Topicality is an argument run by the negative team in policy debate. It is usually run when the affirmative team runs a plan that does not fall under the resolution.
The purpose of topicality:
Topicality is a reason to reject the affirmative, as are most negative arguments. Unlike the counterplan and disadvantage, or disad, though, topicality does not seek rejection based on the merits of the plan. It calls for rejection due to the fact that the plan is, well, untopical under the resolution.
Reasons to run topicality:
Aside from the obvious fact that the negative should run topicality, or T as it is sometimes known, if the affirmative is clearly untopical, it has other strategic advantages.Topicality can be run against any case. There are always multiple interpretations for a word, making it one of the most generic arguments in policy debate. If all else fails, the negative could always claim that the "United States" means the "United States of Holland." I have actually seen that in a round before.
Topicality can win the round alone. Usually the negative must prove the plan won't achieve its goal with case arguments and that it could hurt something with a disadvantage. If the negative wins topicality though, they usually (and should) win the debate.
Topicality can be used to force the affirmative to admit something. This is a bit tricky and is a more advanced debate tactic, but is very useful. Here, the negative team claims that the affirmative does not fit under some word in the resolution and then they run an argument saying fitting under that word is bad. For example, the negative could say that "protection" in the phrase "protection of marine natural resources" means "to regulate the use of" and say that regulating marine natural resources hurts business confidence. Now you should see the strategic advantage; the affirmative must either admit to hurting business confidence or they must admit to being untopical. It is usually wiser for the affirmative to do the former.
Running topicality can't hurt. At most the negative spends 30 seconds reading the shell (assuming it's a fast debate, the best kind). The affirmative will usually spend more time answering the T, meaning the neg has a net time gain. Also, it is very rare for the affirmative to claim that running T is bad and the negative should lose because of it, but it is possible. But that's a subject for debate theory.
Reasons not to run topicality:
Of course, not every negative runs topicality every round for a variety of reasons.
A lot of judges don't like T. They find it boring to hear random definitions over and over again, round after round. If the judge doesn't like topicality, the negative team probably shouldn't run it unless the aff is blatantly untopical.
There is a small chance of losing on it. The affirmative can claim that running T is abusive and possibly win on this argument, especially if the judge hates T.
There are only so many words to interpret. Almost no judge wants to hear how the affirmative is untopical under 10 different words. Often, if the negative defines too many words, some definitions become contradictory making any topical case impossible.
There are better things to run after one or two topicalities. Run T in combination with other arguments. 8 minutes of topicality in the 1NC is just asking to lose in most cases (forgive the pun).
How topicality looks:
Usually topicality is run in the following form: an interpretation of a word in the resolution is given and is followed by how the affirmative violates that interpretation. Then reasons the negative interpretation is good come and it ends with reasons topicality can win the round all by itself. Here is a whittled down shell for the 2003-2004 debate topic:
Interpretation: Ocean - The entire body of salt water that covers more than 70 percent of the earth's surface (dictionary.com)
Violation: The affirmative only affects a specific part of the ocean, such as the coast of Alaska.
Standards (reasons to prefer neg interpretation):
Limits - this definition limits out irrelevant cases that deal with only tiny sectors of the ocean.
Infinitely regressive - Any other definition allows affirmative cases to target smaller and smaller subsections the negative can't predict.
Voters (reasons why T wins the round):
Education - it hurts the educational value of debate to allow the affirmative to run cases the negative can't prepare for just so they get a cheap win.
Competitive equity - T is a debate of competing interpretations. If the neg offers the best interpretation for debate, then the affirmative should lose if their plan doesn't meet that interpretation.
See? It's easy! And all of that could win a round and it takes only 20 seconds max to read. Oh yeah, the neg would probably claim in this case that the whole ocean meant the potential to affect the entire ocean, not actually forcing other countries to do stuff.
Other kinds of topicality:
Yes, there are even other kinds of topicality. Other than just saying the plan doesn't fit under a word in the resolution, the negative can claim that the plan does not fall directly under the resolution or that it does more than is called for. The former is known as effects topicality and is usually used if the plan has some effect that eventually reaches the resolutional area. For example, a plan that enforces stricter clean air laws is effects topical under the ocean topic used above because, while lowering pollution from factories on land may eventually help marine resources, the plan itself does not protect those resources directly. Of course, most plans aren't that brazenly untopical. The rationale to vote against the affirmative in this situation is that the
affirmative can run completely unpredictable plans and that means a lack of negative research and an uneducational debate. Extra topicality is used if the affirmative adds something untopical to the plan, such as pass the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and send food to starving children in India. Usually, winning extra T just means that the judge doesn't consider the extra topical portion of the plan. If argued right though, the negative can win by claiming that the affirmative should lose because they forced the negative to waste time running an uneducational argument just to get the affirmative back in the resolution. This is bad for debate as a whole and the judge should use his or her ballot to prevent future abuses and protect the educational value of the activity. Some people run both effects and extra topicality as standards. I prefer labeling the topicality specifically as one or the other but both are acceptable.
What does the affirmative do?:
The affirmative of course can't leave the T uncovered. They should start by claiming they meet the definition, even if it is a ridiculous stretch. Then the affirmative should always, every time, unless the original violation was ridiculously bad, offer their own counter-interpretation and argue with counter-standards that theirs is better, and of course explain that you meet your own definition. Then for fun, claim that T is not a voting issue because it is insignificant, and, if the aff wants, they can claim that T is a reverse voting issue because it sucks their time.
Just to get this out of the way, I won't list a bunch of standards and voters, go find them on Google on your own. Topicality is a great argument that can be run every round by novices to suck other novices' time, or by experienced teams to force another team to concede a link to another argument. The possibilities are nearly endless in the the world of debate. Just remember to clearly explain why the T matters (or doesn't matter if you're aff) in your rebuttal and don't run too many. One last word of advice: Don't ever claim that the "United States" means the "United States of Holland."