[T]o say that representations matter—insofar as [they] determine/influence policy outcomes—says little or nothing about which justifications should be used for policymaking. The representations presented by the 1AC that are justifications for action, instead of outcomes of the plan are neither mandatory nor inevitable outcomes of voting Aff.
Thus, the judge, at the end of the debate, should be able to choose (for themselves) why to vote Aff or Neg. Logically, one can choose the best arguments from the set of available reasons presented in the debate. Not every 1AC justification needs to be part of the final “package” of voting Aff. If one or more representations for voting for the plan is undesirable, they should not be used. If, at the end of the debate, positive/beneficial justifications for acting remain, the plan is desirable and the Aff should win.
With that, University of Georgia Debate Coach Casey Harrigan has levied a fundamental challenge to the theoretical viability of representational critique as currently conceptualized in academic policy debate. This article will defend Harrigan’s “judge choice” theory against the attacks of its critics and thereby contribute to the developing theoretical literature about representational critique.
Before examining “judge choice” and the criticisms that have been wrested upon it by critics, it is important to first clarify the target of Harrigan’s theory. In his initial article, Harrigan defines “representational critique” as “any argument that takes issue with justification for action that is not necessarily tied to outcome of action.” In other words, a critique of representations contests the accuracy, desirability, or ethics of one or more of the reasons that the affirmative has advanced to support a policy proposal but not the policy proposal itself.
Popular examples of this genre of argument (“Reps Ks”) include critiques of the way that a team or its authors describe terrorism, proliferation, nuclear weapons, global warming, or the environment. Indeed, the list of possible targets of representational critique is as long as the list of arguments that the affirmative can advance as justifications for the adoption of their plan.
Harrigan is critical of the way in which these representational critiques are currently debated. In practice, debates involving these arguments typically occur as follows:
The affirmative proposes a change in policy by the United States federal government. To support the necessity and desirability of this change, the first affirmative constructive outlines several reasons that the course of action they have proposed would avoid catastrophic consequences or accrue beneficial advantages.
In response, the negative criticizes one or more of the reasons that the affirmative has advanced to support the adoption of their plan. Even if the plan is desirable when compared with the status quo, the negative will argue, one or more of the ways that the affirmative chose to justify the plan has harmful consequences that ought to be rejected by the judge-critic.
The affirmative, faced with this objection to one or more of their representations, will respond with three basic strategies:
Defend the representation that the negative has criticized. This is the most straight-forward and least controversial of the possible affirmative responses to a representational critique.
Offer a permutation that calls for the passage of the plan but the rejection of the undesirable/harmful representation(s).
Contend that the plan should be the focus of the debate, not the representations used to support its enactment.
These latter two affirmative responses are met with a predictable negative rejoinder centered around the importance of representations to the process of policymaking and the outcome of policy change. Moreover, the negative will assert that the affirmative must defend all of the representations they have advanced in support of their plan because their failure to do so constitutes “severance”.
It is here that Harrigan’s “judge choice” theory contests the orthodoxy surrounding the practice of representational critique.
The judging community, unfortunately, has imported the logic of counterplan competition and ascribed to the dogma that every representation forwarded by the 1AC must be featured in a final evaluation of the plan – with little attendant reasoning for why this must be the case. … [I]mporting the theory of CP competition into these debates is a clear misapplication of the term. “Severance” implies an initial attachment—that the plan initially required that certain justifications be used for acting. In other words, the Neg assumes that the Aff had said that voting for the plan mandates that certain representations be used. … This is false. … [J]ustifications for action are frequently disconnected from outcome. … In this way, representations are different than, say, a policy advantage to the plan.
Elevating the representational critique to the status of a voting issue relies on a decision-making methodology that is inconsistent with that used by judges to evaluate other types of arguments. Critics of “judge choice” have argued that it is illegitimate for a judge to decide for themselves whether or not to consider one or more of the justifications presented by the affirmative to support their plan. While this discomfort with perceived “intervention” is well intentioned, it does not comport with the way in which judges resolve other types of debates.
For example, the affirmative may extend four responses to a disadvantage in their final rebuttal: it is not intrinsic, it does not link to the plan, the case outweighs the impact, and it is empirically denied. When evaluating this debate, the judge should consider each of these responses and determine whether they are sufficient to defeat the disadvantage. If the judge determines that the affirmative’s intrinsicness response is theoretically illegitimate, for example, s/he moves on to consider the affirmative’s contestation of the link. The intrinsicness response, because it has been defeated by the negative, is no longer a relevant argument for the judge to act upon when making their decision.
In the same way, the representational critique functions to persuade the judge that one or more of the justifications that the affirmative has presented ought not be considered as a reason to enact the plan.
In response, critics will appeal to the harm that has been done by the initial presentation itself of the affirmative’s contested justification. If the negative wins that the way the affirmative represented terrorism is racist, for example, ought not the affirmative lose for adopting a racist stance?
It is here that critics wrongly equate the theory of “judge choice” with the theory of “plan focus”. The latter theory requires that judges exclude consideration of the representations that have been offered to support the adoption of a policy proposal from their evaluation of the debate. “Judge choice,” on the other hand, accepts the necessity of representational critique but prescribes a mechanism for determining its relevance from the perspective of a logical decision-maker.
The crucial distinction, then, is between plan focus and policy relevance. When presented with multiple justifications for a policy change, a logical decision-maker can choose which of these justifications compels them to support or oppose the advocate’s proposal. If the decision-maker concludes that a policy change is warranted because of justification A, the undesirability or even harmfulness of justifications B and C ought not dissuade him or her from endorsing the change. The degree to which justifications B and C are bad ought not factor into the evaluation of justification A unless justifications B and/or C are intrinsic to the policy proposal.
This logic can be clearly applied to representational critiques. If the judge concludes at the end of the debate that the policy proposed by the affirmative ought to be enacted based on justification A, s/he should choose to endorse it based exclusively on justification A—justifications B and C are not part of the judge’s reasoning for voting affirmative. As such, the harmfulness of justifications B and C is not relevant to the judge’s endorsement of the plan.
Again, this view of the judge’s decision is consistent with the way that decisions are viewed in other circumstances. Returning the disadvantage example above, the undesirability of the affirmative’s intrinsicness response is not part of the judge’s reasoning when s/he decides to reject the disadvantage because the affirmative has won that it is empirically denied. When the judge articulates his or her decision, s/he does not reference the intrinsicness response: “I voted affirmative because the disadvantage is empirically denied”. Disputing this decision because the affirmative’s intrinsicness response is undesirable does not make sense.
In the same way, a judge evaluating a debate involving a representational critique can (and would) explain their decision in a way that is not reliant on the flawed justifications that the negative has indicted. “I voted affirmative because the plan is justified for reason A” cannot be logically disputed by arguing that reasons B and C are incorrect, undesirable, or unethical.
In order for the representational critique to become a reason to vote negative, the critics of “judge choice” need to establish the veracity of f two underlying decision-making assumptions:
The judge’s decision must account for every justification advanced by the affirmative. In other words, once an utterance is made, it cannot be discarded from the judge’s deliberation.
The harm done by the voicing of the objectionable representation is sufficient to disregard consideration of the plan’s desirability.
The first assumption results in illogical decision-making. Harrigan explains:
The debate judge should be treated like an intelligent and dynamic policy-maker. The affirmative should forward a proposal with a set of justifications. The Neg can criticize (via DAs, a counterplan, a K, etc.) the plan or the justifications. If the Neg wins that the plan is a bad idea, they win. If the Neg wins that the justification is bad, then the judge should reject that justification and determine whether the plan is a good idea for any other potential reason.
It is not logical to reject a policy proposal on the grounds that it could be supported by an inaccurate or undesirable justification. This model of decision-making does not comport with the way that individuals make everyday decisions.
For example, a friend could propose that you attend a baseball game with him. To convince you that this is a good idea, he could argue that attending the game will accrue three benefits: (1) it will be fun, (2) it will allow you to get enjoy delicious ballpark fare, and (3) it will allow you to throw batteries at the opposing team’s right-fielder.
Being a reasonable, law-abiding, and non-violent person, you take issue with the third justification that your friend has offered to convince you to attend the game: you have no desire to throw batteries at the opposing team’s right fielder (Sammy Sosa has retired, after all) and indeed you think that this very idea is morally heinous.
Nonetheless, you agree with your friend’s first and second arguments (it will be fun and there will be good food), so you decide to agree to attend the game with him for those reasons but not for the third reason (throwing batteries).
In order for the very presentation of the third reason to become a reason not to attend the game, it must be the case that throwing batteries at the opposing right-fielder is intrinsic to attendance at the game. If it is, then the benefits of attending the game might be outweighed by the disadvantages of attending and you might decide not to take your friend up on his offer.
Most representational critiques do not raise objections that are intrinsic to the plan’s adoption. To use one of Harrigan’s examples, the affirmative might propose to disarm the United States’ nuclear arsenal in order to accrue two advantages: proliferation and biodiversity. If the negative critiques the way the affirmative represents the environment within their biodiversity advantage, they have not advanced a criticism that is intrinsic to U.S. disarmament. If the negative wins their argument—that the way the affirmative represents environmental harms is undesirable/harmful—then the judge should not consider the biodiversity advantage as a reason to endorse the plan. The judge could still choose to endorse the plan, however, because it would accrue the benefit outlined by the proliferation advantage.
It is illogical, then, to consider a representational critique as a reason to reject the plan if other reasons to endorse the plan have been presented.
This, then, requires the advocate of the “judge choice” theory to address the second underlying assumption of critics: that the harm done by the voicing of the objectionable representation is sufficient to disregard consideration of the plan’s desirability.
Harrigan addresses this argument by framing it as a reactionary move:
Interestingly, the contrary position—that you should hold speakers to every reason they cite as justification and use it to assess their policy—is one of the most reactionary and anti-critical stances one could take. It prioritizes who speaks over what is spoken about. It ignores content for form. It punishes instead of compromises. And, fundamentally, it is a tactic used by conservative political forces to crush progressivism. Do the critique folk really want to be in this company?
This argument can be clarified with an example. Imagine that during the years before the Civil War a bill to outlaw slavery is under consideration by the U.S. Senate. Advocates of the bill advance a variety of arguments: they insist that slavery violates the fundamental human dignity of slaves and they argue that the abolition of slavery is necessary to maintain the competitiveness of industry in the Northern states. Those that believe the first justification find the second justification objectionable and indeed immoral: it relies on the assumption that slavery can be justified by economic calculations and therefore fails to acknowledge the inherent dignity of all human beings.
Pretend that you are a neutral Senator deliberating over the bill—you are not certain which way to vote and are willing to listen to all arguments made by each side. After giving each side a fair hearing, you determine that both the “fundamental human dignity” justification for endorsing the bill and the criticism of the “Northern competitiveness” justification are true. What should you do?
The “judge choice” theory would argue that you should vote in favor of the bill on the basis of the “fundamental human dignity” justification. Even though one of the justifications for the bill (“Northern competitiveness”) was objectionable, it is not the reason that you are endorsing it—your vote reflects the first justification, not the second.
On the other hand, the decision-making model advanced by the critics of the “judge choice” theory would require the advocates of the bill to defend both the “fundamental human dignity” justification and the “Northern competitiveness” justification. A neutral Senator evaluating these justifications would therefore be put in a difficult position: should they endorse the bill and thereby support the second, objectionable justification? Or should they reject the bill because one of the justifications offered in its support was objectionable?
Negative teams defending representational critiques often advance arguments that would require resolving this conundrum in the latter fashion. Arguing that “the damage has already been done,” for example, deprives the judge of the logical opportunity to reject some justifications for a proposed course of action while approving of others.
It is here that an important distinction needs to be made: judges should evaluate each of the justifications offered for and against a proposed course of action, but that does not mean that they need to act upon them. The “judge choice” theory does not allow the affirmative to “take back” a justification that they have advanced in support of their plan. Instead, it simply acknowledges that the loss of one justification does not in itself prove that there is no justification for the plan’s adoption.
Importing the concept of “severance” from counterplan theory, therefore, is inappropriate. In the context of a counterplan, “severance” means that the affirmative’s permutation does not include the entirety of the plan and therefore alters the object of the judge’s decision-making. This is categorically distinct from “severance” in the context of representational critiques. Instead of altering the object of the judge’s decision-making, “severance” in this latter context alters only the criteria upon which the judge makes their decision. And in contrast to a severance permutation advanced against a counterplan, “severance” in the context of the critique does not really “sever” at all—the affirmative still presented an objectionable justification for the plan’s adoption, but it is the judge that subsequently eliminates this justification from their tally of “reasons to do the plan”.
As Harrigan explains, the “judge choice” theory alters the function of representation critiques but does not sap them of their strategic utility.
There isn’t “no cost” to presenting poor justifications for action on the Aff. In all likelihood, you’d lose your entire advantage. … The K still has value—but it’s meaning changes to a “reason not to use such representation” instead of a DA to the plan. … The Reps K isn’t a DA to the plan. It can never be “[Objectionable] Reps cause extinction – outweighs the case”, because the conclusion of that statement is that those justifications should never be used for acting in the first place. Translation: “No Link, Judge”.
Again, critics of the “judge choice” theory assume that the damaging effects of an inaccurate, undesirable, or unethical justification are accrued regardless of whether the judge chooses to act based on that justification. Returning to the disarmament example, a judge that votes affirmative based on the proliferation advantage but not the environment advantage is not supporting the justification that the negative has critiqued. This is a critical distinction because it explains why the negative’s insistence that representations shape policy enactment miss the point: only those representations that are acted upon shape the enactment of a policy. If the judge chooses to enact the plan based on a second justification, the disadvantages to the first justification are not relevant even if representations have policy relevance.
Finally, what about the Doty card and other “reps matter” style arguments that I mentioned before? Well, representations matter—but those arguments presume that the reps actually used influence policy. My position is that the judge can choose which representations to use for policy enactment, so Doty et al. applies to the 1AC but not the final position chosen by the judge that is a reason to vote Aff because it affirms the plan.
Roger Solt, perhaps the most influential debate theorist of recent decades, agrees with Harrigan’s view:
A focus on the “representations” employed in debates has, of late, to some extent displaced the previous concentration on discourse. While discourse focuses on the words employed, representations involve the broader images that those words create and convey. Nonetheless, the problems associated with representational focus in policy debate are rather similar to those linked to discursive focus. First, if one is proposing a plan of action, the representations employed are secondary and instrumental means of justifying an ultimate policy conclusion. Thus, even if representations are in part discredited, the overall policy [end page 50] conclusion may hold. Second, representations are always partial, always limited by personal perspective, and always prone to interpretation. There is no such thing as an absolutely clear, perfectly accurate representation of something. We thus can quibble endlessly about the correctness of an image. But the fact remains that we are forced ultimately to act on the basis of imperfect depictions and recognitions.
The critics’ only recourse, at this point, is to argue that the very introduction of the harmful representations in the first place is sufficient to disregard consideration of the plan in favor of punishing the offending team for their transgression. Faced with the logic of the “judge choice” theory, the representational-critique-as-voting-issue stance must out of necessity resort to a defense of the punishment paradigm.
While a rigorous examination of ballot-as-punishment is beyond the scope of the article, it is worth mentioning David Glass’s theory of “counter-topicality” as a possible complement to Harrigan’s “judge choice” theory. Glass contends that the negative ought to be limited to only those arguments that are competitive with the resolution:
This new conception of debate – that the negative is limited to arguments which compete with the resolution – has other consequences. First, it also limits the type of Critiques which can be run. Critiques would also have to be competitive with the Resolution, as opposed to being simply linked off of any word which the Affirmative says that the Negative deems objectionable. For example, given this year’s topic, criticisms of the United States’ endorsement of United Nations Peacekeeping Operations would be fair game, since you could not simultaneously endorse those criticisms and endorse the resolution. However were the affirmative team to use a “bad word”… for example, if an affirmative speaker made a sexist remark, criticisms of that remark would not be a basis for a negative ballot, because while it may be bad or objectionable that the Affirmative used sexist language, that bad act does not compete with the Resolution (you can simultaneously reject the sexist language and endorse that the resolution is correct).
Is the very fact that the Affirmative can “get away” with bad language in a Counter-Topicality framework an argument against the framework? There are other tools available to the judge to punish bad language other than to vote negative – such as docking speaker points. Second, one may argue that the issues of fairness and preparation are higher standards, because debate is impossible without them. Once you allow language criticisms, you simply fall back into the framework where arguments which do not compete with the resolution are acceptable – and you need to find an alternate line which allows those arguments but limits out the infinite number of performances which the negative may resort to as an alternate approach to the affirmative. Further there is no limit to the number of things about the affirmative team or about the language that the affirmative uses, or about the debate process itself, that the negative could argue is objectionable – and an increasingly large number of these may be much harder to predict than the use of sexist language; this is why the Counter-Topicality framework is preferable, and that the Negative must be limited to arguments which compete with the resolution. Such a framework still gives the Negative a lot to say, and it allows the Affirmative to reasonably prepare. (One “real world” example – if a Senator was arguing against sending troops to Iraq, but used bad language in making her point, would you reject her arguments and send troops to Iraq as a rejection of her discourse? Or would you simply think worse of her, but in the absence of arguments which compete with the idea that sending troops to Iraq is bad, endorse the policy position that we should not send troops to Iraq?)
Glass’s theory of “counter-topicality” is therefore consistent with Harrigan’s theory of “judge choice” in offering a foundation for logical decision-making. In order for the representational critique to reclaim its status as a voting issue, its advocates must either explain how it can be reconciled with a logical model of decision-making or defend that the necessity for punishment is enough to justify deviating from it.
Glass, Dr. David. “Counter-Topicality: An Instrument of Fairness,” Rostrum, Volume 79, Number 7, March 2005, Available Online at http://www.nflonline.org/Rostrum/Pol0305Glass.
Harrigan, Casey. “‘Judge Choice’: The Illogic of Representational Critique,” Georgia Debate Union, November 6, 2009, Available Online at http://www.georgiadebate.org/2009/11/judge-choice-the-illogic-of-representational-critique.
Solt, Roger E. “Debate’s Culture of Narcissism,” Contemporary Argumentation & Debate, Volume 25, September 2004, Available Online via Communication & Mass Media Complete, p. 50-51.