How to Adjudicate a Debate With a Truistic Definition

Just a while ago, the kids I train (SMA 9 Yogyakarta) lost a debate round in Universitas Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta because their definition was truistic. Hearing the story, I really think that I dont agree with it and I think that my kids were violated here.

Well, I am not suggesting that the adjudicator sucks. If he had been well trained and accredited, there must have been valid reasons behind that decision and difference with my judgment would be what normally happens in a panel with a split decision. I am not suggesting either that my opinion is not biased: Not because they are my kids (i know a defeat when I see it), but because I rely my information on what the kids tell me.

So this is more of a rant of a coach, with minimum information –therefore under a self-constructed-assumed situation. I will only focus on the battle of 1st speakers on the definitional debate alone, putting all other variables aside, and elaborate how I think a truistic definition should be individually perceived..

Issue #1: Is it really truistic?

I think its very ridiculous to say that a definition is truistic simply because “the government team defined the motion to a country which already has applied such proposal”. This truistic claim is just plain stupid. In a debate where we apply policies, it is not so rare for us to debate on existing policies. Such as, for example, China’s One Child Policy.

The basic logic to that is if “TH would legalize drugs” is defined to the Netherlands, who has already legalized it, then the opposition’s stance is similar to being government of a motion of “TH would ban drugs in the Neatherlands”. As much as it is quite inadvisable to “legalize” something which is already “legal” –kinda doesnt make sense, then–, but it is far from truistic as the opposition has very wide possibilities to respond and negate.

To claim that THAT definition was truistic would be a case per case analysis. There are some very few times where someone defines “TH would teach religion at school” into the Saudi Arabians, or worse, onto a Seminary. Then that would more likely be truistic. But the point is, just because one defines a motion to a time and place which such motion’s policy proposal has already been implemented, it does not automatically make it truistic.

Therefore for a person who claims so would have failed to understand one among the most basic rules of parliamentary debating, IMHO. But this was why my kids lost.

Issue #2: Truism, as a simple logical consequence, is undebatable

2.1. The point of why the opposition team is given rights to challenge a truistic definition is because it is unfair. It provides an ultimate truth in the government’s whole stance, and opposition not having room to debate upon it and, thereby, governments would win.

But then, as consequence, if a Government brings a truistic definition and an Opposition decides not to challenge, then the Government should most likely win. It is just natural. Government abused their rights of definition, Opposition accepted the abuse. We mark the government low for sucking on the definition, but then it still counts because there was no challenge.

Since my 1st debate in 2002 I have only witnessed one case where a negative won a debate with a truistic definition, without a definitional challenge. It was Indonesian Schools Debating Championship 2006, and I was judging the Semifinal round, Sumatera Selatan vs Bali. Motion was “TH would justify violence as means to protect the environment”.

I forgot how exactly the debate went, but the government mistook what “means” meant and then became more of a linguistic debate there. I’ll update this post as soon as I get contact with my fellow judges at the time (Nicholas James Long from Cambridge, Marlissa Supeno from UnHas, I cant remember the rest), and thats if they remember.

And by the way, my kids lost despite the opposition did not challenge.

2.2. Yes, you CAN rebut a Government in a Truistic definition.

I know that to be truistic is to be undebatable. Normally in definitional challenge debates, you would have “even if” rebuttals coming from the opposition. Almost every coaches I had have told me that an exception to that rule would be in truistic definitions (and tautalogical ones too). But I found that it is possible in certain circumstances.

I found that if a team is ridiculous enough to make a truistic definition, then it is likely that they are stupid enough to make an argument that really sucks that bad so that even their truistic definition doesnt help them. Perhaps irrelevant, contradictive, or at least ill-constructed.

An example was in ALSA UI 2009, where I debated as swing team (with Erry, UNPAR, and Adit, FH UI) against IPDN. The motion is that “The Government must tolerate different religious interpretations”. When one would imagine that we would be talking about Ahmadiyah and Al Qidaiyah etc, IPDN defined it as “some people interpret religion as hindu, budha, islam, christianity” and we must tolerate these religious differences. And they explicitly said that “Team Opposition should prove that there is one religion better than the other”.

Erry challenged that definition, and I as second speaker actually brought a rebuttal on the basis that it was ill-constructed. I pointed out that the government was supposed to prove that all religions were equal to each other, but all they did was explaining that all of those religions were different –which I suppose that a frog would have known that already– therefore they have failed to prove their own case.

What Im trying to say here, is that although it is generally impossible to cast rebuttals to an opponent’s argument which is constructed under a truistic definition, sometimes it is possible. So dont generalize, yes it is possible.

Issue #3: How to challenge: must be explicit?

It is elementary, that a definitional challenge must be declared by 1st speaker of Opposition. After such explicit declaration, they would mention the basis of the challenge and also justify it, then provide an alternate definition.

But two weeks ago, I judged a debate with an occurrence I have never encountered before. By the motion that “we should legalize drugs”, team government (SMAN 5 Jogja) defined it as “only for the poorly sick ones who really need the drugs for their treatment”. Team Opposition (SMAN 8 Jogja)  did not ever say that they wished to challenge. But since 1st speaker they have stated that the government’s definition was undebatable, justified it well, and provided an alternate definition which makes more sense.

Team government, however, only went on things like “they did not listen to our definition”. It appears that both teams had no idea what a definitional challenge was, and I had to briefly explain it to them in my verbals.

Now I do not know whether a challenge has to actually be explicit like “We wish to CHALLENGE THEIR BLOODY DEFINITION!!!”. Every coach I had have told me so, but I never actually saw an emphasis on this point by them nor do I find in other references. More emphasis was made on the other things (justifying basis of challenge, providing alternate definition, and furtherly continuously contending on the definitions) by all sources I had.

Assuming that the rules were to actually declare it explicitly, I still gave the winning to the Opposition Team on an ex aequo et bono basis. I just think its too unfair and unjust if I gave the winning to the government merely because of lack in challenge declaration by the opposition –but of which had done very well every other things required. I told the kids of my considerations, and that there is a great likeliness for other judges to decide differently.

I hope more inputs could come from you, readers, with respect to this last point.


So yeah, thats all I can think of. I gotta go back home now, its so late that if I go on further I would turn into a tupay.

Inputs very well welcomed.