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Lamp Shading

The reality of debate is that some positions you will be asked to defend are unpopular. Many Parli resolutions are constructed around socially relevant topics which the judge has probably heard something about and already formed some opinions on. Even in Team Policy or Lincoln Douglas debate, some arguments you will need to make may initially be unpalatable and unappealing to the audience even if they are valid. In order to convince the judge to hear you out instead of making their decision and laughing you off after the first sentence of an unorthodox argument, a speaker needs to let the judge know they understand where the judge is coming from. The speaker should be as relatable to the judge as possible by acknowledging to the judge they recognize the apparent absurdity in the claim they are making. However, the speaker should then ask that the judge hear their argument out, set all preconceived bias aside, and judge the argument from the merits presented. This process is called lamp-shading.

To illustrate, (a strong yet unconventional argument) a Team Policy team might, in an effort to raise funding for a plan that costs millions of dollars, choose to lower the U.S. Income Tax rate and divert the difference in Government revenue to their plan. (A team would run this plan if they had done the necessary research and found out that lower taxes incentivize market activity and that while the government might profit less from each individual laborer, an increase in laborers in the market will produce a net increase in tax revenue). A judge’s first intuition would be to disapprove of this funding decision as they would assume that a decrease in tax would naturally lower the overall revenue. This is a scenario in which a speaker ought to lampshade in order to prevent the judge from turning off their ears and refusing to be willing to hear the proposal.

When you think of the term lampshade, you doubtless picture a living room accessory and not a rhetorical device. The word ‘lampshade’ is not traditionally used as a verb. The reason we use the term lampshade is because it is a way to soften the blow or dissipate the harshness of the impact of a topic. A person staring into a lightbulb will turn away because of the blinding brightness of the bulb, but adding a lampshade makes the bulb more bearable to look towards. In the same way, a judge listening to an argument they impulsively disagree with will turn away because of the repulsiveness of the argument, but a lamp-shading argument can cause them to be more willing to listen to your point.

A judge is, as the term implies, judging you. An affirmative speaker might tend to forget that their job is not to convince the negative team to side with them and abandon all the negative positions. Rather, an affirmative speaker’s primary goal is to persuade the judge to abandon all their negative ideas, ones plainly stated by the negative and any preconceived opinions the judge walked into the round with. Because of this, a speaker must be vigilant to recognize what thoughts a judge might have about their case as a whole or about their individual arguments, and the speaker must tailor his or her presentation accordingly. Put yourself in the mind of the audience. Pretend you have not spent hours researching the validity of your claims and pretend you don’t already know all the claims that could oppose your position. In this fresh state, consider whether your argument sounds absurd or not. Then you can lampshade. Lamp-shading is arguing against the arguments you think the judge is coming up within their mind instead of exclusively responding to the arguments forwarded by the opposing team.

Take an example of an unpopular yet very necessary position in Team Policy Debate. Topicality is one of the stock issues in Team Policy, but unless you have a debate coach, an alumni or a very experienced parent, most of your judges (who are statistically community and newer debate parents) will hate Topicality arguments. Topicality arguments are seen as too technical, monotonous and a cheap way to avoid the real topic of the debate and instead argue about the rulebook. Sure, debate is training us to become like politicians, but if you think about it no one really likes politicians because of exactly that. They often bicker over minutiae instead of deliberating and solving the issues. In debate however, often Topicality is a pivotal position to take. Not only might it sometimes be your only position on squirrel cases, but even if it is not, it may be strong to argue that the impacts of a non-topical case are severe. If the judge has stated in their judging philosophy that they dislike technical arguments, or if you simply know that the judge doesn’t typically buy topicality then you’ll want to lampshade. A lampshading statement might look something like this; “The first argument I want to address is Topicality. Now I know this argument can often be boring and seem overly technical, but I assure you it is critical to today’s debate round. Even if you tend to disagree with Topicality presses, my partner and I would like to ask you to forget about past topicality presses you have heard and set aside any preconceived notions you might have about this stock issue, and simply judge this argument based on the merits and impacts we present and the merits and impacts the opposing team offers in response.” Essentially what you’re doing is you’re calling the judge out on their potential bias and by acknowledging it, you lower their guard and also present yourself as intelligent. Then you politely appeal to them to set aside this bias which builds your own credibility and opens the door to their acceptance of your argument.

In Parliamentary Debate, a potential scenario in which you will want to lampshade is any framework argument that you believe is necessary but that seems to frame the other side out of the round, or at the very least make defending their position significantly more difficult. Understand that as a general rule of thumb, defining the terms of a resolution such that the other team has to defend a truism or an impossible position is a bad idea. It fails to be courteous and very few judges will vote for you. Even if they do, they won’t like you after the round. There are some resolutions, however, that allow for a debate on both sides, but which must be framed very specifically. Take the resolution: “The people want to leave the European Union.” The initial thought that the judge and the debaters will have upon hearing this resolution is Brexit. However, the resolution does not require that the agency affirming the policy be the U.K. In fact, it might be a better idea for the Government team to argue that France should be the agent in this case. Upon hearing this, the judge might roll their eyes and think ‘no of course the resolution is talking about Brexit because the only country in recent history which has been under discussion to leave the European Union is the U.K.’ In this scenario, you will want to lampshade in order to get the judge to abandon their perspective that the resolution is asking ONLY for the U.K.. Sure, the common man might first interpret the resolution as the U.K., but if you present the judge with the idea that the British people have already had a formal poll (called a referendum) to decide whether to leave the EU, and therefore interpreting the resolution as the U.K. would force you to defend a truism, then you can begin to persuade the judge to look more favorably upon a round centered around France. A debater might say something along the lines of; “Now I know it might sound random and ridiculous for us to define the people in this resolution as French when all the global EU discussions are centered around the U.K., but judge, I’d like for you to consider that if the opposing team is correct that we have to interpret this resolution as the U.K., then there is no ground on which we can debate. You see, it is true that the British want to leave the European Union, which is why they are in the process of cutting ties as we speak. We would appeal to you that in order to have a fair and educational debate round, the interpretation of France is much more equitable.”

One final example of a situation where lampshading could be used is tailored more toward my Lincoln Douglas crowd. If you don’t compete in Lincoln Douglas debate, read this anyway. Consider a situation in which the Government’s interpretation of something or opinion on an issue must be weighed. This can be dangerous because every judge has a bias either for or against the Government. It is critical to know your judge. If the judge is conservative, it may be more difficult to convince them to accept the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling, and if they are more liberal, it may be difficult to convince them to support a strongly pro-2nd amendment policy. If you are in a situation where you either need to appeal to the support of a Supreme Court case or a written law, you almost certainly need to lampshade because the judge probably already has a bias. If you are arguing on a topic of abortion, and have a Conservative judge (which is more likely than not in Stoa), you, of course, don’t want to tell the judge that Roe v. Wade is an amazing court ruling that you wholeheartedly support. However, if the opposing team is arguing that the President should override Roe v. Wade, your position of defense must be legal. Tell the judge; “I am not going to stand here today and tell you to support Roe v. Wade. I understand you may want to reverse that fateful ruling more than anything in this world, but it must be reversed in the right way. Regardless of what you think about the court case itself, I would ask you to consider the impacts presented on each side of what would happen if the President abolished the decision. The rule of law would be undermined and if court cases were not respected, the office of the President would soon become a seat of dictatorship.” On the opposite side of things, if you have a generally more Liberal judge, appealing to conservative staples such as the 2nd amendment may turn the judge off to your presentation. Consider the resolution; POTUS should require all assault weapons to be given to the Government. If you are opposition in this case, you are on the wrong side of the resolution for the judge you’ve been given. However, instead of advocating 100% conservative pro-gun policies, you can still appeal to the judge by finding the critical distinction in what you’ve been asked to support. You might argue; “Judge, I know that the Affirmative team’s plan seems like a great idea to you and their statistics about fewer shootings are appealing. I understand that those ideas may be hopeful, but as the Negative speaker, I believe the impacts of each world should be considered. You may like the idea of no more assault weapons in the United States, but if you side with the Affirmative speaker, you are signing a law in direct defiance of the United States Constitution. The moment the Government begins to compromise on respecting our Constitution, other critical legal rights such as the right to free assembly and speedy trials will begin to be encroached upon as well. I would urge you to set your views on guns aside and to not set this dangerous precedent and instead side with the Negative side. We could wait to collect assault weapons in a legal manner at a later time.” By subtly calling out the judge’s bias and natural support for the Affirmative team, but asking them to lay that aside, you are effectively lampshading and putting your foot in the door for the judge to hear you out.

As a critical word of advice for how to present the lampshade, don’t be absolute. Be authoritative, but always leave an out. There is always the chance that the judge was not reacting the way you thought he was or thinking what you thought he was thinking. Never tell the judge what they are thinking, rather insinuate that you have a good idea of what it is, and if you are right, the judge will let his walls down. Don’t say, “I know what you’re thinking,” or “you already dislike this argument but I want you to listen anyway.” Be direct but gentle. Phrase your lampshade as, “You may be wondering…,” or “I’m guessing you’re likely considering…,” or “More than likely what came to mind when I said that was…” Let the judge know you understand if your argument sounds crazy or unlikable at first. Acknowledge that your claim is unpopular. Tell the judge it’s ok if they feel uncomfortable supporting a position you have forwarded. But after you have done this, tell the judge why your argument is valid and you ought to be listened to.

A note on isolating yourself from your argument: It is powerful and often necessary to say, “I understand that you may be thinking me crazy for having just argued x, but hear me out. Such a brief sentence relays to the judge that you are on their side looking outward at the argument with them. It is you and the judge together analyzing the argument, not you and your adopted argument as one trying to win the judge over to your side. If you have married the argument, then the judge is less likely to trust your objective opinion and fair presentation of it. If you present a crazy idea, but never stop to tell the judge you recognize the idea sounds crazy, then the judge will label you as crazy and subconsciously begin to trust your analysis less and less. Approach the argument from the same perspective of the judge. On first face, what would your reaction be? If your reaction is to huff and roll your eyes in disbelief, that’s probably what your judge is doing on the inside. Let them know you understand where they’re coming from and then guide them to the understanding of the argument that you now have. Remember, you are the expert on the topic, not them.

Finally, request that the judge evaluate the round on what was presented instead of analyzing your argument on his own and in so scrutinizing it, conclude it is distasteful for some reason the opposing team never presented. After you have related to the judge by acknowledging the argument’s unappealing face, and have told the judge there is good reason to hear you out anyway, conclude by asking that the judge lay aside their bias and only judge the argument by the things the opposing team throws out at you. If you don’t, you leave the door wide open to the judge being able to insert his or her opinion on your topic and voting against you undeservingly.

Practice employing lampshades in any scenario where the judge may have a bias. Lay everything out on the table. Lampshades don’t just need to be addressed on massive topics in a debate round. You can use lampshades for literally anything, not just the round-defining arguments. Any time your opponent runs an argument that sounds good on the surface but doesn’t have much depth, you can always say; “now I know the opponent’s argument sounds appealing but in reality…” Call it out if you think the judge found the argument appealing. Acknowledge that for them so that then they can acknowledge what they are thinking and begin to become more objective on their perspective of the argument. Lampshades can be used on little arguments. A personal favorite situation to lampshade is when an opponent has a fluid, persuasive speaking style. If your opponent is super polished at speaking, you can say; “now my opponent is a fantastic speaker, and you’re probably pretty persuaded by his flowery rhetoric and engaging style, but remember this…” These types of notes can be pivotal in close rounds.

In summary, lamp-shading is acknowledging that you know and understand what the judge may be thinking. Then you appeal to them to set aside their bias against your position or their initial impulse to the apparent absurdity of your position and to instead listen to the merits of the argumentation. Then they can consider whether the opposing has any substantial warrants against your position.

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