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Thursday, November 29, 2018

Bad Argument #1 - unsupported assertion

There are some situations in life - choosing your lunch, deciding what to wear to a party, getting married - when it is better not to go into all the reasons. Doing so can waste a lot of time, and even end up pushing you into the wrong decision.

Debating, however, is not one of those situations.

You must have a reason for everything you say. Always. Always, always, always.

This is where our first Bad Argument comes in: unsupported assertion

What is ‘unsupported assertion’?

It’s when you say something is true without saying why it is true. 

To go back to last week’s example, supposing you say in a debate, ‘Obviously co-educational schools are a better preparation for life,’ and leave it at that. You don’t explain how or why. You don’t consider the arguments against them being a good preparation for life. You don’t show why those arguments are less strong than yours. 

What you just did was unsupported assertion. You have not proved that what you said is true. And proving that what you say is true is what debating is all about. Assertion is only the starting point; everything depends on the proof. Unsupported assertion is like writing the title of an essay, but not writing the essay; it’s like putting all the ingredients for a meal on the kitchen counter, but not cooking the meal; it’s like putting the ball on the penalty spot but not kicking it. You get the picture. It’s starting the job but not finishing it.

What should you do if your opponent does it?

It’s a very easy argument to rebut, partly because it isn’t really an argument at all. If you’re on the side of single-sex schools and your opponent says, ‘Co-educational schools are obviously a better preparation for life’ and nothing more, you have only to say, ‘She has told us that co-educational schools are a better preparation for life, but she has not shown us how or why.’ This will remind the judge that your opponent has been guilty of unsupported assertion, and she will be marked down accordingly.

So, our Bad Argument #1 is unsupported assertion.

  • It’s when you say something is true without saying why. 
  • Don’t do it. 
  • Don’t let your opponents get away with it.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

How to debate #4 - the point of clash

Debating is a competitive activity. Two teams clash against each other, and one comes out the winner.

But it isn’t only the teams that are clashing. It’s also the ideas. That’s where ‘the point of clash’ comes from.

What is the ‘point of clash’? 

The ‘point of clash’ is the essence of the debate. It is where the fundamental disagreement between the two sides lies. All the other disagreements simply derive from that first disagreement.

You could think of it as the hinge of a debate. As with the hinge of a door or a window, it is the part that all the other parts are attached to. It is also the part that stays still to allow the other parts to move.

Let’s take an example.

‘This house would make all schools co-educational’ is a popular motion, especially for novice debaters. An argument often made for the motion is that co-educational schools teach children how to relate to the opposite gender better. As an example, this can benefits girls as much as boys, because they will have to work with men for the rest of their lives, so they might as well get used to what they’re like early on. An argument often made against it is that girls perform better in girls’ schools. As an example, in a girls’ school they are more likely to choose science subjects in the sixth form, as it will not be perceived as a ‘boys’ subject’, and they are more likely to have women science teachers as role models.

Suppose the debaters choose to focus on those two arguments. Let’s look at the principles behind them.

The argument for the motion assumes that social education is more important; that the best way to get on in life is to get on with other people. The argument against the motion assumes that the academic side of education is more important; that the best way to get on in life is to get good grades. So there you have the clash: social vs academic

If you’re debating this motion, you need to keep coming back to that point of clash, social vs academic, ensuring that everything you say builds up your side of the clash and exposes the flaws on the other side.

 A common mistake is to get distracted from the point of clash by marginal issues, often practical ones, e.g. how much more complicated it is for parents who have a son and daughter at single sex schools to have to interact with two different schools, or how students in mixed schools are constantly being distracted from their lessons by hot boys / girls. (Students at mixed schools tend to find that this is rarely an issue first lesson on a wet Wednesday in November when half the class got up too late to have a shower. It is also, by the way, shamelessly heteronormative.) 

A successful debater, though, will focus all her arguments behind either the social or the academic benefits, ensuring that her arguments for the greater importance of the social / academic are stronger, and that the weaknesses in the arguments for the greater importance of the other side are exposed. She will also make sure that she uses her summary to remind the judges what the point of clash is, and to show them how she has won the clash, saying: ‘They said this … we said that … we won because…’

Bear in mind, too that the same motion may generate different points of clash in different debates. To take the co-educational schools example, the two sides might instead disagree over whether the government has the right to tell people what sort of schools their children should go to. Those for the motion would say that the benefit to society of co-education is more important; those against it would say that the right of parents to make their own choices for their children is more important. The point of clash would then become quite different: collective benefit vs individual freedom. Usually what the point of clash is will become clear when the motion is defined by the first speaker, who should be setting the terms of the debate (see How to debate #1 - defining the motion).

So, to make the point of clash work for you:


  • Identify it early on, without assuming what it will be before the debate starts.
  • Keep ruthlessly focused on it; don’t waste time on marginal issues
  • Refer to it in your summary, and show how your side has won the clash

Debating Thought #2

The Mistress of Novice and the Mistress of Postulants have been helping me by expressing opposite points of view.

The Sound of Music

Sunday, November 18, 2018

How to debate #3 - Points of information

The first time you watch a debate, you will see something strange.
Every few seconds, someone will stand up and interrupt whoever is speaking. This seems very rude. Sometimes the person speaking will tell the interrupter to sit down. This seems rude too.
It isn’t rude. It’s a vital, vital part of debating. So vital, in fact, that you can’t win a debate without it. It’s called ‘making points of information.’ 
‘Points of information’ is a rather confusing, perhaps outdated term (but we’re stuck with it for now). Points of information do not have to convey any information. They do, however, have a point. Let’s look at:
  1. How you make them as a listener.
  2. How you receive them as a speaker
  3. How to make them work for you as a listener.
  4. How to make them work for you as a speaker.

1. How to make points of information
Speakers have what is called ‘protected’ time, usually a minute, at the beginning and end of their speech. Trying to make points of information during that time is against the rules, and is also discourteous and looks like you are not paying attention, so it is not a good idea. The timekeeper or chair will indicate when protected time begins and ends with an established signal, usually a knock on the table.
Once in that middle period, though, it is time to pounce. You make a point of information by standing up and saying ‘On a point of information’. That’s all; you don’t say anything else yet. If the speaker says ‘No thank you’, you have to sit down. If the speaker says ‘Yes please’, you then make your point. It must be brief – maximum 15 seconds. So it has to be concise and, yes, to the point. When you’ve made your point, you must sit down. You’re not allowed to say anything more until your next point of information. It isn’t a conversation.
Make at least one point of information a minute, even though they won’t all be taken. Don’t, however, make them one after another. This is called ‘barracking’, is considered discourteous, and may be penalised by judges.
Make no points of information and you will lose.
2. How to receive points of information
If you are speaking and someone stands up and says ‘on a point of information’, you don’t have to stop in mid sentence. Finish your point first, then say either ‘Yes please’ or ‘No thank you’. Don’t leave them standing too long before you do this. Remain calm and courteous. Let them have their say, and don’t respond till they have sat down.
Take at least one but not more than two points of information.
Take no points of information and you will lose.
3. How to make a point of information work for you as a listener
Debating is as much about finding the flaws in the other side’s arguments as it is about promoting your own. Points of information are your opportunity to expose the flaws in the other side’s argument while they’re in the middle of making it. Think of them as being like a shot at goal in football. That shows how important they are: in football, you might have beautiful passing, but you’ll never win a match if you don’t score any goals; in debating, you might have beautiful arguments, but you’ll never win if you don’t make points of information. So you need to be listening to the speech, hard. You need to be thinking hard too. You need to be on the lookout for a crack in their argument, and you need to jump in and prise open that crack as soon as you see it.
There are essentially two types of points of information:
Practical: finding the practical flaws in a proposed course of action.
Like this example, in a debate on ‘This house would make the use of homophobic language a criminal offence.’
Speaker for the proposition: ‘Homophobic language on social media causes great distress to gay people, and this law would protect them from it.’
Opposition: ’On a point of information’
Speaker for the proposition: ’Yes please.’
Opposition: ’How will you deal with homophobes who post on anonymous, untraceable accounts?’
Principial: finding the contradictions in the logic of an argument.
In the same debate, on the other side:
Speaker for the opposition: ‘Criminalising homophobic language will allow homophobes to present themselves as martyrs for free speech.’
Proposition: ’On a point of information.’
Speaker for the opposition: ‘Yes please.’
Proposition: ’If an action causes harm to society, it should be criminalised, and we should not be deterred from fighting crime by the reaction of the criminals and those who would justify their actions.’
Notice also how a point of information can be presented either as a question (preferably a really hard one) or a statement (preferably a really convincing one). Notice, too, that one sentence is enough. The shorter the better. Save the elaboration of argument for your own speech. Back to football: a shot at goal is more likely to go in if it is fast, hard and on target. Make your points of information like that.
4. How to make a point of information work for you as a speaker
You must, of course, rebut the point. Simply ignoring it and carrying on with your speech is (still on football) like stepping back and letting the other side kick the ball into your goal. It should instead be like the goalkeeper catching the ball and immediately kicking it upfield to the striker, who will take it deep into the other side’s half.
Respond quickly, crisply, and decisively. They tried to find flaws in your argument; find flaws in their point of information. Then go back to your argument. Even better - a really advanced skill - weave your rebuttal of their point of information into your own argument. 
Let’s see how that might work in practice.
Speaker for the proposition: ‘Homophobic language on social media causes great distress to gay people, and this law would protect them from it.’
Opposition: ’On a point of information’
Speaker for the proposition: ’Yes please.’
Opposition: ’How will you deal with homophobes who post on anonymous, untraceable accounts?’
Speaker for the proposition: ‘They may be untraceable for now, but once this proposition becomes law, the whole apparatus of law enforcement will be used to find technological means to trace them, catch them and prosecute them. The prospect of this happening will be enough to deter these hateful people whom the other side would protect on the grounds that it might be too much trouble to find a solution to a technical problem.’
See? You’re taking the ball into their half by making it look as if their actions will protect homophobes.
Or …
Speaker for the opposition: ‘Criminalising homophobic language will allow homophobes to present themselves as martyrs for free speech.’
Proposition: ’On a point of information.’
Speaker for the opposition: ‘Yes please.’
Proposition: ’If an action causes harm to society, it should be criminalised; we should not be deterred by the reaction of the criminals and those who would justify their actions.’
Speaker for the opposition: ‘Much greater harm would be caused to society by the surge in popular support for homophobic bullies which this unnecessary law would bring about. A tolerant culture which allows everyone to express both their sexuality and their opinions is a far more effective sanction against prejudice than a heavy handed and unnecessary law.’
See? You’re taking the ball into their half by making your defence of free speech work also as a defence of gay rights.

So, to sum up:

If you’re listening:

  • Make at least one point of information a minute
  • Make them short and sharp 
  • Aim them at a weak point in the argument

If you're speaking:

  • Take at least two points of information
  • Rebut them fully but concisely
  • Make your rebuttal lead back into your speech

Recommended podcast #2 - Political Thinking




Confused by politics at the moment? You might well be! (I’m posting a week after Teresa May has published her Brexit deal, with rumours of coups, votes of no confidence and imminent constitutional chaos swirling around).

Help is at hand. You should, as a good debater, be following the news regularly, to keep you aware of what is going on in the world, and the issues that events raise. The trouble with radio and TV news, though, is that everything has to be fitted into tight deadlines and tight time frames. The podcast format gives time for a longer, more considered look at the issues. 

If you follow the news on the BBC, you will have seen and heard Nick Robinson. Each week, as well as broadcasting, he interviews a politician at length on the podcast Political Thinking. He goes in deep, questioning them about their backgrounds, their families, why they came into politics, what drives them on. He is sympathetic and a good listener, refusing to go in for the gladiatorial combat demanded by the Today programme format. Interestingly, this helps you to understand politicians and where they are coming from much better. You come away liking them, even when you don’t agree with them. 


In a frantic, frenetic, aggressive political world, Political Thinking is a welcome oasis of calm and reflection.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

How to debate #2 - signposting

I love walking in the countryside.  

However, sometimes it is quite a stressful experience.

When I walk in the English countryside, much of my time is taken up with looking at the map, holding it sideways, upside down, the wrong way round, looking at this tree and that mountain, trying to work out if we should have turned left at that stile or right at that stream, trying not to argue with whoever I’m walking with. This is partly because I’m rubbish at map reading, but it is also because there are very few signposts in the English countryside. 

When I walk in Switzerland, though, it’s a different matter. There, they have neat, tidy, yellow signposts every mile or so pointing you in the right direction and telling you that it is 1 hour and 10 minutes to the lake, 1 hour and 40 minutes to the river, and 2 hours and 5 minutes to the town (where you will find toilets, a bus stop and a cafe serving delicious hot chocolate). Walking in Switzerland is a very low stress experience.

What has this got to do with debating?

You want your listeners to have a low stress experience as they listen to your speech. Make your speech like Switzerland. Fill it with signposts, telling the listeners where you are going. 

Say what you’re going to say. Say it. Say you’ve said it. Then say it again. Don’t be afraid of repetition.

Start by stating what your three points are (and don’t have more than three).

Then introduce your first point.

Amplify and expand on your first point.

Remind everyone what your first point was.

Repeat this for each of your three points.

Finally, remind everyone what your three points were.

Say what you’re going to say. Say it. Say you’ve said it. Then say it again. Don’t be afraid of repetition.

See what I just did? You won’t forget my point about signposting. If you use signposting well, your listeners won’t forget your points either. 

And remember: amongst your listeners are the judges, who decide who wins the debate. Signpost well, and they will remember your argument. 

You need to remember something before you can understand it. You need to understand something before you can be persuaded by it. Debates are won by the side who are more persuasive. So effective signposting can point you the way to victory.

Put in lots of those lovely yellow signposts in your speech, and you’ll soon be relaxing at the cafe of victory, tucking into the hot chocolate of triumph.


Friday, November 2, 2018

Why debate? #1 - It teaches you how to think



So. 

You’re going to stand up in front of a room full of people you don’t know - or, worse, a room full of people you do know - and say a lot of things you don’t believe in. Then the people sitting opposite you are going to tell you why everything you just said is wrong. They’re going to find fault with every word that just came out of your mouth. And, when it’s all over, someone else is going to tell you what you did wrong and why the people sitting opposite you are better than you. In other words, you’re going to be a debater.


Why would you want to do that?

Here's my first reason:

 Because you do it all the time anyway


Think you aren’t a debater? Think again.

You probably started being a debater when you were about four. When your Mum told you to put your shoes away in the cupboard, and you said, ‘why?’ And she said because it will keep the house tidy and stop your shoes getting lost, and you said, ‘But if I leave them out by the door I can put them on quicker when I leave the house.’ See what you and your Mum did back then? She made a proposition. You questioned it. She came back with arguments. You came back with counter-arguments. That’s debating. You probably didn’t win that debate. But at least you were getting started.

Or when, in the playground, you wanted to play one game and your friends wanted to play another, and you dug your heels in and said we’re going to play my game and they said ‘why?’ and you gave them reasons, and answered their objections, until they gave in. You were debating then.

Or when your brother or sister wanted to use the computer to play a game and you needed to do your homework on it, or you wanted to play a game and they needed to do their homework, and you gave them reason after reason until they gave in. You were debating then.

Or when you wanted to go to a party and your parents said no and three hours of persuading later they said yes. You were debating then.

Or even when you lay in bed all night, not able to sleep, trying to decide whether or not you should drop History, or whether or not you should forgive your friend, or whether or not you should ask that person out, or whether or not you believed in God, or whether or not you should ever wear those trousers again, and the argument in your head kept going backwards and forwards until, just as the birds started singing, you knew what the right thing to do was. You were debating then (just with yourself).

Debating is one of the most basic of human activities. Everyone does it, in every culture, and they always have done and they always will do. It happens because humans have choice. It happens when there is more than one course of action, or more than one way of interpreting a situation, or more than one way of seeing the world. It involves putting each side of the case in turn, and letting each side in turn be looked at and questioned and pushed and prodded and kicked, until one side comes out stronger, and the decision can be made, and we see the world in a different way. We all do it, all the time. What we call ‘debating’, the activity that takes place in clubs and competitions in schools, is just a formalised, disciplined way of doing what everyone does all the time - only doing it better.

Debating is a way of using your mind, a way of thinking. We all have minds, of course. We all think. We also all have bodies, and we all move them. Athletes have bodies, and they move them too. The difference is that athletes train their bodies and discipline them until they can move them faster, stronger, further. Debating is like athletics for the mind. It trains you to think faster, stronger, further.

So get debating! This blog will help you do it better and better ...

Recommended Book #1 - When They Go Low, We Go High




When They Go Low, We Go High is both a masterclass in persuasive speaking and a history of world changing speeches, ranging from the inspirational (the civil rights movement in the USA) to the terrible warning (the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia). Collins is an adept of the craft, having written Tony Blair's speeches from 2004 to 2007 (including the joke about Cherie Blair not running off with the bloke next door). His detailed technical analysis of the speeches he covers is invaluable for any aspirant debater. This is an important and necessary book, both as a guide to speech building and as a celebration of democracy and the power of reason. 

Recommended Podcast #1 - The Sacred






The Sacred with Elizabeth Oldfield will make you think, as all good podcasts should. Each week she invites a guest to talk about their personal beliefs and what they hold sacred in a truly thoughtful, respectful, profound way, with no rush, and no need to prove them wrong (or right). You will come away with your mind refreshed and your understanding broadened. Although Theos, which hosts the podcast, is a faith based organisation, she regularly talks to atheists and agnostics in the most open minded way. The latest podcast discusses, among other things, Harry Potter and faith.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Debating Thought #1



If you would not cohabit with infidels, you must go out of the world.

Roger Williams


How to debate #1 - defining the motion


Whoever speaks first in a debate (first proposition) gets to define the motion. Your opponents have no choice but to accept your definition, even if they don’t like it / don’t agree with it. So being given first proposition is a bit like winning the toss in cricket or tennis, or getting white in chess. You get to set the terms; you decide what it is you will be debating about.

How can you make the most of this advantage?

Fencers stand sideways on, to minimise the area in which their opponents can attack them. In the same way, the best motion definitions will be tight, focused, and precise, to minimise the areas in which your opponents can attack you. A tight and focused definition also allows you to develop your proposition much more fully and thoroughly.

However, before you can define the motion, you first need to analyse it.

You need to understand what kind of motion it is.

Is it a policy motion, i.e. one concerned with changing what happens in the world? 

Policy motions usually begin: ‘This house would …’ 

They call for either 

  • something to be done that isn’t being done

  • something that is being done to be done differently

Examples of policy motions are:

  • This house would give every citizen a universal basic income

  • This house would impose a 20 mph speed limit in all built up areas


Policy motions are usually concerned with the status quo. This is a Latin term meaning ‘the situation at the moment’. They want to either:

A Introduce a new situation which does not currently exist in the status quo: ’This house would give every citizen a universal basic income’ is an example of this. No country in the world has a universal basic income at the moment, so this would be an innovation, something which does not exist in the status quo.

or:

B Adapt the status quo: ‘This house would introduce a 20 mph speed limit in all built up areas’ is an example of this. Speed limits already exist, and are part of the status quo; the proposal is to change the status quo by making them stricter

In other words, policy motions are about either innovating or changing


If you’re proposing an innovation, you need in your definition to answer these questions:

  1. What form would your innovation take?

  1. How would it be brought into being?

  1. What would its scope be?

So, if the motion is ‘This house would give every citizen a universal basic income’,  you need to explain:

  1. How much would the universal basic income be? (The minimum wage at 40 hours a week? The living wage at 40 hours a week? Current Universal Credit?)

  1. How would it be funded? (Taxes? National Insurance? Abolishing all benefit payments and replacing them with universal basic income?)

  1. Who would count as a citizen? (Everyone with citizenship rights over the age of 18? Or over 25? Or over 30? Or people who have already paid a certain amount of tax?)



If you’re proposing changing the status quo, you need in your definition to answer these questions:

  1. What will be changed?

  1. What will be the scope of the change?

  1. How will this change be implemented?


So, if the motion is ‘This house would reduce speed limits to 20 mph in built up areas’, you need to explain:

  1. What counts as a built up area? (All cities? Where are the boundaries? Residential areas? What do you mean by residential?)

  1. Who will it apply to? (Cars? Motorbikes? Superfit cyclists? Will emergency services be exempt?)

  1. How will the new law be enforced? (Speed cameras? Will offenders be fined? How much? Will they have endorsements on their licence?)

In both cases, the more questions (and answers) you (and your debating partner) can think of in the preparation stage, the more precisely defined your motion will be, the easier it will be to propose, and the easier it will be to defend against attack.


Alternatively, it might be an ideas motion, i.e. one concerned with changing what people think.

Ideas motions usually begin with: ‘This house believes …’

Examples of ideas motions are:

  • This house believes that money does not bring happiness

  • This house believes that society is still sexist

For motions of ideas, you do not need to explain what action you would take.

Instead, you need to define how you understand the meaning of the words.

So, for ‘This house believes that money does not bring happiness’, you need to explain:

  • What do you mean by ‘happiness’? (Emotional well-being? A sense of purpose? Feeling loved? Having a good relationship with God?)

  • What do you mean by ‘money’? (Everyone needs some money to survive - do you mean having more than this does not bring happiness? Do you mean having too much gets in the way of happiness? How much is too much?)

In the case of ‘This house believes society is still sexist’, you need to explain:
  • What do you mean by ‘society’? (Formal institutions such as the media, the justice system and education? The world of work? Or the way that people interact with each other in everyday life?)

  • What do you mean by ‘sexist’? (Discrimination with a practical impact, e.g. unequal pay. women being denied promotion etc.? Attitudes expressed in speech, writing and the media which demean women? Or institutional structures, e.g. laws about parental leave?)

Again, the more questions (and answers) you (and your debating partner) can think of in the preparation stage, the more precisely defined your motion will be, the easier it will be to propose, and the easier it will be to defend against attack.

So, when you’re defining:

  • Be specific and precise
  • Pay attention to detail; anticipate problems
  • Be clear about what you think words mean

And one last thing … once you’ve defined your motion, make sure you and your partner stick consistently to that definition all through the debate.

Now you’ve defined the motion, you have to argue for it. But that’s another post for another week.