Resolved: That the United States should substantially change its federal agricultural policy.
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ARGUING TOPICALITY IN THE NCFCA
Topicality, the dreaded and all-powerful stock issue. Associated with fear and trepidation by so many, topicality is gravely misunderstood by the home school debate community. Judges are usually confused by it, debaters often go about arguing it in the wrong manner, and even NCFCA seems to be so unsure of itself that it changed the rules regarding topicality several times in the past competitive season.
I can do little to change the problem of confused judges, and NCFCA has not released this year's version of the topicality rules as of the date that this article was written. I can, nonetheless, address the second, though perhaps least, of the three difficulties.
The first thing that must be kept in mind when discussing topicality is that there is no such thing as a non-topical plan. The second thing that must be remembered is that there is no such thing as a topical plan. The stock issues, topicality included, serve as an analytical contrivance, or set of criteria, which judges utilize to assist them in determining whether they will vote for the affirmative or the negative team. While a plan may be judged non-topical in one debate round, the very same plan might easily be judged topical in the next round.
This phenomenon is a direct result of the fact that academic policy debate is not a pursuit of the truth. Policy debate is rather a means by which debaters are trained. Hence, the issue itself is not the focus, if it were, NCFCA would announce a new topic bimonthly in order to familiarize students with more issues.
A plan, therefore, is never truly non-topical, though some plans are certainly more prone to topicality presses than others. There are different ways to approach topicality, but in general, it is necessary to do the following when addressing this stock issue:
1. Present your topicality argument in your first negative
constructive speech. Although rules are always subject to change,
even this one, both traditional debate theory and NCFCA's 2001 rules
dictate that topicality arguments cannot be brought up after the 1NC if
they were not first presented in the 1NC itself.
The three ways that a plan can usually be judged to be non-topical are related, but distinct from one another.
1. You may argue that the affirmative case does not meet the
resolution as defined by the affirmative team itself. This
circumstance rarely presents itself, as most teams are careful to choose
definitions that match their plan, or tailor their plan to match their
There is one more thing that I should explain. As you may know, there is yet another form of topicality press known as "extra-topicality." The fact is, that an affirmative plan can mandate a wide variety of changes, including ones not specifically sanctioned by the resolution. This is how the affirmative usually justifies funding their case. Such a change is considered extra-topical however.
When something is extra-topical, a judge is not supposed to consider it as a reason to vote for the affirmative. If the affirmative wanted to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts and take its funding, for example, it could. The members of the affirmative team should not subsequently say, however, "vote for the affirmative, we are abolishing the harmful NEA." When an affirmative team does something like this, it is time to bring up extra-topicality.
Topicality can take many forms, and a good debater should be careful to identify which is most appropriate in each debate. Recognizing what type of topicality you are charging the affirmative team with, and arguing it properly, could mean the difference between successful communication with the judge, and hopeless confusion.
Benjamin K. Schubert
 A convenient list of criteria for definitions can be found in Austin J. Freeley’s book, Argumentation and Debate.