The Threshold for Topicality: Does there need to be abuse?

Topicality, in its purest form, is meant to be a check on the affirmative in order to preserve some semblance of basic arguments that the negative would reasonably be able to assert.

Let’s take the NFA LD Resolution for 2009-2010 as an example of this: The United States Federal Government should substantially reform its domestic transportation infrastructure. Now, an affirmative could hypothetically pick a random five mile stretch of highway in Mississippi to completely rip up and repave under this resolution and the negative doesn’t have a whole lot of quantifiable reasons why not to do this.

At the same time, the affirmative also has minimal maneuverability with advantage scenarios, but all the same please suspend your skepticism for a moment for the sake of the example. The negative can’t really argue that it’s that expensive relative to the overall DOT budget with a spending disadvantage. They can’t argue that the state would be a better actor because that is the status quo – the federal government doles out grants and then the state puts out bids for private contractors to complete the project. Given that predicament, the negative must look to procedurals ie Topicality.

There are two types of “abuse” that negative teams will argue are reasons why the affirmative’s plan text (functionally their interpretation) is in violation of the resolution: potential and in-round.

In-round abuse argues that the affirmative either co-opted argumentation that the resolution designates for the negative or makes the affirmative almost unreasonable to debate against because the negative can’t link disadvantages or run counter plans like the no spending disadvantage or states Counterplan.

Potential abuse being an argument that suggests that the affirmative’s case justifies in-round abuse in other rounds or allows them leeway in possibly shifting the text of plan at a later point in time in the round or in future rounds. And when these arguments are deployed they are often found in some sort of “Ground” standard in the topicality shell.

I am, personally, very much a game’s theorist when approaching this kind of debate. If you can win that you’re meeting the negative’s interpretation of the word/phrase then you win t, if you can provide a counter interpretation with additional counter standards that you do a better job of weighing in the round, you win t. If you can place a lot of warranted theory on why topicality is an illegitimate argument, you win it.

So, these abuse arguments are not necessary in my mind. They’re certainly compelling and can hold more weight than “the affirmative broke the rules”, but I won’t grimace if you want to play the rules card. However, there is a segment of the judging community (high school and college) that places that threshold for topicality – the affirmative has the right to parametricize as they please unless you (as the negative) aren’t getting any room to argue. This is always something competitors should attempt to gage about their judges before utilizing topicality regardless if you decide to go for it or a strategic time trade-off.