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Sunday, March 31, 2019

Bad Arguments #3 - democratic majority

Democracy. Rule of the people, by the people, for the people.

We all love democracy. We all believe in it. It’s a good thing, isn’t it? What’s more, it’s compulsory. It’s one of the British Values which all schools are obliged by law to teach. Democracy is like God used to be four hundred years ago; we can argue forever about what it means, but no one is allowed not to believe in it.

Democracy is a good thing, and debating is at the heart of it. Debating helps democracy to work better, because it provides a safe, respectful, balanced way for people to manage their differences, and this is what democracy should be doing.

However, while democracy is a good way to run a country, it is not a good way to prove anything. This leads us to our third Bad Argument - the argument by democratic majority.

I hear it all the time in debates. ’57% of people think we should legalise marijuana …77% of people want to keep the monarchy … a survey was done and most people thought this was a bad idea.’ One issue with these kinds of statements is the unreliability of opinion polls; their complete failure to foresee the results of the UK General Elections in 2015 and 2017, and the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election in 2016, does not inspire confidence. However, even if they were 100% accurate, they would not make for proof. 

What elections, opinion polls and surveys give you is evidence about what people think about something. They do not prove that something is a good idea. Does the fact that 52% of British people voted in a referendum to leave the EU prove that leaving the EU is a good idea? No; it proves that, on June 23rd 2016, leaving the EU was slightly more popular with British voters than remaining in the EU. If you want to prove that leaving the EU is a good idea, you must show, in much more detail than that, how the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs.

What most people believe, or want to do, may or may not be the right thing to believe or the best thing to do. The debater’s job is to prove that it is the right or best thing, and simply citing popularity through the medium of elections, referenda, surveys or opinion polls is not proof. When, in 1922, the Irish parliament voted in favour of a treaty of separation from Britain which involved several compromises, Eammon De Valera, who did not approve of the compromises, said, ‘The people do not have the right to choose wrong.’ Well, actually, they do. But that doesn’t stop them being wrong.

So, no more entering opinion polls into the search bar when you’re preparing for a debate. Rely instead on  arguments about costs and benefits. If the opposition use the argument from democratic majority, swiftly dismiss it by saying something like, ‘It may be the case that x has majority support, however, it remains a bad idea because …’ and get back to the main arguments.


Democracy is a great way to run a country, but a terrible way to find out the truth.

Friday, March 22, 2019

How to debate #7 - the mechanism

As W.H. Auden said of poetry, debating makes nothing happen. And yet, at the same time, debaters are trying to make something happen. When you debate a ‘policy’ motion (one that begins ‘This house would …’) you are trying to persuade your listeners to take action in the real world.

This week’s post is about that action; the ‘how’ that goes with the ‘would’. How exactly would you do what your motion is proposing you should do? This is what is known as the mechanism.

The mechanism is owned by the proposition, specifically the first speaker for the proposition. It is an important part of defining the motion. Let’s take an example: the motion ‘This house would tax meat’. We touched on this motion in our earlier post on defining the motion. It’s a classic example of a policy motion which needs a strong mechanism, because it is very broad and general. So, if you’re proposing it, how would you go about constructing the mechanism?

It’s a good idea to start by defining the long term goal which is implicit in the motion. Here it is twofold: a healthier environment (fewer farting cows) and healthier diets (more vegetable based meals). The greater the impact the mechanism has, the closer you’ll get to the goals. 

All right then, let’s propose a 1,000% tax on the sale of all meat products. That will turn everyone vegetarian overnight, apart from a few eccentric super rich people. Cows get made redundant, no one has heart disease any more. Big impact. Job done.

The 1,000% tax would certainly produce a massive impact. Unfortunately, it would also incur considerable costs:

  • Massive unemployment in industries related to producing and distributing meat.
  • Massive resentment, alienating all but the most fanatical from your well-intentioned policy.
  • Massive evasion of the tax, and quite possibly a criminal black market in meat.

So, go too far with your impacts and you can end up creating much bigger costs which outweigh the beneficial impacts. A historical example of this is Prohibition. From 1920 to 1933 the sale of alcohol was prohibited in the United States. It was described as the ‘Noble Experiment’, with the intention of preventing the damage drinking did. Instead, the law was widely disrespected, and organised crime gangs became enormously powerful.

All right then, let’s minimise the costs. We’ll just go for a 1% tax on streaky bacon. When it’s sold in packs of four. On Thursdays. That’s a tax, and it’s on meat.

That will annoy no one. It is almost impossible to criticise. It will also have virtually no impact on the environment or on dietary choices, so will get you nowhere near the long term goal implied by the motion. 

So what’s the answer? 

The art of constructing an effective mechanism is to find the sweet spot somewhere between the impacts and the costs, maximising the former, minimising the latter. In this case, a 10% tax on all sales of meat would be about right; enough to nudge people towards different behaviour without being resented too much. 

But there’s more to constructing an effective mechanism.

As well as hitting this balance between impact and costs, the mechanism also needs to be:

  • Practical - something that can be done
  • Enforceable - something that people will accept
  • Simple - something that can be explained in less than five minutes

The 10% example meets these criteria. There is plenty of precedent for taxing the sale of certain products, e.g. cigarettes, showing it can be done, so it is practical and enforceable; and it is simple enough to be explained and grasped in the short time allowed in a debate.


What do you do with the mechanism if you are the opposition?


You have to accept the mechanism as constructed by the proposition, in the same way as you have to accept the motion as defined by the proposition. Look for its weaknesses: if it has too many costs (the 1,000% tax example), attack the costs. If it has too little impact (the streaky bacon example) attack the lack of impact. If, on the other hand, the proposition have managed to hit the sweet spot, you’re probably best off leaving it alone, and focusing instead on the principial aspect of the motion; in this case defending people’s freedom from government interference (see our earlier post on Freedom vs Security).

So, to sum up.

If you’re the proposition:

  • Find the sweet spot between impact and cost.
  • Keep the mechanism practical, enforceable and simple.

If you’re the opposition:

  • Find the weakness in the mechanism and attack it.
  • If it’s a strong mechanism, leave it alone and go for principles instead.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Why debate #3 - because debating can make the world a better place


Imagine two friends, Alex and Anoushka. 

They really like each other. They enjoy each other’s company. They do lots of stuff together. Then, one day, Alex says or does something that Anoushka doesn’t like. Anoushka feels hurt and let down by Alex. She feels angry about what has happened. So angry, that when she tells Alex about it, she finds herself raising her voice. But Alex doesn’t seem to be listening. So she raises her voice some more. After a while she is shouting at Alex, and he feels threatened, even a little scared. So scared that he can’t listen to what Anoushka is really saying. Instead of listening to what she’s saying, he starts shouting back. Now Anoushka gets even more upset. She shouts even louder. She brings in stuff that has nothing to do with whatever originally upset her (why, exactly, did you tell Rebecca what my sister told me about her boyfriend? I told you not to tell anyone). So Alex retaliates, with more stuff that has nothing to do with whatever they were arguing about in the first place (it was because of you that I got into trouble in Maths. I covered for you that day, and you never even said thank you). And so it goes on. Before long, they’re each convinced that the other is a seriously bad person, and they’re using words about each other which I can’t print here. After half an hour of this, Anoushka storms off, and she and Alex are no longer talking to each other. They spend that evening on their phones each instructing their group of friends not to talk to their ex-friend who is now their enemy. What a shame. They really liked each other.

Have you ever had an argument like that? 

Does it remind you of anything?

It reminds me of a lot of politics today. Someone says (or tweets) something that another group of people doesn’t approve of. Instead of trying to understand why they said (or tweeted) it, and explaining why they disagree, they attack the person who said (or tweeted) it, letting them (and the world) know what an awful person they must be. If they can, they get them banned, or fired, or excluded in some way. Of course, this doesn’t change the mind of the first person. It just makes her or him (and all the people who agree with what she or he said or tweeted) even more angry about whatever it was they said (or tweeted) in the first place, even more certain that they are right and that anyone who disagrees with them is not just wrong but a bad person. At the end of it, everyone is more intolerant, more angry, more certain of their own superiority over anyone who disagrees with them, and knows and understands less about whatever it was they disagreed on in the first place. Rather like Alex and Anoushka.

Let’s rewind.

Imagine if, instead of shouting at Alex, Anoushka just tells him what she didn’t like about what he said or did, and why. Imagine Alex listens to what Anoushka says, carefully. Imagine he then explains why he said or did what she didn’t like, and why he thought it was the right thing to say or do. Imagine Anoushka listens to him, carefully, before explaining why she disagrees with him. Imagine Alex listens to her disagreement, before responding, calmly and reasonably, with his own point of view. Maybe Anoushka persuades Alex. Maybe Alex persuades Anoushka. Or maybe they just agree to differ on this one thing, and carry on being friends, carry on liking each other, carry on enjoying each other’s company, carry on doing stuff together, carry on respecting each other. Maybe even respecting each other more.

Have you ever had an argument like that?

I hope so. Arguments like that actually bring friends closer.

Britain is engaged, at the time I’m writing, in the first kind of argument, about Brexit, an argument with many sides, all sides shouting at each other, all thinking they’re right and the other sides are stupid, or ignorant, or evil, with no side listening. The United States is doing much the same about President Trump and his policies. It doesn’t make either of those countries a nice place to live; nor does it help anyone to get anything done. It could be better than this. It should be better than this. Shouldn’t it?

What has debating got to do with this?

Actually (you won’t be surprised to hear) quite a lot.

Debating is a competitive activity - sometimes fiercely competitive - and you should always go into a debate trying to win. But it has rules.

In a debate, if you shout at the other side, you’ll lose. If you refuse to listen to them, you’ll lose. If you call them bad people for disagreeing with you, you’ll lose. If you call them names, you’ll lose. If you make no attempt to understand why they’re saying what they’re saying, you’ll lose. If your speech is the length of a social media post, you’ll lose. If your only form of argument is to keep repeating the same thing because you are absolutely certain it is true, you’ll lose. And if you are incapable of seeing the world from any point of view other than your own, you’ll lose every debate in which you have to argue a case you don’t agree with - i.e. about half of them.

On the other hand, if you keep yourself thoroughly informed about what is going in the world, making sure you get your news not only from sources you agree with, you’ll win. If you take the trouble to understand both, or all, sides of a question, you’ll win. If you listen to those who disagree with you - really listen, until you understand why they’re saying what they’re saying - you’ll win. If you construct your arguments carefully and thoroughly, brick by brick, taking nothing for granted, constantly questioning your own assumptions, you’ll win. If you focus on facts and arguments, not people, you’ll win. And if you treat the people you debate with respectfully, as opponents, not enemies, you’ll win.


What’s more, you’ll be a much nicer person to be around.


Imagine a world in which everyone - especially people in public life - behaved in the way a successful debater behaves. Wouldn’t it be a much nicer, safer, more civilised world? And (just as important) wouldn’t it be better run? Wouldn’t better decisions get made, if they were only made after the kind of careful, balanced deliberation debating makes you engage in?


One of the reasons I am so passionate about debate, and have devoted so much of my life to promoting it amongst young people, is because I sincerely believe that it can change the world for the better. It won’t be too long before you and people your age will be in charge. If, one day, you can put into practice what you learn from debating in the way you run the world, it will be a much better place.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Big Ideas #1 - Freedom vs Security



This week we’re going to look at our first Big Idea. Big Ideas are the fundamental issues which lie deep below debate motions. If you can understand what Big Ideas are and how they work, you will see the motion in a new way, and you will also be able to take control of the debate and steer it in a way that favours your side. Big Ideas are particularly important in defining the motion and identifying the point of clash.


Our first Big Idea is Freedom vs Security. These are two opposite values, at opposite ends of a line. Think of them as being like two teams at different ends of a tug of war. Sometimes the rope pulls one way; sometimes it pulls the other. Your job as a debater is to decide which end of the rope your side of the motion lies on, and to keep pulling in that direction.

What is the difference between Freedom and Security?

If you value Freedom above all, you think people should be allowed to make their own choices, but should also accept the consequences of those choices. You accept that there is a risk in this approach. People might make bad choices, which might damage them, and might also damage others, but you believe that this is a risk worth taking, because it is more important to be free than to be safe. You might also argue that freedom works better than security, because people tend to make better choices when they have ownership of those choices and the consequences.

If you value Security above all, you think people’s choices should be regulated to protect them and others. You accept that this means sacrificing some freedom, but you believe that this is a worthwhile sacrifice in order to protect individuals and society at large. You are likely to believe that security works better than freedom, because too much freedom tends to lead to chaos and injustice, with the strong ruling over the weak.


How can you apply this Big Idea to analysing a motion?


The first thing to say is that not all Big Ideas apply to all motions. The Freedom vs Security Big Idea applies best to motions which are about whether people’s behaviour should be controlled or not.

Here are some motions it works well with, and how to apply it:

1. This house would legalise drugs

Freedom sides with the proposition; Security sides with the opposition.

Freedom says:

  • People should decide whether to harm themselves with drugs or not; it is a private decision, and not the business of the government. (Freedom is more valuable than Security) 
  • People are going to take drugs anyway. By making it illegal, you create crime and criminal gangs. (Freedom works better than Security).

Security says:

  • People are likely to take drugs, but at least making them illegal makes it less likely and thus minimises the harm. (Security protects people.)
  • The free taking of drugs will be disastrous for health and productivity. (Security works better than Freedom.)

2. This house would ban hate speech

Freedom sides with the opposition; Security sides with the proposition.

Freedom says:

  • Free and open debate is an essential part of a healthy society. The risk of someone being offended is the price we pay for an open society. (Freedom is more valuable than Security.)
  • Hate is better challenged in open debate than by being driven underground, allowing haters to present themselves as martyrs. (Freedom works better than Security.)

Security says:

  • A healthy society is one where mutual respect is practised. This requires some censorship of unacceptable views. (Security is more valuable than Freedom.)
  • By enshrining mutually respectful speech in the law, you will make people behave more respectfully. (Security works better than Freedom.)

3. This house would impose a 20 mph limit in cities.

Freedom sides with the opposition; Security sides with the proposition.

Freedom says:
  • Provided people drive safely, they should be allowed to drive at whatever speed they like. (Freedom is more valuable than Security.)
  • Having a low speed limit will make drivers angry and frustrated and therefore likely to drive more dangerously. (Security works worse than Freedom.)

Security says:

  • Keeping the roads safe, and cities less polluted, is more important than letting drivers have their way. (Security is more valuable than Freedom.)
  • The speed limit may encourage more people to give up their cars and walk or cycle instead, which will make for a healthier and greener city. (Security works better than Freedom.)


You get the picture. Once you start seeing motions through the lens of a Big Idea, you can analyse them much more effectively and create better arguments.

You should also keep Big Ideas in mind throughout the debate, by constantly pulling the rope of the discussion back towards your end of the clash. If you’re on the side of Freedom, keep attacking the other side for being restrictive and for closing down options, while talking up all the liberating possibilities Freedom will bring. If you’re on the side of Security, keep reminding the audience of the dangers the other side’s proposals will bring, while talking up the safety and efficiency of your side.


And which is better, Freedom or Security? Well, that’s a matter for debate …