Building a Case

1. Introducing the debate
Some debaters make funny introductions, and some make solemn ones. Some start with examples, and some with grand theory. All of that matters only in terms of gaining a few additional points for style. But the most important thing judges are looking for at the beginning of each debate is its context. Therefore, you should explain to the judge, why the motion you are defending is important – what sort of situations it affects, what value clash does it cover, etc.

For example: In a debate on the motion that This House believes that the death penalty should not be used under any circumstances, the first speaker of the proposition may want to start the debate by stating that in most countries, the death penalty is still in use, that often innocent people are convicted as criminals, or that the practice of the death penalty brings the priority of the right to life into question.

2. Defining what the debate should be about.
Some judges expect teams to stand up and state the dictionary definition of each word in the motion at the beginning of their first speech. These judges are wrong for so many reasons. It is, however, fair for them to expect from teams that they will make understandable what it is that they want to talk about. For that purpose, explicitly defining the key terms of the motion might just work. A fancier, and less time-consuming, way is to set the parameters of the debate. Parameters are like borders. They draw a line between what is and is not relevant to the motion. The definitions or parameters of the debate should be equally acceptable to both teams.

For example: In a debate on the motion that This House would outlaw smoking in public places, neither team would like to be in a position to talk about the smoking of marijuana, because they were preparing for a debate about tobacco. Therefore, it is reasonable for them to state that the debate will be about the smoking of tobacco, leaving the question of the legality of marijuana to a different debate.

3. Specifying the team’s position
Closely linked to the general terms of the debate is the specific position a team may want to defend. Just as voters expect politicians to be clear about what they stand for, in order to cast their vote for them, judges expect the same from teams. In most cases, teams should therefore present their model, which is a different way of saying plan or policy. Models do not win or lose debates; they just provide a tangible basis for abstract arguments, which remain to be the essence of debates. Therefore, the model should be simple enough to be explained in up to a minute.

Not only propositions face the need to state their position. There are numerous alternatives for an opposition to take. Will they challenge the definitions, the analysis of the status quo presented by their opponents? Will they accept or reject the principal values on which the proposition built their case? Are there any arguments of their opponents that they want to concede, because they believe they can win by focusing on different issues? And what will their constructive matter consist of – will they introduce “just” new arguments into the debate, or go further and present an alternative analysis or even a full-fledged model? Just as the proposition has to be clear about its list of questions, the opposition should tackle this lot of questions.

For example: In a debate on the motion that This House believes that universities should not be free of charge, the proposition may want to set a model that would require students to pay 50% of the costs of their study, while the rest would be paid by the state.

In a debate on the less explicitly policy-oriented motion that This House supports armed resistance against dictators, the proposition may want to specify the types of resistance they consider justifiable (e.g. sabotage, targeted assassinations of political leaders, or civil war and then state their position that if certain conditions are fulfilled (e.g. the dictator is systematically oppressive, unwilling to cooperate with the opposition, and the population has a reasonable chance to succeed in overthrowing them), the population should resort to such armed resistance.

In a debate on the same motion, the opposition can choose from a variety of options to advocate, and therefore should state if they support negotiations with all sorts of dictators, or support resistance only in the form of civil disobedience, or agree in principle that dictators are bad, but oppose the motion because internal resistance is useless.

4. Presenting the team line.
Most of what has been discussed so far deals with establishing the terms of the debate, which is surely important, but not enough to win. Hopefully it did not take longer than one to three minutes to deal with those issues, because your arguments are still ahead of you. And ultimately, arguments matter most. A team may have the best introduction, definitions or model, but still is very likely to lose the debate, as long as they have not provided reasons in support of their position.

As Simon Quinn notes, “Experience shows us that the most successful arguments are those that can be expressed with a simple and unifying idea. It is important to give your audience many individual reasons (arguments) that support your side of the topic. However, if possible, it is also very helpful to show your audience, adjudicator and opposition the ‘big picture’ to your case.” This unifying idea is usually referred to as theteam line.

At what stage of your preparation should your team line be ready? There is no need to hurry. It is probably counterproductive to edge it in concrete while you are still coming up with new arguments. Team lines often emerge from the composition of a team’s individual arguments. So it is most likely, that towards the later stages of the preparation you will be able to look at your arguments and find a certain goal, which all of these arguments share (which is different from what the motion says).

For example: In a debate on the motion that This House believes that the death penalty should not be used under any circumstances, the proposition may want to simply state that in that debate, they will stand for upholding the right to life and avoiding irrevocable errors in all circumstance, while the opposition would state their team line explicitly by saying that “The death penalty is the sole adequate and effective punishment for some crimes.”

5. Splitting the case.
While it is both the first and second speakers who present new constructive matter in the WSDC format, one of the few things that the rules explicitly require is that the first speakers of each team announce what their entire case will consist of. For that purpose, they should present thecase division. The first speaker typically announces how many arguments their team has and which of them will be presented by the second speaker. There is a more powerful way to do this however – the first speaker may go beyond that and foreshadow what the arguments of the second speaker are going to claim.

For example: In a debate on the motion that This House believes that universities should not be free of charge, the first speaker of the proposition may not want to simply say that their team will have an economic and a moral argument, and one about the quality of education, but be a bit more creative. They could then say the following: “I will look at why our model is needed for financial reasons, and why this is the just model, and our second speaker will talk about how it will improve the quality of education.”

6. Presenting the arguments.
Finally, it is only the arguments that your case is missing. It is a shame that often debates do not get to being about arguments, because teams get lost along the way to creating them by not stating their definitions, model or case division properly. What this article has attempted to do is to guide you through those first steps, which are relatively easy. Once you get used to them, you need not focus on what makes a good case, but rather a good debate – the arguments.

Source: Guide to WSD published by the Slovenian WSD Association.

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