Digging Into The Debate Theory Archives: Papka on (Excessive) Conditionality and the “Middle Ground” of Dispositionality

Digging Into The Debate Theory Archives is a series highlighting “old” debate theory articles that are particularly thought-provoking, influential, or illuminating and that active debate students would benefit from reading.

In this installment of the series, I am highlighting Ouita Papka‘s article about conditionality from the 1986 Debater’s Research Guide. At the time the article was written, Papka (now a successful chef and restaurateur) had just won the National Debate Tournament for the University of Kentucky. Her article’s main goal was to help students better answer negative strategies that include multiple conditional counterplans. Papka also proposed an alternative, “middle ground” status for negatives to consider when introducing counterplans (soon to be called “dispositionality”) that was pioneered by Kentucky during her senior season.

It is interesting to trace the historical norms about conditionality and off-case positions since the time Papka’s article was written. For most of the 1990s and into the early-2000s, it was uncommon for negatives to introduce multiple conditional counterplans. During that era, dispositionality became a more common alternative disposition, and one conditional counterplan was typically considered the maximum acceptable degree or “amount” of conditionality.

This began to change in the second half of the 2000s. Notably, the 2006 NDT Final Round included two conditional counterplans and the 2009 NDT Final Round included four conditional counterplans and one conditional kritik; at the time, both were shocking deviations from expected conditionality norms.

In the 2010s, negative teams increasingly introduced multiple conditional counterplans and kritiks, and successful theoretical objections to conditionality became relatively rare. As a result, debaters in 2021 are facing the same challenge that Papka identified in 1986: “being affirmative in a debate round where the first negative presents four conditional counterplans.”

Papka’s suggestions for how to respond to multiple conditional counterplans can be summarized as follows:

  1. Theoretically object to conditionality in a sophisticated way, not as a “mindless timewaster.”
  2. Theoretically object to conditionality only when it is strategic to do so.
  3. Identify and take advantage of evidentiary and argumentative contradictions (even if the negative kicks one or more of their counterplans.)
  4. Introduce and strategically use as many permutations as you can think of and explain.
  5. Justify “not intrinsic” (minor repair) arguments against disadvantages on the basis of reciprocity.
  6. Justify the introduction of new plan planks in the 2AC to solve or take out disadvantages on the basis of reciprocity.

Most of these suggestions are still appropriate in 2021. The only exception is re-planning, a tactic that is rarely (if ever) attempted and which is likely to meet with near-universal resistance from judges. Otherwise, Papka’s advice is timeless and should help contemporary students improve their responses to negative strategies that rely on “maximal” conditionality.

In contrast, Papka’s advice about dispositionality is probably not helpful in 2021. While it remains a strategy that negatives should consider in limited circumstances, the general acceptance of conditionality by judges has made it less important to seek a “middle ground” that dodges affirmative theory gripes. Still, it is interesting to read a contemporaneous explanation of dispositionality from one of the debaters who first introduced and defended it.

The full text of Papka’s article is included below.


Papka, Ouita. “Conditionality: Creative Constraints on Dreadful Debate.” Debater’s Research Guide (Fertile Ground: The Agriculture Debate), 1986.


There is nothing worse than being affirmative in a debate round where the first negative presents four conditional counterplans, except being negative in a debate round where you are losing an unconditional counterplan. This is part of the dilemma associated with the discussion about conditional counterplans that debaters and judges are forced to confront. It is tempting, as many debate theorists have done, to either completely accept conditionality as a legitimate strategic tool or reject it as part of the “evil scourge” setting in upon debate rounds. In truth, conditional argumentation, when presented in a reasonable and coherent fashion, fits into a diversity of paradigmatic views. Often, however, the middle ground is ignored in favor of more reactionary stances for or against the conditional counterplan. Let’s face it, if you run a conditional counterplan in front of Robin Rowland you are “hosed.” The real story about conditionality is that it can be [a] useful strategic tool for both teams. Like sex and good friends, however, moderation is the key to desirability. There are ways to use conditionality in a reasonable and coherent fashion that even Robin Rowland has been known to affirm. Sometimes these uses are hard to envision while screaming out your twenty-five point, one-line “conditionality bad” block. This article attempts to delineate some of the strategic applications conditional arguments have and point to a middle ground in the conditionality debate. It will show how to make a negative team pay for running four conditional counterplans and how to run a counterplan with an escape hatch.

Part I. How To Make A Negative Team Pay For Running Four Conditional Counterplans

When confronting this type of negative strategy, do not panic! Instead, begin thinking of ways you can use these counterplans to your advantage. What are the strategic implications of conditionality that work for the affirmative and how do the arguments presented interact with each other? First, however, start looking for your “conditionality bad” block, which should not be more than five or six arguments long and which should be a well-reasoned attack upon conditionality. What? You have no such block? The only thing you have to read is a hand-me-down from “The Kup?” The best thing to do is throw away those old twenty-five one-liners and start from scratch. Reading theory briefs such as these as fast as you can in a debate round makes for bad debates and since the judge probably cannot flow the arguments at that rate, you are not going to gain any ground.

Before we begin constructing an attack upon conditionality, it is necessary to point out some things about how to use such an attack. Remember, a theory position in debate is like any other position; it is a coherent argument advanced in the debate for the purpose of gaining strategic ground against the other team. If used as a “mindless timewaster” and read in a “mindless timewaster” fashion, it is likely to generate judge backlash and get you nothing in the debate. Your arguments have as much credibility as you give to them. Argument credibility stems from your understanding of the argument and ability and willingness to explain it to the judge. Absent such understanding, it is unlikely you can “sell” your position and win. There are also times when arguing “conditionality bad” is more appropriate than others. For example, if only one conditional counterplan is offered, is it worth taking the time to argue “conditionality bad” or is it better to spend the time attacking the counterplan itself? Your decision will depend upon the number of arguments you have against the counterplan, the judge’s biases, and the other arguments in the debate. Think about how your theory argument interacts with some of these variables before you run it. Finally, as the debate progresses, think carefully about whether it is worth your time to keep extending your “conditionality bad” argument. If you are the victim of four conditional counterplans and you are losing all four of them, it may be wise to continue to attack conditionality. Try to read your judge. Is she or he following the theory debate? Are they enjoying it? Remember, you do not have to extend every argument you have advanced against conditionality. If you win one conclusively, it is enough to deny the benefits of conditionality. In sum, do not blindly pull out your “conditionality bad” block. Think about your options first. If it still makes sense to read it, the following arguments are suggestions for your attack.

First, the time constraints of a debate round demands a limited number of policy options be discussed. Examining more than the case and one counterplan at a time leads to superficial argumentation. This means that the desirability of the counterplans cannot be credibly assessed. Basically, when the debate does not focus on one or two policy options, arguments are too limited to determine whether or not any one of the counterplans would be a good idea. Given this superficiality, the case should get huge presumptive weight in the debate and the counterplans should be rejected.

Once you have pulled your block, and looked at your theoretical options, it is time to think about some [of] the evidence and argumentative contradictions that arise with conditional counterplans. Try asking yourself these questions: Is the case a disadvantage to the counterplan? Do any of the disadvantages have better links to the counterplans than to the plan? Do the counterplans evidentially contradict? For example, it is inconsistent to counterplan with anarchy and world government at the same time. The evidence supporting anarchy contradicts the evidence supporting world government, the former makes the assumption that all government is bad and the latter presupposes that one authoritative government is good. Both cannot be true simultaneously. You are probably thinking, “Ahh the negative can just drop one of the counterplans.” Wrong! The evidence they read on anarchy is a direct take out against the world government counterplan and vice versa. Dropping a counterplan does not overcome the fact that the evidence is read and that it is as good an answer had you read it yourself. Look for ways such as these to use their own arguments to defeat them. Often several conditional counterplans run together are not internally consistent allowing you to gain ground by pointing these things out.

A second argument against conditionality can be titled “Reciprocity” or “Conditional Counterplans are Unfair to the Affirmative.” Why? Counterplans, unlike any other argument, have no reciprocal argumentative value for the affirmative. They cannot be turned like a disadvantage or case argument. Even in a topicality debate the affirmative can win “reverse voters” to offset the absolute nature of the argument. Counterplans are different. Turning a counterplan advantage is meaningless because it is not linked to the affirmative, hence that affirmative gets no net advantage from it. It is possible to turn the link to a counterplan advantage and capture some of the counterplan’s impact. This is of no use, however, if the counterplan has other net benefits. Arguing competition just takes out the counterplan. It does not accrue a strategic advantage for the affirmative. Now that topical counterplans have become more acceptable, even proving a counterplan topical does not always persuade a judge to vote affirmative. These difficulties associated with attacking a counterplan are bad enough when only one is being run. When multiple conditional counterplans are run, these difficulties become impossible burdens. Any attack the affirmative makes that is substantive may just encourage the negative to drop the counterplan and because of the lack of argument reciprocity, they will be able to do so with little time investment. This is unfair, skews the debate process, and justifies rejection of the counterplan.

Conditional counterplans also destroy argumentative clash. As mentioned above, any time the affirmative presents a focused attack on a counterplan the negative may merely drop that counterplan and pick up another that has not been answered as well. Destruction of argumentative clash means that the debate process has been significantly undermined. What is debate? It is the clash of ideas and argument. Without clash, there is no debate. Hence, conditional counterplans destroy the debate process and should be rejected.

Finally, conditional counterplans violate advocacy responsibilities. An advocate picks a policy and defends it. That policy may be the status quo or another competitive, non-resolutional alternative. When the negative runs one or more counterplans conditionally, however, it is not endorsing a particular position. Since no policy position has been presented for the judge to endorse, the negative should lose.

The previous arguments are just a few suggestions for your attack. Think of some more on your own or with a lab leader or coach. Remember, make sure your arguments are well explained, in your own language, and try to avoid getting into debate about “hypotesting” or “policy-making.”

After you have found your newly written “conditionality bad” block, you must begin thinking about the ways conditionality can affect, and even enhance, the affirmative strategy in a debate. What are some of the things you can do now that would have been inappropriate earlier? The following are a few suggestions.

Conditional counterplans justify as many permutations as you can think of and explain. For a good explanation of what constitutes a permutation and how to use one, see Roger Solt’s article in the 1985 Debater’s Research Guide. Basically, permutations are optimal combinations of the plan plus the counterplan which allow the judge to get advantages from both policy systems. In a sense they are a variety of conditional policy options that the judge has the ability to affirm. Permutations are used as tests of counterplan competition and are run counter to the competition observation of a counterplan. They are good strategically for affirmative teams because they take little time to explain and are usually hard to defeat.

By testing the intrinsicness of the plan to the resolution, conditional counterplans end up endorsing the use of minor repairs to test the intrinsicness of disadvantages to the resolution. If the negative runs an arms control bad disadvantage against you along with some conditional counterplans, one good response might be, “This disadvantage is not intrinsic. We could prohibit U.S. participation in arms control negotiations.” Many of the objections made against intrinsicness arguments apply to conditional counterplans as well so you are on equal theoretical footing with the negative.

A final justifiable affirmative response to such a conditional attack is to run new plan planks or new plans in 2AC. After all, if the negative is allowed to run more than one policy option, why shouldn’t the affirmative do the same? This strategy may be particularly useful if a resolutional means exists to capture a counterplan advantage. New plan planks are also good ways to take out disadvantages and beef up your significance to weigh against the other policy options. A word of caution, these are very controversial strategies — permutations possibly excepted — and should be used in circumstances justified by the negative strategy. You must also be careful not to “muck up” the debate. With many judges, the negative sacrifices a lot of credibility by running conditional counterplans. Play upon judge-biases, and do not make the debate unnecessarily complicated by using all of these strategies, particularly if you do not fully understand them.

Three things should be clear from this section. First, have a well-reasoned “conditionality bad” block. Second, know and think about your theoretical options as the affirmative team in a conditionality debate. Third, look for and be aware of argumentative inconsistencies within and between counterplans. Doing these things with careful thought and execution can make a negative team pay for running four conditional counterplans.

Part II. How To Run A Conditional Counterplan With An Escape Clause

This section is not a defense of the conditional counterplan. If you are looking for “conditionality good” arguments, I’m afraid you will have to find another source. Rather, this section is aimed at how to defend one counterplan in combination with the status quo. This means that the judge has the option of voting for either the counterplan or the present system. The counterplan does not have to be entirely consistent with the other negative positions. It allows the negative to get rid of a losing counterplan without endorsing the abuses of conditionality.

This year the University of Kentucky began running an additional observation with every counterplan. We titled this “Disposition,” meaning “how to dispose of this counterplan if we are losing it.” Our position is structured similarly to the example below.

OBSERVATION I. Disposition of the Counterplan.

A. If the Counterplan is found to be topical or not competitive, it falls from the judge’s jurisdiction just as a non-topical plan falls from jurisdiction for adoption.

B. Real World Justifies. Policy makers always have to [sic] option of adopting a proposal, its alternative or the present system. Reagan could increase funding for the Contras, ban funding for the Contras, or persist with his present level of aid.

To some of you this may sound like a statement of the obvious. You may be wondering, “Don’t policy makers always have the option of voting for the counterplan or the status quo?” No. When a counterplan is run unconditionally, all of the disadvantages run have to be net benefits to the counterplan and most policy arguments the negative advances have to be in support of that counterplan. This becomes a significant limitation upon negative options in a counterplan debate. It also provides negative teams with an incentive to run counterplans conditionally. The disposition observation walks between these two extremes and maybe a little on the wild side by allowing the negative team to run only one counterplan but get out of it if it becomes a losing endeavor.

The negative should endorse this strategy instead of the conditional counterplan for several reasons. First, it broadens negative options in a debate without taking advantage of the affirmative and “mucking up” the debate, which can generate a substantial amount of judge backlash, especially in high school. Second, it eliminates or at least significantly minimizes judge bias against conditionality. Yes, Robin Rowland actually did kick out a counterplan for me using this very strategy. Third, it eliminates the time investment you have to make in “conditionality good” arguments. Fourth, this strategy does not justify the other strategic options accorded to the affirmative in a conditionality debate. Since you are only running one counterplan and not trying to “test” the intrinsicness of the case. That is, minor repairs are not justified against the disadvantages and conditional plans are not justified in 2AC. In other words, this counterplan strategy does not catapult you into a hypotesting debate with its attendant abuses. You are justifying your “escape hatch” within a policy making framework — a much more reasonable limit for you and for the affirmative.


Ouita Papka debated four years at the University of Kentucky. She was the recipient of a number of speaker awards (two at the NDT). She won Harvard, West Georgia, and Dartmouth tournaments. Her career was appropriately capped by winning the 1986 National Debate Tournament.