Five examples of strategic stances

A good stance is powerful. It allows you to run effective arguments and to prevent your opponents from misrepresenting you.

In some debates where it’s not obvious what you stand for by reading the motion, it’s important to have a clear stance in your setup. A stance is simply a short explanation of what you stand for and what you don’t stand for; a line that clears up to what extent you want to propose/oppose something. I think the easiest way to explain this is to look back at the classic This House would legalise abortion motion; will you allow it completely? Will you require proven medical or psychological conditions?

A good stance is powerful. It allows you to run effective arguments and to prevent your opponents from misrepresenting you. It sets your burdens just right so you’re able to win the debate.

I’ll demonstrate to you how this works by example. Since I’ll be talking about the speeches of absolute debate legends here, I want to make a disclaimer that I’m not speaking on their behalf and this is just what I personally learned from them. Okay, here we go.

Dan Lahav, HWS Round Robin 2017 Final

This House believes that governments should abandon the strategy of “decapitation” in fighting terrorism – Opp

“Let’s be sharp on burdens. The fact that you have F16s in an army doesn’t mean you’re going to automatically always use your F16s when you’re trying to fight an enemy. This is exactly the same case here. We can defend, from side Opposition, that there is a selective strategic use that we can deploy of these policies. What they have to defend on side Government and justify is an inherent blanket ban of this policy. This is the burden on Government side.”

In this motion, the Opposition has options to explain to what extent they want to keep the decapitation strategy. Will they use it all the time? Will they actively encourage it? Will they allow it in specific cases? Here, Dan explains that he wants a selective, strategic use of the decapitation policy. The reason this stance is powerful is because he can concede that there are harms to using decapitation, but governments can get its benefits and avoid its harms, as long as they choose to use it at the right time. That means the Government side must prove not only why the policy is bad, but also why it cannot be used strategically.

By the way, this is also applicable to all THW ban motions! As long as there are still benefits to something, which is usually easy to find… All you need to prove is why this can be used selectively and strategically. If your opponent doesn’t notice, you’re making all their harm arguments irrelevant!

Joe McGrade, WUDC 2016 Round 5

This House believes that the US should withdraw from East Asia and cede regional hegemony to China – Gov

“You do not have to have a naval base or destroyers outside of a country to have a trade agreement with that country. We contest, and it was clear in the model, that this motion does not require the United States to stop trading with countries in Southeast Asia. One of our points of extension, but before we begin, we’ll explain how you actually increase economic integration if you remove the strategic conflict between the United States and China.”

Often, teams will accuse you of causing certain harms, and sometimes all you need to do to recover from that is explain to what extent you are proposing/opposing something. In this case, the question is, is the withdrawal only in terms of military presence or also in terms of economic influence entirely? If you choose carefully and explain why that’s the right interpretation of the motion, you’ll be debating the most important arguments in the debate.

Joe chose to limit it to military presence because he wanted to run an argument about lessening conflict, which is good for security, and in turn, the economy as well. Going for a bold stance is usually great, but always think strategically and realise when you have better options!

Ashish Kumar, Hong Kong Debate Open 2017 Semifinal

This House believes that the international community should create and independent sovereign Rohingya state in northern Rakhine – Opp

“This is very expensive. We will take that money dollar for dollar and use that money to do some other different things. One, we will pay Myanmar to eventually give the Rohingyas citizenship. But note, this money will be given to it in a stepped and gradated fashion … If they don’t do any of these things, we will instead impose sanctions. But we will also pay surrounding countries to establish refugee camps, which meet international standards already set at all sorts of conventions.”

In policy debates like these, you can run as Opposition by using existing mechanisms in the status quo or by proposing an alternative policy that we like to call the counter-model. What kind of alternative you offer is more of a model practice than a stance practice, but notice that it’s sometimes necessary to bring up a counter-model and not just defend the status quo. In this debate, it was necessary to do something to the Rohingya people, because they are severely under persecution in the status quo, and Ashish proposed just that.

Remember though, make sure your counter-policy is exclusive. Take it from the political or financial capital that Government needs to implement their policy, and use it for something else. If you don’t do this and say something like “we’ll call out Myanmar for their actions and negotiate a compromise for the Rohingya people”, that does little in the debate, because Gov can also stand for that alongside their policy.

Milos Marjanovic, IBA Nations League 2020 Round 4

This House regrets the belief that forgiveness is a virtue – Gov

“So this debate is not about whether forgiveness is good or bad. We say sometimes it is good, sometimes it is bad. But rather, whether the broad societal belief that this is a virtue is good or not … So there is a distinction between actually forgiving somebody and performing the act of forgiveness … What is much easier is performing the act of forgiveness and not actually forgiving, which is what actually happens on their side of the house.”

When facing motions that have specific wording such as these, judges will appreciate it if you point out that the motion is not a simplified version of it, and that you have an argument that is only applicable to that motion.

There are many options Government can take in this motion. Regret forgiveness entirely, regret it being a virtue because that makes it harmful in specific scenarios, regret it being a virtue because that devalues forgiveness itself (Milos’s case). And there were amazing teams that ran those other stances and won in the other rooms in this round, but perhaps the reason Milos’s team scored the highest is because they successfully made their stance from the most specific interpretation of the motion.

Because the debate is essentially about what forgiveness should be believed as, talking about how making forgiveness a virtue impacts the concept of forgiveness itself was very strategic.

Naomi Panovka, HWS Round Robin 2021 Round 3

This House supports the cult of productivity – Gov

“I think that this motion, quite intuitively, Opp is going to be like, “people feel like shit when they’re not productive”. But I actually think that for the vast majority of people that are coerced into capitalist systems under either side of the house, this is uniquely a powerful vehicle that allows people to access a sense of happiness and a sense of identity.”

We have a similar dilemma here. Support because productivity is good? Because the cult alleviates harms? Or because the cult enhances the value of productivity? There’s a different answer for the dilemma though, because this debate is about whether or not having peer pressure for productivity is good. The impact is not to productivity, but to the people that that peer pressure influences.

Naomi preempts the Opposition’s ideas from the get go and explains a context that makes their most intuitive harm argument inexclusive. So she says we should stand in favour of the motion because people will have the pressure to be productive on both sides, and it is her side that alleviates that harm. If you apply this strategy when your opponent is not ready for it, they’d have to do a lot of reframing or recontextualisation before they can even run their arguments.

In This House supports/opposes/celebrates/regrets debates, it’s usually strategic to analyse existing norms and explain how the object of the motion interacts with those norms. There are usually very little exclusive impacts that you can claim in these motions, because those impacts will probably still happen for other reasons. Explain how the object of the motion mitigates/amplifies existing norms and impacts, and you’ll sound comparative and fair to opposing teams.

What this means for you

Whenever you’re trying to build a setup, try to interpret the motion and your side in the most strategic ways! I think what you should realise from reading this article is that debates are usually not black and white. Motions, especially nowadays, are rarely just about whether something is good or bad. You should have this in mind when casebuilding.

Also, notice the patterns and strategies that the speakers above used, because they are applicable to similar motions! Here’s to clearer setups and clearer wins for you in the future.

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