Preemptive warfare. Nationalism. Globalism. The United States. Transportation policy.
If you’re debating in NCFCA or Stoa this year, your resolution is centered on one of these terms. This season, I’ve seen students lose rounds on each one of these terms because their definitions are so ambiguous. As a competitor in Stoa LD, NCFCA LD, and NCFCA TP, I’ve participated in and seen more definition debates this year than in every other year that I’ve competed in speech and debate combined.
Definitions are more important this year than they have ever been.
If you want to succeed at nationals, learning how to proficiently debate definitions is going to be key. Yet, definition debate is populated with a plethora of myths. Let’s walk through the three principles that need to be guiding your definitions.
Principle 1 – Your Definitions Need a Warrant
In Stoa’s LD resolution, “Preemptive Warfare is Morally Justified”, a startlingly common argument is that the word ‘is’ is equivalent to the word ‘always’. This argument is used by negatives to say that affirmative needs to prove the resolution true 100% of the time: an absolute burden scope.
What’s most troubling about this argument is that the word ‘is’ has no definition that backs up this meaning. Debaters that use this argument often reach back to an ancient Greek root word instead of a real definition. As any grammar student knows, ‘is’ is simply the 3rd person present of “to be”. A helpful definition comes from dictionary.com, “(used as a copula to connect the subject with its predicate adjective, or predicate nominative, in order to describe, identify or amplify the subject”. This definition codifies what we all already knew about the word ‘is’. It just is used to connect adjectives that describe nouns. It connects preemptive warfare and morally justified. All affirmatives must prove is that morally justified is an appropriate descriptor for preemptive warfare. There can be exceptions to statements, that doesn’t prove that they aren’t true.
For example, let’s say that as part of a delicious science experiment, you and I embark on a cross-country adventure to prove that Chick-Fil-A is good. We eat chicken sandwiches at every single Chick-Fil-A in America. Of course, we enjoy them! But there’s an issue. Out of the 500 locations where we ate, one of them sold us a sandwich that had a hair inside of it.
Does the presence of this one bad chick-fil-a sandwich disprove the statement, “Chick-Fil-A is good”? Absolutely not. Statements have exceptions. Nearly all fact and value resolutions exist in this territory, as a general rule. If your opponent provides one example of an immoral preemptive war, he doesn’t get to win the round. He must instead prove, that in the majority of cases, preemptive warfare is not morally justified. Why? Because that means that morally justified is an inappropriate descriptor for preemptive warfare.
The point of the rant: your definitions need to have a warrant for them. We have a whole blog post dedicated to the types of warrants you can use. The ones useful to beat this argument are dictionary definitions and real-world usage. Don’t make warrantless assumptions about words. We need to look at real sources to find out why words mean what they do.
But what do we do when our opponents DO have a warrant for their definition?
That’s where it gets fun.
Principle 2 – Have Reasons to Prefer your Definition
In the blog post I linked to above, Noah outlines what 11 useful reasons to prefer a definition are. Reference this often. Print it out if you need to. No matter what, you need reasons why your definition is superior. This is why we published an over 25-page brief in our LD sourcebook solely focused on defining nationalism and globalism, why we have two separate definition briefs in our Stoa LD sourcebook, and why Joel wrote a 2,500-word blog post on the subject.
Here’s what most definition debates sound like at an intermediate level:
“My definition of preemptive warfare comes from the Encyclopedia Britannica while his comes from the Department of Defense. The Department of Defense has a definition they specifically wrote for their country. Mine is the more normal one and that’s why I think you should use it.”
There’s okay analysis hidden in that argument. Let’s find a way to make it effective.
“My opponent contests my definition of preemptive warfare from Encyclopedia Britannica by bringing up one from the Department of Defense. But as he agrees in CX, there are over a hundred countries in the world and the resolution applies to all of them. You can tag the reason to prefer my definition as ‘universal concept.’ Reject the hyper-specific definition that was solely crafted for the US military and prefer mine that looks at every country.”
Bam. Now the judge knows what to vote on.
Principle 3 – Impact Your Definitions
Why are you debating the definition? There better be a good reason. Definitions are the most confusing and least persuasive arguments to make. Your definition argument needs a vital impact. A huge mistake made by even advanced debaters is to make their definition debate and then fail to explain to the judges why it matters at all.
Here’s what most definition debates look like:
“Nationalism solely means protecting a country’s political independence. It is not a feeling of superiority. Tag my reason to prefer as extremes vs. common usage. My definition of nationalism is the common usage of the word. Most countries don’t think that they’re God’s gift to earth and want to commit genocide in pursuit of their national interest. That happens extremely rarely. As we established in CX, you shouldn’t vote off of exceptions. With that in mind, move on to my value of Brexit…”
Nope. Not only is this debater running the worst value ever, they aren’t telling the judge why their definition debate has any impact on their decision. Let’s try again.
“Nationalism solely means protecting a country’s political independence. It is not a feeling of superiority. Tag my reason to prefer as extremes vs. common usage. My definition of nationalism is the common usage of the word. Most countries don’t think that they’re God’s gift to earth and want to commit genocide in pursuit of their national interest. That happens extremely rarely. As we established in CX, you shouldn’t vote off of exceptions. Reject all of my opponent’s applications because they’re conflating the rare exceptions of nationalism with its normative aspects. You can tag my response to all of his applications as not nationalism. We shouldn’t use them in the round because they paint an irregular picture of what nationalism is. With that in mind, move on to my value of Brexit…”
Cowabunga. Now, go out there and kick butt.