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Harsha Nahata: ‘No’ is the easy way out

By Harsha Nahata, Senior Editorial Page Editor
Published November 13, 2012

I participated in policy debate for four years during high school. We were given a broad topic proposition and assigned roles — either the affirmative or the negative. The proposition would be some sort of resolution like “The U. S. federal government should substantially increase social services for persons living in poverty in the United States” (an example resolution from 2009).

If we were assigned the role of the affirmative team, our responsibility was to create a plan, as broad or as specific as we wanted, that in some way accomplished the stated goal of the resolution. For example, for the resolution mentioned above, anything from expanding social welfare programs such as Unemployment Assistance, Medicaid or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, just to name a few, to reforming laws to provide better social services. There was generally a wide range of possibilities — the only constraint being the plan’s ability to effectively accomplish what was stated in the resolution.

If we were the negative team, on the other hand, our role was to throw counterarguments at the affirmative plan. We would research a wide variety of attacks, ensuring we had something that could apply to any type of plan the affirmative might think up.

In policy debate, there were five to six categories that were debated, and on which each team was judged. Essentially, these were the points that each side had to be convincing on. For the affirmative, they had to convince that there was a need for the plan — actual problems that merited such proposals — a current barrier to implementing their plan, feasibility in terms of logistics, funding and enforcement — and, finally, that their plan would work. The proposal should solve the problems addressed and overcome the barrier cited. But in addition to that, the affirmative team was burdened with the responsibility of ensuring that the plan didn’t do any more damage to the status quo.

To win a debate, the affirmative team had to win on every single one of these points. They had to have sound arguments that could stand up to the negative team in each of these categories.

What did the negative team have to do to win? Win only one argument. If they could dismantle one aspect of the affirmative team’s case, they won.

Now, you might be wondering why I’m giving such a long description of debate technicalities. The fact is that there’s a very valuable lesson embedded in the structure of policy debate.

The way of judging the effectiveness of a policy proposal isn’t limited to policy debate. In fact, it’s something that very much carries over into the political sphere. The lesson is that to be effective and convincing, the side opposing a policy change, the “negative,” only really needs one sticking argument. They need one point that can in some way discredit the proposed policy. Anytime there is a change to the status quo, the burden of evidence is on the individuals proposing that change. They have to win on almost every point. And if they can’t, they have to be able to convince the public that benefits of the plan far outweigh any potential negatives.

The point being that anytime a policy is proposed, it’s always easier to be on the side saying “no.” And our politicians will confirm that. Today, anytime something is proposed by the other side, there’s a line of naysayers ready to speak out. It’s easy to discredit a new idea, especially when people naturally drift toward the status quo.

While it is easier, it’s not necessarily better. Progress doesn’t happen in this way. We need new ideas and new proposals to solve the policy issues we currently face. Simply saying “No” or putting forth endless counterarguments against them won’t actually solve any issues. While purely attacking the other side might be a good strategy for winning debates — and for politicians, elections — when it comes to moving forward as a nation, it’s a strategy that’ll cause us all to lose in the end.

Harsha Nahata can be reached at hnahata@umich.edu.


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