Chapter 11

Topicality

 

We have had several references to topicality so far. What is it?

At the core, the basic Affirmative burden is to promote the resolution. Their plan must put the resolution into effect; the plan must draw its advantages from the specifics of the resolution; the case must explain why the resolution is vital.

The Negative topicality argument is the supreme challenge to this viewpoint. The Negative will argue that the Affirmative team is abandoning this duty to support the resolution — in effect, that the Affirmative team is cheating. Because of the extraordinary nature of this claim, in many cases the Negative team will win automatically if they win a topicality argument.

There are three types of topicality challenge the Negative can make. The nontopicality challenge argues that the Affirmative hasn’t done enough to sponsor the resolution; sometimes this argument is called subtopicality. The nontopicality challenge is the most common, and is the argument most debaters refer to when they mention "topicality." The extratopicality argument claims that the Affirmative has gone too far — that they have gone beyond the resolution in order to gain their advantages. Lastly, the topicality justification (often, simply justification) argument claims that the case doesn’t give enough explanation for why the resolution, rather than the plan, need be adopted.

Topicality — and counterplans, which are discussed in the following chapter — are parts of intermediate debate theory. Every debater needs to know and understand the nature of topicality arguments, but the other stuff is more important. Don’t read this chapter until you are familiar with speaker duties, stock issues, and the other material covered in the earlier chapters.

 

Since topicality can guarantee a victory, should Negatives always use it?

No. In fact, overuse of topicality arguments is one of the traps many Negatives fall into. Topicality should be used sparingly. A strong Negative challenge will take several minutes to present, and will cut time for presenting other arguments. So you should reserve topicality challenges for those instances where either you have no other arguments to make, or you are confident of winning the topicality issue because it is so clear-cut.

Additionally, many judges are reluctant to vote on topicality if that would involve an automatic loss for the Affirmative team, since the judge would rather see the case debated on its merits rather than on a procedural issue. Other judges don’t understand the nature of the topicality argument, and won’t grant it the importance that the Negative wants. Judges are an independent bunch — they can refuse to decide which way an argument like topicality falls, and there is no appeal from their decision. And many judges at invitational tournaments or league debates may not be completely familiar with debate theory, and will fail to grasp what topicality means. Since you may not know until after the round if you’re facing one of these judges, the best approach is to save topicality until you really need it.

Topicality is best reserved for the so-called squirrel cases: Affirmative cases that rely on an unusual twist to the meaning of the resolution’s terms. Since topicality arguments deal closely with definitions, they are the most powerful tool you have to fight squirrel approaches.

 

What special evidence will I need to argue topicality issues?

Both Affirmative and Negative teams will want to devote a section of their file boxes to definitions of key terms of the resolution. Dictionary definitions are fine, to begin with —collect several definitions of each term. Later, you will look for special definitions in legal dictionaries, social science dictionaries, and other specialized reference works.

 

Explain the reasoning behind the nontopicality argument.

The focus of this argument is on the plan. The Negative maintains that what the Affirmative plan proposes is not what the resolution specifies: that the plan falls short of being an example of the resolution.

In a law court, the equivalent argument deals with jurisdiction. Nobody can be prosecuted in state court for a federal crime, for example, and nobody can be prosecuted in a New Jersey court for a crime that happened in New Mexico involving only people who were New Mexico citizens. A defendant who argues successfully that the court has no jurisdiction over his case will have his case dismissed without the merits of the case being investigated.

Since the Negative is defending the status quo — you will recall our discussion of presumption back in the early chapters of this text — they have much the position of the defendant in a trial. In the debate, a nontopicality argument claims that the judge has no jurisdiction over the Affirmative’s charges, since they are outside the resolution. If the judge accepts this argument, the Affirmative must lose (the case against the status quo is dismissed), regardless of whether the Affirmative’s case analysis was true.

Nontopicality is a yes-or-no issue. Either the Affirmative is topical on each term the Negative challenges, or they are not. If they are not topical on any single point, they ought to lose the debate. This is the impact of a topicality challenge: it’s an absolute issue that, if lost, will lose the debate for the Affirmative. Usually, it is called an independent voting issue: independent in the sense that it is separate from the stock issues, and a "voting" issue because the judge’s decision on which team carries the argument may determine which side wins.

 

Is any side favored in a nontopicality challenge?

Yes: the Affirmative, initially.

Much like presumption shields the Negative on case issues, the Affirmative plan is assumed to be topical until it is challenged. The Negative has a burden of proof to show that the Affirmative plan is nontopical, if they decide to present this argument. Additionally, the Affirmative has the right in debate to define terms, and topicality hinges on definitions.

On the other hand, the Negative team has the right and the duty to challenge outlandish definitions. So a well-presented nontopicality argument can overcome the bias in favor of the Affirmative and may win the debate for the Negative. The upshot is that these arguments, since they are so important, must be presented strongly and structured clearly if they are to have maximum effect.

 

Who presents a nontopicality argument?

Since this is by its nature a new issue in the debate, nontopicality must appear in a Negative constructive speech. At one time it was standard for it to be assigned to the Second Negative. But judges reasoned that, since this was so important an issue to the Negative — they’re accusing the Affirmative of cheating, after all — delaying the presentation until 2NC was unethical.

It is now standard to introduce nontopicality as an issue in 1NC, usually as an overview before the speaker begins with case arguments. If the Negative team delays until 2NC to present it, many judges will not vote on the issue, in effect deciding for the Affirmative on this point. You are advised to begin your nontopicality arguments in the First Negative Constructive, if you are planning to use such attacks.

 

What is the structure of the nontopicality argument?

There are three distinct parts to the argument.

First, the Negative must propose some way to decide whether a case is topical or not, in the form of standards for judging whether the definition of a word or phrase is appropriate. Second, the Negative will cite each violation that the Affirmative team has committed — each instance where they ignore or distort the meaning of a word in the resolution. Finally, the Negative provides the impact for the nontopicality argument, by reminding the judge that topicality is a threshold issue that may spell doom for the Affirmatives.

 

What sort of standards are used?

Standards are tools used to determine if a definition is legitimate. There are about a dozen or so standards in common usage — but really they tend to be variations on four fundamental approaches. You should be familiar with all the variations on jargon, so we’ll look at these commonly-used standards briefly. In each "family" of standards, the first example is the fundamental one, and the later examples are simple variants on that approach.

The Meaning-based Family of Standards

MEANINGFULNESS or EACH WORD HAS MEANING is one of the most widely used standards. The Negative argues that each term in the resolution was put there for a purpose, and to overlook one word or phrase alters the resolution as a whole. They may argue that the Affirmative plan would be just as topical if a particular phrase were dropped out of the resolution, thus proving that the plan does not take into account the meaning of the phrase in question. If the Affirmative approach makes words redundant, then that is a sign that the Affirmative interpretation is misguided.

NON-CONTRADICTION or INVARIANCE. This standard — which goes by either name — is useful only under certain resolutions. The Negative team insists that a word may not be used in two contradictory senses within the same plan. Consider the case where the resolution called for the Affirmative to "implement a program for deep sea fishing," and the Affirmative plan outlawed tuna fishing (which sometimes kills dolphins) and established incentives for former fishermen to grow agricultural crops. Negatives might concede that the phrase "implement a program," could mean either to establish a new policy (farming incentives) or to abolish an old policy (banning tuna fishing). But they would argue that for one plan to do both creates a conflict: the phrase is being used with two contradictory meanings — to create and to abolish — within the plan.

PRESERVING GRAMMATICAL MEANING. Negatives will argue that the grammar of the resolution must be considered when assigning definitions to words. This standard often appears when Negatives are challenging topicality based on particle words like "a" and "to." For instance, "a" commonly means "one," so if the resolution requires the Affirmative to "adopt a policy," Negatives will claim that a plan that undertakes more than one fundamental action is ignoring the grammatical function of the word "a."

The grammatical meaning standard often applies to phrases as well as single words. Consider the resolution, "Resolved: That the federal government should establish a program to aid the needy in the United States." The Affirmative plan proposes to feed the starving people of Africa; Affirmatives argue that since the plan is funded and sponsored in the United States, they are topical. But the clause "in the United States" clearly modifies the word "needy," not the word "program," making this Affirmative approach nontopical.

PRESERVING CONTEXTUAL MEANING. The words of the resolution must be defined consistently with the surrounding words; choosing isolated definitions can lead to absurdity. Let us suppose the resolution required the Affirmatives to promote "financial security during retirement for senior citizens." One definition of "retirement" is "withdrawal from the world." Using that definition in isolation would imply that cases dealing with the financial needs of elderly monks and hermits would be topical. The context of the other terms in the resolution make it clear this is a distortion.

Negatives commonly apply this standard to specific phrases, where a cluster of words has a special meaning other than the words in isolation. For instance, "free expression" has a distinct meaning as a phrase that is not equally well-defined by separate definitions for "free" and "expression."

 

The Quality-based Family of Standards

BEST DEFINITION or BETTER DEFINITION is the official standard adopted by some national college debate programs; there is no official ruling for high school debaters. The Negative here argues that, if the Affirmative and Negative definitions disagree, the better definition should apply. Of course, the Negative will go on to present a definition which they say is "better," and try to show that the Affirmative plan fails to meet that definition.

Better Definition acquires more force as a standard when the Affirmative has not presented formal definitions, but relied instead on operational definitions. It seems intuitively pleasing as an argument: debaters constantly are told that the better evidence will win an argument, so shouldn’t the better definition also be used in judging the meaning of words? Over time, though, it became obvious to the debate community that calling for a "better definition" wasn’t really sufficient guidance: How can you tell when one definition is better than another? This problem led to the development of the other standards in this family.

FIELD CONTEXT. This is a commonly-used variation on Best Definition. Each year’s topic deals with a specific segment of social or governmental policy, the Negatives say, so the best definitions come from experts in the field. Thus, if the resolution deals with deep-sea fishing rights, presumably fishermen and lawyers specializing in the law of international waters would be the experts best able to define the terms.

Negatives love the field context standard. Unfortunately, they rarely realize that there often is a circular argument at its heart. Consider a Negative topicality challenge based on the term "foreign policy" in the resolution. Negatives will try defining the term as it is used by experts in the field of international relations — but that’s silly. If you don’t know what "foreign policy" means, then you can’t say whether authorities in international relations are experts in foreign policy or not. In other words, field context is a useless standard when you’re trying to determine what makes up the "field."

On the other hand, field context can be useful when defining other terms of the resolution. Consider a resolution requiring the Affirmative to "adopt a foreign policy to limit economic globalization." While Negatives cannot use foreign policy experts to define "foreign policy" — at least, not without circular reasoning — they certainly can use those experts to define "economic globalization."

COMMON USAGE. This variation of Best Definition is directly opposed to the field context standard. The Negative argues that the resolution is worded by nonprofessionals for use by non-experts, so the best definitions to use are the everyday common ones. Thus, general dictionary definitions will be preferable to definitions from experts in the field. This is one of the few common standards that Affirmative teams will sometimes use, too.

LEGAL CONTEXT. This is a specialized version of field context. Since every Affirmative plan has the form of a law passed by Congress, the Negatives will argue, the best way to define terms used in the resolution is the way lawmakers do. The Negative may cite definitions used by Congress when passing laws, or the definitions used by various courts when deciding what laws and contracts mean.

There are many resources you can consult to get appropriate definitions for a legal context standard. The U.S. CODE is a multi-volume collection of the laws passed by the federal Congress. It is constantly updated. Many recent laws have lists of definitions that appear in the Code at the start of the relevant chapters. Most college and public libraries and some school libraries have sets of the U.S. Code.

BLACK’S LAW DICTIONARY provides some common legal definitions of terms, and it is a highly respected source, but most of its definitions deal with Latin legal phrases of little use in debate. Two other multi-volume reference works, WORDS AND PHRASES and CORPUS JURIS SECUNDUM, are more useful to the debater. These encyclopedias record how courts have interpreted common words and phrases as they appear in laws, contracts, and deeds. These encyclopedias may be hard to find, but they provide a great resource for the debater. On the other hand, because courts aren’t always consistent, many of the definitions will be mutually contradictory.

Legal Context is a widely accepted standard. Many of the so-called Better Definition arguments really rely on legal definitions and fall under this standard.

FRAMERS’ INTENT. The best definitions, some Negatives may claim, come from what the authors meant when they wrote the resolution. The Supreme Court, for example, often looks at the record of debate in Congress when deciding what a law’s terms means, or they may look at the Federalist Papers when deciding if a law is constitutional. Similarly, debaters can look at the early committee reports from the group that wrote this year’s resolution, or look at the related topic area and discussion questions, to see what is the true meaning of each word and phrase.

Some debate judges reject this approach. While the records of the committee that wrote the resolution are often available, the authors generally disavow any special expertise in interpreting the resolution, saying that the words of the resolution are now in the public domain. Affirmatives can sometimes use the framers’ intent standard to argue that their plan was something that the original study committee did consider as a potential Affirmative case for the resolution.

 

The Borderline-based Family of Standards

SETTING LIMITS, FAIRNESS, or DIVISION OF GROUND. This one standard can appear under several names. The definitions used must divide Affirmative and Negative ground fairly, giving equal room for each side to develop arguments. Any definition which does not so divide the resolution into clear turf, the Negative will argue, fails to set limits and thus in not acceptable for debate. Thus any definition that would make it impossible for the Negative to suggest minor repairs or a counterplan would violate the Fairness standard. This concept of clear borders between Affirmative and Negative ground is why we call this the primary example of the borderline family of definition standards.

BRIGHT LINE. Negatives use this standard to claim that the proper definitions for terms of the resolution are those which set an obvious and unambiguous marker between Affirmative and Negative ground. This standard says that we need to use definitions which give a self-evident yes-or-no test to whether the plan is following the terms of the resolution. For example, when the resolution uses the words "significant" or "substantial," Negatives will commonly use a bright line standard to argue that the Affirmative should meet some specific numerical target, in contrast to interpreting the key term as "big, important, momentous" — a definition which is clearly less precise.

The final example in the borderline family is THE VACUUM TEST. Negatives will use this to make the point that we need to "look at the plan in a vacuum" — that is, in isolation from other arguments in the debate round — to see whether it falls within the resolution. Most often, Negatives are making the point that the plan must be topical on its face, rather than a byproduct of solvency. For instance, if the resolution calls for the Affirmative to "establish a program to significantly limit immigration to the United States," it should be self-evident that the plan does restrict immigration by law. A plan which doesn’t act directly in this regard would fail the vacuum test. While this standard is not commonly used for conventional nontopicality arguments, it is very important for something called effects topicality, which we’ll look at a little later in this chapter.

 

The Reasonability-based Family of Standards

REASONABILITY. Unlike the other standards, this one is usually argued by the Affirmative in defense of its position. The Affirmative is usually conceded to have the right to define terms in any reasonable manner. Affirmative teams will argue that their definitions fall into the zone of reasonability, and therefore their case is topical.

The chief difficulty with this standard is that reasonability itself is a fairly vague concept. Affirmatives cannot know in advance if the judge will believe that their interpretation of the resolution is a reasonable one. Negatives will often argue that failing to preserve the meaning of words, or using a poor definition when a better one is available, is sufficient to make the Affirmative definition unreasonable.

The other standard in this family — again, usually used by Affirmatives — is the argument that LITERATURE CHECKS ABUSE. When Affirmatives make this claim, they are saying that policy experts (yep, the same people we met in the field context standard) generally use the terms in the same way the Affirmative is using the terms. Published material in the topic area ("literature") stops ("checks") any attempt to mangle the meaning of the terms in the topic ("abuse").

Again, Negatives will usually find this an insufficient response. Perhaps there are experts who use terms in the same way that the Affirmative team is, they will concede. However, those experts are not facing the duty to discuss the limited topic area bounded by the words of the resolution. The "literature" doesn’t take into account the precision demanded by a specific debate resolution — so the fact that Affirmatives have found an author who defines terms in a specific way doesn’t ward them from charges of being abusive.

 

How does the Negative demonstrate the standards are violated?

After presenting one or more standards, the Negative speaker then cites each instance where the Affirmative distorts or ignores the meanings of the words involved. Usually, the Negative presents a formal definition of his or her own. He reminds the judge of the Affirmative definition, if one was presented. He then argues that the Affirmative definition violates the standards, while the Negative definition preserves them. Then he moves on to the next phrase under dispute.

 

What is the impact argument?

The concluding part of the nontopicality attack reminds the judge of the effect of topicality on the debate — the Affirmative MUST lose if they are found to be nontopical at any point, and that topicality is a yes-or-no decision for each phrase under discussion. Keep this portion short. Make sure there enough to remind inexperienced judges how important topicality is. But experienced judges don’t like to have debate theory quoted at them, so don’t lecture the judge too much. It’s a fine line you get to walk here.

It is becoming increasingly important, though, not just to claim that nontopicality is a voting issue, but to provide some reasoning why it ought to be a voting issue. Again, this does not require a vast and lengthy explanation, but some reasons should be given whenever you offer one of these arguments. Common reasons for believing topicality a voting issue include: because it’s a rule of the game; because it serves as a parallel to jurisdiction in a courtroom; because of tradition; because educational debate requires a definite and fixed subject for meaningful discussion; because the tournament invitation said or implies that this topic was to be debated, and thus participants have an obligation to respect this social agreement; and so forth.

 

Should I label and signpost this argument?

You should label and signpost every argument you present. Here is the outline of a nontopicality challenge:

THE AFFIRMATIVE PLAN FAILS TO IMPLEMENT THE RESOLUTION

 

A. STANDARDS EXIST TO DETERMINE TOPICALITY.
(Substructure here — one point for each standard you suggest. Analysis will defend why these standards are good.)

 

B. THE AFFIRMATIVE USE OF [word 1] VIOLATES THESE STANDARDS.
(Possible substructure here, or you may just present an alternative definition, and show how it is superior to the Affirmative’s at meeting the standards)

 

C. THE AFFIRMATIVE CASE MUST BE REJECTED AS NONTOPICAL.
(A short argument for topicality being an absolute and independent voting issue should be used here.)

Of course, if you had more violations to cite, they would appear as points C, D, E, and so on, with the last subpoint being the impact argument.

 

Can you show me an example of a nontopicality argument?

I thought you’d never ask. Assume that the resolution is "Resolved: that the federal government should adopt a comprehensive policy to reform the jury system in the United States." The Affirmative plan would abolish the grand jury — an investigative body — and replace it with broader prosecutor powers. The First Negative begins his Constructive speech:

"Before diving into the specifics of the Affirmative contentions, I want to begin with an overview on topicality. THE AFFIRMATIVE PLAN FAILS TO IMPLEMENT THE RESOLUTION. Subpoint A: STANDARDS EXIST TO DETERMINE TOPICALITY. The Negative will suggest two standards to determine if a plan really stands as an example of the resolution. Our first standard: Meaningfulness. Each word in the resolution was put there for a purpose and ought to serve a function. The second standard: Better Definition. When conflict arises between the Affirmative and Negative interpretation of definitions, the better definition should prevail.

"I will be citing four separate reasons why the Affirmative loses topicality. The first of these is Subpoint B: THE AFFIRMATIVE VIOLATES THE WORD ADOPT. We will defend the definition of adopt found in Webster’s Second International Dictionary, 1957: ‘In a legal sense, to cause to occur; to take action with a certain result in view.’ Opposed to this, the Affirmative gives us no formal definitions. By the Affirmative plan, the states and local governments are called upon to abolish their grand juries and to expand prosecutor powers, but the federal government is not taking any direct action. States are doing the ‘adopting’ under the Affirmative plan; the federal government is not.

"Subpoint C: THE AFFIRMATIVE VIOLATES THE WORD A. Again from Webster’s Second, we find that ‘a’ means ‘one, as opposed to many.’ But the Affirmative plan clearly takes at least two distinct steps — abolition of grand juries, and enhancement of prosecutor powers. That is more than one step. This violation of a tiny word makes the plan outside the resolution.

"Subpoint D: THE AFFIRMATIVE VIOLATES THE WORD COMPREHENSIVE. Webster’s Second says this word means ‘extensive; including much.’ We have only an operational definition from the Affirmative. Does their plan include much? There are over fifty times the number of trial juries as there are grand juries, yet the Affirmative plan deals with only the latter. Since the Affirmative plan deals with less than two percent of the jury system, conclude that it is hardly comprehensive.

"Subpoint E: THE AFFIRMATIVE VIOLATES THE WORD IN. Again, from Webster, we get the definition ‘throughout.’ But the First Affirmative tells us that grand juries now exist in only thirty-odd states. So there’s nothing to eliminate in eleven states, and the Affirmative plan cannot extend throughout the U.S. when there is nothing for it to do in many areas.

"Finally, let’s look at the impact of this argument. Subpoint F: THE AFFIRMATIVE CASE MUST BE REJECTED AS NONTOPICAL. Topicality is a threshold issue that the Affirmative must pass before they are allowed to proceed. Topicality has this status because if tradition and the need for a fixed subject to maximize educational value of debate. Each of these violations is an independent voting issue with absolute impact on the debate."

 

How does the Affirmative answer a nontopicality argument?

Since nontopicality carries so large a penalty — loss of the debate! — if the Negative wins the issue, the Affirmative cannot afford to give the argument anything less than their full attention. Most of the burden will be on the Second Affirmative, of course, since he or she must provide the initial answers to the 1NC argument.

If topicality was not introduced in the round until 2NC, then the First Affirmative must grapple with the issue in the rebuttal. The 1AR speaker should first point out to the judge that delaying the argument to this late point weakens the Negative position. Then 1AR should refute topicality as quickly as possible.

Affirmatives will first argue the issue of standards. You may want to accept the Negative standards, especially a Meaningfulness standard. Against any form of the Better Definition standard, the best response is to insist that Reasonability is a superior standard. In other words, the Affirmative will argue that "better" definitions are irrelevant: the Affirmative is entitled to use any definitions that it wants, provided they are legitimate meanings of the words in question, just as the Affirmative is granted the right to choose the specific harm and inherency issues to be debated.

Against the violation arguments, the Affirmative has a number of choices. They can argue that they do, if fact, meet the Negative definitions. Or they can propose their own definitions (either dictionary definitions or the operational ones), and argue that the plan meets these definitions "reasonably" well, under the Reasonableness standard. Or they can argue that their definitions meet the Negative standards — for example, that the Affirmative definition is better than the Negative’s .The Affirmative must make at least one response to each of the violation arguments.

Of course, it’s common for Affirmatives to offer multiple responses to a nontopicality challenge. They can (1) argue that the Negative standards are bad ones; (2) that the Negative definitions don’t meet the Negative standards; (3) that the Affirmative plan meets the Negative definitions, so there is no violation; (4) that better Affirmative standards exist; and/or (5) that Affirmative definitions meet the superior Affirmative standards, so those definitions should be used to prove the plan is topical. If an Affirmative team makes all five of these claims, then they have five different potential ways to defeat the topicality argument before the round is over.

 

Can the Affirmatives challenge the impact of a nontopicality argument?

They can. It’s not always the best approach, however. For the impact argument, it is often best if the Affirmative concedes that topicality is an absolute, independent voting issue. A lot of judges believe it is, and will disregard any Affirmative attempt to argue that it isn’t .

However, a few strategies have been tried by Affirmatives to win even this point, under the notion that they can then risk losing a violation argument. Why? Well, if topicality isn’t a voting issue, then the judge will not give the Affirmatives a loss even if they are proven to be nontopical. Both Affirmative and Negative teams should be aware that these arguments exist:

TREATING TOPICALITY AS ABSOLUTE LIMITS FREEDOM OF SPEECH. Affirmatives argue that the value of free speech is important to American society, and should not be abridged. Such abridgment is especially intolerable in educational public speaking. But requiring them to deal with the resolution restricts what the Affirmatives can say, thus abridging free speech. Therefore, they conclude, the judge should support free speech by refusing to vote on topicality.

DISCARDING TOPICALITY ENLARGES EDUCATIONAL VALUE. Affirmatives note that Negatives have great freedom to propose counterplans and disadvantages far outside the resolution. Allowing the Affirmatives similar freedom by discarding the notion of topicality allows the Affirmative to research and debate areas of government policy much broader than the resolution allows, thus opening new educational opportunities for both teams.

NEGATIVES ARE ABUSING THE DEBATE PROCESS WITH THE ARGUMENT. Because topicality is a no-risk strategy for the Negatives, they tend to use it as a "time suck" — a tactic to force the Affirmatives to fritter away their speaking time on a stupid procedural trick. That means less time devoted to debating about (and learning about) the important issues of the topic.

The Negative should be prepared for these arguments. Against the Freedom of Speech argument, the Negative could respond that the Affirmative has complete freedom of speech — but they shouldn’t expect to be rewarded with a win if they wander from the topic. Nor should their freedom extend so far as to violate the rules of debate (such as sticking to the resolution) any more than the Negative’s freedom of speech should allow them a fifteen minute 2NC speech because there are so many flaws in the plan that ought to be mentioned.

Against the Educational Value argument, Negatives should respond that discarding topicality destroys the educational value of debate. The resolution is designed to separate Affirmative and Negative ground (see the Fairness standard listed above). If the resolution is dismissed, Affirmative ground expands without limit and Negative ground shrinks to nothing. Moreover, there is no way that the Negative can prepare to attack a case without a basic guideline as to what that case may concern. Finally, the Affirmative speakers are free to research any area of social policy they like in order to enhance their own education, and they are free to debate such policies with their teammates on their own time; but within the context of this particular round, sticking to the announced topic is clearly fairest for everyone.

Against a Time Suck argument… Hmm, the Negatives can really get in trouble here. The best response is to declare that the nontopicality challenge was meant sincerely, and not just as a maneuver to waste time. However, the fact is that Negatives often do use topicality to rattle the Affirmative team, and often drop the argument in their last speeches. A Negative team which reserves topicality arguments for when they are needed, and pursues the issue all through the debate, is clearly less vulnerable to a time suck claim. You would be wise to follow that principle.

 

Give me an example of a 2AC response to a nontopicality argument.

We will show how the Second Affirmative could respond to the nontopicality challenge given earlier.

"The First Negative began with a topicality challenge, so let us turn to that before reestablishing the Affirmative case. The gentleman presented us with two standards in his A subpoint. We will accept the position that each word in the resolution has meaning, but we reject the standard that the better definition must prevail. The proper standard here is Reasonability. The Affirmative team must be allowed to define terms any way it wishes in line with common usage, so long as these definitions are reasonable ones. I’ll show you that we implement these terms in a reasonable manner.

"Turn to the violations. Point B claims we violate the word ‘adopt.’ But use the Negative’s own definition. Our plan makes the federal government ‘take action with a certain result in view,’ that result being abolition of the grand jury. And federal action is needed to outlaw these juries everywhere. Conclude that our plan causes a policy to be adopted.

"Point C claims we violate the word ‘a.’ We’ll accept that ‘a’ means only one. But just as a — one — train can have many cars, or a — one — circus can have many elephants, so can a — one — policy or Affirmative plan have several results. We implement only one plan, but it happens to have more than one effect.

"In point D, the gentleman claims we abused the word ‘comprehensive.’ His definition is on target, but his analysis is not. We abolish one hundred percent of all grand juries now existing. Our plan comprehensively treats the grand jury system; you can’t include more than 100 percent!

"Consider point E, where we’re told we violate the term ‘in.’ The Affirmative prefers the definition of ‘within’ as opposed to ‘throughout.’ In general, that’s the more useful definition. After all, if you have a hornet trapped in your car, it would be more accurate to say it’s within your car rather than throughout your car. The Reasonability standard applies here. The plan abolishes grand juries within the U.S., so we’re topical. In fact, we forbid grand juries to be reestablished anywhere throughout the United States in the future, so we even meet the defective Negative definition.

"Finally, we will grant subpoint F, that topicality is an absolute voting issue. But we meet all the Negative objections reasonably well. So we must conclude that the Affirmative plan passes the threshold, and is absolutely topical."

 

Can you explain extratopicality in greater detail?

The Affirmatives’ power of fiat allows them to do anything they like in their plan. In most instances, the points of the plan that put the resolution into effect will be clustered together in the mandates plank. But various other support planks — finance, enforcement, and administration — will also exist. They are vital for the plan to operate, but they are NOT absolutely required by the resolution.

All the Affirmative advantages (or solvency points, if the harm / inherency / solvency analysis is used) should be produced from the mandates. The resolution, as embodied in the mandates of the plan, should produce the advantages. Any benefits produced by the support provisions is invalid; it is an extratopical advantage.

This shows the clear difference between nontopicality and extratopicality. Nontopicality concentrates on the plan, and argues that the plan doesn’t go far enough to put the resolution into effect. Extratopicality concentrates on one advantage, and argues that the plan goes too far beyond the resolution.

A clear example: let us suppose that the resolution deals with space exploration rights. The Affirmative plan has a large number of finance methods, producing oodles of cash. Their plan will expand NASA’s exploration of outer space, and will also devote any excess funds to reducing the federal deficit. So far, everything is legitimate. But the 1AC case claims two advantages: an increase in knowledge from space exploration, and economic health resulting from trimming the federal debt. This second advantage is extratopical, since it could be achieved without adopting the resolution.

Extratopicality is rarely argued; most Affirmative cases draw their advantages from the resolution. Extratopicality is, however, often a good argument to make against the extra advantages tagged on to the end of a modified comparative advantage case; this case form has been discussed in Chapter 3.

 

Who argues extratopicality?

Again, the Negative must raise the issue, since there is an Affirmative presumption on all topicality matters. Ideally, 1N will bring up the point in his Constructive speech, as part of his point-by-point refutation of the case. The best point to argue extratopicality is at the start of refutation for a specific advantage, before covering the subpoints. If the Affirmative is using a traditional needs case form, the Negative speaker may wish to save his topicality argument until the solvency point (one of the few times 1NC will have something to say about solvency). Since solvency is usually placed near the end of Affirmative case, though, 1N risks running out of time before he gets to this vital argument; he may prefer to argue extratopicality at the start of his speech as an overview, much like nontopicality is handled.

Sometimes the Second Negative speaker must handle this argument. It is possible that the Second Affirmative Constructive will claim additional advantages from the plan: some of these might be extratopical. The 2NC speech, in this case, should start out with an overview to point out the extratopicality before the speaker presents his plan attacks. The Negative team can’t wait until 1NR to present this argument, since that would entail a new argument in rebuttal.

An extratopicality argument may also arise in the Second Negative Rebuttal! If the Affirmative attempts a turnaround of a disadvantage, 2N may be able to argue that the new advantage doesn’t flow from the resolution and thus shouldn’t count on the Affirmative side. This tactic was discussed to some degree in Chapter 9. The 2NR speaker should claim that this extratopicality analysis is not a new argument but an extension of earlier analysis. Overall, applying extratopicality to a turned disadvantage is a weak response, but it may be the only tool Negatives have available against some arguments.

 

What happens when the Affirmative has an extratopical advantage?

Even debate experts argue about that. There are three viewpoints about what occurs when the Negative wins an extratopicality challenge:

ONLY THE ADVANTAGE IS LOST. This is the majority viewpoint among debate scholars. In this reasoning, extratopicality is not an absolute issue. The advantage is dropped from the debate; it cannot count in the Affirmative’s favor. But the Affirmative can still win the round if they have other advantages that outweigh the Negative D-As. Of course, if the Affirmative had only one advantage, they are in deep trouble. The plan remains intact, so the plank that produced the invalid advantage can still function — and any disadvantages linked to that plank remain valid.

THE OFFENDING PLAN PLANK IS LOST. A minority of judges hold that whatever parts of the plan produce an extratopical advantage must be discarded; it is assumed that Congress will not pass these laws. The invalid advantage is discarded along with the planks, of course. The remainder of the plan must stand or fall on its own merits. Most likely, this will severely damage Affirmative solvency, making it very hard for them to win the debate. Disadvantages linked to the discarded plank may or may not be counted by the individual judge.

THE PLAN IS LOST. Some judges take the position that the entire plan is tainted by the plank that creates an extratopical advantage. They will ignore all the effects of the plan. The Affirmative loses all solvency, and thus will lose the debate.

It is important to realize that you may not know beforehand what position your judge will take on extratopicality. The best strategy for Negatives is to argue with the most common position: that the specific advantage is lost. If the judge takes a more serious view of extratopicality, that will work to your benefit.

 

What is the structure of the extratopicality challenge?

A three-point structure is probably best. The Negative will argue that the Affirmative has the burden of topicality: all their advantages must flow from the resolution. The second point, the violation, explains why this particular advantage is extratopical. The final point, the impact argument, argues that the advantage cannot count for the Affirmative.

Does this sound familiar? Yes, it’s very similar to the three divisions of the nontopicality challenge. Remember to label and signpost the arguments!

OVERVIEW: THIS ADVANTAGE VIOLATES TOPICALITY BOUNDARIES.

 

A. AFFIRMATIVE POLICY MUST STAY WITHIN THE RESOLUTION.

 

B. THIS ADVANTAGE IS EXTRATOPICAL.

 

C. THIS ADVANTAGE MUST BE DROPPED FROM THE DEBATE.

 

Do extratopicality and nontopicality arguments overlap?

Yes, unfortunately, due to something known as effects topicality. This is a complex subject that is difficult even for advanced debaters; skip past this section until you are certain you understand our topicality discussion so far.

Effects topicality usually comes into play under a result resolution; it is rarely an issue when the year’s topic is a process resolution (recall our discussion of these two varieties of proposition in Chapter 3). Result resolutions require the Affirmative to put into place a plan to produce a specified effect. This seems to give the Affirmative great freedom: they can tinker with policy near to the main issues of the topic, or modify something at a great distance from the topic. When they choose the latter course, effects topicality comes into play.

Let us suppose that the topic is "Resolved: that the federal government should guarantee adequate housing for all U.S. citizens." Much of the debate season will be spent discussing federal aid to the homeless and the inability of the poor to find decent shelter. Many Affirmative teams will sponsor public housing initiatives and similar programs.

Some Affirmatives will be creative, however. Since poverty is the root of the problem, they will say, the best course will be to end poverty. So their plan may improve the educational system, which will guarantee better jobs for all citizens, allowing families to escape poverty and buy their own housing. Or the Affirmative may take action to reduce the federal debt, arguing that the economic boom this action causes will reduce poverty and thus reduce homelessness. Achieving the goal mentioned in the resolution thus becomes a side-effect or peripheral result to the Affirmative plan.

Often, the Affirmative will claim a number of advantages. Thus, for the deficit-closing plan, they may list improved foreign trade, improved foreign relations, and economic growth as advantages in addition to curing homelessness. For the educational-reform plan, extra advantages might include easing hunger (the poor are hungry too, and curing their poverty solves that problem as well), improved medical care (smart children can go into research), and so on.

The Negative is doomed, if the Affirmative is allowed to create virtually any plan and argue that its effects make the plan topical. It would be impossible for the Negative to prepare adequately; they couldn’t possible anticipate the next Affirmative approach.

Indirect plans, "topical by effects" as the phrase goes, are usually considered illegitimate. Two arguments are used to support this. First, topicality is supposed to be equivalent to the idea of jurisdiction in a court of law. If a court lacks jurisdiction on an issue, it will toss a case out without looking at its merits; similarly, if an Affirmative case is nontopical, the judge must vote Negative regardless of any benefits. But we cannot determine if an effects-topical plan fulfills the resolution unless it is first adopted — that is, we have to look at solvency before we can address topicality. The conclusion follows just like an indirect proof in geometry: we know that topicality is an independent voting issue; but, if effects-topicality is legitimate, then topicality is no longer independent; therefore, effects topicality must be invalid.

The second argument invokes the fairness principle. There must be roughly equal ground for strategy between Affirmative and Negative teams. But if effects topicality is allowed, virtually any plan — relevant to the topic area or not — could conceivably have a topical effect. This makes Negative counterplans and minor repairs invalid, since they would all risk being topical by effects. So fairness dictates that effects-topicality be forbidden.

Fortunately, topicality challenges allow the Negative to defuse these squirrel cases.

NONTOPICALITY OF EFFECTS. The Negative can adopt two strategies to brand the effects-based plan as nontopical. The first is a definition-challenge of the word "to" in its infinitive sense. Most effect-based resolutions use this construction: to reform, to increase, to decrease, to change. The Negative will argue that "to" in the infinitive sense means directly to bring something about, not indirectly or piecemeal.

Alternatively, the Negative can argue the nontopicality of the Affirmative interpretation of the resolution as a whole. The Negative will probably not read definitions here, but argue that the Affirmative concept of the resolution permits effects-based plans, while a proper reading of the topic would not.

What standards would be used for this latter approach? The Negative could argue at least that effects topicality fails to set limits: since the Affirmative could do anything and have it affect the target problem, there is no Negative ground. Secondly, effects topicality violates the meaning of topicality, which is to act as jurisdiction. We should be able to know ahead of time if the plan is topical or not. But relying on effects topicality means that the plan is topical only if the solvency works! Only if the plan is tried out (by the judge’s granting an Affirmative ballot) can we really know if it works, and if it’s topical. This makes a mockery of topicality as a procedural issue.

EXTRATOPICALITY OF EFFECTS. This can be used instead of or along with a nontopicality argument. While the Affirmative probably claims one core advantage that is topical (the advantage required by the resolution), the Negative can try mounting an extratopicality argument against the side-benefits. The Negative will claim that these benefits don’t proceed from the resolution but rather from the specific way the Affirmative sidles around the proposition. It would be possible to gain these benefits without adopting the resolution; therefore the advantages are extratopical.

 

How should Affirmative respond to an Effects Topicality argument?

It’s always best for Affirmatives to minimize their vulnerabilities. That means, for starters, avoiding plans which are effects topical. (On the other hand, there are some Affirmative debaters who enjoy arguing topicality; they will prefer to run a squirrelly case just to provoke Negative topicality attacks and shift the focus away from substantive issues. Ah, well, it takes all kinds of people to make a debate community...)

Affirmatives are also free to argue that effects topicality is legitimate if not used to excess. What are the limits of the Affirmative power of fiat, after all? They can act as the government and pass laws. If we can’t consider anything beyond what laws are passed, then the Affirmative is doomed from the start. Merely passing a federal law will not, by itself, alter anything: it is the process of how that policy is implemented and enforced over time that may (or may not) have beneficial effects. So Affirmatives have a legitimate reason to argue that they can’t be required to use only direct action in their plans, for that means that Affirmatives could never win: either their plan wouldn’t work (because it can only pass a law, and not look at how that law would function over time) — losing solvency — or else their plan would work (but indirectly) and thus be "effects topical."

It is legitimate for Affirmatives to use effects topicality if an obvious and direct result of their plan would be what the resolution requires. It’s not legitimate for Affirmatives to use an indirect, roundabout method. The more steps the Affirmative plan uses, and the more indirect the path it takes, the more likely the Negative team can make a winning challenge based on "effects topicality."

 

Explain the reasoning behind the topicality justification argument.

The concept is this: the Affirmative case must tell us not only why the plan must be adopted, but also why the resolution must be accepted. So the case must show why each specific term in the resolution is vital. The burden of proof is not met, the Negative argues, until the Affirmatives show why every possible non- resolutional approach to meeting the need must fail. It’s not enough for the Affirmatives to argue against the status quo; they must argue against every possible status quo.

Thus, we see that justification has a focus unlike the other two topicality attacks: it considers the case as a whole. The justification argument first appeared in debate in the middle 1970s. It never really caught on in Michigan: in part because the Michigan view of debate is quite conservative, and in part because justification works best with an alternative view of judging called the Hypothesis-Testing paradigm, which we will discuss in a later chapter. Few judges are truly Hypothesis-Testers, and many judges don’t understand justification arguments.

Of the judges who understand it, many just don’t like it. Justification puts a huge burden on the Affirmative, as the explanation above shows. The Affirmative, in effect, is required to defeat all possible Negative counterplans as part of their burden of proof! (Counterplans will be explained in the next chapter). Of course, Negatives don’t stress that this is the effect of the argument. Be careful using justification on the Negative; you will have to explain the theory behind it to the judge. If you’re debating Affirmative, you must be familiar with justification theory in order to refute it.

 

How is a justification argument presented?

There is no official guideline as to which Negative debater presents this argument; it can appear as an overview in either speech. Nasty debaters will save it for 2NC, arguing that they gave the Affirmative as much time as possible, hoping the Affirmatives would justify the resolution in the case extensions. If 1NC is planning to run a nontopicality overview, adding a justification argument cuts out too much time needed for case refutation. The First Negative should never present a justification attack instead of nontopicality; if both attacks are possible in a round, choose the latter, since it is stronger.

You will not be surprised to find out that the argument has a three-part form: standards, violations, and impact. Two standards should be presented: that the case determines if the resolution should be adopted, and that Each Word Has Meaning (our old friend the Meaningfulness standard, the same as in nontopicality arguments).

Violations are listed in parallel, just as for multiple violations in a nontopicality attack. For each, explain how the Affirmative never shows how an alternative approach could not work. You also must provide evidence showing that the alternative approach is a plausible one. This may take the form on inherency evidence (something other than the Affirmative plan is already solving the problem) or disadvantage evidence (solving the problem through a different means would avoid a specific hazardous side-effect).

The final point is the impact: justification is an absolute voting issue. It is part of the burden of proof in supporting the resolution — the Affirmative must show that each term of the resolution is needed.

In outline form:

THE AFFIRMATIVE CASE FAILS TO JUSTIFY THE RESOLUTION.

 

A. THE CASE DETERMINES IF THE RESOLUTION SHOULD BE ADOPTED.

 

B. EACH TERM OF THE RESOLUTION HAS MEANING.

 

C. THE AFFIRMATIVE FAILS TO JUSTIFY [word 1].

 

D. JUSTIFICATION FAILURE IS AN ABSOLUTE VOTING ISSUE.

 

Can you give us an example of a justification attack?

You bet. The resolution is "Resolved: That financial support of all public elementary and secondary education in the United States should be provided exclusively by the federal government." The Negatives have saved their attack until 2NC:

"Before beginning my plan attacks, I want to present an overview on topicality. THE AFFIRMATIVE CASE FAILS TO JUSTIFY THE RESOLUTION. I’ll begin with a little debate theory. POINT A: THE CASE DETERMINES IF THE RESOLUTION SHOULD BE ADOPTED. It’s not enough for the Affirmative to implement the resolution in their plan; they must support adoption of the resolution in its entirety. This is part of their burden of proof.

"POINT B: EACH WORD IN THE RESOLUTION HAS MEANING. Each term was put there for a purpose. We cannot afford to overlook any word.

"POINT C: THE AFFIRMATIVE FAILS TO JUSTIFY THE WORD ‘EXCLUSIVELY.’ The Affirmatives have told us that the present funding of education is unworkable. They have not shown us that only 100% federal aid is the sole answer. They have not even mentioned voluntary contributions, corporate sponsorship of education, or government abandonment of public education altogether. No have they told us why a federal-municipal partnership, with the federal government providing, say 95% of the money, is doomed to fail. Their case has not justified this term. [Note: the Negative would also have to read evidence here to show that one of these alternatives would potentially solve the Affirmative harms]

"POINT D: THE AFFIRMATIVE FAILS TO JUSTIFY THE WORD ‘PUBLIC.’ The Affirmative speakers have told us how their plan will greatly improve the quality of education and thereby improve American society. They have not explained, therefore, why these benefits ought to be limited to only those attending public schools. Yet the resolution requires them to justify this limitation — otherwise, the word ‘public’ would not have been included.

"POINT E: THE AFFIRMATIVE FAILS TO JUSTIFY THE PHRASE ‘ELEMENTARY AND SECONDARY EDUCATION.’ We have been told that the federal government is richer than state and local governments, that it has a greater tax base, and that it can collect and disburse funds more cheaply. If true, then the federal government would do well to collect money for, and then pay for, many other services we now fund through state and municipal government: garbage collection; police services; sewer and road services; even public libraries. The Affirmative has failed to explain why the resolution should be limited this way.

"Finally, POINT F: JUSTIFICATION IS AN ABSOLUTE AND INDEPENDENT VOTING ISSUE. It’s absolute because it’s a yes-or-no question: either the Affirmative team has — or has not — justified these terms. At this point in the debate, they have not. It’s an independent voting issue because, if they cannot justify the terms, they haven’t fulfilled their burden of proof. They may have explained that their plan is advantageous, but they haven’t supported the precise wording of the resolution, and that is the Affirmative’s fundamental duty."

 

How does the Affirmative respond to a justification attack?

If you can justify a term or phrase cited by the Negative, do so. Perhaps your case does show that state and local governments are unable to deal with the problem; that’s enough to justify "federal," a word that appears in virtually every resolution. Indeed, that’s one of the reasons why it is important for the case to have strong Inherency evidence — that will become part of your arsenal to show that the tools used under the present system simply do not work.

Secondly, if 2NC presented this argument, cry foul, just as you would do against a nontopicality attack presented in that speech. If this issue is so important, you will say, it should have been raised earlier.

Finally, and most importantly, argue against the legitimacy of justification itself. Deny that justifying the resolution is part of the Affirmative burden of proof: you just have to justify your own plan as desirable, and (assuming your plan is topical) that’s enough to show the resolution is desirable as a whole. That undercuts the first "standard." You probably should admit the Meaningfulness standard, but remind the judge that your plan incorporates every word in the resolution, and that is sufficient.

Some violation arguments will claim you don’t prove how any of hundreds of alternatives would be just as good. Show the judge that if this sort of argument is accepted as legitimate, it destroys Affirmative ground by requiring you to defend your plan against an infinite number of possible counterplans. Tell the Negative that your team is willing to defend the plan against any formal minor repair or counterplan, but until there is a reasonable alternative presented, you have no duty to respond.

Some violation arguments will claim, instead, that the resolution sets limits and your case doesn’t give reasons for staying within those limits. Violations D and E of the example above show this argument in action. Explain to the judge that you’ve proven the benefits of the plan within the barriers of the resolution, but you’ve seen no evidence that the plan could be extended further to equally desirable effect. If the Negative wishes to present such evidence, you will point out, that would confirm your harm, inherency, and solvency arguments and mean that the resolution at least must be adopted.

Finally, on the impact argument: yes, you will tell the judge, justification is an absolute issue. But it is by no means a voting issue. If a desirable plan incorporates the resolution, that justifies an Affirmative ballot.

 

Introduction to Policy Debate
Copyright © 1990, 1993, 1996, 2002 John R. Prager
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