Forensics: Is Tradition a Good Thing?

Tradition is a powerful thing.

Perhaps its greatest advantage is that it rapidly teaches people who are new to the forensic world. They don’t have to learn why we face the judge rather than each other in cross-ex, or why policy debaters ask for a copy of the 1AC script.

“It’s just what we do.”

Traditions are picked up and practiced until they become second nature. Then they pass them along to the next generation. The tribal knowledge of what we do becomes ingrained, while the knowledge of why we do is lost to history. 

  • Experienced debater: “Okay, the 2N runs on-case significance so the 1N is free to tackle off-case solvency and disads.”

  • Novice debater: “How did this tradition get started?”

  • Experienced debater: “No idea.”

As long as traditions are used as teaching shortcuts, they’re mostly harmless. After all, the learning curve of the first year is enormous. Debaters have a lot to learn just to get through a tournament; if they don’t immediately know the why behind everything they do, it’s not the end of the world.

But here’s the risk.

If you’ve been in forensics for several years and still don’t know why we do certain things, we’ve got a problem. If you’re telling the judge to vote against your opponent because he violated tradition, we’ve got a catastrophe.

“He didn’t run a value, and you always run a value!”

Now tradition is no longer being used as a teaching tool but as a weapon against academics. Forensics has been turned into a backwards village paralyzed by death taboos.

Whenever you’re taught something new as a novice, your natural response should be to ask: “Why do we do this?” If you can’t get an answer, find someone who has one. If you can’t find someone and/or you can’t find a satisfactory answer, you should assign very little weight to the tradition. Regardless of your personal feelings on it, you should never ask a judge to make a ruling based on tradition. You’re in debate to learn certain skills, like defending the truth and explaining your position clearly. Put those skills to work!

Again, traditions are wonderful things as long as they’re used to escalate the learning curve of a novice. But, as in all areas of life, the time comes to put away novice things, to challenge the traditions and experiment to push the meta-game in new directions.

Never settle for tradition.

Learn why we do what we do. Then try to improve past it. Along the way, maybe you’ll rediscover why the tradition was created. Or maybe, just maybe, you’ll make the tradition obsolete and leave the forensic world far better than you found it.