Judges Should Not Intervene Part 1 -A Disturbance in the Force

A while back I wrote a series of posts defending “tabula rasa” judging, which is the idea that the judge should strive to towards “least intervention” as their primary goal.


Part 1


Part 2


Part 3


I like to think of debate as an ecosystem- in an ecosystem there are lots of different plants and animals that live in “harmony”. By harmony I don’t mean they all get along together like this


I mean that different organisms fulfill different roles that produce a relatively stable balance. If you have ever debated a “keystone” species advantage you have probably read cards that explain that human intervention into the environment can disrupt this balance by changing the way the ecosystem functions. This can often have cascading effects that produce increasing levels of damage as each species fall- so humans breed lots of cats, cats eat lots of birds, less birds mean insect populations explode, more insects means more spread of diseases like Zika etc.


Ecosystem balance is by no means “friendly”. For example, take the case of St. Matthew Island

In 1944, 29 reindeer were introduced to the island by the United States Coast Guard to provide an emergency food source. The Coast Guard abandoned the island a few years later, leaving the reindeer. Subsequently, the reindeer population rose to about 6,000 by 1963[6] and then died off in the next two years to 42 animals.[7] A scientific study attributed the population crash to the limited food supply in interaction with climatic factors (the winter of 1963–64 was exceptionally severe in the region).[1] By the 1980s, the reindeer population had completely died out.[2] Environmentalists see this as an issue of overpopulation. For example, ecologist Garrett Hardin cited the “natural experiment” of St. Matthew Island of the reindeer population explosion and collapse as a paradigmatic example of the consequences of overpopulation in his essay An Ecolate View of the Human Predicament.[8]


Obviously this case involves human meddling, but hopefully you see my point- while the process of establishing/maintaining balance is perceived as “natural” it is often still incredibly violent.


When I say debate is an ecosystem in which balance is established here is generally what I mean-arguments can be thought of as “species”. To prevent one argument or species from completely taking over it needs to have some kind of predator that keeps its populations in check. Deer when young and strong can outrun wolves, but if they get old or injured eventually they get eaten. This prevents the deer population from exploding like it did on St. Matthews Island.


Now, anyone who has read the Heidegger K knows that human intervention into the environment generally operates from an ontological belief/commitment to omnipotence and mastery- we think we can understand the environment through a calculative, scientific approach to such an extent that we can adjust the global thermostat to avoid global warming by reducing carbon to an exact ppm requirement. Often, like St. Matthew, we intervene in the environment to “help it out”, to “restore balance” for something we think is broken (most often that we have broken ourselves).


This mindset is not entirely different from the mindset of judges who decide to intervene in debates, they hope to correct what they see is a deficiency in the ecosystem.


Now, for as long as I can remember arguments for objectivity/tabula rasa/non intervention have been described using the language of the market/libertarianism- debate is a competitive game (market), we should let the students fight it out (its a meritocracy), because doing otherwise would sacrifice the competitive value of the game (ie don’t disrupt privilege).


I contend that this framing, in no small part, is what drives the objections to non-intervention. For starters, any K debater worth their salt would immediately role their eyes at such a pro-market justification. They already know all of the arguments against those assumptions from debating various topics, so why would they now accept those same arguments as a justification for structuring the activity?


Debate is also very left leaning, and people concerned with justice/equity generally are very skeptical of the market given its empirical track record.


Both groups of people dismiss anti-intervention arguments because they interpret them as an individual plea for a private property right -why didn’t I get my argument- rather than thinking of them as an attempt to preserve the debate ecosystem. So in this post I want to give a few examples of places where a group of judges decided intervention was a-ok, and what effect that has had on the debate ecosystem.



No-Spec No-Problem


When I debated in high school there were a variety of “spec” arguments that people would read, the two most common being A-spec (you didn’t specify your agent) and o-spec ( you did specify which is “over” specifying).


Now, where these arguments good? No, not really. Most of the time they relied on tech/game playing which proponents of intervention hate. But in the same sense, are “wolves” good? Well no, not if you are a deer. But wolves don’t need to be good or bad for an ecosystem to function, they just need to be there. Similarly, like it or not spec arguments served a function- they helped establish boundaries for what was and was not a viable plan. Teams had to weigh the strategic pros and cons of what they did or did not put into them knowing there would be real, actual consequences. Without spec arguments, without wolves, this pressure abated. How did that turn out?


Well let me tell you- not very #$&#&%# good. The last 2 college topics where some pretty good ones if you want to have a lot of in-depth debates. Two of the mainstay affs- carbon tax (or permits) and single payer- have a ridiculous amount of depth to them with different ways they can be implemented. College debate loves to talk about how in depth its research practices are so surely we got into these debates right? Nope. People’s plans were so vague and stupid establishing competition for even basic counterplans was difficult because the affirmative refused to take a position on anything.


Now the downside to spec arguments is…. sometimes they get read when not applicable? I have to admit I might need a guest post for the “spec args bad” side because I just don’t get it. When an argument is really bad, it should be easy to beat. If the neg reads A-spec on a topic where there isn’t very good evidence discussing agents it should be easy for them to win this is a bad approach to that topic. There were never legions of a-spec debaters savaging the policy world with their unstoppable spec assault. Getting upset about spec to the point of convulsion is an overreaction, and not shockingly that knee jerk overreach has had a lot of negative consequences.


PICS can’t be bad


There has always been a really weird group of people who take this macho approach to pics and say things like “bro do you even research? cause if you did you would be prepared to defend your whole plan bro”. For the most part, however, they were a minority. In fact there are those who would tell you that on the college rogue states topic the team who won the copeland did so largely by going for pics bad, something that is unthinkable nowadays. While judges will reject almost every non conditionality bad theory argument as being “not a voting issue” PICS bad has a unique place and is subject to a higher level of scorn.


This is largely because of judge intervention. Judges got used to saying “I don’t want to vote against this CP on pics bad because it is a good strategy” which over time became “I don’t want to vote on pics bad” even when the strategy wasn’t good. There are a whole bunch of ways people will cop out of voting on pics bad and I don’t really want to get bogged down in the minutia of specific people or specific arguments, I want instead to focus on how silly the “defend your plan” school of thought is.


Let’s say the plan is do ABC. If the pic is ” Do AB” what should the affirmative do? Obviously they should read offense about why “C” is a good thing, hopefully that is obvious. The problem is most negatives don’t read “pics” that are straightforward “do ab”. What they do is read a pic that says “Do AB, and then do these 12 things to fix the problem C is designed to solve”. As an example I will relay the following anecdote, again not to target individual people although I highly doubt the person in question reads this blog, but just because I thought the students line of questioning perfectly got to the heart of the issue.


In the debate in question the affirmative plan said word X, the negative read a word pic but also

-changed the legal meaning of the new word to be the same as the word in the aff plan

-apparently knowing what the aff’s defense of that word was (it was k2 action on climate change) also did 3 other things to solve climate like a carbon tax


Me: I vote aff on pics bad, this kind of CP combined with the block is unbeatable according to the aff, the neg din’t even make an offensive argument for why this kind of strategy was good


Other judge: I voted neg. PICS bad is a whine, you should do researach

Debater: Well we didn’t say pics bad, we said that along with other theory arguments like spiking solvency deficits is bad, how did you evaluate the rest of it

judge: i didn’t cause theory arguments are whining, you should cut cards

debater: well we did cut cards, we had defenses of our word but the other parts of the CP solve that offense

Judge; yea well you should be ready with disads to those parts of the CP

debater: the affirmative should be ready with a disad to read to every part of a multi plank CP that is conditional?

Judge: Yep


If you read that exchange, and you side with that judge…. I don’t even know what to say to you. You have awful views about the world and debate, views so misguided I can’t even imagine how we got to this place.


Let us bracket off for a second the sheer LUNACY of requiring the affirmative to read a disad to each plank of a multiplank conditional CP (assuming there is only 1 which we know is false because hey- conditionality bad isn’t a voting issue), no affirmative could POSSIBLY prepare this much. You are saying the aff has to be ready to debate the topic/defend their aff from all regular topic args, but now also has to debate climate, an entirely separate college topic, and they have to start in the 2AC? I’m sorry but that is not defensible in anyway.


At this point I can hear someone objecting “duh just read a different defense of the word”, and yes I hear you annoying debate person who just thinks cards on any conceivable subject materialize out of thin air. The funny thing is I can tell by your comment you don’t do research or aren’t any good at it because otherwise you would know what a stupid thing you just said there. Even if, and I say even if but I should just stop at “no this is stupid”, but even if there are multiple defenses of a word- is this what debate should be? The aff just researching every conceivable interpretation of a word to defend vs word pics?


Theory arguments SHOULD function like topicality- they establish limits that help people cope with research burdens. Which brings us to topicality, which is gonna be a rant so long I will have to do it in the next post.













4 responses to “Judges Should Not Intervene Part 1 -A Disturbance in the Force

  1. Bear with me as I share a story from early in my judging career that has haunted me for years:

    It was the very early 00s and I was judging at a quarters or semis bid tournament. The neg ran T along with other stuff. The Aff did a decent job answering it (for the most part) but one of their answers was “Counter interp: our case is the only topical case”. The neg drops this answer and it is the only interp that the Aff extends in the 1AR along with arguments about how that means they win the limits debate (with there only being 1 topical case after all…). The neg block didn’t go great elsewhere, so they decide to go for T. The 2NR does an ok job on T, dismissing the counter interp by basically saying “yeah, that’s not a thing”. 2AR proclaims game over from the block since they dropped their counter interp “argument”.

    The aff was the better team in the round… they also were the team that was more well known on the circuit.

    Long story short, I voted Neg. I had never heard the “our case is the only topical case” “argument” before. It must have been the year this argument started because I (unfortunately) heard it quite a bit later on.

    The RFD was pretty much, “Neg wins on T. Your counter interp is not an argument. You can’t just say you’re topical. This isn’t ‘Nam, there are rules” (which people didn’t get because Big Lebowski wasn’t a thing yet). “It would be like saying ‘Mickey Mouse Rulez, it’s a voting issue.’ I don’t vote on crap like that.”

    They were like, “it’s not the same, because camp” also, “we won the standards debate”

    Then I was like “you had several other arguments you could have extended on T, but you went all in and it cost you”

    I guess its pretty clear that I intervened. The easier path was certainly to just vote aff and say “sorry, you dropped their counter interp”… but I just couldn’t pull the trigger on voting for that REALLY dumb argument that was never explained and made no sense. I called for their T block and it pretty much said verbatim “Counter interp: Our case is the only topical case” with no other explanation. I guess that “argument” did kind of stick around for a few more years afterwards which I guess shows that I was wrong to intervene? To this day I don’t really know what the right answer is.

  2. 2/2

    But as I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten more ambivalent about the K. I think I was wrong, and that the ideas of activists and critical theorists represent, essentially, an invasive species. Such ideas are hyper-specialized and really hard to rebut, even when they’re wrong. Not enough outside literature exists arguing against their hyper-concentrated adaptedness. Dealing with them has moved from a niche concern of top teams to a mandatory constraint on the kinds of affirmative that are viable. Far from reinvigorating debate and leading to the development of innovative new hybrid positions, instead we see round after round of Left vs Far Left, of highly ambitious reformism beyond what even Bernie Sanders would support being decried as a machinistic tool of oppressive state structures, far inferior to a total revolution the world of which is never described in detail.

    This is all complicated by the fact that I feel judges are systematically biased when it comes to ethical questions concerning the critique. It’s really hard to read arguments throughout your high school and college career about how objectivity is a pretense for people to mistreat others and not be influenced by them. It’s hard to respond to the accusation that some team is ableist or racist without immediately wanting to distance yourself from that team, even if the accusation’s not true, for social reasons.

    So, on the one hand I feel like judge intervention is warranted, because it would have the potential to stop the excess of low-effort K arguments. On the other hand, I feel like judge non-intervention is one of the last remaining checks against the total domination of debate by such arguments.

    Essentially, I feel like debate’s got a terminal illness, and I don’t know if anything can be done about it.

    I continue to judge from a non-interventionist perspective, because of my uncertainty and because I think I would feel dirty intervening on a round even for the sake of making debate better as a whole. But I’m unhappy about it.

    I know all this rhetoric about invasive species and memetic fitness and the health of abstract concepts probably sounds vaguely fascist, but I’m putting all the blame for that onto you, as environmental managerialism was your choice of metaphor. 😀

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