By: Ben Kornfeld, Yale University 2013
Every debater, even the best, has the occasional mental lapse. Positions are taken that were not well thought out, a contradictory advocacy is provided or a reasonable argument is expressed poorly and misinterpreted. These mistakes are most common in high pressure/on-the-spot situations: POIs, in the rebuttal of a frantic LO or when responding to seemingly disconnected challenges made by the other side. However, these slip-ups don’t need to be fatal to one’s team’s chance of success. With the appropriate response and strategy, one can get past these errors and still win the debate. This guide suggests a few ways novice debaters might try to approach these situations when they arise.
The following guide will be split into two sections. The first will outline what to do in situations where one says something, and then (whether from judge reaction, another POI or simply self-awareness) realizes, while still speaking that they have contracted themselves or mishandled a question (and hence has a chance to respond). The second section will look at the case in which the contradiction does not become apparent until after the speaker has finished speaking.
A brief preface however: Dealing with a situation like this is as much about maintaining the appearance of control as it is about making the perfect argument. Debates can be won or lost on perception, and maintaining confidence (though not cockiness) is very important in appearing and sounding authoritative, as well as in directing the judge to believe that the points you have won are in fact the most important issues (the RFD).
- If nobody else in the room has reacted/seems to have realized, do not make any attempt to clarify the contradiction. Wait for the other team to bring it up, and if they do (they may not) have your partner make a well thought out response.
- It looks concessive (as if you agree there is a problem) if you point out your own contradiction/mishandling.
- It also appears to highlight the contradiction as something so important you went back to it.
- You may be wasting time if they do not point it out at all.
- Your partner will have more time to come up with a response.
- There is one exception to this – if you are a speaker in the Opp Block (MO or LOR) and this could be jumped on in the PMR, make a clarification in a strong and not-too-defensive way. e.g. Something along the lines of “and this nuanced position further strengthens our prior advocacy by…” (there is always a way to make something into ‘nuance’ instead of a contradiction.
- If it is clear that the other team has realized and will make a big deal about the contradiction/fumble (i.e. they immediately and loudly stand on POIs).
- Don’t assume that what you’ve said is fairly characterized as a contradiction. Act confident and as if this has simply been misunderstood.
- Don’t immediately accept a POI. If the other team stands immediately – wave them down and say something along the lines of “clearly gov/opp misunderstands this position… what we are saying is… (and add something here about how these situations are not analogous, why this is simply a nuanced case of the former etc.)”
- If the other side continues to stand (clearly about this issue) and one has a good response formulated, take one POI and use it to explain away their concerns. Do not take more than one POI in any circumstance after a feared contradiction.
- If this is merely a case of a fumbled POI, and not a contradiction, explain why the POI is either irrelevant, dis-analogous, an extreme and hence non-informative example or simply unimportant to the debate.
- Whether the error has been realized or not:
- Focus your attention on the points that you are winning, don’t act defensively. Make it clear why your side has an RFD from the other aspects of the debate, not why the contradiction you made isn’t an RFD for them (this can be done in a later speech such as LOR or PMR, but shouldn’t be done immediately, don’t give them more chance than necessary to respond).
- Try not to further clarify the contradictory position unless asked – leaving your position as vague as possible is often useful in this situation, as it makes you harder to attack.
- With regards to POIs in response to an accusation of contradiction:
- Do not stand and protest immediately. It makes you look worried.
- If you do want to ask a POI, wait until you’ve heard what the other team has to say about the contradiction. That way, you can make sure that your response isn’t preempted and that if what they have said is irrelevant after your POI, they look stupid.
- Don’t feel like you have to stand on a POI though, doing so mainly gives them more time to respond to your counter and you less time to think of how to explain away the contradiction. Moreover, sometimes the other team will waste way too much time trying to make a big deal about it if you let them go on and on.
- Deny the contradiction (even if it probably was true)
- Debates are often very messy. Judges won’t have prefect recollection of what was said. Even if the other team is right it is often helpful to claim that they simply misunderstood you, that they are straw-manning your position or that they simply don’t understand the complex linkages between different issues in the debate.
- If that doesn’t work, you can accept their account of what has happened, but just try to explain why it isn’t a contradictory position to take. Recommendations for this are in the next.
- Don’t focus on the contradiction unless they try to make an RFD out of it.
- The easiest thing to do in response to being accused of a contradiction is to make two quick statements. 1. This isn’t a contradiction because of X and 2. Even if it were, it doesn’t matter because what is important is Y.
- Certainly don’t get bogged down in it. Spending too much time on it is both too defensive to win you the debate, and also a visible sign to the judge that you think it is important. You win by either quickly flipping a contraction to make the other team seem stupid or making it seem unimportant.
- Frequently useful responses/explanations of why something is not a contradiction are:
- The underlying motivation for the argument you are espousing is efficiency/utility – the fact that it seems absurd/you wouldn’t apply it in another situation which is inefficient/dis-utile isn’t a contradiction, just a misapplication of the principle to somewhere it clearly doesn’t apply.
- All ethical principles are fundamentally rooted in human intuitions or assumptions. While this principle may strongly apply in this case as the intuition for it is strong, the fact that we have an intuition that it ought not apply somewhere else isn’t a contradiction, merely a reflection of the fact that because principles are based in intuition, they don’t apply universally.
- The reason not applying the same principle in another case isn’t a contradiction is that the actor who it would be applied to in that case is fundamentally different (explain the difference…) given that our moral system has to delineate based on the role/power assigned to an individual (i.e. why it is very different for the police to imprison someone as opposed to you or me doing so), the same principle may apply differently, or not at all to different actors.
- The fact that something wrong/immoral/messed up happens elsewhere in the government (or even is carried out by the same actors) is no reason that something else messed up should happen just because it is consistent. i.e. (extreme example) just because he had already killed thousands of intellectuals, and it was consistent to do so doesn’t mean Stalin should have killed more – and (less extreme) just because the US unjustly prevents lots of other people from getting green cards doesn’t meant it should implement a policy to further enforce those unjust laws against illegal immigrants.
- (This is less a justification for not a contradiction, and more reason why it doesn’t matter) Just because one thing that you have said may be an argument against other things you said doesn’t automatically undermine your entire argument. Sometimes it is worthwhile to make the argument that even accounting for any contradiction, the strength of the warrants you provided still stand and provide a more compelling RFD than anything the other side has said.