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Thursday, February 28, 2019

Bad Arguments #2 - playing the player, not the ball




It starts very young, in the playground.
‘Chelsea are better than Man United.’
‘Man United are better than Chelsea.’
‘Chelsea are better than Man United.’
‘Man United are better than Chelsea.’
These two young people are both using Bad Argument #1 - simple assertion, covered in our earlier post. But let’s see what happens now.

‘You only support Man United because you’re stupid.’
‘People who support Chelsea are a load of stuck-up Londoners.’
They’ve now moved on to a new Bad Argument, our Bad Argument #2. It has a Latin name: the ad hominem - literally, to the man (the person). Or, to put it another way, and to use a metaphor appropriate to the preceding discussion, playing the player, not the ball.

The ad hominem is used when you attack the person making the argument (‘you’), or a person or people associated with the argument (‘stuck-up Londoners’), instead of the argument itself (which team is better, Man United or Chelsea). In football, if you play the player not the ball, you give away a free kick; in debating, if you attack the person not the argument, you give away speaker points.

Obvious, you might say. I don’t do that. I don’t go into debates calling the people on the other side stupid / ugly / boring / saying they’ve got no friends, or even saying they’re talking rubbish because they come from a rubbish school. But there are more subtle forms of the ad hominem that are still flawed, but are all too commonly used. Let’s look at some examples, and how to rebut them.

1. The ‘check your privilege’ argument

A: ’The proposal that 50% of places on science courses at university should be reserved for women is wrong because it would be unjust to exclude men who have better grades than women simply because of their gender.’

B: ’Point of information. As a man, you can have no understanding of the difficulties women face in making a career in science, the unjust discrimination they have suffered for so many years, and you have no right to talk about injustice.’

It may be true that women have suffered discrimination in science-related employment for many years; it may be true that they still do. This could be a strong argument for the need to introduce quotas to address this injustice. The fact, however, that the person making the argument against quotas is a man has nothing to do with the argument. You cannot say to anyone ‘you cannot make that argument’; you can only say, ‘that argument is a bad argument because …’

So how should A rebut this?

There’s a bad way:

A: ‘Women who say that just want to get an unfair advantage when it comes to university applications.’

This is the equivalent of kicking back at someone who has kicked you. It will end up with both of you being sent off.

And there’s a good way:

A:’I don’t dispute the injustice that women have suffered, and still do suffer, from discrimination. It is real and it is wrong and it should be tackled. However, introducing a different kind of injustice through the use of quotas is not the way to deal with this problem.’

Here, like a footballer stepping out of the way of the flying boot and regaining possession of the ball, A moves away from the personal attack and gets straight back on to the main point of the argument.

2. The ‘they don’t get it’ argument

 A: ‘Parliament should vote to block a no deal Brexit because it would be a disaster for the British economy.’

B: ‘Point of information. MPs are overwhelmingly white, male and privately educated. How can they possibly know what is best for ordinary people?’

This looks less like the ad hominem because B is not attacking the speaker. She is, however, attacking people associated with the argument, not the argument itself.

Bad rebuttal:

A: ’It’s a good job they’re privately educated. It means they’ve got more sense than all those idiots who voted for Brexit.’

Kicking back, attacking a different group of people.

Good rebuttal:

A: ‘That is a very fair point about the unrepresentative nature of Parliament. However, this debate is not about how MPs are selected. It is about Brexit. And the reason Parliament should vote to prevent a no-deal Brexit is …’

Gently but firmly moving the debate back on to the argument.

3. The ‘you can’t tell me that’ argument

A: ‘Making the use of homophobic language illegal would be counter-productive because it would turn bigots into martyrs.’

B: ‘Point of information. As a gay person, I have suffered homophobic bullying. You have no right to tell me that the law should not protect me from this.’

This is a harder one to deal with, partly because it often comes with a very emotional personal story.  It can feel like any form of rebuttal is a personal attack. That shouldn’t blind you to the fact that it is itself a personal attack. It is saying to the first speaker: because you haven’t experienced what I’ve experienced, you are worth less than me.

Here’s how to rebut it without letting things get personal:

A: ‘I’m very sorry to hear that you’ve suffered that kind of bullying. It is totally wrong and indefensible. I want to see an end to that kind of bullying. That’s why I’m against the proposed measure, which will only make homophobic bullying worse because …’

Again, gently but firmly leading us back to the argument.

So, to sum up:

1. Don’t attack the person making the argument.
2. Don’t attack people associated with the argument.
3. Always attack the argument.
4. If the other side do 1 or 2, don’t attack back, but instead lead the debate gently but firmly back to the argument.


In other words … keep your eye on the ball

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Recommended podcast #3 - The Briefing Room

David Aaronovitch, presenter of  BBC Radio 4's The Briefing Room
‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.  … Stick to Facts, sir!’
Mr Gradgrind, whose words open Charles Dickens’s novel Hard Times, does not have good reputation in the education world. He is regularly wheeled out whenever exams are denounced for having too much emphasis on learning stuff and not enough on thinking for yourself. He’s not meant to be sympathetic; there’s a clue in his name.

And yet, he does have a point. Surely not? Not for debaters? Isn’t debating meant to be all about thinking for yourself, not just regurgitating stuff you’ve learnt? Isn’t that what you said in Why debate #1 - It teaches you how to think?

Well, yes. But you have to have something to base your thinking on. Having opinions without any facts to base them on is like trying to drive a car without any petrol in; no matter how skilfully you steer, you won’t get anywhere. Knowledge about the world and what is happening in it right now - sometimes known as current affairs - is absolutely vital for debaters.

Where to get those facts from? There is no shortage of information out there. Mainstream newspapers, radio, TV and even, for the long view, printed books, along with the vast uncharted forest of social media, are all available 24/7, and all promise to tell you what is going on. Navigating your way through them, though, is another matter. Each outlet will have its own bias, its own angle, its own agenda to advance; even if all the information is correct, some aspects will be played up and others played down. Detecting bias in the way information is presented is a vital skill not just for debating, but for life, and one we will cover in later posts.

For now, though, there is one place where you will find facts, lots of facts, about the issues most immediately in the news and most likely to come up in debates. BBC Radio 4’s The Briefing Room is an opinion-free zone, and all the better for it. Each week the presenter David Aaronovitch invites experts to inform us on the facts behind the issues. They speak clearly and informatively, and he asks the sort of questions we want asked. It is worth searching up, for example, the two episodes broadcast in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit referendum, one from a Leave voting area, one from Remain. Two and a half years on, they explain the issues behind Brexit better than anything I’ve read or heard recently. 


Aaronovitch’s concern is never to persuade, always to understand. A debater’s job is to persuade; but first, she needs to understand. Listening to The Briefing Room will help you to understand the world better, and will make you a better debater.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

How to debate #6 - rebuttal

The 1992 comedy My Cousin Vinny is not perhaps the greatest movie ever made. It does, however, have one memorable scene. The main character, Vinny, is a lawyer, hired to represent his cousin, who has been falsely accused of involvement in an armed robbery. Vinnie isn’t, it’s fair to say, at the top of his profession; he’s failed his law exams six times. However, he is cheap. So cheap that the only hotel he can afford is next to a railway line that keeps him awake all night. As a result, he falls asleep during the prosecution’s opening submission. Prompted by the judge to respond on behalf of his client, Vinny stirs himself, strides confidently towards the bench, and says, ‘Everything that guy just said is garbage.’ (Actually, he doesn’t say, ’garbage’. He says something else. You can see what he really says in the original clip here.) Vinny’s response is a very good example of how not to do rebuttal. Unfortunately, the Vinny technique is still all too common, both in debating and in life.


So, let’s do rebuttal better than poor old Vinny. This week we’re going to learn:

1. What rebuttal is.
2. Why you should do rebuttal.
3. When you should do rebuttal.
4. How you should do rebuttal.

1. What is ‘rebuttal’? 

Rebuttal is when you challenge, criticise or find fault with your opponent’s argument with reason. I’ll say that again: with reason. It is different from simply saying someone is wrong. This is the Vinny approach, which itself is the mirror image of simple assertion of an argument, our Bad Argument #1, covered in an earlier post here. No reason, no rebuttal; but the better your reason or reasons, the better your rebuttal.

2. Why do rebuttal?

Without rebuttal, a debate becomes a series of performances: one free standing speech after another, none of them having any connection with each other. No matter how well composed the speeches are, they might as well have been written down, photocopied and handed out to the audience. In fact, you might as well not even be in the same room. A debate without rebuttal is like someone who behaves as if there is no one else there. Have you ever met anyone like that? They’re not much fun to be with. With rebuttal, however, a debate becomes a conversation; a conversation where people actually listen to each other. It becomes dynamic, unpredictable, unsafe. In other words, it comes to life. A debate with rebuttal is a lot harder, but it’s also a lot more interesting and, ultimately, more fun.

3. When should you do rebuttal?

a. At the beginning of your speech
Unless you are first proposition, you are always speaking just after someone on the other side has spoken. You need to show you have actually listened to that speech by responding to what has been said, and by saying, with reason, why you disagree with it.

b. In points of information
Despite their name, points of information are essentially forms of rebuttal. They are your chance to engage with the other side’s argument in a targeted way and to find fault with it. See more about how to do points of information in our earlier post here.

c. When discussing the point of clash
Once you’ve identified the point of clash, you then have to show you have won the debate by rebutting the other side of the clash. See more about the point of clash in our earlier post here.

4. How do you do rebuttal?

Rebuttal is the work of analysing an argument and finding its weaknesses. It’s really hard work, and it doesn’t get any easier. You just have to keep practising it. The more you practise it, the better you will get at it. This will have benefits not just in debating, but in life, as you are less likely to be fooled by people who look as they’re talking sense but aren’t, really.

There is a whole section of philosophy, called ‘critical thinking’, dedicated to analysing arguments and their strengths and weaknesses. You may have studied it at school. For now, though, here are some very simple tools for understanding how arguments work.

Arguments consist of premises and conclusions. In a strong argument, the premises lead to the conclusion. So, for example:

  • Anna is a person (Premise 1)
  • All people are mortal (Premise 2)
  • Therefore, Anna is mortal (Conclusion)

Or, to put it more like a mathematical formula:
  • A is B
  • All Bs are C
  • Therefore, A is C.

There are three main ways to challenge an argument:

1. One or more of the premises is weak.
2. The premises do not lead to the conclusion.
3. The premises are strong and do lead to the conclusion, but the conclusion is undesirable.

Let’s see how these would work in practice.

We’ll go back to that ever popular debate, ‘This house would make all schools co-educational.’

Someone puts this argument:

‘All schools should be forced to be mixed, because when girls and boys attend the same school, they have to spend time with each other, so they learn to get on with the opposite sex, which is a vital life skill.’

Let’s analyse that argument.

Premise 1: Mixed schools make boys and girls spend time together.
Premise 2: Spending time with people teaches you to get on with them.
Premise 3: Getting on with people is a vital life skill.
Conclusion: Therefore, all schools should be mixed.

Now let’s see how we could rebut it.

Challenging Premise 1

‘Mixed schools don’t make boys and girls spend time together. They spend most of their time ignoring each other. At break time the boys play football, the girls talk. Students at single-sex schools spend much more meaningful time with the opposite sex, because when they do so, they do so out of choice.’

Challenging Premise 2

 ‘Putting boys and girls together doesn’t make them get on with each other. Boys tend to dominate class discussion, intimidating girls into not giving their opinions. This establishes a very unhealthy dynamic for later life, where men make decisions and women listen; not a good way to “get on with each other”. Girls in single-sex schools get the confidence to express their opinions in class much more easily, and are thus better equipped to interact with men on an equal basis in later life.’

Challenging Premise 3

‘Girls consistently achieve better exam results in single-sex schools. Making them sacrifice this achievement by forcing them into mixed schools so they can “learn how to get on with boys” is sending out the message that socialisation is more important than success; or, to put it another way, it’s more important for a girl to be nice than to be clever. Is that how we should be bringing up our daughters?’

Showing that the premises do not lead to the conclusion

 ‘It may be true that boys and girls spending time together at school can teach them how to get on better in later life, but that doesn’t mean all schools should be forced to be mixed. Not all children are the same; some thrive in single-sex environments, and shouldn’t be forced into a “one size fits all” model.’

Questioning the desirability of the conclusion

 ‘Shouldn’t schools be about academic education, not socialisation?’  Or: ‘What business does the government have telling us what sort of education we should choose for our children?’

So, as you can see, there are many different ways you can rebut even a simple argument like the one above. We’ll be covering more lines of attack as we continue with our series on Bad Arguments - how to spot them, and how to challenge them. But with five possible lines of attack (and often there will be more), you have to choose. You can’t say all those things at once. How do you choose? Challenge your opponent where her argument is weakest. Look through the rebuttals above, and decide for yourself which exposes the most weakness in the original argument.


To sum up:

1. Rebuttal is essential for debate
2. Do it at the beginning of your speech; in points of information; and when summing up.
3. Simple denial is never enough.
4. Break your opponent’s argument down to premises and conclusion, and challenge it at its weakest point.

By the way, all the rebuttal arguments above can of course themselves be rebutted. Debating is not about finding a final definitive truth, nor is it an activity suited to people who need there to be one and only one answer to every question. This might be why North Korea have never done very well in the World Debating Competition. But in this respect debating teaches us something very profound, and something that would make the world a much better place if more people understood it. I’ll leave with you with the wise words of John Henry Newman:


 ‘Never stop searching for the truth; never trust anyone who tells you they have found it.’

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Factsheet #2 - how to impeach a president

It’s not controversial to say that Donald Trump is controversial. He has friends; he has enemies. A lot of people would like to see him gone from the White House. But there are only three ways to remove a President of the United States between elections: death, resignation and impeachment. The pros and cons of impeaching Mr Trump have been much debated lately, and will be debated again soon after Half Term in the final round of the London Junior Debating League.
What does ‘impeachment’ actually mean? Pelting him with rotten fruit? In our guest post this week, Neil Singh and Tucker Wilke, students from Hackley School, New York, explain the technicalities behind impeachment - essential to know if you are debating whether or not it is a good idea. 
Our thanks to Neil and Tucker for this post. We are looking forward to welcoming students from Hackley to London for their debate tour in the last week of March (Brexit week … will they get home?)
The American Constitution gives three reasons why a President, or any other official, can be impeached. The first is treason, which is helping an enemy while working against one’s own country. Treason usually consists of either starting a war against the United States, or giving aid and support to its enemies. The second reason listed for impeachment is bribery, which means taking money or gifts in exchange for a political favour. The third reason for impeachment is also the most broad: “high crimes and misdemeanours.” Over time, most calls for impeachment have fallen into this category. Critically, there is no specific definition of what constitutes “high crimes and misdemeanours.” It is essentially whatever the legislative branch of government decides it is. 

The process of impeachment includes charges, a trial, and then removal from office. Impeachment begins in the House of Representatives. The House of Representatives consists of elected congressmen and women from across the whole United States, and makes laws; rather like the House of Commons in the UK. Any member of the House may bring an impeachment resolution. If this happens, the impeachment charges must be approved by the House Judiciary Committee, which is a group of Representatives who are responsible for overseeing the administration of justice within federal courts and law enforcement agencies. If the Judiciary Committee approves the charges, then the entire House of Representatives will vote. If a majority in the House votes in favour, then the President is officially impeached. However, the President is not immediately removed from his job if he is impeached. Once impeachment is approved by the House of Representatives, the case goes to the Senate. The Senate is the second body of lawmakers in the USA, rather like the House of Lords in the UK, except that they are elected by the people. The Senate holds a trial of the President, presided over by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The Senators act as a jury while both sides present their case. If more than two thirds of the Senate vote to convict, then the President is officially removed from his/her job.