Why we need more knives
In this article, I’d like to argue for more knives in BPS debating. Not because I’m the owner of a knife shop – which I’m not – but because there are certain cases where the current rules are unfair towards certain teams and this could be easily corrected.
First of all, let me clarify a few things. For this article, I take the position that in BPS debating the teams should get ranked based on their performance in terms of persuasiveness, which, in nowadays canon, means based on their performance in terms of furthering the debate on what ancient and modern rhetoric theory calls Logos, the logical part of argumentation (as opposed to the Ethos, which simplified means the speaker’s image, and Pathos, which refers to the persuasive aspect of emotions). The concept is simple: The team, which contributes most in absolute terms on the Logos level for their side, should win. The system is performance based.
However, there are some cases in which this doesn’t happen. This is due to rules prohibiting closing teams from refusing and rebutting their opening half. In most cases, this is a reasonable measure: If the front teams open reasonable cases, rebutting them is the other side’s job and would also add to their contribution. If closing teams generally were allowed to take cases contradicting their front team, it would likely result in the front teams being rebutted, especially in terms of which material is relevant and why, from three sides, one of which attacks they could not even respond to in POIs. This would probably not be fair and is the reason, why closing teams at the moment are not allowed to contradict front teams.
The problematic part is the one in which any of the opening teams screws up their half. This could be the following two cases:
A) OG opens a case which is almost impossible to win, e.g. because of a stupid part in their policy.
B) OG opens a case which is almost impossible to lose, e.g. because they squirrel a one-sided new motion or define the actual motion very unfairly without OO challenging and redefining this because they (falsely) think they could win that case.
In short: One of the front teams actively or passively commits suicide in terms of setting up the debate for their side.
Under current BPS rules the teams are then stuck with the debate set up – but this is problematic. Debating competitions are a special kind of sport and the motion usually is the playing field. We give the position of a Chief Adjudicator to experienced people because we need to ensure that both sides have similar persuasive potential. In the cases given, this persuasive potential gets completely transformed into an unbalanced arena. Contributing more absolute persuasiveness for your side than the other teams for theirs is impossible when you are capped at an early point while they are not. Thus, I find it incredibly unfair if closing teams lose their fair chance to win (which would be possible under a reasonable defined version of the motion) because the opening team was stupid. Additionally, I think that winning against both opposite teams because the opening team made a weak model that you can celebrate yourself with by bashing the obvious holes just because the closing team is artificially forbidden to make a reasonable case that would also be legitimate under the motion if they had been opening instead of closing is very cheap. Maybe you still get beaten by your own closing team, but you are likely still taking a second place (which is not enough in finals but throughout all other rounds).
Considering this, I would strongly suggest that the next EUDC and WUDC CA teams update the rules and the adjudication manual in a way that closing teams are allowed to knife, correct and redefine stupid parts of opening’s work and also get that counted as an extension. Debates should not be decided by the first definition the opening half agrees on, but rather by arguments concerning a reasonable approach by the government side.
I believe this has not been done so far for three concerns:
A) It’s not how a parliament works.
B) There will be a grey zone about when a knife/redefinition was necessary.
C) Opening teams can’t defend their cases’ reasonability against new cases coming later, which also is unfair.
However, all of those should not hinder us in introducing my suggestion above, for the following reasons:
A) Many things in debating are not how a parliament works anymore. Debating, at least at competitions, has transformed from a simulation of some political procedure, e.g. like MUNs, to a sport. Thus, keeping structures that stand in the way of more fairness for historical reasons, seems inappropriate to me. Additionally, I could add a long list of things that should urgently introduced as well, if we prioritize simulation over fairness, as well.
B) This is true. However, this is also true for the question which definition to follow in case of a challenge or redefinition by OO – apparently we trust the adjudicators to decide how reasonable and fair certain definitions are, so there shouldn’t be large issues here. I can see that people want to keep the cases where adjudicators have to make such decisions a marginal share, but if we allow OO a challenge (triggering need for such a decision) because of fairness, we should also grant the other teams that right, also because of fairness. And, since closing teams still won’t get away with unnecessary knifing, they have good incentives not to misuse this tool.
C) This is not true. First of all, adjudicators won’t buy unreasonable or unnecessary knives. A good case doesn’t need to fear a knife, the act of knifing then would only make sure you have one less team to worry about. Secondly, if there are really concerns about this coming so totally unexpected, the closing teams could be allowed to give a “Point of Challenge” towards the opposite opening teams, indicating that they will challenge some part of the setup. If taken, they then must state the core of their new definition, so that the opposite opening team can either explain why their definition is more or equally reasonable/legitimate, allowing them to also engage with the definition material from closing.
In summary, I don’t think that any of those reasons are important enough to stand against an important increase in terms of fairness. Teams should never be doomed to any rank because of anything but their own performance. So, my first and major case ends here.
There is a second one that I’d like to add on top though. This is another version of the “front half defines, closing half must follow”-paradigm, but should be treated separately. At the moment, the front half is allowed to set up a completely new debate that has nothing to do with the motion – basically, if OG squirrels and OO accepts something utterly different than what was announced before preparation time. E.g. the motion could be “THW create international highly protected sea reserves” OG could debate a policy more fitting something like “THW privatize banks”. Obviously one has nothing to do with the other. However, if OO accepts the new motion, it’s set for the debate. Not only that – the rules explicitly demand that “as long as it’s debatable it should be taken”. This is horribly problematic in so many ways!
A) Preparation time: All teams but OG lose 15 minutes of preparation time. Additionally, OG probably has prepared “their” case weeks ago and will likely present an incredibly strong case: Hard to beat and almost impossible to beat by extending.
B) Balance: What might look as an even playing field at first sight doesn’t have to be one. There is a reason why CAs spend weeks discussing motions and writing case files before setting them. I don’t think it’s wise to have others make those decisions – it’s better to let them be made by the CAs (assuming they are selected carefully and generally do a solid job).
C) Psychology: If expecting a certain case and then instead confronted with something completely different and potentially well-prepared, this will create confusion and stress to participants that exceeds the usual debate level. It’s quite likely that simply because of the different expectations the teams will perform worse than to a debate where they just didn’t have preparation time.
D) Adjudication: If this case appears at the moment, adjudicators should judge based on the newly set debate. The rules expect them to “consider” the special situation but mainly stick to the content delivered, as usual. In other words: The manual tells you to shift away from absolute persuasiveness (but not too much!) and go for some part of assessing rankings based on… what? On how well you fulfilled the potential persuasiveness left for you and how well you did it? Apart from the exact relation of what to credit how much being totally unclear to the adjudicators, it also expects adjudicators to apply a different way of adjudicating, which they are probably not used to and thus inaccurate in doing.
Now I know that this scenario does not happen very often. Also, I think that everybody can agree that this – if applied – would be very unfair. But even if it doesn’t happen very often it’s a very unreasonable procedure that could and should easily be replaced by simply giving OO the right and obligation to redefine, and to then oppose some case that could have been set up under the original motion even without introducing any knives.
However, if OO does not do this (maybe because they agreed with OG on this during prep time so both get 1st and 2nd? Who knows), the closing teams should have the right and obligation to knife their front half and set up and debate the original motion.
Some stupid rule not being needed very often still should be replaced with a reasonable rule, because for those rare cases it matters A LOT.
Now, what to do?
First of all: Discuss the thoughts above, of course. I personally find them quite convincing (well, they’re mine). If we want this to be applied at competitions, we will need to make more people aware of the problems currently in the system, so sharing this article with fellow debaters and especially CAing debaters is crucial. If the discussion doesn’t change my opinion, I’ll also send a link to the EUDC and WUDC CAs, so maybe the suggestions find their way into the next manuals. Until then, to secure equally applied adjudication in all rooms, always follow what is announced by the CAs of the individual competitions – and ask them, to be sure and also to create more awareness. Thanks for reading!
Lennart Lokstein is chief editor of the Achte Minute debate magazine. He was president of Streitkultur e.V. in Tübingen 2013-15 and part of the German OPD format’s rule commission since 2014. Lennart won countless tournaments, including the German Championship 2016, where he also got awarded for the best final speech once more after already getting the award in 2015. Lennart was Chief Adjudicator of some tournaments and responsible for organising VDCH adjudication seminars in 2014/15. Currently he’s supporting the VDCH in the areas of sponsoring and supporting societies hosting their first tournament. Lennart is writing his Master thesis in General Rhetoric about the history of university debating and studies at the Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen.
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