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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‘Points of information’ is a rather confusing, perhaps outdated term (but we’re stuck with it for now).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

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