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!