The name "topicality" derives from the word "topic". Topicality is often called "T" for short (as in, "do you want to run T?"). The term "T-press" is often used to describe a Negative argument contesting topicality.
Types of topicality arguments
- Extra-topicality: Most topicality arguments simply state that the Affirmative isn't doing what the resolution asked them to do. For example, if the resolution is "Resolved: That the United Nations should be significantly reformed or abolished", the Affirmative team would be extra-topical if they were reforming the U.S. Department of Justice instead of the United Nations.
- Effects topicality: In some cases, the Affirmative plan may have effects on the subject of the resolution, but still be extra-topical. For example, under the United Nations resolution, if the Affirmative negotiated a treaty with Pakistan and claimed that this would affect the way the UN operated, the Negative might attack them on effects topicality (because they aren't directly reforming the UN.)
- Significance topicality: Most NCFCA/Stoa resolutions contain the word "significantly", "substantially", or some variant thereof. The Negative may argue that the Affirmative's plan is not big enough to count as a "significant" action. (This is also part of the theoretical basis for minor repairs.)
Debaters universally agree that the Affirmative team's case must be topical for them to win the debate round. The theoretical reason why that is true, however, is one of the key differences between different ways of viewing the resolution:
- In rezcentrism and parametrics, the round is decided by whether the resolution has been proven true ("yes, we should reform the United Nations.") Topicality is a natural logical implication: if the Affirmative team's case isn't actually about the resolution, then they haven't proven that the resolution is true, so the judge should vote Negative. ("OK, maybe we should reform the Justice Department, but why the United Nations?")
- In plancentrism, the round is decided by whether the Affirmative's plan is a good idea. Topicality is simply one of the rules of debate; we know that debate works better if we stay on-topic, so if the Affirmative goes off-topic, they should lose.
Topicality presses are often organized into several distinct sections, although they may not be explicitly named:
- Interpretation: What the Negative's interpretation of the resolution is, and the boundaries that separate what is topical from what isn't topical.
- Violation: How the Affirmative's case violates the Negative's interpretation of the resolution.
- Standards/Reason to Prefer: Why the Negative's interpretation of the resolution should be preferred over the Affirmative's interpretation of the resolution. Common standards include:
- Common man - this is how most people would naturally interpret the resolution.
- Grammar - this interpretation is simply more grammatically correct.
- Topic explosion - under the Affirmative's interpretation, they could do almost anything; this interpretation keeps things fair.
- Clarity - the boundaries of this interpretation are much clearer than the Affirmative's, making debate simpler.
- Broadly speaking, defending one's own interpretation generally involves showing how the opponent's interpretation is too narrow or too broad - for example, by presenting examples of clearly-nontopical plans that the Affirmative's interpretation would allow, or clearly-topical plans that the Negative's interpretation would not allow.
- Impacts/Voters: Why the judge should vote on this issue. This may involve arguments about theory, fairness, education, or other concepts.
When debating topicality, it is often helpful to present a brightline, a specific, clearly-understood "line in the sand" to decide whether something is topical. This simplifies the argument, because the question is now about whether the brightline is a good standard or not, which is something that can be answered more definitively. In practice, most topicality debates revolve around which team's brightline is superior, although teams may not articulate this clearly or even be aware that this is what they are doing.
Since topicality is an a priori issue, many debaters feel that Negative topicality arguments should be raised in the first Negative speech (the 1NC.) While debaters disagree as to whether this is mandatory or merely courtesy, in practice, most topicality arguments are raised in the 1NC.
Whether or not counterplans are allowed to be topical is highly controversial. Main article: Topical counterplan.