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Defining burdens: how to know what the debate is and win it

All early debaters, including me to a great extent, have a similar struggle. We don’t know what we’re talking about.

All early debaters, including me to a great extent, have a similar struggle. We don’t know what we’re talking about.

We make arguments out of the motion we’re given, but we don’t really know whether we’re doing the right thing. We just wish they work and we think of additional layers to support them as the debate occurs. Really, how does all of this work?

The key to having debates you truly understand is burdens.

What are burdens?

Debate motions are written the way they are with a purpose. There are specific questions you need to ask when you see a motion, and these will be the things judges will expect your team to prove. If you can prove them better than your opponent does, you win the debate.

To find the burdens in a motion, it’s usually helpful to analyse it with these three questions:

  1. What is the verb of the motion? (What kind of action)
  2. What is the object in the motion?
  3. What is the subject in the motion?

Let’s see this in practice with the motion This House would include e-sports in the education curriculum.

The verb of the motion would be include, the opposite of which is exclude. What’s the difference if you let it simply exist and if you include it in the curriculum?

The object in the motion is e-sports. What are e-sports like and what are their plus and minuses?

The subject in the motion, which is the most important actor, is This House, which is the government in this debate, because it’s someone that can change the education curriculum. Then you ask, why is it good for the government if you include e-sports in the curriculum?

All of these questions will have to be answered in your arguments. The reason why it’s important to do this is because sometimes you forget what the motion is actually about. If you’re not careful, you could only be listing the benefits of e-sports—teamwork, problem-solving skills, strategy, and so on—because that’s the easiest thing to go for during casebuild. And this is dangerous.

If you skip the first step, you could forget that e-sports still exist on Opposition, and that they can still claim those benefits, if you don’t delineate what difference you make by including it in the curriculum. If you skip the second step, your benefits don’t have a link back to why it’s good for the government and the education system that it cares about, which is the main thing you’re supposed to prove in the debate. You might be debating This House believes that e-sports brings more good than harm, an entirely different motion, without realising it!

An important note, though, is that if you’ve already found a reason for a burden interpretation during casebuilding, you should say it in your speech. Saying that the burden is X without saying why it’s X would be hard to immediately accept. You can use a keyword from the motion or an analogy to do this. I’ve got examples if you keep reading.


For the next part of this article, I want to talk about how you can deploy this in your setup. I personally like to structure my setup in points, and burdens usually make up my first few points. Each of the two things I’ll explain below can be a point in your setup, and they are the bare minimum for a setup. Whatever motion you’re debating about, you need to have these somewhere early in your speech.

1. What the debate is about and not about

To set the stage right, you have to make sure both teams are debating the right motion on the right grounds. This first piece of setup concerns burdens and context. Burdens talk about the metadebate; when you look at the motion, you can infer what the teams have to prove, just like this:

“What does it mean for something to be morally legitimate? The first thing to note is that something that is morally legitimate is separate from something that is morally good or morally bad. Which is to say, moral legitimacy points to whether someone ought to be committed, in a reasonable fashion, or an actor, to take that action. Which is to say that I currently have money that I could be donating to save people’s lives, but I am not taking that action, and that is certainly a moral harm, but it is still morally legitimate for me to perform that action for the reason that we say that I have a claim to that money. Which means that this debate is primarily a question of whether states should be allowed to function and exist in the fashion that they do.”

(Oliver Cummins, This House believes that the state is illegitimate – Opp)

Oliver defines the burdens very clearly here. The debate is not about moral goodness or badness, but it’s about moral legitimacy; whether this is something that should be allowed or not.

On the other hand, context talks about where the debate happens in terms of actual time and place:

“The reason why this debate has been bogged down in the low hanging fruits that the Opposition would like to take on, like Beyonce and Nicki Minaj, but not engage with feminist figures like Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Malala Yousafzai, Benazir Bhutto, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, ladies and gentlemen, that gain massive pop culture popularity and still be able to maintain some level of intellectual integrity on our side of the house, goes to show that the Opposition only wants to engage in which it’s most convenient for them on that side.”

(Mifzal Mohammed, This House believes that the creation of feminist icons and their cults of personality are good for the feminist movement – Gov)

Here, Mifzal clarifies that the debate is not just about celebrities, but also political and social figures. This way, the government side can include people who are deeply connected to the movement and prove more benefits.

2. What Gov has to defend and what Opp has to defend

In order to prevent a misrepresentation of your case, you have to explain what each side in the debate has to defend. This is pretty straightforward, so I think it’s best explained by an example:

“This debate is about a hypothetical world that doesn’t exist in the real life. It’s about two extremes where in one world, all major religions believe that as long as you believe in God and you feel remorse for the sins that you’ve committed, you can be allowed in the gates of heaven. On the other hand, God is the divine agent who decides upon your fate by weighing the things you’ve objectively done in your life.”

(Xiao-ke Lu, This House prefers a world where major religions hold that their concept of the afterlife is based on the principle of divine mercy, as opposed to divine judgement – Gov)

In this case, this clarifies how low the barrier to go to heaven is on the Government side, and shows that it’s not going to be difficult. On the Opposition, it’s clear that God is going to be the judge.

What this means for you

If you understand the motion more than your opponent does, you’re likely going to make arguments that matter more. You can also kick out irrelevant arguments and responses from them if you keep tracking burdens until the end of the debate!

And this is so, so important for early debaters, but I’ve lost close debates even after two years of debating because I didn’t use this trick enough. Sometimes, teams get away with taking low burdens just because you don’t point them out. Sometimes, even though you think their case is weird, or not so on point with the motion, they can win because you didn’t redirect the debate.

If you’ve been disadvantaged by teams that misinterpret debates in the past, this debate tip is probably your fix. You can start making neater setups and just point back at it if your opponent tries to run away from their actual burdens. This is where debate is a bit like yoga: awareness is key!

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