How to Separate Refutation from Rehash

The average debate round plays out something like this:

Affirmative Constructives: This!
Negative Constructibes: That!
Affirmative Rebuttals: But I really really think this!
Negative Rebuttals: Pleeeeease vote for that!

In other words, both sides present conflicting, logically defensible arguments. Then, rather than contrasting or developing them to gain an advantage, they repeat the argument with steadily rising passion. They walk away thinking that they won and are baffled when the judge is forced to invoke personal bias to make what is essentially a 50-50 decision.

The problem is simple, but solving it is difficult. The solution lies in true refutation: development of your position so you don’t have to rely on raw persuasion to win your point.

Rehash Looks Like This

Affirmative: The government is spying on us. That’s a violation of our privacy and it’s wrong.
Negative: Some privacy violations are appropriate because they keep us safe from terrorists.
Affirmative: Nothing is worth losing our freedoms.
Negative: Terrorists are out to get us.

If you’re in a round like this, you’re likely to walk away feeling good about your position. But take a look from the judge’s perspective. How does he make a decision? How does he identify an advantage between these two? The bottom line: it’s impossible. If this is all he has to go on, he must depend on his personal bias to reconcile the arguments.

Refutation Looks Like This

Affirmative: The government is spying on us. That’s a violation of our privacy and it’s wrong.
Negative: The government isn’t hurting us in any way. There’s nothing wrong about privacy violation besides the affirmative’s gut feeling – which is outweighed by the fact that police can use it to save lives.
Affirmative: Nothing is worth losing our freedoms.
Negative: You don’t have to lose anything – but if you vote affirmative, it may cost you your life.

This is an easy decision. The negative acknowledged, developed, and refuted the affirmative position, while the affirmative just rehashed his original position. It’s the flow equivalent of a three-year-old crossing his arms with a pouty face. “NO! I WANT FREEDOM! I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU SAY!” The judge should have no problem preferring the negative’s position, because it moved past the affirmative and is now the only coherent one available.

Rehash Also Looks Like This

Affirmative: The International Court of Justice is useless.
Negative: No, we need it for international disputes.
Affirmative: It’s useless in international disputes.
Negative: But we need it!

With rounds like this, silver dollars might as well be distributed at the entrance to the judge’s lounge to expedite the coin-flipping process.

Good Debates Look Like This

Affirmative: The International Court of Justice is useless because no one abides by it.
Negative: It fulfills an important role as an international arbitrator. It doesn’t have to be compulsory to be useful.
Affirmative: If it provided binding arbitration, it might have some limited use. Instead it just offers advice that no one listens to.
Negative: That used to be true, but developing nations are now acknowledging the authority of the ICJ.
Affirmative: That trend only confuses things, because most of the world relies on the International Criminal Court – which is better.
Negative: The ICC is corrupt. The less people use it, the better.

This is the kind of back-and-forth that gets people excited about debate. It’s a constant battle; every response thoroughly refutes the one before it so that the last person to speak can be expected to win. While persuasion is still important, it is not the primary determining factor for the judge.

Developing refutation like this is not easy. It requires a lot of practice, a rock-solid grasp of theory, and a good understanding of the many different refutation options (like turn, objection, fact correction, and alternate causality). For now, try a little self-diagnosis. Pick an argument from a flow at the recent tournament and follow it through to the end. Then ask yourself: did your position have a clear advantage? Did you set yourself apart from your opponent, or just offer a conflicting view and pound the podium a bit?

There is always room to improve in this area. With big tournaments coming up, make a goal of winning so thoroughly on the flow that opening your ballots gives you no surprises. Don’t rehash. Refute.