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Monday, January 11, 2021

How to think about politics #5 - when is violence justified?


A man takes out a gun. He shoots another man in the head, killing him.

What do you think about that?

Simple. It’s wrong.

 Isn’t it?

Let’s look again.

The man who is shot is in a crowded Tube train and has a suicide bomb strapped round his waist which he is about to detonate, killing everyone on the train. The man who does the shooting is a police officer.

Is it still wrong?

Or look again.

The man who is shot is a soldier in an army representing a government which is responsible for the genocidal murder of thousands of people, and the kidnap and rape of many more. If the army is not stopped, they will continue to murder, kidnap and rape. The man who does the shooting is part of a different army, trying to stop the first one.

Is that wrong?

Or look again.

The man who is shot is part of an army invading your country, threatening to take it over, take away your freedom, and run it for the benefit of a different country. The man who does the shooting is part of your country’s army and is trying to stop him.

Is that wrong?

Or look again.

The man who is shot is part of an army already occupying your country, running it for the benefit of another country. The man who does the shooting is part of an army trying to get that army out of your country.

Is that wrong?

Violence, you can see, is not a simple matter.

Some people are uncompromising pacifists. That means they believe all violence, of any sort, in any circumstances, is wrong. That does make matters simple. But in another way, it makes them more complicated, as the dilemmas above show.

What if you aren’t an all out pacifist? When is violence right?

Here are three possible occasions.

1. If violence prevents a greater evil. All the examples above could fall into that category.

Problem: what started out as preventing an evil can end up becoming as great, if not a greater evil, itself. You don’t have to look very far into history to see this happening: revolutions which end up imposing a tyranny even greater than the one they were trying to overthrow, wars which go on long past their original cause, police who act with brutality out of proportion to the need to control crime.

2. If it is legitimate.

Problem: what is legitimate, and who gets to decide? ‘Legitimate’ literally means ‘lawful’; laws are set by the state. If you trust the state you are living in, you respect the laws which allow the state to use violence in protection of its citizens, usually through the actions of the police or armed forces. One definition of a civilised society is one in which the state has a monopoly of violence, so only police and armed forces are allowed to use violence. Most people find this preferable to a society in which anyone can use violence to get their way. But what if the instruments of the state misuse the powers given them? What if the police unfairly target a particular minority group? What if the government launches a war you think is unjust? Should you resist the state’s use of violence in these cases, even though it is, in the state’s terms, legitimate?

3. If it is used in a just cause.

Problem: how do we decide what is a just cause? And how much, and what sort of violence can be used, even in a just cause?

 ‘Just war theory’ deals with these questions. The most common principles for a ‘just war’ are that:

It is a last resort, and all other means of resolving the conflict have been exhausted (problem: how can you tell?)

It is fought to remedy or prevent a serious injustice (problem: who decides what is an injustice?)

The use of violence is proportionate, and non-combatants are not involved (problem: who decides what is proportionate? Who decides who the combatants are?)

Violence is not going to go away. Nor is it a simple matter to decide when it can or should be used. It is an issue which presents a lot of problems to think about and debate.

Motions that go with this topic:

  • This house would arm the police
  • This house believes war is always wrong
  • This house would create a European army
  • This house would introduce a year’s compulsory military service for all 18 year olds
  • This house supports the pre-emptive killing of suspected terrorists
  • This house would assassinate dictators
  • This house would defund the police
  • This house would abolish the armed forces
  • This house would not use nuclear weapons
  • This house would allow householders to shoot burglars

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Aristotle on rhetoric #2 - logos

Fans of the 1960s sci fi series Star Trek will remember the character Mr Spock. Mr Spock was a Vulcan. Vulcans (as well as being extra-terrestrial humanoids) are totally rational creatures. They think, they reason, they weigh up the evidence and they come to logical conclusions. ‘That would appear logical, Captain’, was Mr Spock’s catchphrase.

You’ve probably noticed that we humans are not the same as Vulcans. We’re swayed by all kinds of things that have nothing to do with logic: our ever changing emotions; what the people around us think and do; a need to protect ourselves from attack.

However, debating is meant to be a place where Mr Spock would feel at home; a place where reason rules supreme, where only evidence, logic and argument matter. In British Parliamentary debating, the quality of the argument is supposed to be the only factor considered by judges.

This brings us to the second in Aristotle’s trinity: logos. In his Rhetoric, he uses it to mean ‘reasoned discourse’.

What is ‘reasoned discourse’?

This is a very big subject. It is in fact almost an entire subject, in the sense of a school or university subject, called Critical Thinking. Critical Thinking analyses arguments to see if they are logically coherent and hold together. It’s not possible to teach everything you need to know about Critical Thinking in one blogpost; it could fill several books. However, we can look at the basic building block of reasoned discourse, the syllogism, and how you might use it in a debate.

Syllogisms are made out of premises and conclusions. Premises are statements which, when put together in a certain way, lead to conclusions. Usually the first premise is more general, and is known as the major premise; the second premise is more specific, and is known as the minor premise.

To give an example. Suppose you are debating that ever popular motion, ‘This house would make all schools co-educational’, and you are speaking for the opposition. You might want to argue that single-sex schools are better for girls because they tend to get better GCSE results. Your argument might therefore go:

Major premise

 Young people’s life chances are improved by having better GCSE results.

Minor premise

Girls’ schools get better GCSE results than co-ed schools.

Both of these premises are virtually beyond challenge. The first is extremely hard to argue against, and the second is a matter of fact. Put them together, and you come to a conclusion:


Therefore, girls’ life chances are improved by going to single-sex schools.

This is a syllogism. When you use a syllogism, you are using reasoned discourse, or ‘logic’, a word derived from ‘logos’.  This is what Aristotle means when he refers to the importance of ‘logos’ in rhetoric - the art of persuading that is at the heart of debating.

If we were all entirely rational creatures (like Mr Spock), that would be enough. But of course we’re not. While the structure of major premise - minor premise - conclusion might underpin your speech, if every paragraph of your speech follows the same format, you will soon lose your audience. More likely, your speech will go like this:

‘Imagine a young woman setting out on her life. How much better it will be if she is equipped with strong exam results; the kind of strong exam results that single-sex schools provide. Single-sex schools give girls confidence, self-belief and success. Isn’t that more important than “learning how to get on with boys”?’

The logical syllogism I described is present in this speech. But it also appeals to emotion: students’ anxiety about exams; parents’ love for their children. Emotion plays a much greater role in persuading people, and therefore in debating, than anyone likes to admit. We’ll look at it in our post on the last element in Aristotle’s trinity of persuasion: pathos.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Recommended book #5 - Julius Caesar


Shakespeare's Julius Caesar is historical fiction based on fact, but in some ways it reads like a documentary. It remains urgently contemporary. A 2017 outdoors production in Central Park in New York caused outrage when Caesar was seen to be modelled on Donald Trump; major sponsors withdrew their funding. A 2018 production at the Bridge Theatre in London had Caesar tossing a 'Make America Great Again' baseball cap into the audience:

Julius Caesar will teach you much about both persuasion and politics. I know of no better treatment in drama or fiction of how politics actually works: the factions, the conspiring, the delicate courtship of potential allies, the insidious undermining of rivals, the conflict between high minded idealism and calculating pragmatism, the sheer emotion of it all. Most of all, though, Mark Antony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral is one of the most brilliant examples of persuasive rhetoric ever written; it is worth taking it apart line by line and word by word to see how it works.

Put it on your Christmas list.

Monday, December 7, 2020

How to debate #14 - how to judge a debate

What is the point of judges?

It’s easy to forget about the judge, that quiet person in the corner hunched over a stack of paper, scribbling away, when you’re in the full flow of a debate. Easy, but foolish. The judge is in some ways the most important person in a debate. She has to listen to every word of every speech, point of information and point from the floor with equal attention, without fear or favour. She is - or should be - the person you are trying to impress more than anyone else in the room, as she decides who will win the debate. And once the debate is over, she has to send the debaters on their way with feedback which will both encourage them and improve their debating. Debating without judges literally could not happen, at least as a competitive activity.

Judging a debate is not only very important; it is also very challenging, as it involves processing a huge amount of data at great speed under considerable pressure, especially in high stakes competitions. However, every debater should have a go at judging, as there is no better way to understand how debates work, and how to improve your own performance.

What is a judge looking for?

In one sense, there is only one skill needed to win a debate. The judging criteria can be summed up in one sentence:

Which team has made the more persuasive case?

But how do you decide which team has made the more persuasive case?

As in life, so in debating, beware of charmers. The danger for a debating judge is that you may fall for the debater who seems the most impressive, believing that this is a ‘holistic’ approach. What this might in practice mean is that you award the debate to someone who speaks with great fluency but little substance over another debater who perhaps presents with less confidence but in fact has much more solid, well-founded arguments.

How do you avoid this seduction by smooth talkers?

The key is to break the debaters’ performance down into the key skills of debating, and assess each of them in turn.

What are the key skills? What questions should you be asking to assess them?

1. Reasoning and evidence

This skill shows a debater can construct a convincing case.

  • How well has the motion been defined?
  • Have the arguments been clearly and logically constructed?
  • Have appropriate examples and evidence been used?
  • Is everything said relevant to the motion?
  • Are the speakers guilty of any logical fallacies?

2. Listening and response

This skill shows a debater can understand the other side of the case and can rebut it.

  • How effective and thorough is rebuttal of previous speakers?
  • Are points of information precise, concise, timely, focused and relevant?
  • Has the point of clash been identified and used effectively?

3. Organisation and prioritisation

This skill shows a debater can present your case in the clearest possible way.

  • Are there the right number of arguments (usually three per speech)?
  • Are they organised effectively, with the strongest coming first?
  • Are the arguments divided effectively between speakers?
  • Is time used effectively, i.e.
- approx. one minute per argument
- one minute for rebuttal
- one minute for taking points of information
- speaking right up to the signal for the end of speaking time?

4. Expression and delivery


This skill shows a debater can speak in a convincing way. NB this is not normally assessed in BP.

  • Does the speaker speak clearly and audibly?
  • Do they vary their pace and tone for effect?
  • Do they use eye contact?
  • Do they keep dependence on notes to a minimum?
  • Do they sound as if they care about what they are saying?
  • Do they (where appropriate) use humour effectively?

5. Team work and roles

This skill shows a debater can make a strong case by working together as part of a team, and making the most of the role they have been given.

  • Do the speakers support to and refer to each other?
  • Do they avoid contradicting or repeating each other?
  • Do they fulfil the particular tasks of their roles effectively, i.e.

- Prop 1: defining the motion and introducing the case
- Prop 2, Opp 1, Opp 2: rebutting previous speakers and building the case further
- Prop 3 and Opp 3 (BP only): finding an extension to the case set out by the first two speakers on their side.
- Summary speakers (Extended Mace and BP only):  

  • summing up their side’s case
  • summing up their opponents’ case and rebutting it,
  • responding to floor speeches (Extended Mace only),
  • finding the point of clash and showing how their side have won the debate
  • avoiding introducing new material

A judge should have all these things in mind when she is watching a debate.

If you’re lucky, the competition you are judging for will give you a mark scheme. If you are a teacher, you will be familiar (perhaps all too familiar …) with how mark schemes work. If you are a student, your teachers may well have shared mark schemes for your GCSE or A-Level subjects. Debating mark schemes are more like mark schemes for humanities subjects, such as English, History or Philosophy than mark schemes for Maths or Science. That is, they are organised into levels, with descriptors for each level. First, you decide which level the debater fits into. Then you decide where they are in that level (high, medium, low). Then you give them a mark which fits with their place in the level. Say the mark scheme is out of 30 for each speaker. Level 1 is 26-30, Level 2 is 21-25, Level 3 is 16-20. The first speaker is a very good Level 2, but not quite Level 1: she gets 25. The second speaker is in Level 2, but only just, and at times slips down to Level 3: he gets 21. And so on.

If you haven’t been given a mark scheme, I recommend you still use marks. Decide to award marks out of 20, or 30, or 50 for each speech. This will help you to make comparisons at the end of the debate.

What should you do during the debate?

A debate - especially a good one - is likely to be fast and furious, and can be hard to keep up with, especially if you are having to chair and time keep at the same time. I recommend having a piece of paper for each speaker in the debate, with a space for their name, team side and role in the debate, divided into sections for each of the key skills. Every time a speaker does something good, put a plus sign (or two if they do it really well, or three if they do it outstandingly) with a brief note under the relevant key skill; every time they do something less well, put a minus sign and a brief note under the relevant key skill.

So a marksheet for a debate on the motion ‘This house would legalise drugs’ might look like this:

Motion: This house would legalise drugs

Name: Ayesha

Position: First opposition

School: Neasden High

1. Reasoning and Evidence

+ Harms of normalisation of drug use logically developed

+ Relevant example of dangers of cannabis use

- ‘Slippery slope’ fallacy - legalisation won’t make all school children heroin addicts

2. Listening and Response

++ Thorough, point by point rebuttal of Prop 1

- Doesn’t respond to POI  - just ‘Well, that’s not going to happen’

3. Organisation and prioritisation

+ Signposting v clear and effective

+ Effective balance between three main points

- Doesn’t use full time (stopped at 4:30)

4. Expression and delivery

+ Clear, audible 

++ Passion and use of crescendo with example re dangers of heroin 

- Looks too much at notes

5. Team work and roles

+ Engages with Prop 1 appropriately

+ Refers to Opp 2’s points



What should a judge do after a debate?

If you are co-judging with another person, or are part of a panel of judges, find a place where you cannot be overheard and compare your notes. This should be the first time you have communicated with your co-judge(s).

Go through each speaker in turn, discussing each of their skill sets in turn. Don’t get on to numbers till you have said all you have to say about their skills. If you find you agree on the number, easy. If you disagree, don’t automatically add the two (or more) numbers together and halve (divide) them; go back to your notes and discuss some more. It may well be that this discussion will uncover that one judge has missed something a debater has done well, or overlooked a mistake they have made; that’s the point of having more than one judge, so they can balance out each other’s blind spots.  If you still can’t agree, as a last resort split the difference rather than keep everyone there all night. Don’t skimp on the discussion - it is important to come up with a fair verdict - but equally be reasonably brisk and businesslike about it. Be courteous and respectful of your co-judges’ views, while at the same time not being afraid to challenge them if you think they are wrong. Avoid the sort of conversation where people keep saying the same thing over and over again.

If you are judging by yourself, the process will be faster, but should still not be skimped. Read through your notes carefully; check that you have given all the skill sets equal consideration with your mark. Finally, add up the marks (do this more than once if Maths is not your best subject). Think: did the team that got the most marks really make the most persuasive case? If the result is very close, or doesn’t feel right, go back to your notes, and don’t be afraid to tweak the numbers if that gives what feels like the right result.

How should a judge give feedback?

This always feels like the last scene of an Agatha Christie film, when Poirot gathers everyone in the library to reveal who the murderer is.

Go through each speaker in turn, and each of their skill sets in turn. Start with the positive and end with the positive, but include in the middle something they can improve on. This will be easy if you have kept your mark sheet well filled in; the + points will give you material for encouragement, and the - points will give you areas for development. If you have a co-judge or judges, you should divide up feedback duty, e.g. one taking proposition, one taking opposition.

Don’t say anything about numbers or positions until the very end; make them the last thing you announce. Every teacher knows that the minute a student knows their mark, they stop listening to feedback, and debaters are no different.

If you can, subject to not holding up the next debate in the competition, make yourself available for further questions and clarification after the debate. However, if there is any hint from a debater that they are challenging your verdict, make it clear politely but firmly that you cannot change it, and report the incident as soon as you can to the competition organiser. It is a fundamental principle of competitive debating that a judge’s verdict, once given, is final.

Once you’ve judged a few debates, you will return to your own debating with vastly increased confidence. You will know what the judges are looking for, and you will know how to give it to them.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Bad arguments #7 - equating correlation with causation


'In my last Maths test I got 90%, my best ever result. I also wore red socks that day. I’ve got another Maths test tomorrow. How should I ensure I get 90% again? Obvious! Forget revision - just wear red socks!'

What’s wrong with that argument?

It’s equating correlation with causation, that’s what.

Equating, correlation and causation are long words, and you may not know what they mean (or maybe you do).

In case you don’t:

  • Correlation means one thing following another.
  • Causation means one thing causing another.
  • Equating means assuming two things are the same.

This bad argument can be summed up thus:

The fact that A is followed by, or happens at the same time as, B does not prove that B is caused by A.

Of course, most people aren’t stupid enough to think that Maths test results depend on sock colour. But you do see variations on this bad argument used in debates.

For example, in a debate on the motion ‘This house would ban violent computer games’, the proposition argue:

‘Violent computer games have never been more popular. At the same time, levels of knife crime amongst young people have never been higher. We need to ban these games now to keep our children safe!’

Knife crime is indisputably a bad thing. Its growth may be happening at the same time as a growth in downloads of violent computer games. But that doesn’t, in itself, prove that violent computer games cause knife crime. To do that, you would have to find specific examples of acts of violence that were directly inspired by computer games.

So what should you say to rebut this? You can start by pointing out the logical fallacy:

‘Horrific though knife crime is, you have not provided any evidence that it is connected with the use of violent computer games.’

Or, you can turn the connection between the two factors round so that the correlation works in your favour:

‘Millions of young people play violent computer games every day, and only a tiny minority engage in acts of violence; this is surely compelling evidence that playing these games is harmless.’

To sum up:

  •  One thing being followed by, or happening at the same time as, another thing does not mean that the second thing is caused by the first.
  • If your opponent tries to use this argument, expose the lack of connection between the two factors.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Free speech #2 - what if it's not true?

Some lies are fairly harmless. Some, such as ‘That hairstyle really suits you’, ‘Father Christmas is coming tonight’, or ‘It’s so nice to see you!’ might actually be acts of kindness.

Other lies, though, can cause serious damage. If someone accuses a person of a crime they have not committed, or says something else untrue to harm the reputation on which they depend to make their living, they have done them a serious wrong.

This is known as libel, if it is published in print or online, or slander if it is spoken, and there is a law against it.

This law should prevent people from making damagingly untrue statements. However, there are problems with the law of libel.

In nearly all cases, a person can only be prosecuted for libel as a civil case; that is, the person who believes they have been libelled (known as the plaintiff) must pay for their own lawyers. If they lose the case, they will face a very big bill, which they may not be able to afford. If the libel is committed by an organisation with a lot of money to spend on lawyers, such as a newspaper or broadcaster, they may be able to hire clever lawyers who are more likely to win the case. Even if they lose, the cost may be relatively small for them, and the damage done by the lies may already have been done.

The law of libel can also be used by people who are either very wealthy or very determined (or both) to threaten or silence anyone who tries to expose their misconduct. An example of this is David Irving, a writer who denied that the Holocaust (the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis) had happened. An American academic, Deborah Lipstadt, published a book in which she revealed the ways in which Irving had falsified evidence. In 1996, Irving sued Lipstadt for libel. Lipstadt eventually won the case, and Irving was bankrupted as a result, but it could have gone the other way. Even being a successful defendant in a libel case can be an extremely stressful experience (the 2016 film Denial, based on the Irving case, dramatises the effect the case had on Lipstadt’s personal life). This is exacerbated by the fact that, under UK law, the burden of proof in a libel case is on the defendant; that is, if someone sues you for libel, it is your responsibility to prove to the court that what you published was substantially true.

So, free speech is complicated by the fact that unrestricted free speech could allow someone to publish lies that could do great damage, and also by the fact that the legal process for challenging those lies is often expensive and stressful, and can itself be used as a means of silencing people who call out lies or misconduct.

Motions that go with this topic:

  • This house would abolish the law of libel
  • This house would move the burden of proof for libel cases to the plaintiff
  • This house would make libel a criminal offence
  • This house would provide legal aid for plaintiffs in libel cases

Monday, November 16, 2020

How to debate #13 - the status quo

 The rock band Status Quo, famous for, among other hits, ‘Rocking All Over the World’, have been going a long, long time; they were founded in 1962. And they’re still going: a 2020 tour was all set up until Covid-19 forced its cancellation. It feels like they’ve always been there.

This is appropriate, given their name. Status quo is Latin for ‘that which came before’; in English it now means ‘ the state of things as they are.’ The status quo can feel like the natural order of the world, something that has always been there, and always will be. A bit like Status Quo.

The point of debating, though, is to challenge the status quo (if not Status Quo); to question everything. Sometimes, though, a debater will have to defend the status quo. It all depends which side you’re on.
The proposition have to find and prove what is wrong with the status quo; the opposition have to find and prove what is right with it.

The status quo becomes particularly important in policy motions, ones which call for action to be taken to change a situation. Nearly always, the proposition will be attacking the status quo; the opposition will be defending it.

Let’s take an example.

The motion is ‘This house would make voting in General Elections compulsory.’ The status quo is that voting is voluntary. It always has been; no one is ever forced to vote; turnout is never 100%. The job of the proposition is to show that the status quo doesn’t work, or doesn’t work well enough. So, they argue that voluntary voting leads many people to disengage from democracy, to think that it doesn’t matter, that they don’t have to bother with it, and that as a result the government does not bother with them. The opposition, on the other hand, have to argue that the status quo works well; as long as anyone who wants to vote, can, there is no threat to democracy.

This is only part of the job for both sides, though. As well as attacking the status quo, the proposition have to outline how what they would replace it with will be better; how, as well as the Now being bad, the Then will be better (see our earlier post on how to build a proposition case). So with this motion, they have to paint a picture of a more engaged, healthier democracy with 100% turnouts. Similarly, the opposition have not only to explain how the status quo is working, they also have to point out the harms that would accrue from changing it. So with this motion, they have to describe how the element of compulsion would alienate voters from democracy.

The status quo, whether it is defended or attacked, remains an important component of almost all policy debates. It’s going to keep rocking on.