When you start out debating, speaking in extension can be terrifying. It feels like in every single round, your opening team takes all the good arguments and you’re left to stand up and give your best impression of somebody who has no idea what the shit they’re talking about. No matter how hard you try, you always end up with the judge telling you that your material was ‘derivative’, or ‘parasitic’. If you draw Closing Government, you might as well give up, right?
Wrong. (Yeah, bet you didn’t guess that was coming.)
Over the course of this article, I’ll try to elucidate the occasionally mystifying process of coming up with and delivering a winning extension. This includes looking at what to do in prep time, the different kinds of extensions you can run, how to make it look like you’re different from your opening even if you’re running very similar arguments, and how to shift the debate in such a way that you’ll leave the opening half extremely pissed (but nonetheless impressed) when the judge calls it a back half debate.
An artist’s impression
What is an extension?
At their core, extension arguments are no different to any other kind of argument. There’s no different kind of logic which applies to them, no magic bullet or special formula which denotes a winning extension argument. You need to make sure that your arguments are well-analysed, relevant and impacted in exactly the same way you do in opening half. The difference comes in what types of argument you need to run: because some of the ground in the debate will have been covered over the preceding half an hour, you need to come up with something that’s distinct (or at least looks distinct). What this ought to be is context-sensitive: the most important thing to remember in extension is to be flexible. It’s possible that you’ll have to change the line you were intending to take halfway through the debate because there’s no way you’re going to win with the arguments you’ve got. That’s okay. You can still wreck shit. You’ve got this.
Prep time should be reasonably relaxed when you’re in extension. You’re not looking to write your whole speech, but there are a few things you can do to really help yourself out during the debate. Broadly speaking, there are a couple of strategies.
First, a lot of people go extremely broad in extension prep time. This means brainstorming every single actor who might be affected by a motion, figuring out what the short-term and long-term impacts of the motion might be, trying to find as many possible lines as possible. From there, you go into the debate with a list of plausible lines of extension, maybe having written the bare bones of each speech, and you figure out which one is most likely to win you the debate as you go along.
I personally don’t tend to do this. I’ve found that trying to develop a large number of arguments in prep time means that I don’t actually think about anything in enough depth to be able to develop it under pressure during the round itself whilst juggling listening to speeches and writing rebuttal and the speech itself.
Instead, my recent strategy (with which I’ve had a reasonable amount of success) is to spend prep time trying to figure out what the actual core of the debate is, and then finding ways in which I can talk about which it’s unlikely my opening team will (because they haven’t had the luxury of spending that extra time thinking about it, so they’re much more likely to take the low-hanging fruit). Ultimately, this does mean that I have to think about all of the actors who are affected by the debate, and consider whether there might be a short/medium/long-term split in the impacts which are likely to accrue, but crucially it also means I go into the debate with a pretty clear idea of where I want to take my speech. Another advantage of this approach is that it maximises the amount of dialogue between you and your partner: communicating within the debate is pretty difficult, and when you’re trying to do five things at once it can be inefficient to the point of counterproductivity to have to discuss arguments with each other and decide which of a number of underdeveloped lines you’re going to take. Moreover, if you’ve already decided on a broad tack for your argument, your partner isn’t then going to be surprised when you stand up and spend seven minutes chatting about something you never mentioned in prep time, so they have to spend your speech listening and trying to figure out what the hell you’re doing rather than, you know, writing their own speech.
I recognise this is likely to be somewhat controversial, but it’s the strategy which has worked best for me for a while now. It doesn’t mean I’m inflexible: often we will end up running something which differs quite a lot from the specifics we chatted over in prep time, but it works particularly well in rooms where your opening is likely to have covered all of the arguments (at least in a shallow sense).
Why is this? Because once you’ve agreed on a particular thing you’re going to focus on, you’re free to develop that argument in great depth. That means a few things: first, you can easily identify specific bits which the opening have missed because they haven’t had time to think about it; second, you’ll never get to halfway through the DLO speech and have to tell your partner “I have nothing”; third, it opens the door to some wonderful framing work.
Framing in extension
Often the hardest part of extending is trying to show why your contribution to the debate is distinct from, and more important than, the contribution from your opening. This kind of distinction comes in the form of framing: showing that what’s happened so far in the debate is, whilst very interesting and lovely, definitely not the most important thing we should be chatting about. Instead, you have this specific thing which happens to this specific group, or this particular principle without which the debate is pretty much pointless. Obviously, you need to substantiate why this is the case, and learning to do that is mainly a matter of practice (and is highly contextually sensitive), but framing out what’s happened so far and framing in what you’re about to say is very often the key to beating opening half.
Let’s look at a grounded example. In the debate “THBT the UN should unilaterally recognise Catalonia as an independent state”, you’re in Closing Opposition. Opening half has been interesting: lots of chat about the right to self-determination, state sovereignty and the UN as an important actor. But you’ve spent a while in prep time thinking about what would actually happen under this motion, and you’ve realised you can win if you just reframe the debate. It probably doesn’t matter too much whether the people of Catalonia have the right to self-determination. Why? Because in this motion, it’s highly unlikely that the Spanish government is going to listen to the UN (given that it hasn’t listened to the Catalan people, and the UN has very little power to enforce its recognition unless it wants to send peace-keeping forces into Spain, which is a bastard of a can of worms). What happens instead? Well, you’ve just empowered separatist movements not just within Catalonia, but elsewhere in the world: because UN recognition has a great deal of symbolic importance if nothing else, it’s likely that a lot of nationalist groups elsewhere are going to be pretty antsy that they haven’t been similarly recognised. Some of the people in these groups aren’t particularly nice, and might well commit some kind of violence. Suddenly you have plausible impacts all over the world, as well as in Catalonia (it would only take one rogue separatist with an AK-47 to put people off coming on their hols to the region for ages, crashing the tourist industry). The way you’ve done this is to reframe the debate as one about practical impacts, rather than one in which principles matter much at all.
Framing is the most important tool of an extension speaker. It’s the difference between winning and losing in a huge proportion of debates. Even if your arguments are somewhat implausible, or seem a little bit irrelevant, or less impactful than those given by your opening team, you can make them seem much more important. This is great, because arguments in debates are only as important as teams make them. No matter what kind of extension you’re going for, you need to reframe the debate around it. If you’re going for a stakeholder analysis, you need to say why the impacts on that stakeholder are super important and everybody else can suck it. If you’re trying to extend on principles, you need to make it seem that the principles you’re using are (a) logically prior and/or (b) in contention within the debate. If you want to do an analysis extension about an actor who’s already been mentioned, you need to talk about exactly why your impacts on them are more important than those mentioned so far. It doesn’t have to be true. It just has to sound true.
With that said, let’s look at the different kinds of extension you can choose to run.
The tried-and-tested formula for extensions, when you’re totally unsure of what else to do, is to think about exactly who is affected by a motion, pick one group, and run with it. We joke a lot about ‘the feminism extension’ because it’s such a cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason: if you can prove that a motion has a significant impact on a marginalised group, you can often win debates on that basis. One of the reasons this kind of extension is attractive to newer debaters is because it seems like you don’t have to do framing, and framing is scary. There’s often an implicit assumption on the part of judges that if someone proves an impact to a vulnerable group, then that’s really important. Truth be told, it probably is important, particularly in the world at large, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to prove that importance by comparing the impacts on that group with the impacts on other groups. Arguments are only as important (in debates) as you can prove them to be. (It’s probably a good idea to remember that when judging, too.)
What does a stakeholder extension look like? Let’s say you’re in a round on the motion “THBT vegans should actively condemn and campaign against all forms of non-veganism”. The top half is likely to talk a lot about the personal effects this will have on people who are being shamed into becoming vegan, whether it’s likely to actually attract people to the vegan movement, etc. These are all reasonable arguments. You could even run a principled case from Proposition about animal rights and why vegans have an a priori duty to proselytise by whatever means necessary. So let’s say you’re Closing Opposition, and you’re trying to figure out where to go. Read the motion. Read it again. What might not have been said? Well, it says that they should condemn all forms of non-veganism. How does this affect, say, vegetarians? How does it affect people who campaign for animal welfare but aren’t vegans? People already find vegans pretty annoying: see literally any article about vegans, and the enormous number of jokes at their expense. When they start ramping up their campaigning to condemn not just meat-eaters, but anyone who cares about animal rights but doesn’t conform to an extremely strict, expensive and tricky diet, how is that going to play? For one, it’s likely going to be harder for animal welfare campaigners to separate themselves off from vegans and get the kind of step-by-step change that’s currently happening, like institutionalised Meat-Free Mondays, cheaper vegan-friendly food in supermarkets, and banning certain kinds of animal testing. It’s also likely to really piss off anyone who was considering going vegetarian before and is now being told that that’s not enough – they might as well just not bother.
In this case, you can see that picking a particular group and talking about them can yield arguments that you might not immediately think about when you first read the motion. Crucially, though, you need to prove why that group is important. Why should we care about gradual change, if the result of this motion is that loads of people convert to veganism? Why should we give a shit about the feelings of people who might stop eating animals but are still enslaving them? If you substantiate these links, you’re well on the way to showing that your arguments are the most important ones in the debate.
It’s quite common for an opening team to have left some of their claims unimpacted, or at least to have failed to impact them to the fullest extent. It’s somewhat sneaky, but totally legitimate, to take their arguments and impact them much harder than they did. Judges vary in how they look upon this: some won’t think that you can come above your opening team if your impacts are reliant on their analytical framework (they’re wrong), but others are a lot more open-minded. The key here is to show what’s been left out so far, and why it’s so important to talk about the effects you’re going to analyse. As with all impacting, it’s absolutely crucial to make sure that you maintain plausibility: gradate your impacts, moving from the most likely (and probably least harmful) through to the harder-to-reach outcomes, showing how each leads to the next. You ideally want to be able to frame your case in such a way that it looks as though what you’re saying doesn’t simply follow implicitly from your opening’s case, but requires in-depth analysis to reach.
How does this play out in the context of a debate? Let’s say you’re debating the motion “THW only imprison criminals who pose a serious and existing threat to society”. The opening half has talked a lot about the principles upon which we base the justice system, and Opening Opposition in particular have mentioned that this is likely to disproportionately affect communities which commit more blue-collar crimes, arguing that this lets richer criminals off easy and is unfair. This is probably true, but in Closing Opposition you can impact that claim. Buy-in to the justice system is incredibly important: it allows you to gather evidence, find witnesses, get tips and informants, etc. It’s incredibly difficult to run a justice system without some degree of cooperation from a local community. So when the state starts letting off the people who commit fraud, who embezzle money, who evade taxes, and continues to imprison people from your neighbourhood for drug offences and minor violent crimes, you’re probably going to be upset. This makes it even less likely that you’re going to cooperate with the justice system in any way, and a community wide omerta on talking to police is going to make it incredibly difficult to actually enforce the law.
What this extension does is take a broad claim which has been made in top half, and show the full consequences of it. It doesn’t just say ‘top half said this thing, and here’s an extra thing that might happen’; rather, it takes the analytical framework and makes it your own. There’s no way those impacts could be read into the opening case, and as such the contribution you’ve made is new and deep.
Rebuttal can be your extension! Contrary to semi-popular belief, ‘having an extension’ doesn’t necessarily have to mean bringing in something constructive. It’s entirely legitimate to run a case which is purely destructive, and it’s possible to win with it. This is recommended only in instances when it’s really clear that the opposite bench is winning, or when you have absolutely nothing new in terms of constructive material and want to take a respectable second to your opening team.
The way to run this kind of extension is ideally to frame your rebuttal as substantive material, using the same kind of point headers you would normally use in a speech (mostly because some judges get arsey about speeches which are wholly rebuttal). You’ll need to make sure that what you’re trying to rebut hasn’t already been rebutted, or at least make it look as though it’s still in contention. This might involve pointing out one particular link which hasn’t been knocked down and allows an argument to go through. Then, you need to use your rebuttal to build up an alternative view of the world, counter to that given by the other team. Most speeches come down to world-building: who creates a more plausible account of what the world will look like when a motion is implemented? You’re going to want to show that not only do the benefits they claim not obtain, but that a more likely scenario is that something harmful happens instead. Alternatively, show that the benefits they claim are not benefits at all, but are in fact harms. This stops you from being purely mitigatory, which is one of the classic reasons for a rebutting team to still come under the team they’re against. Why? Because if you leave anything standing at all, then they still win, even if you prove that some of their nice stuff doesn’t happen, because you haven’t given an alternative of nice stuff happening in your world.
Rebuttal extensions are often a last resort: really, you want to be able to bring something constructive to the table as well as your destructive material. This is in part because judges are weird about it, but also because you’re going to have a really hard time beating your opening. If you’re really in a position where you have nothing new to say because your opening were so good, it’s likely that they’ve also done a pretty decent job of beating the other opening team as well, which means that you’re looking at a third place if you can beat the closing team, but it’s going to be hard to get higher.
This could well be classified under framing, but it’s quite a specific (and common) strategy which deserves special mention. Opening teams will very often examine the first things that come to mind when a motion is announced. This can mean that they focus on countries they’re familiar with, or the immediate consequences of a motion. One way to extend effectively is to consider changing the scope of the debate. This might, say, moving the debate to developing nations if you’re talking about patents on pharmaceuticals. It might mean talking about what happens when children become adults if the debate is about instilling particular norms in kids. It’s critical that you make sure you justify your choice here. If you’re reaching for the long-term consequences, you’ll have to bear in mind that things further in the future are harder to predict accurately, for obvious reasons. You need to either prove that the things you say are definitely going to occur, or that there are a number of plausible options, all of which fall on your side. If you want to talk about different places, give one or two lines of analysis as to why those places are more important than the setting of the debate thus far. It’s a reasonably simple strategy.
Again, this is essentially a reframing strategy, and it can be something of a gamble. It’s taken for granted in any debates that the moral framework in which they take place is consequentialist, and often specifically utilitarian, or “the greatest good for the greatest number”. If you prove that more people die or are sad on the other side of the house, then you win. This, however, is not the only kind of framework available, and nor is it necessarily the best. We concede that there are principles which can override utility when we say that we care more about the plight of vulnerable minorities than we do about the majority of people in a state; we do the same when we say that we wouldn’t be willing to sacrifice one person in order to use their organs to save the lives of four other people. Questioning the underlying principled assumptions of the debate so far can be a fruitful strategy.
What do you need to do? First, make sure that the principle you’re talking about is definitely in contention. If you’re in the debate about veganism mentioned earlier, and nobody on prop has talked about animal rights, it’s probably not going to be particularly useful on opp to say that veganism is premised on animal rights being a thing, and contending that they don’t exist. If nobody is going to argue with you, then there’s no point. This obviously applies equally to all arguments in a debate, but people have a tendency to run principles in this way more often than they do other kinds of arguments.
Second, you need to show that the principle you’re talking about definitely does underpin the debate as a whole. Let’s say you’re in a debate about making broadcasters show women’s and men’s football in proportion to the number of matches played. If opening half talks almost entirely about whether this would be good or bad for women’s football, their analysis is all predicated on the idea that it’s legitimate for the state to co-opt broadcasters into showing particular things, possibly at the expense of their advertising revenue. In Closing Opposition, you can contend that this is not something that the state should do, giving some kind of metric by which we judge when it is and is not okay to force broadcasters to show things. Your principle has to be logically prior to the rest of the material in the debate, or you’re going to have a bad time.
Likewise, if you want to switch from a consequentialist framework to one based on, say, rights, then you need to justify why that needs to be done. There are some well-rehearsed arguments against utilitarianism (it leads to perverse outcomes, it doesn’t reflect our moral intuitions, etc), and it’s quite easy to justify a shift in many instances. If you’re debating intervening in a particular country, and top half have talked a lot about how many people die, and it seems to be broadly a wash, then it’s possible to extend on, say, the principle of pacifism and not instrumentalising human beings. It can be hard to run these arguments in a way that makes them sound more impactful than consequentialist arguments, and often judges will (mistakenly) automatically rate them less highly, so take due caution.
How to Knife and get away with it
Okay, so you’ve got an extension. Great. Unfortunately it seems to be, on face, mutually exclusive with the material brought by your opening team. Gutted for you. What do you do?
You could just hard knife them. Say they’re wrong, this is what’s going to actually happen, and the judges should believe you. The problem is that unless it’s immediately obvious that your opening team are incorrect on some point of fact and you are correct, then you’ve pretty much just put yourself behind them (and possibly in fourth, depending on other factors). Even if they are definitely wrong, you’re going to be creating a hell of a messy debate, and the judges won’t thank you for it.
A much better strategy is to run an ‘even if’ argument. Say that you think that the opening half’s material stands, but even if it doesn’t, here’s an alternative view of what’s going to happen in the world and why it’s better on your side. This is a simple linguistic dodge which can save you a great deal of pain. The issue is that you’re still probably going to come under your opening team, unless the judges really didn’t buy their arguments.
You can strengthen your chances of coming above your opening team, though. Use the ‘even if’ argument, then add a couple of lines of analysis as to why the state of affairs you’re describing is more likely to occur than the one described in top half. What you can do to further help yourself is to frame your potentially knife-y argument in such a way that it doesn’t seem like a knife. Let’s say you’re Closing Government on the motion “THBT the US should issue immigration visas based on merit, rather than family connections” or similar. The opening half talks an awful lot about how this is likely to bring a large influx of skilled workers into the US, and why that will strengthen their economy. You’ve come up with what you think is a really clever extension: the wording of the motion doesn’t specify that we should care about US interests, and you think that you can talk about strengthening the economies of Latin American countries. You justify this as more important in the context of their relative lack of prosperity. You say that you think that skilled workers from these countries are likely to stay home if they can no longer guarantee that they can bring their families with them. The problem is, this directly contradicts the opening half. Not a problem: just say that you think that the skilled workers they were talking about were overwhelmingly from Western Europe and North America, and are unlikely to be affected by their inability to take their families with them because they usually come over alone. Suddenly you’ve framed your knifetastic extension so that it no longer contradicts opening. Happy days.
This is obviously not an exhaustive list of the types of extension you can run. Nor, indeed, is everyone likely to agree with everything I say. Take it with an entire shaker of salt, if you wish: once you get to the point where you heavily disagree with me, you’re probably no longer at the stage where you’re going to find this helpful. In which case, write your own bloody guide and get off my back. Anyone else: I hope it helps. If you have anything you want to add, or any questions, hit me up.