This will be the first article in a three part series about how to go for Topicality (which I’ll abbreviate as T or T-USFG from here on out) against K Affs that don’t defend the topic. This first article will be more of a primer on some of the basic structure/arguments involved in going for T-USFG, focusing mostly on the types of impacts that people should go for when reading T. The second article will discuss the basic vocabulary and terminology that come up in T debates, and how to leverage these arguments effectively; the third article will dive a little deeper into advanced tips/strategies to go for T at the highest levels.
What is T-USFG/what does T against K Affs look like?
There are a number of elements of T against a K Aff that are similar to T against a policy Aff, but also several key differences. The main similarity is that, at a fundamental level, you are still making a topicality argument. The negative is defining words in the resolution, and arguing that the affirmative falls outside of those words. For example, against a policy Aff on the Jan-Feb authoritarian regimes topic, the negative might have argued that authoritarian referred only to countries indexed as authoritarian on the EIU index – this topicality argument was defining the phrase “authoritarian regime” in the resolution. Similarly, against an Aff that doesn’t defend the topic, you define words to demonstrate that they are outside of the topic. Following the same example of the Jan-Feb topic, you might define “United States” as requiring the federal government (hence why many refer to this as T-USFG, since you are almost always defining United States federal government to exclude the Aff), “military aid” as a government to government transfer, and authoritarian regime as recipient that is a government; these all demonstrate the violation, that the affirmative is outside the confines of the resolution.
However, where the two diverge is where the majority of the debating takes place; when going for T against a policy aff, both sides will generally agree that topicality is a good norm/that topicality is a voting issue, and the main area of clash will be over whether the affirmative is in fact topical or not. The Aff will likely introduce their own counter definitions of the words the neg has defined, and give reasons to prefer their definitions/interpretation for limits/precision/etc. However, when debating a critical affirmative, the Aff generally does not accept that fundamental premise that topicality is a voting issue; the main area of debate will be over whether topicality/topical debates are worth promoting or not. Sometimes affirmatives will still counter-define words, but usually, the Aff is impact turning T and claiming that topical debates are bad.
What does neg offense usually look like when going for T?
In these debates, the neg is usually tasked with defending a model of debate – that of limiting debates solely to ones about the resolution, as defined by the words in the resolution. The arguments in defense of this model of debate can vary tremendously, but they can usually be sorted into one of two bins; process-based defenses of debating the topic that usually emphasize fairness, and more content-based reasons why debating the topic is good (often known as “skills”)
The first category of more process-based impacts center around the intrinsic features of debate as an activity, and argue that this mandates some level of competitive equity that is worth preserving in and of itself. The one truth that this model accepts as given is that fundamentally, debate is a game, and a competitive one. The reason why both teams attempt to make a persuasive argument to a judge, hope to win, and hope to advance to elimination rounds is because it is a competitive activity; otherwise, we could just submit our research to an academic conference and save our money on flights.
Some may argue that debate is more than just a game, as a school-sponsored activity that teaches people about current events, philosophy, critical literature, and more. However, proponents of this model of debate emphasize that even though debate undoubtedly accomplishes a ton for different people in different ways, there is fundamentally a telos of competition that underwrites all that we do. Think of a game of soccer; one player might play it because they watched the World Cup and loved the game, another might play for exercise, and another might play because their mom made them (like me). These competitors all have different reasons for playing, and find different elements of the game valuable, but all accept fundamentally the rules of the game, and that it is, in fact, a game. No one of those players is entitled to handball, or to have five players goal-keep, even if that would make the game more fun for any individual player; this would defeat the purpose of the game, with predefined rules, and ruin the competitive nature of the game.
This comparison by way of rules of soccer and debate illustrates the central vision of what debate should look like for the more process-oriented approach to T; debate is a competitive activity where every participant aims to win, and this competition is limited by rules. The number of rules and limits we follow regularly prove that we do place some value in fairness and maintaining the rules of the game; we show up to tournaments, are told where to debate and whom by tab, show up to the debates we’re told to go to, follow speech times, don’t talk during other people’s speeches, and attempt to convince a judge to vote one way or the other at the end of the debate. Fundamentally, all of these constraints demonstrate that we view debate as a game, and if it’s a game, it should probably be a fair one that isn’t rigged in favor of the affirmative’s side by allowing them to pick the topic, instead of debating one announced in advance. This also demonstrates that any offense about why forcing the Aff to be topical is bad necessarily is self-serving and arbitrary; they’ve accepted dozens of other limits on what they can say or do that are fundamentally no different than topicality, and the one limit they reject is one that enables the affirmative to claim a strategic benefit (not being bound to the topic).
As a corollary to this, there can be arguments made that aren’t solely about fairness; many argue that this process of debating the topic is educational and leads to higher quality debates, irrespective of the content that is produced by a given topic. Debating against a well-prepared opponent on a predictable topic leads to better debates; everyone has had the ability to do research and to iteratively improve their arguments over the course of the season. In contrast, debates without a topic justify the Aff moving the goalposts each and every debate to literally anything; not only is this unfair for the negative, but also means the debate itself won’t be particularly valuable or educational. The Aff will have introduced an interesting idea, but the debate will have turned into a monologue, where the negative has nothing valuable to contribute at all, either because they weren’t able to be prepared or because the Aff chose to affirm a slanted and one-sided idea. This type of impact centered on clash is strategic because it demonstrates both that the Aff’s model is unfair (which is an impact in and of itself) but also that the Aff is unable to actualize any of the benefits of debate they’ve argued matter (usually in K debates about producing new forms of scholarship/creating new forms of discussions).
The reason why I categorized this set of offense about fairness as a “process-oriented impact” is that none of this claims that debating the topic is valuable because of the content it creates; none of this relies on winning that this particular topic is educational/teaches us anything. Rather, this just holds that the process/norm of debating the topic is a worthwhile one to preserve because it makes debate fair, which is an intrinsically valuable part of the activity irrespective of the types of education that a particular topic creates.
The second category of offense is fundamentally different, and focuses more on the benefits that are created through the content of topical debates. These are often labeled as “skills” type impacts, claiming that debate has the ability to train us to be effective advocates and to impart valuable skills through this education that make us better at governing/leading movements/scholars/etc. If you were to contrast this from the process-oriented impacts above in a sentence, it would be this: Fairness-oriented impacts claim that debate requires a set of constraints and rules (such as being topical) by nature of it being a competitive activity, which should be preserved for its own sake because anything else defeats the purpose of a game; skills-oriented impacts instead argue that the game isn’t worth preserving for its own sake, but rather that debating the topic can make us better advocates who learn skills necessary to meaningfully improve the world.
What might this look like? People going for skills-esque T arguments will often read evidence about movements/political change, and how that requires knowledge of institutions and government. Abdicating debates about institutions makes changing those institutions much harder, and makes meaningful political change impossible. Additionally, some strands of offense that I alluded to above when talking about clash can apply here too; unlimited, unfocused debates make us worse advocates, and unable to effectuate change successfully in the real world after debate. Some people also read arguments about topic education; they’ll argue that this particular topic is educational and worth debating, and that rejecting the topic necessarily prevents in-depth mechanism debates from taking place about the topic.
In an attempt to explain why these skills matter, debaters often take a number of different routes to impact these arguments. Some frame these skills as reasons why T necessarily turns the case/is a prior question to the Aff; the only way to effectively create the movements/social change the Aff wants to happens is to effectively alter institutions, which requires knowledge of them. Many debaters read cards that are empirical studies of movements/advocacy-groups that emphasized the skills they had in organization/planning, which debate is invaluable for inculcating.
Meanwhile, others claim that dialogue/deliberation as a result of debate and switching sides (forcing us to defend both the Aff and Neg sides of a topic) make us more open-minded and less dogmatic. This can resist the imposition of dogmatic truth-claims in the era of Trump, able to persuade others more effectively, or even make us better at combatting climate-change as a result of being able to think critically and cooperate with others.
This article hopefully demonstrated that there is no one way to “go for T” against a K Aff. T-USFG is still a topicality argument that defines terms in the resolution and argues the affirmative is outside of them; however, differences emerge when arguing why this deviation from the resolution matters, and why topicality is worth preserving. Some argue that the rules of the game matter, and that maintaining fairness in a competitive game is the most important impact, while others prefer impacts about the types of debate and skills that topical debates produce; as you read T more often, you’ll start to find your own distinctive style.