Digging Into The Debate Theory Archives: Unger on Topicality, Reasonability, and the Best Definition Standard (a.k.a. Competing Interpretations)

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.

One main purpose of this series is to share important debate theory scholarship that is currently unavailable online. This installment is a good example: it features James J. Unger‘s seminal article introducing the “best definition” standard for topicality. Originally published in the October 1981 issue of Rostrum, it was later included in the Advanced Debate textbook. Oft-cited but unavailable (until now) online, Unger’s article developed the theoretical basis for what is now known as the “competing interpretations” model of debating and judging topicality.

Unger’s article was written during an era when “reasonability” was the primary benchmark for determining topicality. As I explained in part four of my series on the evolution of plans in policy debate, the late 1960s and 1970s saw a significant expansion of the size of debate resolutions. Affirmative teams increasingly defended specific examples of the resolution rather than the resolution as a whole. As this became more generally accepted, it led to the popularization of “squirrel” cases, or cases that avoid the core controversies and central issues of a given topic.

Unger viewed topicality as the best way to push back against the proliferation of squirrel cases. As he explained, “‘reasonability’ as a limitation upon definitional excess is both ineffective and counterproductive” because it “results in a set of individualized, biased, even emotional standards which must vary from judge to judge, debate to debate.”

Instead of a “reasonability” standard for topicality, Unger proposed the “comparative definitional” standard (later called “best definition” and “competing interpretations”). In this model, the negative must engage in a three-step process to win topicality: (1) offer a clear alternative interpretation of terms, (2) demonstrate the superiority of its interpretation compared to that of the affirmative, and (3) prove that the affirmative’s plan does not meet this interpretation.

Unger’s standard became popular almost immediately. By the mid-1980s, it was already a common argument in debates. By the 1990s, it had displaced reasonability as the most generally accepted standard for evaluating topicality. By the early 2000s, scholars began arguing for a revival of reasonability; Andy Ryan’s “Reviving Reasonability: Affirmative Topicality in the ‘Negative Age'” in the 2004 Debater’s Research Guide was the most influential example.

The meta-debate between “reasonability” and “competing interpretations” remains common today. As contemporary students prepare for these debates, they will benefit from revisiting Unger’s foundational article. Its full text is available below.


Unger, James J. “Topicality: Why Not The Best?” Advanced Debate: Readings in Theory Practice & Teaching, Third Edition, edited by David A. Thomas and Jack Hart, National Textbook Company, 1989, pp. 139-143.


I. The Problem

In terms of the issue which we broadly label “topicality” evidence of the need for a change seems to abound. With increasing force high school coaches, judges, and students complain of debate topics which are “too open ended” or “unlimited.” (Equally pejorative comments occur at the college level.) Indeed, when the Wording Committee of the NUEA recently issued an official statement which declared that “The comment most often heard at the San Antonio meeting was that recent topics have been overly broad.” And no wonder, when national resolutions designed to seriously consider safety guarantees on consumer goods have spawned cases dealing with animal traps, ski brakes, or private roads; or a discussion of the problems of the Korean boat people was blithely passed off as a significant change in our foreign trade policies. Undoubtedly, each reader could surely fill in his or her own distressing and bizarre illustrations of topics gone mad.

It is important to recognize that there are really two problems here. First, affirmatives may often select relatively esoteric or abstruse definitions of what had initially seemed to be simple and direct terms. Second, mischief seeking affirmatives may be content to employ perfectly conventional definitions, but to apply them in totally unconventional and educationally disruptive [end page 139] ways. It should be stressed that this process of incorrect or unreasonable application of acceptable definitions is equally to be condemned with that of the employment of erroneous definitions themselves.

Whatever the nature of the complaint, all can agree upon the evils which it fosters. Debaters are forced to spend countless hours of valuable time researching the very latest “squirrel” cases. Debates themselves often focus upon esoteric issues of little intrinsic value or upon the most wild and mindless of desperate assertions. Competitive tactics are glorified at the expense of educational enrichment. And in the end, all of the participants— coaches, judges, and debaters—are the unquestioned losers.

II. Inherency

The present system relies upon three methods of correction for these difficulties. Unfortunately, each is seriously flawed.

(A) Often advanced is the belief that all we need are “smaller” topics. As the NUEA noted “There was a clear mandate from delegates to formulate more restrictive debate topic choices for 1981-82. The following resolutions are, accordingly, narrower than those offered last year.” “Narrower” indeed? Already we hear of successful cases focusing upon minimum educational standards for native Hawaiians, or homosexuality, or CPR, etc. Despite the most honest of intent it seems chimerical to believe that any English language statement dealing with important matters of public policy can be at one and the sametime sufficiently expansive and educational, creative and constructive, broad and narrow. One must acknowledge that as long as there are dictionaries and debaters, even the most simple of terms may be subjects for forensic obscurantism.

(B) In an effort to impose clarification and limitation additional statements have been grafted on to the actual topic. (In high school this is the Problem Area, in college the parameters.) Yet this often serves to only double the difficulty. If one simple sentence seems subject to confusion and dissemblance how much more so will two or three? (This is especially so in the case of the Problem Area which neither poses a problem—it is more properly a Plan Area—nor offers a specific guidance, but is usually framed in more general language than any of the three propositions which it covers.)

(C) Certainly most prevalent is the often repeated thesis that the affirmative is bounded in its definitional interpretations by the limits of “reasonability.” That is, affirmative definitions are acceptable to the extent that they can be adjudged “reasonable.” The language of reasonableness does surely possess a certain superficial attraction. Unfortunately, closer examination reveals that it is totally ineffective in setting acceptable limits to affirmative definitional abuse. This is so because the word or concept itself is extremely vague and ambiguous. As a court once put it, “An attempt to give specific meaning to [end page 140] the word ‘reasonable’ is trying to count what is not number, and measure what is not space.” (Altshuler v. Coburn, 57 N.W. 836.) In short, one man’s reasonability is another’s irrationality. Yet this situation is totally at odds with the role we have assigned to this concept. Theoretically, “reasonability” provides a clear, objective standard to judgment against which each and every affirmative approach can be compared and weighed. Practically, it is less than useless in offering such guidance. Because it itself is so vague and lacking in substance it often results in a set of individualized, biased, even emotional standards which must vary from judge to judge, debate to debate. Worse still, many judges conscious of the immense reach of “reasonability” are forced to support definitional approaches which they intellectually despise simply because the affirmative is able to offer some shred of evidence or analysis sufficient to meet this all too broad standard. In short, “reasonability” as a limitation upon definitional excess is both ineffective and counterproductive.

III. The Plan

What then is to be done? The solution, I suggest, lies in the elimination of the current “objective standard” approach, i.e. do the affirmative definitions meet the criterion of “reasonability,” and the substitution of a “comparative definitional” model. Here, in order to defeat the topicality of the affirmative approach the negative must engage in a three step process.

(A) The negative must offer a clear alternative definition of terms or a clear alternative standard of application of the affirmative’s definitions. (Of course, such a process might apply to one, some, or all of the words in the resolution and/or the Problem Area or parameters.)

(B) The negative must demonstrate the superiority of its interpretation to that of the affirmative. This would be accomplished through a twofold process of comparison between the two competing definitions. First, the relative linguistic and policy support which each approach commands would be assessed. A careful examination of relevant sources of expertise should indicate the strength of each definitional position among the communities of scholars and public policymakers directly effected. This is not simply a matter of stacking up conflicting definitions and their sources. Also to be carefully considered must be the matter of context. Definitional superiority would be accorded any approach which placed the words of the proposition in their most relevant and appropriate context. Similar superiority would also lie with a definitional framework which accorded each and every word an independent and relevant meaning. Interpretations which render specific words meaningless or duplicative only defeat the purposes of definitions and should be rejected. Second, the relative forensic support available must also be considered. Obviously the purpose of any resolution is to offer limits to debate. Under [end page 141] this standard each team could explain and defend the range of possible case of interpretations sanctioned by its definitions. (Issues to be considered here might include which approach better promoted substantial analysis of meaningful questions, which approach made available balanced evidential opportunities, and which approach created more equitable argumentative positions.) Clearly these standards of comparison apply with equal force to the Problem Area and to the application process of the affirmative.

(C) If under the previous step the negative is able to demonstrate the superiority of its own approach then it must finally indicate that the affirmative’s plan could not be considered acceptable under it’s own definitions—even if the affirmative had not so initially contended. Once having accomplished all three of these steps the negative may legitimately claim that for the purposes of this debate the affirmative case no longer meets the proposition as most reasonably therein interpreted, and thus it should be rejected.

The radical nature, in the best sense of that term, of this approach needs to be stressed. It totally eliminates the current emphasis upon a single threshold standard of acceptability, i.e. “reasonability,” and puts in its place a comparative assessment which requires both teams to discover the superiority of one of their definitions through a process of comparison and contrast. In so doing, it places topicality argumentation on a more rational and equitable level with all other portions of the debate process.

IV. Advantages

There are numerous reasons supporting the superiority of such an approach. They include:

(A) The superior educational concentration upon the use and meaning of words. Both sides would now be forced to examine the proposition, not in an attempt to discover the most esoteric or individualistic of definitions, but rather to uncover and build upon the most central, reasonable, and acceptable approaches. Such linguistic inquiry would be of immense value to all of the students therein engaged.

(B) It would seem undeniable that the quality of argument surrounding topicality would be greatly enhanced. Both sides would now be forced to explain and defend specific definitional positions. In contrast to the bombast, irrelevancies, and plastic briefs which too often surround the artificial dispute over the “reasonability” of the affirmative position, the approach offered here would require both sides to engage in specific, relevant argumentation. Topicality arguments could succeed only if they were clearly related to the opposition’s actual definitions or applications.

(C) The quality of the substantive public policy arguments would also be substantially improved. By requiring definitions to approximate the “best” standard rather than one which was merely “reasonable” the range of possible [end page 142] affirmative cases would be definitely restricted. This could only serve to focus discussion upon a smaller number of policy options at the core of the proposition itself. (Of course this is the very purpose which the proposition itself was designed to serve originally.) The subsequent improvement in argumentative sophistication and subject matter education which debaters would acquire is a major advantage indeed.

(D) Elementary principles of statutory construction require a delicate balance between legislative intent and the most rational factual outcomes. The goal is consistency and rationality. Such a definitional approach as suggested here would force precisely those goals upon the debaters through the requirement of optimal results.

I would be remiss were I not to briefly consider potential objections to such a proposal. Some might be concerned that too many definitional alternatives might be introduced, thus confusing the debate process. On the contrary, since the negative would now be required to actually explain and defend its specific alternative, one would expect that only carefully thought-through positions would emerge. It might also be argued that unbreakable “ties” might occur with both positions offering favorable and unfavorable aspects. Yet this poses no real difficulty. The affirmative continues to enjoy definitional presumption. The negative must overthrow that presumption by demonstrating the superiority of its own position. If it cannot, then its position will not prevail. Finally, one might see this as a hopeless quest and burden to arrive at the best definition possible. Despite the title of this article, that is not the affirmative obligation. Rather we are simply seeking the best definition from among those introduced in the specific round of debate. When seen in such a light the affirmative’s burden is no greater than that of any other issue.

I strongly suggest that a definitional model such as proposed here offers significant educational, linguistic, and subject-matter advantages over the present reasonability standard. On balance, that standard should be rejected. We all deserve the best.