Last of the Flo-hicans: on the death of tabula rasa judging-part 3- about the offense/defense paradigm

I started this post a long time ago but the draft got deleted and I never really came back to it. Recently, however, I have been annoyed again by the chatter about how stupid the offense defense paradigm is. So, I am going to attempt to part explain/part defend the theoretical usefulness of seeing things “offense/defense”.


Part 1 =Some not so short FYIs- the first time I ever heard of the “paradigm” of offense/defense was when I lost a T debate at the TOC my junior year (which would be 99-00). I had heard of offense and defense in terms of disadvantages before then, but knew nothing of a paradigm. All year we had been running the states CP and framing it as “disad solves the case, any risk of politics”, but had never heard the application of that kind of argument to theory, or heard of a theory argument being resolved this way. While I wasn’t really involved in college debate I had gone to the NDT that year and seen debates over theory/topicality and none of them involved a contest of competing interpretations/reasonability. In the debate in question we were told that though we “won” some reasons the neg argument was nonsense, they weren’t offense because we didn’t have a counter interpretation. The judge quickly explained this was the theoretical equivalent of having a link turn without uniqueness- since the neg had the only interpretation of the word in the round, even if it was bad we still lost.


That summer at camp, competing interpretations exploded. In fact, the entire structure of a topicality argument changed. The summer before at the DDI Strange had explained in lecture that a T argument consisted of the following parts

A. Interpretation

B. Violation

C. Reasons to prefer

1. The negative interpretation is superior

2. The affirmative interpretation is unreasonable (this was not a point about reasonability per se, basically always just a limits argument)

D. Topicality is a voting issue for fairness/ground reasons

This was, it had been explained, the way things had been for some time. The following summer however, subpoint D changed forever and became “Topicality is a question of competing interpretations”- this meant we were no longer just discussing this particular debate round, but instead what it would be like if the resolution of this debate decided how all future debates would play out. This cult like mantra spread so fast I cannot even think of a single debate that year where any side contested that T was always about competing interpretations.

Competing interpretations quickly spread to other theoretical issues like conditionality. While teams had for some time been saying dispositionality was a superior alternative to conditionality, this suddenly became their “interpretation”, as if calling it an interpretation somehow gave the argument magical powers. Views of counterplan competition also became interpretations, and soon so did views of debate as it related to kritiks (framework was not an argument as it exists now then, in fact not until the TOC my senior year was I ever involved in a debate with FW as we think of it now, and that was only my poorly thought out attempt to explain why Westminsrters statism K was clearly cheating, an argument that broke my heart to make).

Bill Maher has a comedy bit about how some things are just decided by corporations, like “we are gonna make this new product and market it so much you are going to like it” and that is basically what happened with competing interpretations in theory. It just arrived one day and we all basically accepted it. With competing interpretations came the rise of offense/defense in theory. I had previously been to two camps taught by pretty qualified people, but had never been told that you had to have theory offense- it was sufficient to win affirmative advantages check in order to justify conditionality. Overnight this changed. Offense/defense made evaluating theory debates (every judge favorite) so much easier- no offense, you lose. Simple, clean, unarguable logic.

Back to substance, when I started going to debate camps it was basically the belief of every instructor that I had that to win a politics disad you had to control issue specific uniqueness. If fast track was already going to pass, then it didn’t matter how much the plan boosted Clinton’s political capital, it was irrelevant- the affirmative could not win offense as long as you controlled issue specific uniqueness. For my junior/senior years, which were both domestic topics, probably 90% of all debates came down to a 2nr that started with ” States cp solves most of the case, we control issue specific uniqueness, any risk of offense on the disad….”. When an issue is so dominant, takes up such a huge part of all the debates on two topics, it can’t help but shape the people who are involved. Judges listened to these debates for 2 years, 2nr’s executed this strategy, 2a’s were haunted by it. In order to understand evolutions in debate theory and debate thinking, you need to think about the way they were produced. If you accept assumptions like

-issue specific uniqueness

-uniform state fiat on the education and privacy topic

Then the offense defense paradigm quickly becomes a shorthand way of explaining the aff is screwed from the get go- it allows judges to give the correct decision (as with topics this lame an aff win is basically impossible vs equally balanced teams) without doing the hard work of figuring out the minutia of each issue. The offense defense paradigm became a heuristic, and it lived long enough to see itself become the villain.


Judges reared on this sort of lazy judge by numbers system, when the next international topics rolled around for high school and college, suddenly had to make tough decisions again. There was no states CP style unbeatable generic, so there were once again solvency deficits to wade through- and fopo cases could conceivably outweigh the politics disad. But judging skills had atrophied, and when people fell back on their faithful explanation crutch, the offense/defense paradigm, a lot of nonsensical decisions were rendered.


I’m not going to refute the millions of anecdotes I have heard about nonsensical decisions based on offense defense, mainly because they are indefensible. When a judge says they voted neg on consult because “say no” isn’t an offensive argument, that judge does not understand in any meaningful way what the term offense/defense paradigm means. That many people don’t understand the paradigm is not an indict of the paradigm. Bad judges will be bad judges regardless, other judges purposefully making their decisions less precise out of an irrational hatred of offense defense does not make bad judges decide debates better.


I will now attempt to reconstruct the offense/defense paradigm by giving a few examples of where it is an immensely useful tool, and explain how to argue against its misuse in a similar situation.


Issue 1: Conditionality

Legs start with some definitions (useful for this discussion, not as absolutes). A conditional cp is one where the negative is free to decide when they can kick it. A dispositional cp is one where the negative may only kick it if the affirmative makes a certain kind of argument. The difference being, the affirmative has some (limited, initial) control over whether or not the negative can kick the cp if it is dispositional, and no such control when the CP is conditional. In a debate where the affirmative argues conditionality is bad, and dispositionality is superior, an offense defense lens can be useful in sorting through the debate. Common defenses of conditionality, like “improves the 2AC” are solved by dispositionality (perhaps more so)- so thinking of things in terms of offense defense can help reduce the relevant issues to a manageable number. Reasonability as a theory makes less sense when comparing two competing practices- it can be decided is conditionality reasonable, but it makes less sense to decide which is more reasonable conditionality or dispositionality. This is because reasonability establishes a low bar- if a practice rises above the low bar it is deemed acceptable. Low bars do not provide good metrics for assessing differing levels of quality at the top.

Competing interpretations makes less sense when deciding whether 3 conditional counterplans is superior to 4 conditional counterplans. There can be any number of reasons for this, but I will highlight just two. First, is the idea that interpretations “compete”. Interpretation competition can be thought of like counterplan competition, things can be mutually exclusive or they can be best (net beneficial) when only done alone. Dispo vs condo are mutually exclusive- the affirmative can’t have and not have control at the same time. 3 vs 4 is framed as a net benefit issue- 4 triggers some sort of link that 3 doesn’t. The problem with most debates like this,however, is that the link differential between 3 and 4 is completely contrived. So the problem is not the “paradigm”- the problem is there is no competition- 3 and 4 are the same. This is generally what people are saying when they explain an interpretation is “arbitrary and self serving”, however most teams don’t explain this nearly enough (this is similarly what people are doing when they say dispo= condo cause we can force a perm). So while many would say this is an instance of the o/d paradigm breaking down, and I can certainly see it, if the neg makes the correct arguments it is analogous to when an affirmative makes a non competitive T counter interpretation, the paradigm should still work and in their favor. The second way competing interpretations often breaks down in this instance is the aff will say “you get 2” and the neg will just read their block. Then in response the aff will say “our interp is 2, they didn’t make an interp, therefor they are defending infinite, 2 is way better than infinite”.  So now the negative only “gets” offense based on infinite cps, any argument that would be solved by a number of CPs< infinite doesn’t count. The problem here is not with competing, its with “interpretations”- the idea that if the negative doesn’t say the words “Our interpretation is X” then the affirmative gets to define it for them, or that it can be anything. Lets take a short sidebar.

Competing interpretations and offense defense are not synonyms. You can use offense defense on a disad, where neither side has an interpretation. Hopefully this point is not controversial/doesn’t require any more elaboration.

So one can argue for competing interpretations or offense defense without arguing for both. The two issues are often blended in theory debates by the idea that you need an interpretation in order to make your arguments offense.

Can you have “competing interpretations” without interpretations? Surely the answer is yes- the affirmative can say “conditionality is bad” and the negative can answer it without either side defining conditionality or saying “our interpretation is 17”- the interpretation can be implied. If the interpretations are implied, the judge can still decide what theory of kicking the cp is better for debate. If the affirmative wishes to advance an argument like dispo solves offense, that requires a more nuanced explanation or “interp” surely, but the basis of the theory debate can occur without explicit interpretations. So if interpretations can be implied, why must someone write it out/explicitly say it? They clearly could benefit from doing so, but if someone says “you should specify your agent” is it wrong to think that the other team is implicitly defending “should not”? This could clearly break down in certain circumstances, if one team defines space exploration as “sending unmanned probes beyond our solar system” then the other teams “implied” interpretation is hard to figure out- but its certainly not sending manned probes only inside our solar system.

So to get back to the above example, if the negative doesn’t say “we get y number”, but they read y number, it seems their implied “interp” is that is what they get (clearly this also has issues as they could read more cp/advocacies in the 2NC/1nr). Though this may have problems, it seems more logical than “infinite”. So while lack of an interp could be an example of where the system breaks down, there is usually a relatively logical way to resolve it.


Issue 2: Substance

Short irrelevant rant- The dumbest gripe people have with offense/defense is saying things like “you don’t need offense” or ” I will vote on no risk”. Usually they are getting on their high horse and think they are making a big statement about their metatheoretical views. They aren’t. No one votes on “zero risk of da”. They vote that the risk of affirmative offense outweighs the risk of negative offense. Period. If there is “zero risk” of the negative disadvantage, then you are voting FOR “some risk” of the case, not against “zero risk”.  end rant


Now for substance.

Principle 1:

The key issue here is how offense defense gets evaluated in relation to counterplans. Offense defense is needed to decide the “net” direction of offense- this is the side who best reduces risk. So if there are 25 sheets of paper and each side is winning some but not others, the side winning net offense is the side winning the least risk of all the various sheets tabulated together. This can be discussed in crude math terms- if there are 3 disads and one side wins 25% risk of two but the other side wins 51% risk of the 3rd etc. Numbers are not truly necessary however- implicitly all judges resolve multi issue debates by thinking about net offense.


Principle 2:

There are two kinds of defense: marginal, and absolute. Marginal defense is defense that is debatable/is debated by both sides at the end of the round. Does economic decline cause war- if both sides are arguing the yes/no at the end of the round then the side going for “no” is advancing marginal defense- the degree to which economic decline is likely to cause war is decided by the judge- and can be resolved as a large margin or a slim margin. Absolute defense is factual/conceded. You drop “obama not pushing START” when going for a political capital disad as the negative- you have just lost absolute defense. Absolute defense, at least in theory, should live up to its name- the risk should be zero ( I am going to ignore judges who in the face of conceded absolute defense go “yea, so the risk of politics is like 95%” because that is not an offense/defense issue).

Principal 3

If one side (A) has marginal defense, and the other side (B) wins absolute defense, then side B has one the net offense direction. This is because while their offense is “mitigated”, side A’s offense has been “taken out” (terms I will now use as shorthand for absolute vs marginal). While I can conceive of some situations where marginal offense by both sides could lead to offense/defense problems, I think most people would admit in an instance of mitigated case vs mitigated disad they use the net offense calculation when making their decisions.


Where things get twisted is in instances of absolute defense. I will now go through a few and explain why confusion arises about offense/defense.


Scenario 1: a plan inclusive CP solves the case and has a net benefit. The affirmative has dropped the cp solves the whole case, the negative has dropped an absolute takeout vs the disad.

In this instance, offense/defense alone cannot produce a decision- this is because neither side is winning net offense, each side has offense of precisely zero. Some judges may resolve this situation by intervening to say one teams defense is “less” absolute than the other, and many times (more often than not) they will vote negative on a risk of the disad (and this situation is probably what produces the most animosity towards the offense/defense paradigm). In reality, offense/defense and risk cannot produce a decision here(alone) because each team has conceded absolute defense (again, ignoring people who don’t believe in absolute defense). However, this inability to produce a decision is not a fault of offense defense, it is a strength. Offense defense is not the highlander one theory to rule them all, its a useful tool in certain instances. In this instance, its not useful so the judge needs to pull something else out of the toolbox (presumption for instance). That the judge finds themselves in this position is unfortunate, and surely is the fault of the debaters, but the position itself is not an indictment of the paradigm. A “reasonability” paradigm fares no better in the instance where each team has dropped absolute defense.


Scenario 2:

There is low risk of a disadvantage, but the disadvantage turns the case. Conversely, there is low risk of an advantage, but the advantage effects the impact uniqueness of the disadvantage. These are often labeled as “try or die” situations (a gripe for another time).

Because the aff drops “the disad turns the case” does not mean aff offense is impossible. Looking at timeframe is the easiest way to see this to be true- global warming may cause Indo-Pak war, but if global warming takes 100 years and the case is short term blah blah blah. It should be obvious that dropping “turns the case” does not make “offense impossible” despite repeated 2nr’s to the contrary. Similarly, that capitalism will hurt the environment eventually does not mean avoiding destroying the ozone now is irrelevant. This, despite debates decided to the contrary, is not very controversial.


While the timeframe aspect is not controversial, the probability component seems to be. If the affirmative has a impact uniqueness argument to their case, but the chances of them solving are slim, then an offense defense paradigm certainly does not mandate you vote affirmative, though many people do. This gets back to the question of net offense, so lets look at this using silly debate math. Let us say that impacts rank 1-100 with 100 being extinction.

The negative has a disad with a platypus extinction impact, so it ranks 100. The probability of this disad is 75%, so they have a PXM of 75.

The aff has a generic environment advantage with extinction- so 100. The probability of them solving is 5%,  so PXM of 5.

Now the 1AR says “destruction of the environment generically also kills the platypus, makes platypus extinction inevitable”. What has this done to the calculation? Think about it before reading on.






Many people think it has made the affirmative impact bigger -which is clearly false. It was already 100- platypodes are a small subset of all species, and they already said all species would go extinct. What this argument has really done is…. reduce the negatives 75%. While most don’t think about it this way it is a SOLVENCY argument vs the disad- it is saying voting negative does not solve for the disad impact because the platypus could still go extinct.

Now the question becomes, who do we figure out the math on this? One way would be absolute- no matter what there is reduced risk the disad solves platypus extinction, so make that 75% now 30%. Another way would be to say that this reduction in risk is contingent- if the affirmative doesn’t solve their case then its irrelevant in our decision making process that the disad could be non uniqued by the case (its not try or die since trying sucks). In this view the risk of the disad would be something like  75 – (75((risk of case solving)(amount case inevitability claim reduces solvency of disad)(.01)) or  (the original PXM of the disad) minus the % reduction of the disad assigned to the inevitability claim. To reduce the 75 to 5 or below, the % assigned to how much this uniqueness arg affects the disad has to be above 90%, which is pretty high. Lets say the neg drops it so its 100%- auto vote aff right? If the neg says absolutely nothing its conceivable… barely. But if the neg contests it in any intelligent way then it is probably below 90%- which is why most try or die claims are silly when not conceded. And also why the offense defense paradigm does not mandate “try or die” is always a round winning argument.










1 thought on “Last of the Flo-hicans: on the death of tabula rasa judging-part 3- about the offense/defense paradigm

  1. yxu

    Could you discuss how offense/defense relates to a comparison between the "risk" of solvency or an internal link versus the "risk" of an impact as opposed to the standard impact X vs. impact Y? For example, using the platypus vs. environment hypothetical, how does a reduced risk that affirmative can stop/solve environmental extinction via defensive arguments like "technological barriers prevent" and "alt causes to collapse" interact with a reduced risk that platypus extinction will cause total extinction (especially if the "case turns disad" argument is also made)? Also, how should you quantify and maximize a difference between the probability of an advantage and the probability the affirmative can solve that advantage when you are winning substantially more defense against one (for example, if you are far ahead on reasons why SPS is inefficient/not cost-beneficial/not technologically possible, but behind on the warming advantage)?

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