In part 1 of my 9834753987453 part series on policy debates, I discussed the fundamentals of policy debating, starting off with problem identification, policy construction during prep and whether Opposition teams need to defend status quo. Part 2 provides magical questions to ask yourself that will automatically get you 85s as PM (yes even in the AP format, as the great multiple-time Asian Best Speaker Imran Rahim once attempted to break the tab by giving this score)
Policy debates are about 3 broad questions:
Question 1: Is your policy necessary or unnecessary?
You determine whether or not your policy is necessary based on two factors.
Factor 1: How prevalent and harmful is the problem you are attempting to tackle?
If you are able to elaborate the full extent of the harms, you will be able to establish a sense of urgency in tackling the problem and hence prove the necessity of the policy.
Let's use the example THW repeal the tax-exempt status of religious institutions which do not allow women to take up leadership positions. Many of my students make some brief mentions of gender inequality and women’s rights but fail to fully flesh out the problems specific to the motion.
What is the problem with religious institutions which prevent women from taking up leadership positions? We can break it down into 4 key parts.
1. The reasons why women are barred from taking up leadership roles
a) As a result of religious tradition and dogma
b) In Abrahamic religions, Eve was the one tempted by the snake to eat the forbidden fruit
c) Men seen as the only legitimate vessel of God’s teachings
d) Prescribed by holy texts
2. How are religious followers influenced by their faith
a) Religion is a core part of an individual’s identity, how they perceive themselves and how they wish to be perceived by others
b) In general, people turn to religion because of the communities they are from and to alleviate insecurities about mortality and the afterlife
c) As a result, religion forms the basis of their worldview and heavily influences their decisions and outlook on life
d) Life is seen as a means to an end, one should lead a religious life to attain a higher moral good (based on God’s teachings) or to secure a better afterlife (eternal salvation or reincarnation)
3. How religion affects people’s views on women
a) To the extent that women face discrimination in the realm of religion as a result of the holy text and rules, this signifies their inferior status, which is ingrained in all of the religious followers
b) The inability of women to take up leadership roles in religious realms is representative of some religiously ascribed defects of women which cannot be easily questioned or challenged
c) This mindset then bleeds into social interactions and social structures. If women are meant to be subservient to men and are seen as unable to lead men, this vindicates patriarchal structures in society where women are systematically excluded from position of power and influence
4. The role of the state and tax mechanisms
a) Tax-exempt status is given to organisations which contribute to the public good, such as non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and charity organisations
b) Their activities are tax-exempt because they are non-profit in nature and their revenues and fund-raising efforts are based on goodwill (donations and contributions) and the proceeds fund public services which compliments state interests
c) This means that the tax-exempt status is a powerful symbol of state support and endorsement for the organisation’s activities as representative of the public good, which the state is beholden to
Therefore, based on all the above factors, when the state provides tax-exempt status to religious organisations which do not allow women to take up leadership positions, the state is complicit and negligent in the oppressive structures of religion and the spread of misogyny in society by recognizing them as organisation of merit which serve the public good.
As shown above, creating a compelling problem within the debate is not easy and may often take up 2 to 3 minutes of your speech. However, successfully narrating a comprehensive problem which exists also creates an urgency to solve it within the debate, which would make it difficult or even impossible for Opposition to run a negative case and simply find faults with your policy without providing an alternative. Therefore, spending time to establish the problem in your first speaker speech not only helps to increase the persuasiveness of your arguments, it also creates a problem your opponents must acknowledge and hence engage with.
Conversely, it is inevitable that Opposition may attempt to trivialize the harms and be dismissive of the problem, so that they can claim that your policy solution is unnecessary and harmful, saving themselves the trouble of explaining how the current situation (status quo) or their alternative policy is sufficient. If Opposition can successfully dismiss the problems set up, they can simply focus all their time and energy to attack your policy and are likely to win the debate easily. If Opposition fails to dismiss the problem, they will have to spend time and effort explaining how they solve the problem better, therefore increasing the work they have to do to win the debate.
In most fair and balanced motions Opposition should not be able to do so successfully unless the Government team failed to characterize the underlying problem properly. Basically, if we assume the motion to be fair and balanced, it should theoretically be impossible for Opposition to simply deny that any problems or harms exist.
Factor 2) Are there alternative solutions already in place?
If alternative solutions exist, this would to a certain extent, dilute the necessity of your policy. Opposition may also provide trend analysis that the problem may fix itself in the long run through some sort of 'organic change' that doesn’t cause the problems of 'enforced change' caused by government intervention.
Here it is important to discuss a few things:
a) Are alternatives sufficiently effective? Why or why not?
b) Is your policy complimentary to alternatives hence making them more effective, or are they contradictory to alternatives.
c) What does your policy uniquely achieve which is mutually exclusive from alternatives?
Example 1) On the motion: THW require social media companies to provide parents access to their children’s accounts. Government’s policy is not only non-mutually exclusive to education and awareness campaigns, it also complements these campaigns by allowing parents to monitor and hence guide and teach their children how to use social media in a responsible fashion.
*The phrase 'non-mutually exclusive' suggests that both policies can co-exist
As mentioned in Part 1 of this series, it is important to clearly explain your mechanism and walkthrough in your speech how it achieves certain desired outcomes in a step-by-step fashion. Given that policy debates often become a comparison between the Government and Opposition paradigms, it is important to be able to establish the unique elements of your policy that cannot be achieved by any other alternative.
For example, forcing social media companies to provide parents access to their children’s accounts is the only way of providing parents with the ability to monitor their children’s behaviours and activities on such platforms, which alternative policies such as education and awareness campaigns simply cannot achieve. This makes it impossible to ascertain whether the theoretical lessons taught in these campaigns are properly applied or internalised. In comparison, it is only when parents are allowed access to their children’s accounts are they able to provide a guiding influence. Without government’s policy, the only other alternative parents can resort to is to monitor and restrict their children’s physical access to any and all internet platforms, which is not only difficult but also excessive.
Question 2: Is your policy fair or unfair?
Fairness is a difficult concept to pin down. To argue whether something is fair or unfair, we need to consider the yardsticks/criteria we should apply. This may be based on practicality arguments such as the extent of harm, but can also be based on arguments of moral responsibility and duties.
It is important for you to identify and brainstorm the various stakeholders of the debate and policy. The government/state/actor in the debate and those directly affected by the policy are all obvious stakeholders, but there may also be other relevant stakeholders which may not be immediately obvious. It is important to spend some time considering who these stakeholders may be especially in BP format debates because they tend to provide Closing teams with relevant and often times powerful extensions which may catch the Opening teams off-guard.
(If you wish to find out more about how to do this effectively, I highly recommend checking out Michael Sandel’s book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? You can also find his lectures on youtube here)
Comparisons become especially important here. Very often both teams will narrate a different set of principles or criteria to determine fairness and this will become a major clash within the debate. It is important therefore that you identify this clash during prep and draw up a strategic plan to triumph over your opponents to ensure that you are not caught off-guard.
One of the most common mistakes made by debaters is 'tunnel-vision' where they rattle off arguments and characterisations which favour their side without considering what their opponents will likely to run. As mentioned earlier, motions are supposed to be fair and balanced. This means that debates must have trade-offs and opportunity costs. Since most, if not all debates are about a comparison of trade-offs, it would be foolish to not consider how to make a proper weighing and comparison of what these trade-offs are and justifying why the benefits outweigh the potential costs.
To draw on a sports analogy, no professional football or basketball team would enter into an important match without a proper drawn up plan beyond 'do what we are good at'. It is important to consider the interactions between the different arguments on both sides and how to construct win conditions or paths to victory. This 'game-plan' becomes something which guides both the flow of your speech as well as the roles of each speaker. This often means for example that the 2nd speaker in each team should know which parts of the 1st speaker’s speech is likely to come under attack, what the opponent is likely to run and to start constructing a plan during prep to overcome potential problems.
Question 3: If your policy effective or counterproductive at achieving certain end goals?
In order to answer this question, you need to first consider what the end goals of your policy are. This could be some sort of concrete benefit, practical outcome or to create some sort of norms in society. State these out clearly from the first speaker’s speech. Refer to this article (Analysis? Can Eat or Not?)
You need to explain step-by-step the mechanistic links between your policy and the touted end goals. It is important to be as specific and clear as possible. One of the basic mistakes many debaters make is to simply assume and assert that the policy would solve the problem without highlighting the key mechanisms through which this occurs.
This would allow your opponents to easily misrepresent your policy to be ineffectual, introducing significant doubt in the judge’s mind which would undoubtedly affect your speaker scores and credibility of your case in general, placing additional pressure on your teammates to defend against your opponents attacks and to clarify how your policy works, which would consume a significant portion of time in their speeches. This can and should be avoided by having a clear explanation of how your mechanism functions to begin with.
Using the motion given above: THW repeal the tax-exempt status of religious organisations which do not allow women to take up leadership roles.
Bad Example: We need to punish these organisations and financially incentivise them to treat women better (I've seen so many debaters just stop at this and think it is sufficient)
Good Example: In our policy, we will create a minimum quota for women in leadership positions for religious organisations to qualify for tax-exempt status. This quota will be quite low initially, with a reasonable deadline to meet, so as to allow religious organisations to have some time to identify and train eligible and qualified women for these roles. Since the government will receive some tax revenue from religious organisations which do not comply with this policy, we will use this tax revenue to fund and subsidise these training programs. This quota will increase gradually to ensure that organisations can make a smooth transition to having more female leaders.
Religious organisations work on a limited budget, their main revenue sources are donations, fundraisers and provision of services. The money raised is what allows them to afford costs such as rental, maintenance, manpower necessary to operate as a place of worship, including holding prayers, raising awareness and hosting events to enhance their reach. When these organisations face the prospect of losing their tax-exemption status, they will have to strongly consider how these additional costs will affect their capacity and ability to operate. This is especially because they may also lose donations because donors care about getting the most value out of their donations and would prefer not to have their donations taxed by the government, creating added pressure on the religious organisation to elect or appoint female leaders.
Consider whether both teams are likely to have similar or different end goals.
There are certain debate motions for which both sides agree that a problem exists and differ on what to do to tackle the problem, and other motions where both sides may disagree on what the problems are. Even if your policy is effective in achieving your stated aims, that there may be other associated costs and impacts that may render it counter-productive. This may include but is not limited to: limited Financial, Social or Political capital which may lead to opportunity costs. As much as the fiat rule in debate exists (we assume that it is possible for Government to implement a certain policy), it is foolish to assume the availability of unlimited physical and social resources. There may also be other backlash effects due to resistance or anger at the policy leading to further harms.
Consider whether the short-term end goals of the policy support the long-term goals.
For example, affirmative action may be effective in creating a level-playing field in the short run, but may be counterproductive to creating long-term equality due to a lack of perceived legitimacy and a false sense of entitlement and complacency. Furthermore, this may also provoke a political backlash as the alienated majority may mobilise their votes to block all other forms of alternative progressive policies which may be even more critical for empowerment. This may also provoke a social backlash leading to further hostility and discrimination in everyday interactions which may be even more debilitating for minorities.
TL;DR: Beyond thinking about the problem that you’re trying to solve, it is critical that you construct your policy with these 3 questions in mind.
1. Is your policy NECESSARY or UNNECESSARY?
- How prevalent and harmful is the problem you are attempting to tackle?
- Are there alternative solutions already in place?
2. Is your policy fair or unfair?
3. If your policy effective or counterproductive at achieving certain end goals?
Otherwise, it is entirely possible that the policy may help win a battle but lose the war.