Stating the Proposition

[This section owes much to Austin Freeley's Argumentation & Debate, 6th Edition, Chapter 3]

To have a debate we need a problem. To have an intelligent debate we need the problem stated clearly. Thus, we need a proposition -- a resolution. If your statement of the problem is vague, then the debaters could wander in the darkness of the subject and rarely clash on key issues. If your statement is precise, then your debate will illuminate the subject.

Capture the Controversy

Freeley says that "debate is the means of settling difference" (p. 34); however, the difference of opinion or conflict of interest must be expressed before there can be a debate. Often, you must dig into an issue to find the most controversial element and then identify it in your proposition. For example, an MCDS proposition "Journalists should report on the sexual involvements of politicians" focused on the prying into extramarital mischief rather than financal fiascos. One was controversial and the other commonplace. Also, it made for a juicier debate.

Pick Out One Central Idea

In the little time you have for the debate, it is hard enough to argue a single issue. As Freeley points out, watch the grammar of your statement. State it as a simple sentence with one idea rather than a compound or complex one with several.

Use Neutral Terms

In fairness, words and phrases in your proposition shold not favor either side. For example, in "Euthanasia should be legalized," we might have used "mercy killing" rather than "euthanasia." The modifier "mercy" softens the brutality of "killing" and even justifies it. However, those opposing such a merciful act in a debate would be at a disadvantage. Thus, the more neutral "euthanasia" did not tip the balance before the debate.

State the Affirmative's Desired Decision

What is to be accomplished? The key question is even if the proposition is accepted -- the affirmative team wins -- does the decision accomplish anything substantial? For example, malcontents in MCDS might propose that its officers do more, a change of status quo. After lengthy debate in which the officers would oppose vigorously, members might be swayed by demagoguery and vote yea! The proposition might carry, the disgruntled win. But, what would they win? "Doing more" says practically nothing; thus, the officers could still do nothing. Had the proposition stated that the officers attend more meetings or even pay their dues, then more would be gained. In your own proposition, you should state specifically what the affirmative wants to accomplish.

What is the breadth of the change? Some of MCDS's past propositions have been too broad for our debate time. For example, the resolution about abandoning the Strategic Defense Initiative overwhelmed the debaters. Avoid that mistake with your proposition. The trick is to state it so that the affirmative has some room for interpretation but must stick to a specific problem. Had we proposed that research on SDI be limited to laboratory testing, then the debaters would have groped less with masses of facts and groped more with each other's arguments.

What are the form and intent of the proposition? The proposition is what the affirmative wants to accomplish; therefore, it also must be in the affirmative. It is not sufficient to say what they do not want. In an MCDS debate, we said that "Cars should be banned from New York City," which says nothing about the void in transportation if the proposition were carried out. We might have said that "The only motor vehicles in Manhattan should be for public transportation and service." That would have specified the desired change and singled out the borough where congestion and pollution are serious problems. Although the first resolution assumed public transportation would fill the void, it needed to specify what the affirmative wants -- in affirmative terms.

Make the Proposition Timely

Your debate will occur soon after your members adopt the issue; therefore, it is unlikely that the status quo will change so drastically as to require your rewriting the proposition. Still, it could happen. Had the Reagan Administration suddenly reverse itself, then an MCDS proposition about the U.S. supporting an independent Palestinian state would not have described a change in the status quo. It would have described the status quo itself. (An official policy is the status quo, even if it is new.) The affirmative would then have supported the status quo rather than advocating change, which is not kosher. Then, it is better for the debate master to rewrite the proposition and inform the debaters of the reversal.

Balance Availability of Evidence and Arguments

The popular media are biased; thus, there are usually more evidence and ideas available supporting one side of the controversy over the other. Some imbalance is tolerable, but both sides need sufficient evidence and arguments to make a debate. In some MCDS propositions, slight changes of wording could have starved one side. Had a proposition called for a total ban of pornography, then the mass of court rulings and research findings against such a ban would have favored the negative side too much.

Avoid Ambiguity and Vagueness

Scrutinized each word and phrase. For such scrutiny, Freeley cites these rules from the Second Developmental Conference on Forensics (p. 37):
Take care when using any encompassing words or phrases such as 'all,' 'every,' or 'any';

Take care when using vague or compounding words or phrases such as 'greater' or 'any or all';

Seek consultation with linguistics experts on the phrasing and interpretation of debate propositions;

Specify clearly the nature and direction of the change or decision;

You will not likely seek a linguistics expert to help phrase a proposition for a club debate. Nevertheless, you should have several members, including the debaters, scrutinize the wording before you complete it. There may be bias or ambiguity that you do not detect.

Place Burden of Proof on the Affirmative

Burden of proof in a policy debate means that the affirmative must give sufficient reason for change of the status quo. Status quo is the existing state: the current policy. The presumption is that the status quo will continue until there is sufficient reason for change. The affirmative must persuade the audience that there is sufficient reason, or lose the debate. Therefore, the proposition that you write must specify a significant change and place the burden on the side advocating it -- the affirmative.

Other Considerations

Over the years, we have learned lessons while wording propositions for MCDS debates that are not in Feeley's text. Perhaps they will help you.

Omit the Means of Change. Avoid saying in the proposition how the status quo will be changed. Just state the change. For example, we could have specified that community control of pornography be done by restricting its sale to zones. Similarly, we could have specified that euthanasia should be legalized and authorized by panels of physicians, clergy, and lay people. We then would have said too much. The second proposition contains more than one central idea, but it also says how euthanasia is to be done. A "by" preposition has no place in the wording. In a policy debate, the means for changing the status quo should be specified, but not in the proposition. It should be the affirmative's plan, as part of the burden of proof.

Decide the Level of Change. Often, the issue is governmental. What level of government should effect the change: federal, state, or local? For example, at what level of offices should campaign spending have limits? This consideration relates to Freeley's question about breadth of change, but it recurs with such frequency with our propositions that it deserves special mention.

Complete Wording Early. You may put off completing the wording of the proposition until you prepare an agenda. Do not delay! The debaters need it as early as possible. They could be doing their research and building their cases on different facets of the issue because they have only a vague idea of the resolution. A carefully worded proposition helps them to focus and insures that they are working on opposite sides of the same facet.

Deny Last-Minute Changes. Once you have announce the proposition as the final version, you should change it only if both sides have opportunity to analyze the new version carefully and approve it. At a meeting of one of MCDS's early debates, a team requested a change of wording. The other team graciously agreed without analyzing the change and knowing its implications for the team's case. Frankly, the debaters asked were too nervous and busy with pre-debate preparation to analyze the change carefully. It was only into the debate that they realized that the change had undermined their case. They could not adjust quickly. Also naive, the debaters that ask for the change did not realize what damage it wreaked. Thereafter, we decreed that we would not change propositions at a debate meeting and denied several requests.

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