Last season I complained about the rise of what I (and maybe others) call “combo shells” or “conjunctive shells.” I spent several hours and phonecalls with some of my favorite LD debate theorists like Adam Bistagne and John Scoggin thinking about how to treat combo shells. I revisited the metatheory argument that Jake Steirn, Martin Sigalow and I worked on to deal with these shells at the 2015 TOC. I still don’t have the answer, but I have a new idea!
To recap the puzzle: some combo shells seem legitimate, such as “no conditional PICs,” but it’s very unlikely that theory arguments like “neg can’t read the Hobbes NC, T, deny the aff the RVI, read the NIB that they read, and turn the aff” isolate unique, structural abuse beyond their component parts. A very common trick for the 2AR is to say something like “sure, you’ve proven that each position alone is fair, but my strategy skew argument states that the conjunction is unfair, so proving the fairness of each part is non-responsive.
But of course, proving the fairness of each part is responsive. All else equal, a five-pronged neg strategy where each prong is itself fair seems more likely to be fair than a five-pronged neg strategy where the fairness of each prong alone is in question. Taking the 2AR’s line seriously, that only the conjunction is unfair, you have to believe that each prong is a totally permissible debate strategy. And any two of the prongs together would be fine too. Three of the five? Go for it! Heck, if you had done just the first four without the fifth, we’d have no problem. But all five? Now that’s cheating!
What I’m getting at is that I don’t believe debaters and judges are evaluating these shells properly because they aren’t seriously supposing that each prong of the strategy is itself good and fair. Or at the very least, they aren’t weighing the (un)fairness of each prong in assessing the fairness of the conjunction. If you find the strat skew argument compelling in the example of the above, it’s likely because you really think NIBs are unfair or RVIs on T are good. That is, lurking in the background of judgments about combo shells are judgments that some of the shell gets it right. If this is true, a judge isn’t really voting on the combo shell, but a hidden NIBs bad or RVIs good argument (s)he does find compelling.
Given modern theory practices in LD, this is wildly inappropriate. For one, it hides the ball so the 2NR doesn’t know what the theory debate is really about until it’s too late. Two, the structure of these shells does not currently accommodate this type of analysis, since a judge cannot vote on NIBs bad if the interpretation is not simply about NIBs. The “trick” cuts both ways since NIBs could be unfair but the conjunction still fair.
My solution is to make explicit the intuitions lurking in the background of combo shells by forwarding each part of the conjunction as its own theory argument. In the status quo combo shell model, our example would be fleshed out like this:
A, Interpretation: Negatives may not read a Hobbes NC, T, no aff RVIs, a NIB, and turns to the aff.
B, Violation: They did.
C, Standard: Strategy skew. The 1AR is so hard if I have to answer T and don’t win for answering it, beat a NIB and don’t win for answering it, prove my framework is better, and answer case turns. It’s impossible in four minutes! The conjunction is particularly unfair because… blah blah blah [insert more whining]
Under my new model, our example would look like this:
A, Interpretation: Negatives may not read a Hobbes NC, T, no aff RVIs, a NIB, or turns to the aff. Nor can the negative read the conjunction of the five.
B, Violation: They did.
(1) Hobbes is unfair… [e.g. for ground or any typical theory standard]
(2) T is unfair…
(3) No aff RVIs is unfair…
(4) NIBs are unfair…
(5) Turning the aff is unfair…
(6) The conjunction is unfair… [insert the strategy skew reasoning above]
Call this a “multi shell.” The example may seem silly because obviously Hobbes, T, no aff RVIs, and turning the aff are fair, but that’s the point. If four of the five parts are fair, it should be acknowledged that the strength of this shell turns on the success of standards (4) and (6). If there is no argument for (1), (2), (3), or (5), the shell is very weak, and this structure makes that apparent. So a bad combo theory initiator wouldn’t want to utilize this structure; (s)he would want to obfuscate the issues at stake.
But there are times when one would utilize this structure. You might think each component of your shell is very strong. To use our earlier example,
A, Interpretation: Negatives may not read a conditional counterplan or a plan-inclusive counterplan (a PIC). Nor can the negative read a conditional PIC.
B, Violation: They did.
(1) Conditionality is unfair…
(2) PICs are unfair…
(3) Conditional PICs are especially unfair…
Each of (1), (2), and (3) are plausible theory arguments, so why not separate them? To my knowledge, no one is forwarding theory arguments like this, but it has clear strategic advantages in granting the multi shell initiator three ways to win in the 2AR; each theory argument alone can be a voting issue on my model. Further, the technical objection to the structure of combo shells is eliminated by the disjunctive phrasing; the interpretation is three interpretations in one, and the 2NR’s defeating one of them does not necessarily defeat all three. This multi shell model is also superior to initiating three separate theory interpretations, since there is time lost in transitioning between flows and repeating the shell structure each time. Finally, the model could be utilized by theory respondents to clarify the debate, e.g.:
A, Counter-Interpretation: Negatives may read a conditional counterplan, a plan-inclusive counterplan, or a conditional plan-inclusive counterplan.
B, I meet.
(1) Conditionality is fair…
(2) PICs are fair…
(3) Conditional PICs are fair…
I believe this “multi shell” approach is both strategic for theory initiators and respondents and provides much-needed clarity to combo shell debates. And even if the structure is not used, judges should have each of the components in mind when deciding these often complicated debates.
Questions for Further Research
- Should we give any weight to responses to combo shells that take this form: “PICs are so often read conditionally that all of my PICs good arguments are disadvantages to the conjunctive interpretation, since it would eliminate much of the instances of PICs.” Does whether we like this response depend on whether we view theory as “norm-setting?”
- Try to imagine a criminal justice analogue to the combo shell, i.e., a conjunction of acts where each is legal, but the conjunction is or ought to be criminalized.
- Last year I wrote several “Holiday Disclosure Posts”; what should I spotlight during this year’s break?
 I think some people call them “multiplank,” but I’ve never quite understood what a plank is, so I’ll stick with combo/conjunctive for now. Plus, I’m going to re-appropriate “multi”
 The reasoning would be something like “conditional PICs force the 1AR to debate on two fronts. Against a conditional counterplan, the aff must leverage its advantages against the CP and the status quo, which are very similar tasks, but against a conditional PIC, the aff must leverage a tiny part of the aff (the part not solved by the PIC) against the net benefit and also the whole aff against the status quo, two very different tasks. This makes high-quality analysis unlikely given 1AR time constraints, and the 2NR has all the power to decide which of the two very different debates is decisive, rendering moot the best 2AR option.”
 Another possibility is that judges have some sympathy for a very tough 1AR, and the strategy skew claim encapsulates how hard it is to be aff against a good neg debater in contemporary LD. This line is inappropriate too – yes, affirming is harder, but that’s not a reason to penalize the neg for pursuing a killer strategy.
 Open to suggestions.