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.

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