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Debaters for Dope

February 22nd, 2008 · 6 Comments

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.

Tags: Nannyism



6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 CK // Feb 22, 2008 at 5:59 pm

    Hey Julian,

    That’s fascinating. Here’s to hoping that people like Goolsbee and Lithwick will turn “APDA tight” into jus’ plain “tight” on marijuana within, say, the next 15 years?

    (I pick the period of 15 years because I figure that’s the period of time it will take before all the boomers are seniors and the current seniors–many of whom had never heard of marijuana, according to an old high school teacher of mine who was ancient enough to know–are too few and frail to make a difference.)

    Interestingly, I didn’t know that’s the way the word “tight” was used. (I think I might’ve picked it up from you back in the day.) I assumed that “tight” simply meant “closely argued,” e.g., that there were no leaps of logic or important issues ignored.

  • 2 Kevin B. O'Reilly // Feb 22, 2008 at 11:11 pm

    I agree with CK — that is fascinating. Do you recall any other examples of cases considered “APDA tight”?

  • 3 Julian Sanchez // Feb 22, 2008 at 11:36 pm

    Well, the derivation is close… “tight” as in “there are no gaps for Opp to drive a wedge into”. I can’t think of anything else that was considered “APDA tight” that way, but I’ll see if anything springs to mind.

  • 4 Glen // Feb 23, 2008 at 1:19 am

    As I recall, legalizing sodomy (in those heady pre-Lawrence-v-Texas days) was considered APDA-tight.

  • 5 JM // Feb 24, 2008 at 3:16 pm

    I always thought that gay marriage was considered tight, and eliminating farm subsidies was always a classic example of a tight case

  • 6 Jay Welch // Mar 1, 2008 at 9:28 am

    I did NPDA (West of Mississippi counterpart of APDA) in the late 90’s, and while we didn’t use the word “tight” in this way, there was a general sentiment that pretty much any government cases advancing gay rights were cheap and borderline unfair for two reasons. First, because the arguments for gay rights were thought to be much stronger (ie tightness). But it was also partly because the speech and debate circuit had lots of openly gay people in it, and a strong set of pro-gay norms. This meant that a government team choosing a pro-gay proposition was forcing the other side to take the “homophobic” side of the case, and this was seen as kind of distasteful in the same way that forcing someone to take up segregationist positions would be.