Digging Into The Debate Theory Archives: Seaver on Trans-Topical Argument and Evidence Recycling

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.

For many years during the 2000s and early 2010s, the National Debate Coaches Association published an “NDCA Coaches Corner” column in the Rostrum. Picking up where David Cheshier’s late-1990s and early-2000s column left off, volunteer member coaches took turns writing articles about a variety of theory and coaching issues. More than a decade later, these articles are fascinating to revisit.

In this post, I will share Frank Seaver’s 2007 Coaches Corner article about argument and evidence recycling between topics. Written a few years before the transition to paperless debate, Seaver’s article criticizes the national policy debate circuit’s tendency to reuse the same arguments year after year even when the recycled arguments are not core issues in the scholarly literature about the new topic.

Seaver highlights the example of “Khalilzad 95,” a “U.S. hegemony good” impact card that was inexplicably ubiquitous in debates for more than a decade after its publication. I don’t think the article is freely available online, but this is the full text of the card:

Under the third option, the United States would seek to retain global leadership and to preclude the rise of a global rival or a return to multipolarity for the indefinite future. On balance, this is the best long-term guiding principle and vision. Such a vision is desirable not as an end in itself, but because a world in which the United States exercises leadership would have tremendous advantages. First, the global environment would be more open and more receptive to American values — democracy, free markets, and the rule of law. Second, such a world would have a better chance of dealing cooperatively with the world’s major problems, such as nuclear proliferation, threats of regional hegemony by renegade states, and low-level conflicts. Finally, U.S. leadership would help preclude the rise of another hostile global rival, enabling the United States and the world to avoid another global cold or hot war and all the attendant dangers, including a global nuclear exchange. U.S. leadership would therefore be more conducive to global stability than a bipolar or a multipolar balance of power system.

In retrospect, the popularity of the Khalilzad card is compelling proof that the quality of evidence read in policy debates has improved dramatically in the last decade. The shift to paperless debate is largely responsible for that improvement because it made the process of locating and reproducing evidence much easier. If anyone finds a better card on an important issue, everyone can now see it, reproduce it, and use it themselves. Before the paperless transition, it took much longer for new evidence to propagate throughout the debate circuit. This partially explains the evidence recycling issue that Seaver identified; a card like Khalilzad 95 would not survive for nearly as long in the 2020s as it did in the 2000s.

At the same time, I think Seaver’s larger critique remains valid. The arguments that become popular on each new topic tend to overlap significantly with arguments that were also read on previous (especially recent) topics. Sometimes, this is justified; some issues do have trans-topical relevance. However, the much more common reason that arguments develop trans-topical popularity is an unthinking inertia and reliance on shortcuts. As Seaver notes, this is understandable: it takes hard work to learn about new policy areas and to produce new arguments that engage with the central controversies in its topic literature. But as educators, it is important for debate coaches and summer institute instructors to resist the temptation to recycle, especially when doing so trades off with more educational research and instruction.

Then and now, this is easy to say and much harder to do. Seaver proposed coordination between summer institutes and a public discussion among NDCA member coaches. To some extent, this does occur today — especially as it relates to the production of the NDCA Novice Packet — but coordination remains inconsistent and ad hoc. Compared with earlier eras, the wide availability of open source backfiles has also decreased the power of summer institutes to shape the topic. If anything, the problem has become even harder to solve in the open source paperless era.

While I can’t offer a top-down solution, I do think it is valuable for contemporary coaches to revisit Seaver’s critique and consider how well we are fulfilling our educational missions when deciding how to interpret and research new topics. To some extent, argument and evidence recycling is inevitable. When done in moderation, there’s nothing wrong with it. The problem arises when recycling replaces original research and distorts our debates in ways that marginalize or undermine the core-of-the-topic arguments that we should be teaching and learning. Is this still happening today? I can’t prove it, but I think so. What do you think? Feel free to share your perspective in the comments.

Ultimately, my sense is that this issue is something debate coaches have struggled with since the advent of “modern” competitive debate in the mid-twentieth century. If so, it’s not surprising that Seaver’s insights still resonate almost 15 years later. My guess is that they will be worth revisiting again in 2035, too.

The full text of Seaver’s article is reproduced below.


Seaver, Frank. “Rumsfeld, Khalilzad and Concerns Over Recycling Debate Arguments from Topic to Topic.” Rostrum, Volume 81, Issue 6, February 2007, pp. 74-76.


 While testifying to the 9/11 Commission, Donald Rumsfeld made the following point:

I used to think one of the most powerful individuals in America was the person who could select the annual high school debate topic. Think of the power — to set the agenda, and determine what millions of high school students will study, read about, think about, talk about with friends, discuss with their teachers, and debate with their parents and siblings over dinner. 1

Of course, we know that this statement simplifies the situation. As NFL and NDCA members, we enjoy the opportunity to vote in a democratic fashion for next year’s topic. Yet, the real power in setting the agenda for high school students to think and discuss for the school year lies less with what topic is chosen than with how this topic is taught. Collectively, high school coaches and high school debate institutes play an extremely important role in determining and guiding the issues at the heart of the annual debate topic.

Rumsfeld is right about one thing: the ability to influence the issues that are discussed on the high school debate topic is a great power. As educators, this is a responsibility the entire debate community needs to take more seriously.

Currently, we are in the middle of exploring a topic that questions the value of promoting national service. One of the central arguments defending the ideal of national service is how this commitment nurtures a stronger sense of civic engagement in its participants. As educators, we all agree that one of the important goals of our efforts is to instill in young people a sense of the importance of being an informed and engaged citizen. Yet, when it comes to fulfilling our responsibility to satisfy this endeavor, we may fall short.

What is my evidence? Rather than building my case through a probable tedious examination of anecdotes, please afford me the leeway to make some generalizations from impressions I have garnered over the last twenty years of my personal debate experience (from a “national circuit” perspective and all that means, good and bad) while still understanding that I recognize that there are many exceptions to this broad observation.

When thinking about a new debate topic, I sense that too often we collectively look to previous argument sets to determine what issues are appropriate for the new topic. This practice opposes a research paradigm that privileges delving deeper into the literature native to the new debate topic to determine the key issues at play. There is nothing wrong with an overlap of similar arguments from year-to-year. However, a problem develops if, as a community, we enter into a syndrome where we too often recycle old arguments rather than discover the more relevant and pertinent new arguments.

We also continue to recycle old evidence, which is a manifestation of this same syndrome. I will indulge in one example — the continued reliance on the Khalilzad evidence to support US hegemony good arguments from his 1995 Washington Monthly article. 2 Last summer, for the eleventh year in a row, every summer debate institute that I am aware of produced this evidence again as part of its evidence set. Yet, this article assumes (a) national security threats that dramatically changed after 9/11; (b) a forward deployment base strategy that was completely altered after 9/11; (c) a concern about US troops being kicked out of US bases stationed in foreign countries that has been subsequently directly addressed in Rumsfeld’s “lilly pad” strategy of establishing more American bases abroad with fewer troops assigned to each base; (d) peacetime and how the United States then, rather than during a period where we have around 150,000 troops fighting a war in the Middle East. While I understand why this is popular evidence — in very few words it references seven major war scenarios from which U.S. hegemony could provide protection, thus facilitating debaters to efficiently advance this line of argument — there comes a point where evidence is simply outdated.

Unfortunately, I suspect that at least 75% of the affirmative cases that defend US hegemony at the NFL and NDCA Championship Tournaments will rely on this Khalilzad evidence to help make their case. Worse, the quality of this Khalilzad evidence has taken on mythical proportions. Literally, “Khalilzad” has become a warrant — as in a debater claiming “our plan produces a net advantage in military readiness, this distinction is critical, pull Khalilzad” (to provide an anecdote, this was the rationale in a post round critique I listened to from the panel of judges of an extremely complicated late elimination round at one of the most competitive national tournaments of this season). As “Khalilzad” has become a warrant for debaters and judges [end page 74] in our community, I cannot help but wonder how many of us have read that actual article, particularly if you were not involved in debate when that particular Washington Monthly issue was published.

There are plenty of defenses for American Hegemony post 9/11. They are just not really represented in what Khalilzad was arguing in 1995. It seems that via repetition, our debate community has been ingrained to believe that saying “Khalilzad” necessarily continues to provide pertinent reasons to defend U.S. military power. I wonder how Khalilzad, currently the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, would feel about his eleven-year-old article being used as the ultimate rationale to defend U.S. hegemony in the post-9/11 world? I wonder whether or not Donald Rumsfeld would feel that high school debaters are really learning about American foreign policy considerations as they relate to our military? Is the debate community living in a fantasy world, pretending the real world is something it is not merely because it is convenient to retain these repeated assumptions?

This is just one example, of course. There are many more. I think we are all familiar with this syndrome where old affirmatives are recycled and repeated when they come close to fitting under a new debate resolution. Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has been a popular affirmative on past high school topics and, for our current national service topic, it seemed to be the most popular affirmative at summer debate institutes and early fall debate tournaments. However, if one were to pick up a book dedicated to national service such as the collection of essays that appear in both National Service: Pro and Con 3 and United We Serv e4, they would find zero references to the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. Is DADT a popular affirmative because it remains relevant to the national service question, or is it popular because many of the teachers on the national service topic decided it was important since they were already familiar with the issue?

To be fair, I understand that it makes some strategic sense to utilize battle-tested arguments that have proven to be successful. I understand that some issues remain salient despite the changing of a debate topic. I understand that sometimes it is hard to discover new, good arguments. And, I really understand that it is already hard enough to be a teacher who is overworked and underpaid and to expect them to do all this work learning about some boring new debate topic gets a little old after awhile. But, on the other hand, I worry about what is lost when students do not get the chance to read and talk about timely and important issues when we settle for recycling old debate arguments. I wonder what false impressions we perpetuate — and this certainly includes my own — when we begin to presume that an issue remains static from the last time it was researched heavily.

Certainly, part of the problem lies in the tendency to presume that previously established arguments represent conventional wisdom. The danger is that this conventional wisdom chills debate and fresh perspectives. Todd Gitlin, Professor of Journalism and Sociology at Columbia University, has analyzed the role and responsibility of the public intellectual post 9/11. Interestingly, he expresses concern over how the repetition of basic talking points — whether it is from media pundits to even the Bush Administration — insidiously creates an environment where a free flow of ideas becomes less likely to occur:

The public sphere is less a theater of debate than a theater of repetition, professionalized into the imperative of staying “on message.” Politics has taken more than a leaf from the advertising manual of driving the point home by pounding in a Unique Selling Proposition — it has taken the whole book. Talk radio and punditry excel in podium pounding, not argument … Presidential speech can skirt logic and evidence without evident penalty … President Bush spoke the words “either you’re with us or with the terrorists” ninety-nine times. To state what ought to be obvious: the repetition of such remarks is not an argument. It is a declaration meant to stop an argument. Declamation by fiat presumes that an argument has already been made and won. 5 (117)

Unintentionally, I suspect that the power of the recycled argument has similar power through its presumption of credibility. Rather than “declamation by fiat,” I suggest that the “perceived previous success of a debate argument” creates a situation where the debate community “presumes that an argument has already been made and won” — thus, giving it presumption when looking to identify the issues to be developed in a year’s new debate topic.

The role that high school summer debate institutes play in this situation is significant. Institutes have enormous influence on the issues that will then be discussed during the upcoming season. Most high school debate programs do not have the luxury of a full time debate coach that has the time as well as the expertise to research independently and dissect the debate topic. The arguments a debater develops over the summer at debate institute are most often the arguments that this debater will then use throughout the year. However, I am not sure that this is a controlling factor that institutes keep in mind when they set their topic content agendas. Early debate institutes with the pressure to initiate arguments on the debate topic first are most likely to look to the past and recycle old issues. Furthermore, debate institutes that start later in the summer then feel obligated to address what they see as the evolving conventional wisdom and investigate these issues that are already being upheld as important to the new topic. I do not mean to belittle the intentions or efforts of coaches and teachers working at debate institutes. Doing so requires very hard work that often requires teachers to dedicate twelve hour days to their students. Rather, my point is that there are structural factors at play that create disincentives for all the actors involved to invest the time and energy to deconstruct the current issues on a new debate topic. Unfortunately, these factors [end page 75] undermine the educational experience of our students and detract from the overall mission we embrace to promote the civic engagement of all the participants in our community.

We are not just debate coaches. We are critical representatives of higher education. The stakes are high. Professor Gitlin addresses the importance of our mission in our unique historical moment:

In sum, higher education has the burden of advancing the intellectual and moral side of citizenship. This obligation pits education against the noise of the media and against the pettiness, parochialism, and corruption of propaganda and politics. It deepens the educational mission. It enrolls higher education in the defense of the society’s highest values. It is not a mission that can be offloaded onto any other institution. It is partisan only in the sense of a commitment to improve the common life. 6 (121)

Can we do better? Identifying a problem is not enough. As members and participants of the National Debate Coaches Association and the National Forensic League, one thing that we can do is foster more structured dialogue within our community before the new season starts. In the upcoming months, the NDCA will be establishing a blog that we hope will provide the foundation for significant discussions and debates about the pertinent and strategic issues at play in the 2007-2008 debate resolution. We invite everyone to take part in this endeavor — from high school debate coaches to the Directors of high school debate institutes. The better the dialogue that we can muster, the more enlightened our community will become. This will produce better summer debate institutes, better educational experiences for our students, and better debates to begin the year. Hopefully, that foundation will evolve into even better and more sophisticated debates by the end of the year. Certainly, this is not the only thing that can be done. But, let’s re-prioritize the importance of how we determine the inevitable collective wisdom that will be considered conventional.

As a community, we have just voted on next year’s topic. The true power to guide minds in the way that Rumsfeld described now rests in our hands as the debate community goes about deliberating, analyzing and determining what this new debate topic is really is all about.


At the time this article was written, Frank Seaver was Director of Forensics at Woodward Academy and Vice President of the National Debate Coaches Association.


Footnotes

1. Rumsfeld, Donald. “U.S. Secretary Of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld’s prepared statement for delivery to the national commission on terrorist attacks upon the United States.” 23 Mar 2004. Journal Star Online. 7 Jan 2007. http://www.pjstar.com/news/AP_WTRE/hold/rumsfeld-html.

2. Khalilzad, Zalmay. ‘‘Losing the Moment? The United States and the world after the Cold War.” Washington Quarterly. 18(2).

3. Evers, Williamson H. National Service: Pro and Con. 1st. Stanford: Hoover Press. 1990.

4. Dionne, E.J., Drogosz, Kayla Meltezer and Litan, Robert E. United We Serve: National Service and the Future of Citizenship. 1st. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press. 2003.

5. Gitlin, Todd. The Intellectuals and the Flag. New York: Columbia University Press. 2006.

6. Gitlin, Todd. The Intellectuals and the Flag. New York: Columbia University Press. 2006.