Yes, I absolutely used to sneer at community judging—as well as anything else that I didn’t see as very flow-heavy and “objective.” Thus, in high school I resolved that when I returned to judge policy debate I would be a righteous and noble flow monk, steadfast in objective flow judging regardless of how strange it might seem to some outsiders. But then I got to college. I judged policy debate in public school leagues. I sat through speed/spread and kritiks. I started debating in other forms such as British Parliamentary. And I started getting a better sense of the real world. Ultimately, by the end of my first year of college I felt less like a flow monk and more like a flow monkey, thoughtlessly perpetuating some rigid norms without critically questioning “why?”

My high-school self would have been shocked to see what I’ve written, but I have come to believe that pure, flow-heavy judging is not necessarily “perfection” or “the golden standard”; it can be taken too far and it is still good to have some other approaches in the judging pool. Thus, I am devoting an article series to comparing some judging approaches; this specific article will set the crucial (even if unglamorous) foundation of “what are we comparing,” so that I can later compare the approaches’ pros and cons.

Still, before I get into explaining any more heresy, I feel obligated to include a disclaimer: this article series will dive into an issue that I have frequently shifted my beliefs on and which, contrary to my former beliefs, is not simple. I would encourage you to actively question/think and potentially even share your thoughts (such as by commenting).

The judging characteristics in question

To be clear, I will not be focusing on many aspects of judging such as specific theory issues (e.g., counterplans, kritiks), some of the standard “paradigms,” or the importance of evidence. Rather, I am focusing on the broad questions of judge intervention and attention—that is, how blank a judge’s slate should be and how full their flowpad should be. To illustrate this, I have created a simplified chart with these characteristics as axes.

Various judging approaches

#4: The nightmare

It seems reasonable to say this is bad by practically any standard for competitive debate, because it is not even representative of the general population and it generally is far more harmful in terms of unfairness than it can possibly be educational. This person may flow some, but they are deeply biased to the point where it really doesn’t matter: once you say (for example) “increase regulations on…” you’ve most likely lost the round.

#3: The average community judge

This person may be political but is still relatively respectful and makes an average effort to listen and weigh arguments (although may not be very familiar with flowing). A conservative judge of this type would probably not evaluate you very fairly if your case was premised on promoting abortion, but you may at least have a decent chance of winning if the other side does very poorly and you do well.

#1: The purist

At one point, I thought that this was the golden standard: an absolute blank slate that keeps notes better than a court reporter and is able to evaluate a flow like a computer evaluating logic gates. I did acknowledge some basic “exceptions” such as “just because the final speaker makes a new (and thus uncontested) response doesn’t mean I automatically accept the response.” However, I still didn’t give much weight to arguments’ persuasiveness—at least not until the rebuttals, and then only if I was unable to decide based on “automatics” such as dropped arguments. Ultimately, my interpretation may have been imperfect/undeveloped, but purism does tend to involve highly formulaic, legal-logical analyses of rounds. This has its pros and cons, but I’ll reserve that for a later article. Instead, I’ll describe an alternative which, for lack of a better name, I’ll simply call the hybrid.

#2: The hybrid

Broadly, this approach attempts to emulate an educated and relatively unbiased/open-minded person who flows fairly well and consults their notes after the round. However, it takes a step back from purism (but a step beyond common man) by adopting principles which would seem to improve education and/or fairness: it does place some weight on “persuasiveness” (how well arguments are delivered, etc.) and it doesn’t accept absurdity/nonsense when it is harmful to fairness/educational value. More specifically, some example deviations from purism which I picture/recommend are as follows: 

  • If someone makes an unorthodox, radical, or dubious argument (e.g., “monarchy is vastly superior to democracy,” “overpopulation means lives lost is not always bad,” sketchy nuclear war disadvantages) yet spends little time defending/explaining such arguments, I wouldn’t take it seriously on the flow. However, if a team actually takes the claim very seriously and devotes significant time to defending it I would at least require the other team to respond or else accept the argument as dropped.
  • If someone is speeding/spreading at a rate with which the average educated person could not reasonably be expected to keep up (just listening, let alone flowing), the argument should not be given much weight on the flow.
  • If the flow is very complex and may just barely suggest “Team A” over “Team B,” but Team B was significantly better at speaking/persuading than Team A—to the point where my clear instinctual (non-flow-based) impression was that Team B won—I would probably give it to Team B.
  • I may include some consideration of credibility (ethos) when I’m evaluating a complex flow with lots of arguments. For example, suppose one team makes numerous really bad arguments/responses but even after a lot of deliberation I’m really on the fence over one key argument: in such a scenario, I may decide based on which side I found more reliable in their argumentation (as would many other people in real-world situations such as boardroom meetings or policymakers listening to advisers).

And so on. In sum, you could call it a purist with exceptions; you could call it a flow-heavy and fairly unbiased version of the common man. Either way, it is an alternative that I would more often recommend over purism—an alternative that I wish someone had explained to me when I was aspiring to be a dedicated purist.

You may be asking “Why? What makes it better?” My reasoning will come in the next part of this series, as I examine some of the pros and cons of purist and hybrid approaches.

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