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20 December 2009

Koc WUDC Debating Guide: First Opposition

What do we do when First Proposition squirrels?

Cheer, because they’ve done a stupid thing. Then add insult to injury by debating what they’ve squirreled onto better then they do. So: if they squirrel, point it out, and then debate the way that first prop has set it up, as best you can. Probably the only circumstance under which you should reject a squirrel and make a speech about the debate you were expecting is when the definition is verging on truism (i.e. ‘Genocide is bad’). If what has been proposed is at all debatable, you will be appropriately credited for saving the debate from an abyss of despair and horror, and be rewarded accordingly.

What’s the difference between counterpropping and challenging the definition?
The default position is that the opposition defends the status quo against what has been advocated by proposition. If you believe that it is strategically sensible you could also:

Counterprop: Counterpropping is presenting the House with an alternate (allegedly superior) model to the proposition. The proposition's model and the counterprop should be mutually exclusive. It is not enough to point out some other thing you could do at the same time, it must be something you could do instead. Otherwise you look like you are agreeing with the proposition, and fail to fulfil your function.

Challenge the definition: This is contending that the proposition interpreted the motion not as it should have been interpreted, giving a new definition (and maybe even a model), and going on to talk about what you think the debate should have been about. On a strategic level, as we have said already and as we will continue to say, this is a last resort – try to avoid it.

Note: as WUDC is an international competition, the idea of a status quo is sometimes misleading. A status quo is simply the world as it is. For debates about international relations, there is clearly a state of affairs in the world as it is, but for almost every other sort of motion (i.e. questions of domestic social policy, law, medical ethics, or whatever) there is no status quo, as different states may well have wildly different policies on a certain matter. That means opposition have considerable freedom to defend what they want to.

When should I challenge the definition?
As a general rule: DO NOT EVER challenge the definition. If are wrong, you are not coming out of that room with good marks. Even if you are right, you have forgone an opportunity to rescue the debate. Such debates (i.e. ‘meta-debates’about the legitimacy of the motion) are unlikely to offer much opportunity for style, brilliant analysis, or insight. As such, everyone in such rooms tends to leave with dreadful marks, even the team that won. Furthermore, these debates are quite astonishingly boring. You do not want to be in this debate. If it is in your power to avoid it, do so.

When should I counterprop?
Not as often as people do.
There are several types of counter-prop. Some are legitimate and make for a better debate; they widen clash, help the debate focus on interesting issues and make for a more interesting discussion. Many are appalling: Narrowing the debate such that all that is being argued about are one or two extraordinarily minor considerations, whilst not explicitly banned in the rules, is not usually clever (i.e. ‘we agree with everything prop said, the people of Scotland should indeed be granted independence, but not with the electoral system that the proposition have advocated). You look like a coward, the debate becomes boring, devoid of intellectual content and you will – rightfully – be held responsible for this.
A counterprop which assimilates all of proposition’s principled positions and opts for a more extreme policy (i.e. ‘we agree with everything prop said, the people of Scotland should indeed be granted independence, and so should Wales, Cornwall, Rutland…’) is similarly vacuous as a debating approach. Pointing out that the principles of a proposition may well have further implications is fine, but – ultimately – a motion has been set, and we intend you to debate that motion.
A counterprop which simply goes off into cloud cuckoo land (i.e. we agree with everything prop said, the people of Scotland should indeed be granted independence, and therefore we must abolish the state’) will destroy the debate. You may think during your preparation time that it will be ‘hilarious’. You are wrong. General tests for whether or not a counterprop is advisable might include these: does the debate remain substantively about the issues intended by the Adjudication team in setting the motion? Am I wrecking this debate, or making it better?

Why should it matter whether or not a counterprop makes the debate more 'interesting'?
[1] Style is in the judging criteria. That can, but does not have to, mean making lots of jokes or using beautiful language. It can mean being persuasive and engaging (i.e. 'interesting' to listen to). Saying relevant and interesting things about stuff we care about is more stylish than not.
[2] Content which is relevant and important is more interesting than material that is not. Setting up a debate which is interesting probably means you have set up a debate which is important, and gives room for high quality analysis. That is a room in which you get better marks.
[3] Consciously or not, judges will reward you for not making the next hour of their life hell.

Isn't this all a bit subjective?
Yes. Debating is less objective than we all like to pretend.

This guide is from the briefing published by the adjudication team of Koc Worlds 2010. The adjudication team is Can Okar (CA) Josh Bone (DCA), Julia Bowes (DCA), Suthen Tate Thomas (DCA), Will Jones (DCA), Handan Orel (ACA), Ozan Mert Ondes (ACA). This document is based on one drafted by Anat Gelber, Daniel Schut and Will Jones in 2007 for the Amsterdam Open.

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