By: Young Seol, Brown University 2014
Points of Clarification, more commonly known as POCs, are questions the Opposition team asks the Government team after case construct has been read but before the start of the actual Prime Minister’s Constructive (or PMC). According to a new rule, timing for the PMC generally does not start until after case construct has been read and POCs have been asked, although you may occasionally see people time the reading of case construct and stop time only for POCs.
On rare occasions, you may find it necessary to ask POCs outside of the commonly accepted time period. This can happen, for example, if a particularly nebulous point made during the PMC prompts further clarification of Gov’s case, or, more commonly, if Opp decides to countercase and fails to properly elucidate the details thereof. Regardless of the specific circumstances, teams may (but seldom do) ask POCs during the PMC or LOC by rising and verbally stating, “Clarification.” It is considered good practice for the debater currently speaking to stop time and accept the question.
Although rare, if your partner is asked a POC, you are generally allowed to answer it in his or her stead, at the risk of costing your partner some speaker points. Still, this is not a meaningful penalty in outrounds, and, even during inrounds, is generally preferable to your partner insufficiently answering the question posed to them. Truly prepared debaters should never need to use this privilege.
Points of Clarification: Basics
Most fundamentally, POCs are necessary to clarify nebulous aspects of Gov’s case. A case like “Presidents should have a single, six-year term” probably requires fewer POCs than a hypothetical that takes two minutes to explain. You can also ask Gov to repeat certain portions of case statement that you may have missed. In addition, many cases are incomplete. If Gov says, “Abolish the government,” it raises the questions of how the government is being abolished and what, if anything, they hope will happen afterwards. Finally, certain cases may involve unfamiliar topics: constitutional law, politics, and economics are the most common ones. For such cases, you should use POCs to understand the background as necessary. For example, you can ask about prior precedents if Gov runs that a Supreme Court case was wrongly decided.
You should also be using POCs to clarify your position in the round. If necessary, questions like “What exactly are we defending?” or “If we argued this, it would be in line with our position, right?” can be used. Additionally, it is often important to clarify the merits by which the round will be adjudicated: Who is the actor in question? (Policy questions have different answers based whether you’re arguing from a government’s perspective or based on the impact to society; e.g. China’s censorship laws.) How should the arguments be weighed? (For example, is it strictly a matter of constitutional law, or is the round about what is normatively better?) This will help prevent the Government team from putting new burdens on you in the MG. Especially if you feel a case might be tight, doing so can also either help you find some ground to work with, or bolster your arguments should you choose to pull the trigger on a tight call.
When in doubt, it is also generally a good strategy to ask more questions than fewer; this also has the benefit of giving the LO more time to prepare his or her off-case arguments. However, be careful not to abuse this strategy and, when on Gov, be willing to call out teams that do so; judges will usually be receptive to you cutting POCs short in such instances.
Points of Clarification: Strategy
As you improve in debate, POCs become much more important, and oftentimes the right questions or wrong answers will decide the round before it has even begun. As Gov, POCs should be considered a crucial part of the PMC; you should be entirely prepared for any possibly relevant question they might ask you.
Shrewd Opp teams will generally have a strategy in mind after hearing case construct and ask you POCs to try to trap you into a position weak to it. As a real-life example, in NYU 2012 Semifinals, the Government team ran “The NFL should allow teams to sell shares.” Opp asked the POC, “Do these shares have voting rights?” and then countercased with “The NFL should allow teams to sell shares without voting rights” when Gov answered yes. As Gov, when faced with such a POC, it can sometimes be advantageous to say, “We aren’t going to take a stance on that,” while other times you may prefer to take a specific position. In fact, many times, you may simply wish to say “That’s irrelevant” in response to a POC. It depends on the case and, as such, is something you should consider while casing.
As Opp, you will obviously want to employ similar strategies yourself. You are allowed to talk with your partner while asking POCs (but, again, take care not to abuse this privilege, as it slows down the round considerably), which can help you formulate a strategy around which to ask specific questions. A common tactic in high-level debate is to leave critical arguments out of the PMC for the MG, to make the case seem more open in the event of a tight call or give Opp less time to respond to them. If you can foresee such arguments, asking the appropriate POCs can force the issue earlier, thereby strengthening your position on it.
On the flip side, while POCs can be used to narrow the ground Gov has to work with and clean up the round, they may also be inadvertent ways for Gov to sneak in new caveats about their case, thereby giving you less to work with. In such instances, it may be advantageous to not ask a POC and simply assume the worst about their case and force the MG to spend precious time clarifying. This effectively gives them only one speech to make that clarification and, given the strength of the Opp block (the 13 minutes, including grace, of the combined MO and LOR), often forces the PMR to engage with the case as you interpreted it. As an example, if Gov’s case is “Send troops to Syria,” then you can argue about the harms of long-term Syrian occupation. As an alternative to this strategy, you can ask “bright line” POCs, which force Gov to draw a specific line that they are not willing to cross. In the above example, “Would you be willing to occupy Syria, or will you pull out once you’re done?” Such POCs can be used to try to trap Gov or make their plan seem less efficacious.
Finally, and most importantly, this article is merely a primer on POC basics and common strategies, and it is not intended to be a definitive guide. As with every aspect of debate, it is paramount that you pay attention to your judge’s reactions, as individual preferences vary; this will provide insight into when it’s reasonable to cut off POCs, whether your POCs are being too long-winded, etc. Additionally, don’t regurgitate the advice given in the article. Rather, try to absorb it and utilize it in a way that you are comfortable with. No particular style of debate is correct, particularly when it comes to Points of Clarification: what’s most important to your competitive success is finding one that works for you.