Adversarial Debate

It is ironic that I was coerced and not persuaded to speak in debates when I was at school. I remember speaking against capital punishment, against the monarchy, against town-twinning, and against debating. I may have been a bit nowty.

... a bit nowty. William Wilberforce debating

… a bit nowty. William Wilberforce debating

I would like to say that, like it or not, the debates provided valuable training in constructing an argument, and I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it at some level; but, like team-sport, I suspect the value we place on it is somewhat inflated, perhaps a little antiquated. Children like to beat each other at pretty much any activity that presents itself: whether you throw a rugby ball between them or a contentious motion matters little. They will scrum down. If you get good at debating, you probably get good a little later in life, when it starts actually to matter.

Having said all that, I have enjoyed helping my Chinese students prepare for their formal debate at the Cambridge Union Society last week and this. Trying to formulate arguments and counter-arguments on sexual equality (last week) and euthanasia (this week), and to situate them within the oddly formulaic but still effective formal structure of an adversarial process (opening remarks, main arguments, first rebuttal, second rebuttal, concluding remarks) has been a test of a certain sort of mental discipline, still more so for them.

The discipline is largely one of disregarding anything you might actually feel on a given topic, and of underpinning logic (if you’re lucky) with some actual facts and examples (or perhaps it is the other way around, who knows?). There is something satisfying about identifying a fundamental weakness in a given position and worrying away at it, or generating spurious arguments from nothing and defending them tooth and nail, and something equally pleasing about doggedly staring down the illogicality in your own arguments when it is forcibly pointed out to you. Just like writing a blog post, as it happens.

My students have certainly thrown themselves into their debates with gusto. There are some acute minds among them. But in the end, I suspect that they derive more pleasure from besting their classmates in public view, just as I did when I was at school and just as probably every politician and lawyer has ever done.