A couple weeks back, I returned to my old alma mater to serve as a judge at the school’s annual parliamentary debate tournament. As invariably happens at these events, I spent a fair amount of time waxing nostalgic with other former-debaters (or “dinos”) who were on the circuit when I was. (Fun factoid: The team of Slate legal correspondent Dahlia Lithwick and top Obama economic adviser Austan Goolsbee placed second on that circuit in 1990… leaving me to wonder who in the hell managed to beat them?)
All this reminiscing dredged up an interesting memory from my debate geek days. You see, in the Parli format, the teams debate a totally new topic each round, chosen by whichever team is randomly assigned to the “government” role, and disclosed to the opposition only once the round has begun. This is one of the things that made the Parli style attractive to me, but naturally, it requires certain restrictions on the sorts of cases that may be run. A team may not offer a “spec knowledge” case that cannot reasonably be opposed by a well-educated student who is attentive to the news and familiar with basic history, economics, philosophy, and so on. (The classic example would be a case involving a military procurement decision between helicopters with different thrust-to-torque ratios.) And more broadly, a team may not offer a case that is considered “tight”—one where all or nearly all of the good arguments were clearly on the side of the controversy chosen by the government team.
Normally, a government team would be quite be safe from any charges of “tightness” if they were arguing against an existing public policy with relatively broad approval. But there was one exception: While certainly a team could argue that all drugs should be legalized, it was considered “APDA tight” to propose that marijuana be legalized or decriminalized. “APDA tight” here was a sort of sui generis category that I don’t think I ever heard applied to any other issue. It meant that while, of course, in the broader world, and certainly among elected officials, this would be considered a controversial proposal, there was a consensus among the debaters that no really good case could be made against it.
It would be easy to smirk and put this down to their being college students, of course. But I do think it’s telling that when you gathered together a bunch of well-informed, terrifyingly smart folks, free of political pressures, who had made arguing a way of life, and who happily took up controversies of every sort, they agreed that this was really beyond the scope of reasonable dispute.