Monday, January 3, 2011

Every Debater's Nightmare

Aaaah the community judge. As unpredictable as the weather. More numerous than the Red Crabs of Christmas Island. It is every debater's worst nightmare to walk into the room and hear those terrible words: "I'm a first time judge." The community judge is a necessary component of keeping tournaments running, yet is prone to fickle and, at times, downright confusing and what can feel like outrageous decisions. It can seem like the community judge is an uncontrollable monster, unleashed on the debate world to pass judgement on you. They aren't. The community judge is a person like any other, albeit untrained in the fine art of debate. So how do we reach this impassive and silent creature? Is he actually listening? You bet he is, and here's how to get him to vote for you. 

1) Bias plays an expanded role
This is the great paradox of debate. The judges who know the least about the topic and debate also happen to be the least tabula rasa. Even though orientation tells them to remove their personal bias from the round, the vast majority of community judges find this hard to do. They will bring their bias into the round, and they will vote on it. You need to be prepared to compensate for this.

  • Use Cross Ex to probe for bias: Ask cross-ex questions and watch the reaction of the judge. Use cross-ex to determine where the judge falls on a political spectrum, and gauge their amicability towards big government/small government. 
  • Tailor Argumentation: Remember that the judge will most likely vote on their bias. Tailor the argumentation so that the other team offends the judge's bias, not you. Remember that in any given round, there are arguments from both teams that can offend a bias. Trap the other team into making the arguments, while avoiding them yourself.
  • Avoid certain sources: If your judge is anything but a militant conservative, avoid the Heritage Foundation. If they are libertarian, pull out CATO cards if you have them. If they are liberal, go for Berkley professors. That kind of stuff. 

2) Lingo done right
This is a huge misconception that a lot of debaters have: debate and topic lingo are bad when you have a community judge. This is only true if you are really bad at explaining, revisiting, and re-labeling. With practice, the correct application of lingo and buzzwords becomes one of your most powerful weapons.

  • Community judges are not stupid: Always remember this. My partner and I had a PhD in chemical engineering judge us last year. Clearly this is a smart man. He was, however, technically a "community judge." It would be incorrect to assume that his "community" label makes him dumb. I'm pretty sure he's smarter than me. This means that you should never talk down to community judges, or avoid lingo for fear of confusing them.
  • Re-label: The stock issues are logical. There is nothing particularly hard to understand about them. The only sticky point for community judges is the labels. Stick a better label on, and anyone can understand. I traditionally labeled Inherency and Significance as "the situation." Solvency becomes "the solution." Disadvantages were tagged as "consequences." I rarely, if ever, had trouble with losing my judges in this lingo. It will feel to you like you are running normal arguments under stock issues, but simpler labels make them easy to understand. These judges aren't dumb. They will understand the substance of the stock issues once you take away the lingo and labels. 
  • Seize credibility on topic lingo: Being able to explain facets of the topic in a cogent manner, and then attaching it to a fancy label, will score you huge credibility points with the judge. Take the time to explain technologies, theories, and politics. Diverging away from the arguments for 30 seconds to explain will go far. It makes you seem like a genuine presenter who simply wants to explain and educate. Big points and wins follow.

3) Seize momentum on confusion
This follows logically off of the last point. If your opponent never read this blog post, chances are he will eventually say something confusing. That's when you get to swoop in like a hero and provide a little clarity. 

  • A confused judge has not decided on the argument. When a judge is confused on an argument, they aren't ready to vote one way or another on it. This means that your opponent has spent his speech time introducing the argument, without getting out enough analysis to solidify it in his favor. The judge will be waiting to hear what you have to say about it, and will be more than willing to give it to you if you can make more sense. 
  • Redefine the argument in your favor. When an argument doesn't make sense, it becomes fruitless to try and salvage it in the framework that your opponents laid out. Keep and extend the key terms and ideas, but ditch their framework and organization. A confused lay-judge is one of the unique times in the round where you are allowed to re-define, re-label, and re-flow their arguments. 

4) Be careful with theory
Myth: Community judges don't know theory! I can do whatever I want! YAY!
Reality: Community judges know just enough to be dangerous and vote you down.

Community judges have had only mild exposure to debate theory. This does not make them Tabula Rasa on theory. It makes them cautious and hard to crack on theory debate. Don't assume you can get away with arguing (or ignoring) theory just because the judge is community. So how do you stay on the safe side here?

  • Avoid associations with theory: If it looks like the debate is headed towards a theory debate, try to avoid it by minimizing the use of lingo, and by emphasizing the actual policy issues. Keep the debate off of theory. If theory becomes necessary, minimize it's importance. Much like a nuclear war, the best way to win a theory debate is to make sure it never starts. 
  • Appeal to common sense: Most theory positions are based on common sense. Or at least they should be. Both sides in the great parametrics debate believe their side is the only logical and rational one. Emphasize these points. Don't harp on "ground shifts" and "moving targets." Hit on the common sense root to your theory position. It's like inception. Make the argument sound so common sense that the judge will assume it's fact. 
Leo uses inception to defeat counterplans! 


  1. 1-a and 1-b are good points, but very vague. Do you have some concrete examples of how this is done? Useful questions, metrics, and reactions? etc.

    2-c is a really good point, by the way. Judges actually really like fancy terminology, but *only when they understand it*. Explaining stuff and THEN giving it a cool name gets you good smarty-pants points.

  2. Sure thing. My favorite way of going about determining biases is to ask questions about the government, for example "Why hasn't this passed congress? Are the republicans filibustering it?" or "Is this part of Obama's new direction with Russian policy?"

    The question doesn't give you any room to argue or debate, but the vast majority of community judges will react in a big way to the mention of specific parties and people in connection with the plan. It's the same reason I prefer never to quote politicians in a round.

  3. In your opinion, what's the best way to communicate a topicality press or a counterplan to a community judge?

  4. Veddy Veddy Helpful. Thanks so much.