Theory Debate for Small Schools

By Mikil Foss and Kevin Tran

The PF topic for September/October was “Resolved: The United States federal government should enact the Medicare-For-All Act of 2019.” During this topic, we hit a team running an argument about Trump being reelected under Medicare For All (it’s taken a while to write this and think about it), with the impact of the immigrant concentration camps across the US continuing, as well as running framing that structural violence impacts come first, and immigrants experience this structural violence. These camps are of course an awful thing, and there needs to be more conversations about structural violence in all levels of our society. The problem arises when there wasn’t a content warning before constructive, and we’re then forced to stand up in 1st rebuttal and explain why we should be put in concentration camps, debating not only against the argument, but against our beliefs and our identity. While the subject of marginalized groups having to debate against arguments centered around our identity is a disturbing reality of debate, it’s not the focus of this post. If you want to read more about this, we recommend “Switch Side Debate - A Double Edged Sword” by Sean Wallace (link). The focus of this post is about the content warning theory shell we read following constructive.

The Problem

In debate, everything, even debate about the debate space (theory, kritiks etc…) is evaluated off of the flow, a record of everything significant each side said in the round. While evaluating theory off of a flow is great for determining its validity as an argument, it’s not an effective method to evaluate the potential for rounds to become unsafe for judges, observers and especially competitors.

Since the norm of a “good judge” in debate is to only vote off of the flow and be as noninterventionist as possible, serious abuse coming from good teams gets undermined by the ballot they just won. Let’s look at an example round with two teams, Team A and Team B, and a “good judge”. Let’s say Team A goes to a larger school than Team B, and Team A misgenders Team B repeatedly even after a clarification. Even if Team B knows they have the option of running a shell, Team A can dump responses their 10 coaches wrote for them. Team B likely isn’t equipped with the knowledge to frontline, and the judge as a “good judge” should vote for Team A despite the abuse. Even if Team B also goes to a large debate school, if Team A is better at theory debate the judge should still vote for them. Are average debaters or debaters at small schools not entitled to the right to a safe round? If we are, why does debate put us in unsafe situations where the very tool meant to help, gets turned against us with 4 RVIS. As it stands, if you’re a good debater who goes to a large school with backfiles and coaches, you can get away with murder inside the debate round.

How This Happened

Theory originated in policy debate as a way to stop abusive practices within the debate space. However, teams realized there was strategic value in magnifying small details in the round and painting them as serious abuses to win a round. This trickled over to LD and then PF as events naturally become more progressive. Due to the nature of how these events have evolved, theory arguments are seen as just arguments, the same as a contention about climate change.

Due to online debate this year, it’s much worse than in prior years. Previously debaters could see the opponent as actual people, this year they’re just pixels on the screen, creating a sense of separation, making it easier to commit the original act. Since it’s also harder to see potential impacts you’re having on people, it’s harder to accept what you did as wrong.

Even if debate is a game, it should still be a game everyone can play. What makes a paraphrasing shell different from a content warning shell is that one affects the rules of the game while the other affects who can play. While many judges do recognize a difference, insofar as they still evaluate them both off of “the flow,” there isn’t a significant difference in practice.

How do we fix it

While the theory currently pushes small debate schools and average debaters out of the debate space due to unrectified abuse, there are ways we can fix it without changing the event drastically. Here are a few ideas each of us can do to help solve for this, and note this list isn’t inclusive of every possible solution.

For Debaters:

  • Stop complaining about being dropped for an abusive practice. You did something wrong, accept it, understand it, and make a change. We are not advocating for you to hide when you are dropped for serious abuse, there is a difference between saying “massive judge screw, just dropped because the judge wasn’t flowing” and saying “ My partner and I seriously messed up, we did X, the other team and the judge rightfully called us out for it.”

  • Concede rounds. I know we all want to win, but if we’re making the round unsafe, and the judge won’t end it, recognize our fault and end the round before it gets worse.

  • Post Theory Files: Especially for people at smaller schools, there’s a lack of access not only to shells for serious abuse, but a lack of frontlines. By sharing these resources, we’re able to help those who would normally stay quiet and don’t have coaches who will teach them.

For Judges:

  • Start intervening. While judge intervention in terms of topic debate and frivolous theory debate is not good for education and fairness, judge intervention when the round becomes unsafe is necessary.

  • Change your paradigms. Incorporate the phrase “I will not evaluate the flow, drop you and stop the round if you say something that makes the debate space unsafe.” For the fair number of judges who already have a statement similar, thank you and be especially mindful in online debate of in round abuse. For those who don’t, even if you have a really high bar for what classifies as “unsafe,” having a statement like this one makes debaters more conscious of their actions and their consequences.

  • Listen to debaters: This is the most important thing you can do, even if you’re already going to intervene and drop a debater. It’s important you listen and understand the perspective of someone who was put in an uncomfortable situation, because not only will you be a more whole person for it, but you’ll have a better perspective for approaching life in general.

For Coaches:

  • Teach debaters and judges what safe and unsafe debate looks like.

  • When someone talks to you about something one of your debaters did to create an unsafe environment, take serious action against it.

For tournament directors:

  • Create explicit rules dictating what creates a safe environment for debate and give examples and potential punishments for violations of those rules including removal from the tournament.

For those who know what good theory debate looks like:

  • We’re working on compiling current resources and producing new ones to not only explain when theory is valid, but how to run it. We’re not very good at theory debate, so any help is appreciated. Reach out on Facebook to help (Mikil Foss and Kevin Tran).

  • Explain the basics of theory debate to people who don’t know. Part of the problem is people are unaware of theory.

For anyone:


Theory was intended to be a method of ending abuses that make debate worse or make it more inaccessible. The way theory currently functions, it’s not an effective tool. Genuinely disturbing abuses are swept under the rug because the team that committed the abuse was either better at theory debate or more prepped. This is a very small slice of the pie in terms of institutional problems with debate, but it’s one that we can take very real steps towards fixing.


Mikil Foss and Kevin Tran have been debating on the Nebraska public forum circuit for almost 3 years as a part of the Lincoln High School debate program.


Note: The Beyond Resolved blog reflects the ideas of individual authors and not necessarily of the organization as a whole.

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