Resolved: That the United States should substantially change its federal agricultural policy.

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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.
2. Articulate how, in your understanding, the affirmative plan is non-topical. As the negative, you need to explain that the affirmative is non-topical for one or more of three reasons, I will outline these for you in a moment.
3. Explain why you believe the affirmative plan should be ruled non-topical. This step basically consists of relating why your definitions or understanding should be accepted instead of the affirmative team's position. Probably the best and most common way to argue that one definition is superior to another is to present criteria for a good definition and then argue that your definition realizes these criteria better than your opponents' definition does.1

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 definitions.
2. You may argue that the affirmative case does not meet the resolution as you have defined it. This is, by far, the most common form of topicality press, and typically it relies upon different definitions of words like substantial, significant, policy, and agricultural (the resolution keyword).
3. You may argue that the results of the affirmative case do not meet the resolution as you or the affirmative team has defined it. This press is typically referred to as effects topicality. This sort of challenge is usually limited to resolutions that contain the words substantial or significant, and is even more uncommon than the first topicality argument. An example of this line of reasoning might be if an affirmative team were to abolish the cap on a particular category of immigration in order to fulfill the resolution, Resolved: That the United States should significantly change its immigration policy. The negative could argue that the resolution would not be met if it could show that the cap had never been reached in the first place.

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


[1] A convenient list of criteria for definitions can be found in Austin J. Freeley’s book, Argumentation and Debate.

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