Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Results of final challenge - and the futility of it all

Yesterday, the final BDU-internal challenge for spots at the German Debating Championships (DDM) brought at last a final list of teams that will be going there. As a reminder: Richtershorn (Georg&Johannes), then on 6th place in the ranking table and therefore just outside of the BDU's 5 spots at DDM, had challenged Klarahöh (Patrick&Bastian, 1st), Amalienstraße (Dessi&Filip, 2nd), and Platz der Pariser Kommune (Matthias&Niels, 4th). Since Olli&Juliane had withdrawn from the challenge round for DDM, this was the last decisive debate for who would be filling the BDU's spots.

Based on the team's points accumulated throughout the last debating season, the individual team duels were decided by the following criteria:

Klarahöh v Amalienstraße: winner needs 2 out of 3 debates (2/3)
Klarahöh v Platz d. Pariser Kommune: the latter need 2 wins in a row (2/2)
Klarahöh v Richtershorn: 2/2
Amalienstraße v Platz d. Pariser Kommune: 2/3
Amalienstraße v Richtershorn: 2/2
Platz d. Pariser Kommune v Richtershorn: 2/3

The panel of adjudicators consisted of Hauke (chair), Farid, and John. For the first round, they chose the motion that "THW not consider alcohol or drug intoxication as mitigating circumstances in court decisions." The debate was close, and was finally called a gov sweep, leaving CG Klarahöh in 1st, OG Amalienstraße in 2nd, CO Platz d. Pariser Kommune in 3rd, and OO Richtershorn in 4th. At this point, Klarahöh had already won two of its duels, Amalienstraße one, guaranteeing both teams a spot at DDM.

For the second debate, the panel was extended by Juliane before presenting the motion that "THW prohibit alternative medical treatments that do not prove to have effects over regular placebos." In the end, Richtershorn's good case did not stand against Pariser Kommune's broad-depth opening opp line, putting the latter in 1st place and leaving Richterhorn in 3rd behind CG Amalienstraße, who swooshed by with sprucing up Richtershorn's case. Again, the debate was a close call for the adjudication panel, with only Klarahöh in closing opp being a clear case, as they gracefully betrayed teamplay for beautiful philosophical considerations of stuff that seemed only loosely connected to the rest of the debate.

Still, with this Richtershorn had also lost the last one of its challenges. Since it wouldn't have mattered, the remaining challenges between the remaining teams were not continued. The teams for the BDU's 5 spots are:

Klarahöh, Amalienstraße, Krumme Lanke, Platz d. Pariser Kommune, Kastanienallee!

To the delight of everyone, we just received a 6th spot at DDM this morning, rendering the fierce challenge of last night unnecessary. Richtershorn, you're in! Congrats to everyone!

In the meantime, we hope that all the tough debating in the challenge rounds will prove to be valuable preparation for the actual tournament in one week's time.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Technical Remarks: Interaction in Debates

Following on from Eymanichblogge’s excellent article on Handling the whip, I’d like to take broader view on the aspect of interaction in debates. All major debating formats put a premium on dealing with the other teams. Eymanichblogge accurately pointed out that the whips are particularly challenged to deal with both the material brought to the table by others on one’s own side, as well as that of the opposing teams.

But, these tasks are not limited to the whips. Every speech in a debate is a speech in context. Each debate has its own dynamics with specific quirks. For speeches to be convincing a team needs to consider all participants and the argumentative positions of their opponents. Oftentimes teams believe (rightly or wrongly) that they have found the relevant material enabling them to win a round. Simply rattling down one’s arguments won’t necessarily win you the debate because you’re not debating. You might as well go to a public speaking contest.

Despite lots of tournaments and debates happening in the last month or so, I haven’t really seen much improvement in terms of engagement. Basically I have the impression that the criticism which Eymanichblogge brought forward, haven’t been heeded. On the contrary, throughout the 35-odd debates that I’ve seen in the past few weeks, I have had the impression that teams have been crawling more and more into their shells, hoping to win by sitting tight behind their Maginot Lines.

Debating means orally combating your opponents. This includes taking them seriously and coming up with ways to counter their argumentative lines. Technically rebutting the points of the preceding speaker and then moving on to your own points as quickly as possible cannot be considered sufficient interaction. You need to convince the judges that your points are relevant. This only happens when you put them into the context of what has been said and what you may still expect to be said – which is why it’s important to listen
carefully to POIs of closing teams and deal with the issues lying behind them.

You cannot just expect judges to understand why your points are relevant. Just because you’re repeating last night’s evening news commentary doesn’t make your view significant. What happens if the opening government sets a different debate to what you were expecting? Your line of attack may even then be reasonable but there is no guarantee that the judges will see it in the same light. You need to tell the judges why your points are pertinent. Sometimes you may just have to take a step back and re-analyse the debate in a way that makes your points fit. Additionally, if your opponents stake out new areas of confrontation you will need to deal with these by either showing why these fields are irrelevant or by actually going onto the fields and tackling your opposition on their turf.

Here’s an example: In a privatisation debate an opening government team speaks about why privatisation is a good thing for reasons such as efficiency and competition. The opening opposition takes a different tack and talks about which kind of services need to remain in state hands in order to ensure public order. Preceding this, the speaker technically rebutted the arguments of the opening government. One would probably say that the opening opposition has taken a broader view on the issue of privatisation and, if done well, will beat the opening proposition.

But, no-one has really talked about criteria for privatisation in context. Why do we actually have state-owned businesses? Why do we have privately-owned businesses? Are some sectors better suited for privatisation than others for structural or other reasons? Why is public order the correct first principle from which to debate and not, say societal progress? It may even be possible to say that privatised systems work better in good times and public systems better in bad times. So basically both teams may be right in their technical and economic assessments. The team that compares the different systems and in the end decides that state action needs to be thought from good (risk friendly) or bad times (risk adverse) has a much higher chance of winning this specific debate – by also making sure that the closing teams don’t have too much room in which to manoeuvre.

The team that can better argue for its ideological take on the world has a higher chance of winning. But, conversely, this may not be enough. You still need to deal with the technical issues and rebut the opposing side’s points. If you don’t, the closing teams will lean back comfortably knowing that they don’t have to do too much to actually finish quite high in the debate.

In short: Have you got relevant material? Can you show that your material is relevant? Did you place your material in the context of the debate? Did you seriously deal with the opposing side’s arguments and ideological lines? Have you shown that your arguments are better constructed? If your answer is yes to all of these questions then you’ve probably done a really good job. Congratulations!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

COMMENT: The Motions in Tübingen

Every debater worth his salt judges tournaments on the quality of the motions. Socials, food and organizational excellence pale in the face of boring motions, whereas fresh and attention-grabbing motions can make up for a shoddily planned event. This article will rate the motions in Tübingen on a scale out of ten. Basically the question is: Does the motion allow stronger teams to showcase their ability and clearly distinguish themselves from the rest? The key criteria are whether the motion provides enough scope for creative analysis and how it works in the specific spot in the tournament. After all, the reason why debating tournaments provide different motions is to come up with a winning team which shows no argumentative weakness when challenged with a wide array of ideas.

Technically all the motions in Tübingen were sound. On the face they seem to cover a wide array of topics. Closer analysis though shows that some were very similar. The average score for all the motions is 6,16/10, indicating a very ordinary tournament. On the other hand the span of marks ranges between 3 (round 3 and quarterfinal) and 9,5 (round 2) showing that the motions were not well-balanced. In a general assessment round 2 and the final make up for the bleakness of the weaker rounds, thereby rightly placing the tournament just above average, which is exactly what the numbers show. This was not a tournament for those expecting motions of equal quality, nor for those wanting to experience high-quality motions throughout. Anyone aiming to see at least one excellent motion could’ve gone home after the 2nd round and just maybe have come back for the final.

Round one on “THB in a compulsory European exchange programme for all students” is an ordinary motion without strengths or weaknesses (6/10). As a starter it doesn’t grab your attention but still enables everyone to say something, even after a 7 hour car ride. Typically one would speak about the (in)ability of students to assess the benefits of exchange programmes versus the right to life style choices. An interesting angle is the role elites play in fostering European ideas based on the premise that the state can and may provide a value set.

I understand that CAs wish to cater to different levels of ability. Then again, good debaters come to a ZEITDebatten-tournament expecting to be challenged. This debate is not up to scratch in this regard. Beginners will struggle with any kind of motion, be it easy or difficult, so it always makes sense to set motions for the best. The CAs ought to have considered that for many teams, this tournament was the last chance to practise under competitive conditions before the German championships.

The motion for round two: “THBT public prosecutors should be allowed to engage private companies to carry out criminal investigations” is one of the best I’ve come across in Germany recently (9,5/10). It transcends the typical privatisation clash between efficiency/competition and full service provision/diligence by daring to cut into the core of a key state duty: the necessity to provide public order. One can easily debate whether education, transport or health provision are genuine state duties. Without order though, each and every state loses its raison d’etre.

The positioning is excellent. The problem of almost all OPD-tournaments is that they typically only have three preliminary rounds. After an easy motion to start off, strong teams can really show off their analytical ability by attacking the traditional notion of a substantial idea of the monopoly of violence. The proposition is challenged to draw a picture of an extremely lean state in which its legitimacy is solely dependent on functional outcomes. At the same time the ordinary privatisation arguments provide a foundation for weaker teams to showcase their aptitude in assembling well constructed mechanism arguments.

The only reason for not giving full marks is that having taken this step, the CAs might just as well have privatised all courts. That would’ve blown my mind!

Setting “THB in compulsory vaccination” as round three is a disaster (3/10), especially after round one already asked for exactly the same arguments: People don’t understand the implications of their actions for both themselves and greater society versus the right of citizens to (possibly even dangerous) life-style choices based on differing value sets. The CAs obviously did not believe that the final preliminary round calls for something special. Last year’s 3rd round was something along the lines of “THW allow parents to use PID in all cases of IVF.” That allows strong teams to end on a bang, really sifting the chaff from the wheat. This motion is simply incapable of being a tie breaker as all relevant teams will argue on a similar level, giving no-one the chance to shine. If the idea was to set a bio-ethical topic it also fails miserably. Only the clarity of phrasing and the opportunity for weaker teams to once again practise the construction of value arguments prevents an even lower score.

The quarterfinal is no better than the third round (3/10). “THW tax ‘un-culture’ in the media” once again calls for a nanny-state debate. The only twist is that private companies are coerced to implement state values, making it slightly better as a stand-alone motion. This slight advantage fully dissolves in light of the extremely disappointing positioning. The closeness of all four debates indicates that no team was able to come up with something special right after a 3rd round which already did not lead to clear distinctions between the teams.

The semi-final provides a breath of fresh air after two calamities (7,5/10). The placement of “THBT the member states need to have their budgets approved by the EU” is good. Many teams struggle with economic motions making the judging a nightmare in preliminary rounds. In a semi-final this problem typically doesn’t occur. Here teams are challenged to combine economic knowledge with sound analysis of democratic decision making. It is very easy for both teams to construct their take on whether there is a mutual responsibility between the member states or not. Better teams can clearly distinguish themselves by delving into the issue of how responsibility is actually democratically legitimised in a state or similar body and whether the EU provides the base for this kind of shared dependability.

The motion is well suited to making sure that the right teams make the final.

The final itself on “THW ban full body coverings in Germany” (8/10) would’ve scored higher without the semi-final. Two current affairs motions carry the risk that pre-prepared arguments are rattled off. Often enough German finals’ motions are set with a strong bias to providing the public audience with a motion they can relate to. Debating considerations are often secondary. Just because something makes the evening news headlines and everybody talks about it, doesn’t mean it is a good debating motion. Here though, the depth of possible analysis makes for an engaging debate whilst at the same time allowing the general public to integrate the arguments in their own thoughts.

The only way for this debate to be won on proposition is to speak about the implications of the burqa for societal peace. This may not necessarily be the line that the opposition expects. Nevertheless, any good opposition knows that the their case for the right to individual decision making and a commitment to plurality would beat even a well-argued government case for a homogenous society and freeing of suppressed women. Therefore on opposition it is to be expected that the government line would be about societal implications. The proposition has to make sure that the construction of the problem is plausible for this more intricate case to work. A key question in the debate is whether religious freedom is a substantial right or only a means to societal peace. In all it provides a very satisfying debate to decide a final, providing solace at the end of a rollercoaster ride.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Results of first challenge

On Tuesday, the first internal challenge for the BDU's 5 spots at the German Debating Championship (DDM) had the following teams facing each other:

Krumme Lanke (Kai&Julian) v Richtershorn (Georg&Johannes) v Kastanienallee (Jules&Hauke) v tbd (Juliane&Olli)

Topics where:
1 Thw allow non-universitarian German research institutes to award doctoral degrees.
2 Thw not consider the biological parenthood in custody battles.
3 Thw abolish all of the EU's agricultural subsidies.

After fierce combat between all teams, Krumme Lanke came out on top, winning the second and third round (3rd, 1st, 1st). Olli&Juliane kept their chances up until the third debate, but could not carry any of the individual duels in the end (4th, 3rd, 3rd). After having lost to Kastanienallee (1st,2nd,4th) in the first two rounds, Richtershorn's (2nd,4th,2nd) fate depended on winning against Krumme Lanke in the last round... where they lost by a hear in a close debate.

This is the ranking table after the challenge:

1 Klarahöh (Patrick&Bastian)
2 Amalienstraße (Dessi&Filip)
3 Krumme Lanke (Kai&Julian)
4 Platz der Pariser Kommune (Matthias&Niels)
5 Kastanienallee (Jules&Hauke)
6 Richtershorn (Georg&Johannes)
7 Juliane&Olli

Richtershorn immediately announced their challenge to all remaining teams (Klarahöh, Amalienstraße, Platz d. Pariser Kommune). This challenge is up for next Tuesday, pending the possible emergence of a sixth spot at DDM.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Speaking of Bremen...

...reminds me of the Bundesrat, the federal chamber of Germany's parliament whose incumbent president is the mayor of Bremen, Jens Böhrnsen. The Bundesrat has its open door day on May 29th and, exceptionally, you won't see politicians, but members of the Berlin Debating Union behind the speaker's desk. We will deliver extraordinary debates on a variety of - naturally - federalism-related topics during the day, see the programme.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


...we enjoy your pictures.

Berlin stays on top of German perennial ranking table

The Berlin Debating Union reaffirmed its dominating position among German debating societies this weekend with a strong performance at Tübingen's ZEITDebatte debating competition. With one Berlin team breaking to the Final at the Tübingen town hall on Sunday, the Union is guaranteed to keep its first place in Germany's perennial league of debating societies.

After the BDU had just assumed the leading position in the ranking table after its victory at the recent regional championships, the Union's most trenchant runner-ups from Mainz and Münster have declared an all-out battle for the crown of German clubs before this season ends. Tübingen was their last opportunity for such an attack before the German Debating Championships in June.

With two Berlin teams facing each other in the semi-finals, Weberwiese (Kai, Patrick, Julian) and Frankfurter Tor (Dessi, Juliane, Filip), the BDU will be represented in the final for sure with one team. While close competitor Mainz made the break to the semi-final with one team as well, even a victory against Berlin in the final would not be sufficient to elevate the Guttenberg club above the capital's debating union. For right now: Good luck to the Berlin teams. And for everyone else: See you in June for the final battle!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Berlin teams for German championships elimination round

Here are the teams that want a spot at DDM with their preliminary team names:

1. Patrick & Bastian (Klarahöh) 228 points
2. Dessi & Filip (Amalienstraße) 181
3. Kai & Julian (Krumme Lanke) 118
4. Matthias & Niels (Platz der Pariser Kommune) 107
5. Georg & Johannes (Richtershorn) 70
6. Juliane M. & Hauke (Kastanienallee) 58
7. Olli & Juliane Z. 10

We've got 5 spots.

First challenge: O&J v Kastanienallee v Richtershorn v Krumme Lanke. Tuesday, May 18, starting 5:30 pm, up to 3 debates.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Don't peep behind the bush

Still four weeks to go until the German Debating Championships start, and as there is usually one motion about sex on these championships, here is our suggestion.

The Oxford Women's Open

On 30th April and 1st May the Oxford Union organized the first Women's Open tournament in Europe. A tournament for gals only, designed to promote women in the world of debating. Two BDU female debaters (Andrea and Dessi) attended the event. Here's a report I've been asked to post:

What struck us was that we were the only team from the continent, as the Brits like to call the rest of Europe. What impressed us were the judges. Each panel in one of the five rooms consisted of world-class debaters: amongst others were Jo Farmer (CA), Sayeqa Islam (DCA), Jonathan Leader Maynard, Tom Hoskins, Gavin Ilsley, Ben Jaspers, Ridyan Morgan and Art Ward. What delighted us was meeting Michael Saliba from Stuttgart at the tournament. He had been in Oxford since the beginning of the week and dropped by to do a little adjudicating.
After each round there were 30 minutes designated for extensive team and individual feedback. Although we didn't fare very well tab-wise, we did have a lot of fun debating the topics of the preliminary rounds and learned one or two new tricks and were reminded of some old basics. Plus we got to debate twice in the famous Oxford chamber:-)

The topics were:
R1: THW only emprison criminals who pose a physical threat to society!
R2: THW allow parents to set up and run their own schools!
R3: THW actively seek and deport illegal immigrants!
R4: THW allow minors to have sex chanage operations!*
R5: THW fund opposition movements in countries ruled by tyrannical regimes!
Final: THB that Catholics should democratically elect the Pope!

The panel judging the final consisted of 9 (!) judges, 6 female and 3 male. The "winneresses" of the final representing Cambridge in the Opening Oppostion were Mary Nugent and Natalie Smith. Congrats! They get to sepnt one week in a 4-star hotel on Malta!

The tournament, despite consisting of female participants only, was not much different than other tournaments. There was a bit more chatting after each round, but that's all in terms of supposed typical female-only behaviour.

The tournament is great for rookies (female only of course), but also for judges (both sexes) who want to learn from world class debaters.

*In round four we had a judge who had obviously studied Gender Studies and who taught us a new word: cisgender. The term describes a person who is comfortable with the gender assigned to them at birth, i.e. a biological female raised as a girl who feels comfortable with her gender identity. "Cis" derives from Latin and means "on the same side". The term is used in contrast to transgenders. Wonderful! Can't wait for the next gender debate!

1st of May Victory

On 1st of May Germans traditionally welcome the arrival of spring (and some celebrate Labour Day). Some Germans spend this day hiking with their family, most of them boozing, and some of them rampaging on the streets of Berlin and Hamburg. 1st of May definitely is a day for rather odd and rough behavior, and therefore the ideal day for a debating tournament of the PUNK series. The PUNK series was established in Germany to complement the successful, but costly ZEITDebatten series with a set of easy-to-organize, straightforward and cheap debating tournaments.

On Saturday, the Debating Society at the University of Magdeburg brought a brilliant PUNK tournament to us, with four rounds of debating, fatty sausages and a final on the motion “This House would present sexual paraphilias (e.g. SM) as equivalent to other forms of sexual behaviour in sex education”.

And what’s more: BDU’s Hauke and Juliane won the final and Farid made it to the top of the tab. Trophies and winners documented below.