“I had nothing to say, and I got lost in the nothingness inside of me”: A brief guide to extensions

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.

somewhere i belong

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

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.

Stakeholder Analysis

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.

Impact Extensions

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 Extensions

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.

Changing Scope

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.

Moral Frameworks

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.

Conclusions

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.

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“I still don’t understand what the bloody hell framing is”: an introduction to framing

Framing is probably my favourite part of debating. It’s notoriously hard to define, because when people talk about framing, they’re actually talking about a large number of different things. Ultimately though, framing is about the choices we make in language. As much as we likely to pretend that debating is a game about pure logic, it is at core a language game. The way in which we talk about things is every bit as important as the logical links which we make.

Whenever debaters receive feedback from an exasperated judge after a particularly messy round, it’s likely that feedback will contain the idea that all analysis should include an idea, followed by arguments as to why that idea is true, and why it is important in the context of the debate. When you show why your ideas are important, you’re framing. This sounds extremely abstract, so in the next few sections I’ll try to exemplify what it means to ‘do’ framing in the context of a debate.

Burden Play

At the beginning of a speech, speakers will often outline exactly what they’re trying to prove in their speech: what they think their burdens are, and what they think they don’t need to prove. This is framing.

Playing with your burdens is one of the most interesting but also technically difficult parts of framing. It starts simple: you’re talking about what you need to prove in order to win the debate. For example, on the motion “This House believes it is never legitimate to attach conditions to foreign aid”, the Opposition can attempt to claim that all they need to prove is one small set of circumstances under which it would be legitimate to attach conditions to foreign aid (for example, making aid contingent on the cessation of human rights abuses).*

This does two things. First, it allows them to narrow the debate to a class of cases that is easiest for them to win with: it’s much easier to prove that a small subset of foreign aid should have conditions than to prove that all aid should have conditions. Second, it forces the Proposition to either accept or contest this framing. They may decide to fight the debate on the ground given by the opp team, in which case they’re fighting on uneven turf because they need to try and prove that even say, human rights abuses are not a legitimate reason for conditions to be attached to aids. Alternatively, they could decide to contest the framing: they say that Opposition has unfairly narrowed the debate, and that they need to talk about a wider class of cases than just the low-hanging fruit. Ideally they’d do this by showing that the vast majority of aid doesn’t have the kinds of conditions attached that the opp team talked about, and therefore whilst it might be within the debate, it’s certainly not the most important thing in the debate.

Critically though, this still makes the Proposition’s job more difficult. They have to spend vital seconds contesting the framing given by the opp team, arguing “Opp says the world is like this, but we think it’s not actually like this, it’s more like this other thing”. Not only does that take time, but every time they have to say it they draw attention back to the contribution that the Opposition made to the debate. If this continues to happen down the table, it makes it much easier to win, because your contribution to the debate has been made continually relevant throughout the debate.

This is a simple case of burden play which shows the benefits of claiming that the debate needs to be fought on particular ground (even if it doesn’t actually end up being entirely fought on that ground). In many instances burdens will be less cut-and-dry than this: very few motions specifically use the words ‘always’ or ‘never’ in their titles, and that means it’s much harder to narrow the debate significantly whilst appearing legitimate in doing so.

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Here’s a photo of a squirrel stealing a cheeto to lighten the mood

Let’s say you’re in a debate on the motion “This House believes that parents should actively instil the value of questioning authority in their children”. This is a complex motion which has a large number of moving parts and possible outcomes. The impacts in the debate can range from “children will climb trees more and they might hurt themselves”, through “these children will grow up into adults who are less likely to get their children vaccinated and they might die of measles”, all the way up to “this will result in an anarcho-individualist society in which no institutions exist because nobody believes in or trusts them”. Depending on how the debate is framed, though, all or none of these could be debate-winning arguments.

If you’re in first Proposition, you might claim that you have two burdens in the debate. First, to prove principally that most authority is illegitimate, and so questioning or disobeying it is the morally correct thing to do. Second, to show that teaching children to disobey authority will result in those children being less likely to join in on things which hurt other children, like bullying. Here, you set yourself relatively low burdens: it’s quite easy to show that certain kinds of authority are not earned, but are merely given by default. You’re going to talk about why children are more likely to disobey the most illegitimate kinds of authority which they will recognise as having no basis in reality, and are likely to continue to listen to, say, doctors, who can prove their credentials and are legitimate authorities. You also only need to talk about children as children, rather than spending too much time talking about the long term: this narrows the debate to something which is much more winnable in 14 minutes than it might otherwise be. The way you make this seem plausible is through more framing: you say that there is a vast gap between the kinds of values which we teach children and the kinds of values which they actually end up acting upon as adults. When we teach children the value of respect, that doesn’t mean that they grow up to respect everyone all the time (though we may wish they did). Rather, it becomes one of a set of traits which balances out with all their other traits. So with authority, we say that they’re likely to grow up with a healthy disrespect of authority, but that the most important impacts happen when they’re still children, because children have quite black-and-white moral frameworks which means that if you actively instil one particular value in them, they’re likely to take to it quite strongly.

Here, the more subtle use of burdens allows you to frame the debate in such a way that you don’t have to talk about things that are going to be either disadvantageous to you or extremely complex such that they bog your speech down and you get lost.

What subtle burden play allows you to do is to convince not only the judges, but the other teams, that you only need to prove a certain number of things in order to win. Remember that there are no set criteria for what teams need to prove in order to win. That means that any claim of the burdens that a team has to take on is contestable, and it’s within your interests to claim that other teams need to prove a lot more than they might realistically be able to in order to beat you. This might come in the form of telling them they have a number of different, perhaps conflicting, burdens to prove. Alternatively, it might be that you say they need to talk about one particular group in a way that strongly advantages your side of the house. For example, in a debate about sterilising drug addicts in exchange for money, it’s in the Opposition’s interests to tell the prop teams that they need to talk about the addicts themselves, and their parenting rights, as much as possible. In contrast, the prop team will likely want to tell the opp teams they need to prove that the children of addicts are likely to live better lives on their side of the house. It’s incredibly difficult in this debate for prop to prove that this choice for drug addicts will not be coercive and that they can actually consent into it. Likewise, it’s difficult for the opp to prove that the children of addicts tend to live happy lives.

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To distract you from the hard-hitting addiction chat: a squirrel eating a stolen cookie

*It would be unwise to then go on to only prove their case in these conditions. It’s highly likely that on any panel of adjudicators there will be at least one judge who thinks this is an illegitimate narrowing of the debate and decides to penalise the team for it. The best strategy is to prove the cases you say the debate is about, then to say “even if you think this debate is about more than just these cases, here’s why we win in those other cases too”. And then prove that you win in those cases too, obviously.

Stakeholder Analysis

When you talk about different groups and how they’re affected, that’s framing. Nearly every debate will have groups who are winners, and groups who are losers. Part of the debate will revolve around arguing over which groups are winners and losers (and whether they do necessarily win or lose). However, how you talk about those groups is just as important as identifying their existence. If you care about a particular group, you want to make that group seem as large as possible, so as to maximise their impact in the debate. You also probably want to show them as a group which we ought to care about on a qualitative level, rather than just in terms of numbers. We tend to care more about groups which can’t protect themselves, or who have been subject to injustices (whether present or historical), or who are otherwise dependent upon the state or others. We also ascribe tend to ascribe traits perceived as positive to these groups: just think of the way that David Cameron constantly talked about ‘hard-working families’ during the last election.

Likewise, if you’re talking about a group you don’t care about, you want to minimise the size of this group (so that negative impacts on them are seen as less important), but you also want to talk about their qualities. Groups who are broadly well-off or able to look after themselves are often seen as less important within debates than groups with more marginalised individuals. You likely also want to ascribe negative characteristics to them.

The way you talk about the impacts a particular policy will have upon this group is crucial. Having built up a picture of a large group of people teetering on the precipice of chaos and/or obliteration, you want to show that this motion won’t just make them marginally worse off, or slightly ameliorate their situation: it is the difference between life and death. The key here is nuancing your rhetoric: if you lead straight in with ‘poor people will die, and death is bad‘, then you don’t sound convincing. If instead you paint a portrait of people who have long suffered at the hands of a state which is either neglectful or actively inimical to their needs, and who will be pushed over the precipice into despair and severe material deprivation by this particular policy, then you’re going to sound much more convincing.

One of the easiest ways of illustrating the way that framing works is in terms of debates about welfare. When we talk about benefits recipients, our choices of descriptors, and the individuals within these groups we use as representatives of the whole, are pretty important. Let’s take as an example the motion “This House would provide welfare in the form of basic goods and services, rather than cash payments”.

If you’re on proposition, it’s in your interests to portray people on welfare in a fairly negative light. You’re going to want to talk about them as fiscally irresponsible, either through ignorance or malice. You’re also going to want to try to show that as many benefits recipients as possible fall into this kind of category. It’s worth bearing in mind that the majority of people who receive benefits (at least in the UK) are actually in work, and receive tax credits. There are also parents, who receive child benefit regardless of means; elderly people receive winter fuel allowances; the chronically ill receive incapacity allowances; asylum seekers receive a small amount of money each week to live on. It’s extremely difficult (not to mention offensive and untrue) to portray all of these people as lazy benefits scroungers. However, you need to minimise the number of people who are both fiscally responsible and welfare recipients, or show that providing payments through basic goods and services is unlikely to be a large hindrance to those who fall into this category. You want to focus the debate as much as possible on the group you think this will most impact, by showing that other groups are either really small or are marginally affected at worst.

If you’re on opposition, your interests are obviously antithetical to those of the proposition. You want to talk about the hard-working people who’ve fallen foul of a perverse system of neoliberal capitalism through no fault of their own. They’re often working for employers who pay them far less than the living wage, and now they have the additional indignity of not even being trusted with choice over what to spend their minimal welfare cheques on. You’ll stress how important it is for people to have control over their own livelihood, and how demoralising it is to live under a state which not only neglects to make your employer pay you fairly (or even to ensure you’re employed at all), but which then kicks you when you’re down.

squirrel waffle.png

You know what’s not demoralising? Photos of squirrels eating pilfered waffles

You’ll notice that much of the work we’re doing here is about standard analytical lines: freedom of choice, fiscal responsibility, the duties and obligations of states to their citizens, etc. What framing adds to this kind of analysis is threefold: (a) it helps you minimise/maximise the size of the groups you’re talking about; (b) it lets you show why these groups are particularly (un)important; (c) it puts emotional and rhetorical weight behind your words, letting you express big ideas in fewer words. The latter is particularly important for economy of argument: at the higher levels of debating, you want to be able to fit as much material as possible into your speech, and the only way to do this without sounding like you’re about to have some kind of minor cardiovascular event by the end of your speech is to use fewer, more carefully chosen words to create the same kinds of arguments.

Moral Frameworks

One of the things a lot of people consistently have trouble with in debates is dealing with competing moral frameworks. Perhaps because consequentialism (and particularly its utilitarian strains) is easy to cash out in terms of some kind of ‘balance of harms’, or ‘cost-benefit analysis’, a lot of debaters tend to make arguments which rarely stray far from consequentialist territory. This is unfortunate, because a lot of the most appealling arguments from an intuitive and rhetorical standpoint can be made without reference to the consequences of actions. This isn’t a presentation about how to make principled arguments, so I won’t go any deeper into the nuts and bolts of how those work, but it’s important to recognise that this is a real problem a lot of debaters face in debates. This section will deal with framing issues regarding moral frameworks. A lot of this section is likely to bleed into analysis itself, but that’s mostly a byproduct of the fact that analysis and framing really aren’t as separate as we’d like to think they are.

Sometimes, it may be very difficult – if not borderline impossible – to win a debate from a purely consequentalist perspective. Say, for example, you find yourself in the unenviable position of having to argue against torturing someone you know has information which would lead to the aversion of the deaths of a thousand people in a terrorist attack. From a purely utilitarian standpoint, you’re screwed. A thousand lives versus one life? No chance. You might stand some chance if you talk about how this might cultivate sympathy for the tortured person and cause more terrorist attacks further down the line, but it’s a gamble. You could probably also talk about the unreliability of information gained through torture (and indeed, you probably should talk about that), and the precedent this sets for torturing people in the future.

But one way you could change the terrain of the debate to your advantage is to talk about the people involved as human beings, rather than as numbers on a utilitarian spreadsheet. Using all of the above arguments as mitigation, you could then begin your speech by reframing the debate as one about rights and dignity, rather than one purely about consequences. What does this look like? First, you can show that utilitarianism often clashes with our moral intuitions on a deep level, meaning that we probably shouldn’t trust that this is the only way by which we can judge whether something is morally correct: for example, it would be the utile thing to do to remove the organs of a person in the hospital waiting room in order to save the lives of five other people, but we don’t do that, for various reasons. Second, you can start to talk about the actors involved in this debate: specifically, the person you’re torturing, and the person doing the torturing. You could start by analysing why it might be bad to instrumentalise a human being, treating them as a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves. We think that everyone deserves a basic level of human dignity, even those who commit the worst crimes, and we only allow state-sanctioned violence against people when those people are themselves a threat, rather than in order to obtain some other kind of end (like information). You could then go on to talk about how the kind of state that makes someone into a torturer is not one that we want to live under, and how this itself is a form of instrumentalisation, and why we have a moral imperative not to be that kind of state.

Ultimately, the legwork is done in the first few sentences. When you talk about why one moral framework (say, consequentialism) is insufficient to judge the debate and then substitute another (with reasons for it!) then you reframe the debate. This is particularly effective in the back half of a debate, when the top half has talked primarily about consequences. On the rare occasion that someone leads with a moral argument and you want to move back to consequences, the way to do this is usually with words to the effect of “when talking about morality, it’s crucial that we take into account the consequences of the actions we take, rather than living in a bizarre debate-land where the only thing that matters is whether something is morally justified, whatever that means”.

Conclusions

This is by no means an exhaustive guide to framing. My aim here is just to give a taste of how framing works, and the kind of circumstances in which it can be useful (always). At base, every word of your speech is framing, because framing is about world-building: talking about what’s in the debate, and what’s out of it; what’s important, and what’s marginal. Burdens, groups, and moral frameworks are just three broad ways in which you can easily work on your ability to frame. Hopefully this has been of some use – if you have any questions, hit me up.