Mastering Interpretations in Debate

Topicality debates can get boring, confusing, and un-fun in general. But they’re necessary. Here’s the foundation to winning topicality debates, with more topicality posts to follow. This is also very applicable to policy debate.

There Can Be More Than One Valid Interpretation!

There can be more than one interpretation of a sentence that is equally valid as the next. Most topicality debates come down to a simplistic “That’s not the resolution” argument. But what is the resolution? How do you know what the resolution is any more than I do? “That’s not the resolution” really objectively means, “that’s not MY view of the resolution.” It also screams “My view is the best,” “I don’t understand your view,” and  “judge, pick the the one you think is more reasonable. That’s me judge, that’s me!”

Debaters often say “that’s not the correct view of the resolution,” but one, that assumes their view is correct, and two, that assumes there is only one correct view. It says that the one making that argument doesn’t understand the resolution enough to think of more possible ways to interpret the resolution. If both sides make the argument that “that’s not the resolution,” it ultimately comes down to what the judge thinks the resolution is, which invites judge intervention—trouble. Yes, there are ways to argue topicality that don’t involve judge intervention.

On “Common Man”

Most people default to one argument, and one argument alone when it comes to definitional arguments: common man. “If you read the resolution for the first time, what do you immediately think of? What would the average guy watching a football game at a stadium think?” It’s not a bad argument, and there can be good impacts to that argument. But consider the following:

• Is the average person right?
• Is the first thing you think of the best?
• Is popular opinion a good standard for picking our interpretations?

Interpretations Are Not “Right” or “Wrong”

Keep one thing in mind: in interpretations, there is no right or wrong, because there is only good or bad. By right and wrong, I mean conforming to the socially accepted standards of fact. A right answer can be bad and and wrong one can be good. If the resolution is “Defend the Holocaust,” defining it the “right” way can be a bad thing: people would have to come up with arguments to defend the Holocaust, and the very act of defending publicly communicating those arguments causes them to subconsciously permeate the minds of everyone listening, making it that much easier for people to justify horrific acts against humanity.

The Holocaust is also a Jewish sacrificial offering. If the affirmative defined “Holocaust” as that offering, most negs would respond with “that is obviously not what the resolution is asking” and “that is not the intent of the resolution.” But how do they know what the resolution is asking? Resolutions are made up of words, and we have to determine what they mean. Debating about the Jewish offering would be interesting and educational, and it wouldn’t force someone to defend mass murder and spread justifications for murder. Thus, the less commonly accepted definition in this case was the better interpretation.

This is obviously not the only standard for weighing interpretations, but that’s enough for today.