focused more on everyday persuasion and delivery.

The prime minister constructive speech.

The prime minister constructive speech (PMC) is the first speech in the round, and sets the strategic tone of the rest of the round by providing arguments in favor of a plan text, which will be extended by their partner and contested by the negative team. Debaters assume nothing, so they must declare each part of their argument for it to be legitimate.

The structure is as follows:

  1. Framework. The framework of the debate introduces a criteria for the judge to judge the round by, and defines a role of the ballot. This is an essential piece of the debate, because it informs the roles the debaters have placed on themselves, their opponents, and the judge. The framework is structured in one of two ways. Either the debater presents a criterion, which is a more traditional format. In this format, the criterion is understood as a measuring stick. It is typically, for policy debate, net benefits. Whoever can demonstrate that their position is the best for the most people should win the round. This format uses instrumental reason, and operates through impact calculus.
  2. A critical framework will usually offer an interpretation and several reasons to adopt that perspective. For example, a team may argue ‘interpretation: we should reject institutions of imperialism,’ then offer several reasons why that is good for fairness and education. Fairness and education are common standards used to justify various positions, showing the duality of competitive fairness and pedagogical concerns in debate. Critiques are justified as educational because they question the underpinnings of a policy, justified as fair because fiat is illusory so all discourse in the round seems to be equally valuable and essential to education because without the ability to question the norms of communication, and the rhetoric used in the round, debate becomes a meaningless game untethered from reality.
  3. Plan Text: This is the proposed action to be endorsed with the judges vote
  4. Advantages: Advantages are the positive changes which will be brought about by the plan text. There are four elements to a policy advantage. The uniqueness is the first section, and it describes the relevant aspects to the world that are problematized in the status quo. For example, in an economic argument the affirmative would place arguments about why the economy is doing poorly now. The second section is the link, which is usually that the plan passes, and then the internal links which explain how the plan changes the conditions described in the uniqueness to avoid the impact. The final section is the impacts. Impacts are the ultimate weighing standard in debate, because they explain why the argument matters within the criterion presented to the judge. For policy debate, impacts are traditionally terminalized, which means you read a lot of links and engage in disaster production describing a horrifically scary world if the plan doesn’t pass. Many of these impact scenarios end in nuclear war, mass starvation, and a variety of other disaster images. The two big terminalized impacts are extinction and dehumanization, though in recent years proximity has been added as a terminalized impact.

The reason one terminalizes the impacts is to outweigh the other team, in pursuit of winning the game. But in some ways it makes policy debate into a very unreasonable endeavor, untethered from the practical attitude for consensus suggested by Habermas’s ideal speech situation and communication discourse ethics. Impact calculus is a key strategic communication process in the debate for justifying why your position is more valid than the other, and it relies almost purely upon disaster imagery and exaggeration mostly for the function of the game.

A critical advantage can keep this same structure, but may utilize more realistic impacts that focus on how institutions of power are harming marginalized people in the status quo, and how the endorsement of their rhetoric can help create the discursive changes needed to assist those people groups. This sort of advantage will often have a final section called impact framing, which critiques the use of fiated (imagined) impacts of disaster for policy making.

Affirmative teams may elect to read more than one advantage, but will often focus on a single advantage in their final speech. Depending on the team, a common strategy is to have one generic advantage and one topic specific advantage. Generic advantages are general arguments that could be triggered by a number of causes, making them versatile but predictable. ‘US hegemony good’ is a common generic, because it is easy to argue that an action helps make the US look stronger, and the impacts of US hegemony are easy and quick to read. From a critical perspective, the ease of use leading to the dominance of an argument like ‘US hegemony is good’ is troubling, which provided one of the exigences for the introduction of critical strategies. Generic advantages often reify institutions of power, because they need to apply to so many different topics. This is one way that the discourses of debate can be distorted by the game, when what is expedient for the game drives decisions about what to present as true. This is one of the roles for kritiks in debate, to check the expedience of pro-institutional arguments with the ethical or moral force of a critical philosopher who has laid bare the problems with the discourses being reified in the debate space.

The PMC is constructed according to the Toulmin model. The basic strategy for the affirmative is to show the world is bad now, and after the plan the world is better. But within this structure lies the claim which is the plan, the warrant which is the advantages, the backing and evidence which is the internal links and the uniqueness and impacts, and the rebuttal which comes throughout the round, but also in the first speech in qualifying arguments and limiting the ground the affirmative has to defend to win under their proposed criterion.

The leader of opposition constructive speech.

The order of the leader of opposition constructive speech (LOC) may differ depending upon the arguments read. Debaters usually read procedural arguments first, which argue that the other team did something unfair or non educational, and then read their disadvantages or critique, followed by a rebuttal of the PMC.

The disadvantage structure is as follows:

Uniqueness: The negative will described the world as it is, but they will focus on something that is working well now that the affirmative plan changes for the worse in some way. So if it was an economic disadvantage they would argue “the economy is good now” and then argue the affirmative plan changes that and makes the economy worse. A key strategy in negotiating these advantage structures is arguing that the uniqueness controls the direction of the link. This means that if we win that the economy is bad now, and the affirmative makes it worse, it was already bad therefore the negative argument is irrelevant. Or if the affirmative argued the economy is bad now, and they fix it, then if the negative can show the economy is good now, the affirmative action to fix it only risks making the economy worse. This is another example of a game strategy which distorts the rationality of competitive debates.

Links and internal links: This section describes how and why the affirmative plan leads to the impacts. It acts as the warrant, linking the plan text to the impacts of the negative position.

Impacts: The impact section is the same as the advantage structure. Like the PMC, the LOC also utilizes the toulmin model. In policy debate, the goal of the negative disadvantage is to outweigh the impacts of the PMC within their consequentialist framework.

The disadvantage is the policy argument, and the default argument that would be taught to a new debater coming into the NPDA, with likely a few exceptions. The disadvantage is based on the status quo, however the negative team is not limited to the status quo within policy debate.

The negative team can also defend their own advocacy by reading a counterplan. A counterplan is a competitive alternative to the affirmative plan. For a counterplan to be theoretically legitimate, it has to do two things. It has to solve most or all of the affirmative, and it has to be either functionally or net beneficially competitive with the plan. If the counterplan and the plan can both be done, then the affirmative can simply read a permutation to do both plans because the counterplan wasn’t a reason to reject the plan if both plans can be done net beneficially from the status quo. Thus the negative must read disadvantages to the plan that would be avoided by passing only the counterplan, or demonstrate that the counterplan and the plan cannot both occur, and the counterplan is net beneficially better than the plan. A counterplan without a disadvantage or other offense to the plan should not win, in theory.

Counterplans have different status’. A unconditional counterplan is a counterplan that the negative cannot unendorse. So if the affirmative team reads disadvantages to the counterplan, the negative can’t simply get rid of the counterplan. A conditional counterplan means that if the negative team wants, they can decide to opt out of their counterplan and just defend the status quo in the MOC. The process of opting out of a position is called kicking an argument, and is a strategic way to maximize time use and focus on the strongest arguments. A common procedural argument is the “conditional counterplan bad” shell, which argues they are unfair because they force the MG to argue in two different worlds: the status quo and the world of the counterplan, because they don’t know which one the negative is advocating for.

Counterplans also involve a number of different mechanisms, all of which have been negotiated time and again until the community somewhat settles on an answer, but good arguments in the debate round can always win even unpopular types of counterplans if they aren’t handled properly by the affirmative team with good arguments about why that type of counterplan isn’t legitimate. An example of a commonly accepted counterplan is disadvantage counterplan, which is an alternative action taken by the same actor that would accomplish the affirmative goals without accruing the negatives of the disadvantage. An example of a counterplan that is generally considered illegitimate is a time delay counterplan, which says to do the plan but in 5 months or some other time period that avoids a disadvantage. This is considered unfair, because they did the entire plan text of the aff, and simply delayed it to a time that we can’t criticize because we don’t know the future. There are also counterplans that live in the tension between legitimate and illegitimate, such as the plan inclusive counterplan which does nearly all of the affirmative plan, minus one portion. This is debated back and forth, because some topics it is fair to remove a portion of the plan, and other topics the affirmative is forced to defend the entirety of a piece of legislation, in which case the affirmative had no opportunity to change the plan. Debate can privilege certain discourses, but in line with Habermas’s speech ethic any debater can argue whatever they want, just some positions are harder to justify reasonably within the constraints of debate. Counterplans introduced a more deliberative notion into debate, that gave the negative more ground to utilize in the debate space, and made the space more collaborative.

Types of arguments.

Debate involves four primary types of arguments, which line up with Habermas’s view of the different domains of discourse. Policy arguments utilize an empirical lens to describe how the world is, then proposes a plan to improve that world. This method of inquiry within debate is marked by role playing and imagining the social relations of the world. These rounds center typically on truth claims, falling into the constative speech act according to Habermas’s understanding. Critical arguments examine how we have chosen to construct the world in the round, is interested in challenging the norms of debate and rhetoric, and therefore fall into the regulative type of speech act and cross also into the constative speech act in some instances. Performance or activist debate attempts to express something personal from the team to the judge, other team, and/or community. This type of debate falls into the avowal type of speech act. Procedural debate, which is debate about how we ought to debate, is also regulative, in that it examines the norms of the debate space and suggests a standard which should be met, and provides reasons why.

Policy arguments in debate.

Policy arguments are the longest lasting type of debate argument in the NPDA. Policy debate utilizes what is called fiat. Fiat is latin for “let it be”, and in debate the term describes the process of imaging that the plan happens. It is an educational tool for policy making, but has been criticized by many as subjecting debate to the needs of the state by only examining issues relevant to them (Mitchell, 2000; Mitchell, 1998; Mitchell, 1995; Mitchell and Suzuki, 2000). Policy debates often involve large impact scenarios, and technical back and forth between the debaters seeking to gain a reasonable path to justifying their claims about the impacts. In debate, if an argument isn’t addressed it is assumed to be true, so much of the faster policy debate is concerned with extending missed arguments as “true” discourse to justify their side of the topic. This process privileges speed, because it means more arguments will go unaddressed and can be extended as strong positions in the late round. Policy debate is the most traditional format of debate still practiced at a national level, and is considered by most coaches to be the default. It is the format most debaters learn first in their collegiate debate education.

Procedural debate.

Procedural debate is meta-debate; it is debate about debate itself. Procedural debate is considered by many to be a tedious affair, though it is a tool used often if only to waste the other debate teams time and then kick the argument. The strategy behind procedural debate is to make an appeal to the process by which the debate should occur, and identify how the opposition violated that process. The structure of procedural argument is as follows:

Interpretation: This describes the way the communicative process should happen

Violation: This describes how the opposition’s discourse violated this proposed norm

Reasons to prefer: These describe a number of reasons that your norm is the best norm that has been offered in the round, and why the round should operate by your norms standards.

Standards: These are the proposed standards of validity offered within the debate space. They usually include fairness, because debate as a mechanism wouldn’t work if the debates weren’t fair. The impacts to harmed fairness can include the collapse of the debate activity because no one wants to play anymore and the value of debate to the students and the judge in the round. Education is also an important standard. Education looks at whether or not the proposed standard is best for the students intellectual needs. Potential and articulated abuse are two related standards, that argue the other team is using abusive tactics. Potential abuse argues that the tactic could be used unethically, even if the other team is ethical in this instance, and articulated abuse argues that their practice was unethical, and has already happened. A final standard is A Priori, which states that this procedural argument should come before the discourse presented in the round, or the “rules come before the game.” This is an accepted standard, and offers the procedural strategic weight in the debate round.

In answering procedurals, teams will first offer a counter-interpretation with reasons to prefer. This functions as offense, because they have presented a competitive interpretation with the original interpretation. At this point, the procedural debate becomes about two things. First, whether or not the counter-interpretation is competitive with the interpretation. If it is not, then the harms and impacts read by the original procedural still link to the counter-interpretation. Reading a non-competitive counter-interpretation is a serious mistake that can lead to the loss of the round, because if you lost the counter-interpretation debate, all you have left is defense on the procedural itself which may or may not be enough to win the position. Should they be competitive, the procedural debate becomes about who is winning the reason to prefer debate about the interpretation.

Procedurals can also be structurally unfair themselves. For example, topicality is an policy procedural that argues that affirmative team’s plan is not within the constraints of the resolution. A topicality argument is structured like the above listed structure, and is read at the top of the LOC speech (at the beginning). When read by a very fast debater the negative can put a topicality shell out in 30 seconds, but it could take much longer to answer. Its an argument that the affirmative can lose on, but the negative can’t lose on. This demonstrates another example of practical structural inequality within the discursive space of debate, which is created through the game aspect of the space.

Some have argued that procedurals in the MG are unfair because the PMC can extend them and respond the the negative teams answer’s in the final affirmative speech of the round without the opportunity for rebuttal. This is a structural flaw in the NPDA format, because without backside rebuttals (an extra set of rebuttals) it is difficult for affirmative teams to check negative abuse without risking being somewhat abusive themselves.

Procedurals are an excellent example of formalized and pragmatic regulative speech. They offer an opportunity for debaters to construct the debate space each round, teaching them skills of negotiating both the forum and the form of debate. Procedurals, and framework debate which relies on the same principles, represent examples of unique power for the students. Students have the opportunity to argue for the debate space and rules that they desire to have, and in some cases these reforms have become normalized into the community representing the fluidity of the discourse of debate.

Procedurals also represent a powerful game piece in the debate space, because of the functionalist nature of debate discourse. The a priori nature of rules arguments lends them a central spot in any debate, and a trained debater with speed on their side may be able to win rounds purely through technical skill and clever argumentation. On one hand, it is possible to see this as a negative in the truth versus technique tension. This practice doesn’t reward truth claims about the world. However, there is something to be said that the strategy employed in those rules arguments are the least distorted discourse in the round. Everything that happened in that argument was present to everyone in the room, to each of their life-worlds. With both kritiks and policy debate, debaters are forced to rely upon discourses of power and authority from outside the room, with policy relying upon government and media information gathered in 15 minutes, or collected over the course a a couple weeks. Critical arguments rest upon a lit base wrenched from its context and turned into a tool to win a game. It is possible that because procedurals are so essential to the game, they are the least distorted portion of the game to fit its technical purposes.

Speed Debate.

During this discussion about procedurals, it may be helpful to also understand how speed debate fits into the strategic interplay of the types of arguments being discussed in this section. Speed debate is a technique developed in contemporary debate which has debaters read their arguments at speeds up to 600 words per minute. It started in CEDA, imagine that, and was used to read pre-written evidence cards to save time, since the judge can just read those after the debate anyway. NPDA debaters adopted it, but to read their entire speeches in, desituating speed from its original context. This high rate of speed is a highly technical skill, which on first glance can appear suspect. As rhetorical scholars, it is easy to despise such a seemingly vulgar and unnecessary tactic. However, when placed into its game context speed becomes an equalizing, even liberatory force. Small schools have far fewer resources than well established programs. Some programs have a half dozen coaches, who help write critiques ahead of time for competitions, prepare arguments ahead of competitions with in depth research, and even help write arguments and strategies at competitions. Smaller programs without the benefit of these coaches and a large squad have very few options for improvement beyond training technical skills, namely speed and procedural debate. Neither of these skills require a large squad or a large coaching staff to master.

At the same time, speed can exclude certain people from debates. The use of speed against novices who just joined the activity is an appalling use of the practice. It discourages them from wanting to participate in the debate community, and should not be tolerated by any judge or debate educator. Speed can also exclude people with disabilities, whether it be an ocular disability leading to difficulty flowing (taking debate notes) speed, or someone with a speech disorder not being able to address speed adequately. In both of these situations it is crucial that accommodations be made in the debate space to include these people in the discourse. Clear negotiation should happen before the round about whether or not speed is an acceptable tactic to the judge and both teams.

Speed also has a few functional benefits for students to consider. Students information processing capacity has to increase to both take notes on speed and to learn how to speed. Students also train the muscles of speaking in unique and rigorous ways, and work hard to improve their articulation. In this way, speed does increase your ability to speak publically, just in different ways than other more delivery centric speech events. Speed also demands improvisational skills, and the ability to quickly come up with articulate and complex responses to articulate and complex arguments. It offers a variety of benefits that shouldn’t be overlooked simply because it is somewhat alienating at first. None-the-less speed in debate is a result of the game aspect of debate, and has little value to the educational goals of the communicative space and is likely in conflict with a number of them including inclusion of spectators and other debaters.

Kritikal debate.

Debaters spell critical “Kritikal” because they just have to be different. Kritiks are exactly what they sound like, the application of critical theory as an argument in debate. There are two dominant types of kritiks used in the NPDA. The first one falls under Habermas’s language domain, the rhetoric critique. The rhetoric critique argues that the rhetoric utilized by the other team has done real world harm, and should be rejected by giving that team a loss. This kritik is concerned with the practice of language in debate, and how the use of certain rhetorical acts have negative historical and material implications for the debate community itself. The second type of critique is the methodological kritik, this kritik falls under the domain of power within Habermas’s domains of study. This form of critique argues that representations are reality, and we only know the world through interactions that are contextualized by social and cultural representations. It seeks to critique the discourses utilized by the other team, or within the topic.

The kritik, like most things in the NPDA, came from policy debate where they have evidence cards and can check the literature. The NPDA cannot check the literature, and many of the kritiks are woefully inaccurately written and used if compared to the source philosophers beliefs due to this lack of evidentiary accountability. This is another systematic distortion of debate due to its game format. Critical theorists weren’t writing to be used as tools, quite the opposite, thus many kritiks in debate end up instrumentalizing critiques of functionalist reason.

There are many authors used for critical projects. Some of the most common critiques are Eco-feminism, capitalism, critical race studies and postcolonial critiques. Despite the negative aspect of many generic critiques, topic specific critiques often elevate debate by examining the methodological underpinnings of cultural institutions, and challenges the hegemony of pro-institutional discourses dominant in policy debate’s net benefits criterion method. The critical method in debate can be distorted by the game, but debaters who take the method seriously can challenge the assumptions about the game itself, offering a self-reflective method within the debate round for students to utilize.

Kritik structure is as follows. The framework justifies why the team is entitled to a critical argument. The default assumption of debate is that policy will be used, because the topic is policy and that is the dominant discourse. So critical projects read a specific argument on top to explain the role of the ballot, and the burdens of both teams under the critical argument. The thesis is the overview to the literature of the theorist, given in about 30 seconds. The thesis is rarely addressed or challenged, the debate typically occurs on the other levels of the critique. The links section connects the affirmative position to the discourses critiqued by the theorist. The impacts that are read are the impacts to the discourse. The critique is of culture, society, or debate. The alternative text is the solution the critique suggests to the impacts. The alternative solvency section contains the reasons the alternative solves the impacts, and sometimes the affirmative case. Many teams will engage in rebuttal ahead of time, by offering preemptive answers to permutations of the alternatives as a final optional section of the kritik.

The use of critical theory in debate focuses debate on emancipatory interests, and can provide excellent and informative debates. However, due to their distorted game nature, many kritiks are not a reliable source for in round kritikal education. That being said, reading the literature and writing the critique does supply that education, and learning to answer critiques through nuanced readings of the authors is becoming and more and more common tactic in the NPDA.

Performance debate.

Performance debate is the newest form of debate, and rounded out debates speech act inclusion by providing the avowal speech act. In the performance framework of debate, debate is conceived as a performative activity with some a priori question. Sometimes the projects address racism or sexism within the debate community, others claim to challenge the normativity of the debate space through the expression of a new form of discourse. This form of debate often utilizes poetry or some other form of art that they argue is a uniquely valuable contribution to the community or provides some sort of activist value. The problem with this expressive discourse in the debate space illuminates once again the problem with game debate. In utilizing the activist expression to win a ballot, team expressing personal narratives weaponize their identity and personal narrative to win a game, leading to a question of sincerity as a result thus undermining the Avowal nature of the speech act. In addition, these projects are very difficult to respond to because they do not lend themselves to a competitive activity very well. Responding to these sorts of arguments can become very personal and hurtful for both teams, and it is difficult not to question the sincerity of someone trying to win a game while they share their personal experience. This is where the tension between educational and dialogic opportunities in debate and game debate becomes a serious question to be negotiated by debaters, judges, and on the macro-level the debate community. This tension has spilled out beyond the debate round, causing forum’s discussions and divides within the debate community about how the topic should be treated.

These are the broad speech acts that make up the debate space. In each one, it is easy to calculate tension between debates educational goals and its game like praxis. The competitive cooperation suggested by Ehringer may have been an idealistic view of the discourses being presented in debate, because game debate as presently conceived privileges technical strategic moves like chess or a card game where you invent your own pieces, rather than a compelling pursuit of truth through the process of discourse resolution which would be the ideal (Rutledge, 2000).

Expert Judges.

One of the primary capacities that has allowed for the technique of debate to advance as it has is the expert judging systems present in debate. As mentioned before, judges are typically coaches or former competitors, and they disclose their philosophies online. Judges are supposed to be tabula rasa, which means they are blank slates and only there to judge the techniques of argumentation presented by the debaters in the round (O’Neill, 1916). Judges are not supposed to have a bias toward any particular discourse, and should judge on how well the arguments of each team were presented and how well they refuted the opposing team. This leads to a very technical form of judging, that is much more like a technical strategy game of rhetoric comparing offense and defense, and carefully calculated arguments, rather than the holistic product of rhetoric which would suit a forum of public deliberation.

Different judges prefer different methods of argumentation. Higher level debaters are capable of doing any of the three types of speech act in debate, and will adjust their strategy according to their judges background and preference. This represents another systematic distortion of debate by its competitive format. The desire to have winners and losers, requires there be an adjudicator. By introducing this judging aspect into the round, debate introduces power and hierarchy into the space of discourse. All discourse is submitted to the judge to decide upon, and debaters are internally coerced to pay lip service to certain concept and methods that they may otherwise not appreciate, if their only desire is to win the competition.

On one level, it is good to be able to design an argument for someone who disagrees with you in a way that they will buy and judges offer expert feedback to improve the methods of delivery and argument but the judge becomes the end all be all of power in the round. The problem is not with debaters being able to adapt to their audience, but that their audience is never each other in the lifeworld like it would be without a judge (Woodward 1915). Instead the power is given to the judge to decide which discourse ought to be valued, the judge who represents the system in the round. Ballots discipline debaters truth claims, and from the student perspective, the introduction of the ballot encourages the capitalist accumulation of ballots as the token of value in debate. Thus the ballot as something of value disciplines students behaviors and discourses to the acceptable ones. The ballot also distorts the sincerity of the debaters, because it is difficult to separate the serious dialogues from the game ones. Intercollegiate debates production of knowledge from a meta-ethical level is suspect, due to the incentivization to winning over an arbitrary decision maker and accumulating the tokens of instrumental value in debate, the ballot decision.

Expert judges and coaches can also take power away from students in other ways. Larger teams, as previously mentioned, have coaches who produce their team’s knowledge. Students are no long part of the primary researchers and writers for some teams. This is a troubling systemic convention, because students should be the epicenter of the activity. Students should produce the arguments presented in the round, because that is a key part of the educational process of argumentation put forward by debate advocates like Ehringer (1958), but because teams fear losing their reputation, ranking, or funding by losing, coaches step in and assert knowledge for their students. This deprives the students of the problem-posing method which is supposed to be applied in preparation time by the debaters. And more broadly, it structurally disadvantages teams without a coach, demonstrating clearly how the coaches and judges systematically privilege larger, better funded teams. This makes the competitive debate space one where discourses are not privileged or presented equally and fairly.

It is important to note the unique liberatory potential of the debate space found in contrast to the system. A marginalized method of debate, which several teams have engaged in, is a type of activist debate which rejects the power of the ballot in the room. This author subscribed to this form of debate when coaching at Cedarville University, because in order for an avowal message to gain validity, the ballot advantage of the argument must be disregarded. For example, when Cedarville University went to nationals in 2017’s spring semester, they ceded the ballot in order to tell a personal narrative about what it is like to debate at Cedarville, which informed the ways in which the institution had mistreated and disregarded the team. In contrast to the systemic reward of the ballot, by ceding the ballot the sincerity of the claim was strengthened in a way that is unique to this speech situation, because he gave up something of value to share his dialogic view. In these situations, where the ballot is ceded, the institutions of debate are upset, because it messes with the competition. However, debaters are free to say whatever they want in the debate, though it is subject to validity tests, so in a way debate can be a uniquely liberatory activity for teaching students how to challenge the precepts of authority within a communicative space, and produce their new modes and contents in their discourse without the game, judge, and coach influences that create a one dimensional debate space. When these lines of flight show, which is somewhat rare, debate shines as an example of important and very real collaborative resolution, but that resolution is always in opposition to the game elements of the space, and will always be punished within the debate space as a result, thereby structurally marginalizing those who practice this more sincere form of activism within the debate space.


This analysis has demonstrated how each of the discursive structures of debate in its ideal form conforms to Habermas’s concept of a forum of competition for discourse resolution. However, the game aspect of debate produces students who are trained to use them as functional tools of winning rather than tools of practical consensus building. This gamified view of debate distorts the potential for the presentation of excellent collaborative discourse resolution, because it creates inequalities between the teams, produces a capitalist form of ballot accumulation that undermine the sincerity of the space and submits authority to the system of debate and its judges, and ultimately distorts the presentation of discourses for truth into the presentation of discourses for the sake of a technical game system. These structural issues, and methodological framing of debate as a technology rather than a speech environment, can be addressed through reimagining a debate space without systemic distortions of the debate space’s speech situation, to better embody the public deliberative function debate was conceived in during the early progressive era.

Alternative: Break the ballot

We need a form of debate that isn’t tied to winning, there there is no ballot to subvert the intentions of the debaters. A competitive cooperation yes, but only in the sense of building toward a proper consensus through dialogue and at times even counter method debate. Students, I implore you, do not place value in the ballot, only in your own ethical orientation toward communication. Rather than engage in a flawed debate which will only leave everyone hurt, its time to give up the ballot, cut the judge out of your calculus. Who cares what we think?

The space is yours. Demand your voice, do not let judges discipline your values to be more in line with the machine of debate. Instead, discipline the debate space with your values. Stand up for yourselves, and your coaches who taught you to think for yourself. Don’t make the mistake of selling your debate experience for a few trophies, you won’t remember those, what you will remember are the rewarding and inclusive rounds where everyone was compassionate and interested in the topic of the debate.

Additionally, a new format of debate could be developed that would address the distorted nature of competitive debate in America. In part 4 I will discuss a carefully considered proposal for an alternative form of debate that attempts to address a variety of the concerns brought up in this analysis.



Aaron J. Alford

Media critique and memes. Writing about rhetoric and society. MA in Communication