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Monday, May 20, 2019

Summer Projects

Debating for Everyone is taking a summer break from posting, but will be back in September. 

After 19 years as Head of English and Debating at Godolphin and Latymer School, I’ve been granted sabbatical leave in June and July to work on debating projects. The main project will be writing The Debating Book, an introductory guide to debating for secondary school students and their teachers, which will be published in September 2020. 

I will also be doing some outreach work. I will be setting up debating programmes at Haberdasher's Aske's Boys' Prep School in Elstree and the German School in Ham; running training workshops at Holy Family School in Walthamstow, Redden Court School in Romford,  Fitzwimarc School in Essex, Uphill Primary School in Ilford, Sir John Leman High School in Suffolk, Brittons Academy in Rainham and Orleans Park School in Twickenham; acting as a judge for the English Speaking Union's London Debate Challenge; and working with Debating Mental Health, a charity that supports young people with mental health issues through the teaching of debating skills.

In the mean time, you can continue to broaden and deepen your debating knowledge and skills with our posts on how to define the motion, how to signpost your speech, how to rebut, how to prepare under pressure, how to use debating in lessons, the point of clash, points of information, as well as introductions to some of the Big Ideas behind debating, exposure of some Bad Argumentsfactsheets on key topics, recommendations for helpful podcasts, an explanation of how British Parliamentary debating actually works, and reflections on why we should do debating.

It’s been a great first seven months since I launched the site in November; it is now averaging over 600 hits a month from all around the world, and I have had a lot of very encouraging feedback. Thank you to everyone for your support, and I look forward to seeing you all when the new season starts in September!

Monday, May 13, 2019

Bad Arguments #4 - argument by anecdote

‘One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.’ So said Joseph Stalin. Stalin is perhaps not the ideal role model for a debater, given that, during his brutal reign as leader of the Soviet Union, he had millions of people murdered for daring to question a single word he said. However, he did have a point.

Individual stories - also known as anecdotes - are always more emotionally powerful than generalised statistics. As such, they can be very persuasive. If a charity wants to raise money to help girls in underdeveloped countries attend school, a story about little Aisha who wants to be a doctor when she grows up because she saw her mother die of malaria and ever since she’s wanted to make other women better is always going to have people reaching for their credit cards faster than graphs and charts extrapolating levels of female education as correlated to mortality rates. So it’s not surprising that debaters often reach for these stories in the hope of persuading audiences and judges. 

The trouble is that an argument by anecdote is not a valid argument. Why? Because it can only provide proofs about one person, or at best a small group of people. You can’t make a general proof from a sample of one, or very few.

Let’s take an example. Going back to our old favourite, ‘This house would make all schools co-educational’, a speaker against the motion tells us a moving story about her best friend, Anoushka. Anoushka started out at a co-educational school, but was miserable there because the boys all mucked about in English, her favourite subject, so she couldn’t learn anything. Her parents took her out and put her in a girls’ school, where everyone wanted to work, and now she is getting top grades in English. This proves that girls’ schools always get better results.

Does it? What does this anecdote actually prove? It might prove that the English teacher in Anoushka’s first school wasn’t very good at keeping order. It might prove that the English teacher in her second school was better at keeping order and also better at teaching English. It might perhaps prove that, for Anoushka, a girls’ school is the better choice. What it doesn’t prove is that girls’ schools always get better results. 

How could the speaker have made the argument better? 

She could have looked up data about exam results, which does, in fact, show that girls’ schools tend to get better exam results than co-educational schools. That’s girls’ schools from across the country - so a large sample, therefore stronger evidence. If it was a short prep debate, where she wouldn’t have access to this research, she could have made a more general point about the way in which girls tend, in general, to be more conscientious and eager to please their teachers, and are therefore more likely to achieve good exam results (why this might be and whether or not it is a good thing are both matters for discussion and, perhaps, debate). Of course, neither of these arguments would have the personal, emotional appeal of Anoushka’s story. But they would be much stronger arguments, and much more likely to win the debate.

What should you do if someone uses argument by anecdote against you?

It can be hard rebutting argument by anecdote, because it can feel like a personal attack, especially if the anecdote is particularly emotional or revealing. In this respect it is a bit like the ‘you can't tell me that’ argument we covered in Bad Arguments #2. It is possible, however, both to respect the anecdote and to rebut the argument, by first pointing out that, while the anecdote may be true, it only applies to one person and one situation, and by then broadening the argument back out to general questions.

So, if you found yourself faced with Anoushka’s story, you could say ‘I’m sorry that your friend had a bad time at her first school, and I’m glad that she’s happy at her new school. Maybe that first school just wasn’t right for her; maybe there were other reasons that she was unhappy, that had nothing to do with it being co-educational; maybe it just wasn’t a very well run school. Well run co-educational schools are the best option for all children because …’ and off you go, back to the wider arguments for your side of the case.

It’s hard giving up anecdote, precisely because it is so appealing. It’s also used very widely to persuade, both in advertising and in politics. But argument by anecdote is not honest argument; it will be marked down by judges, and it will lose you the debate.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Factsheet #3 - the British constitution

The Queen at the state opening of Parliament
If you were watching a football match with someone, and they kept asking you why the players didn’t pick up the ball and run with it, you probably wouldn’t much respect their opinion on how the teams should play. Knowing the rules of a game helps you to follow it. Similarly, knowing the rules of how Britain is run helps you to have an informed opinion on how it could be run better. 

The rules for running a country are known as its constitution.This week we’re going to be learning about the British constitution. Knowing more about it will help you with lots of common debating motions, for example:

  • This house would abolish the monarchy
  • This house would make voting in General Elections compulsory
  • This house would make it compulsory for 50% of MPs to be female
  • This house would introduce proportional representation
  • This house would abolish the House of Lords
  • This house would impose term limits on Prime Ministers
  • This house would make it compulsory for every second Prime Minister to be female
  • This house would ban referendums

What is the British constitution?

The first thing to know about the British constitution is that it doesn’t exist. 

Other countries, such as the United States, have a written constitution. There are often disagreements about what that written constitution really means, but at least there is one document to which everyone can refer. This has never happened in Britain (and one possible debate is ‘This house would introduce a written constitution for Britain’). Instead, the constitution has been determined partly by custom and practice - what everyone has always done and what they’re expected to carry on doing - and partly by occasional laws, passed as and when they are needed, in no very systematic fashion. The advantage of the unwritten constitution is that it can be flexible and responsive to the changing needs of a changing world; the disadvantage is that difficult situations can arise (e.g. the current confusion over Brexit, where the government, parliament and the electorate all want different things) where no one knows what to do.

What is the point of the Queen?

The monarch - currently Queen Elizabeth II - is the head of state. In theory, she is in charge of everything. Her head is on bank notes and coins, issued by Her Majesty’s Treasury, and on postage stamps, issued by the Royal Mail. She is Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. When someone is put on trial, they are prosecuted in her name; all criminal cases are ‘Regina (Latin for the Queen) vs [name of the defendant]’. We pay taxes to Her Majesty’s Revenues and Customs. The government is Her Majesty’s Government. The government’s programme is announced in the Queen’s Speech, given by her, in which every paragraph begins ‘My government will …’ Prime Ministers and ministers are appointed by her, and can be dismissed by her.

In practice, she has no power at all. Her role is purely symbolic. She is a figurehead, representing Britain at big national events, such as the opening of the 2012 Olympics in London, or commemorations of major anniversaries, or occasionally visiting the victims of terrorist attacks or natural disasters. This is because Britain is a constitutional monarchy.

However, she does have a role in the government of Britain. We will see how as we learn about elections and how governments are formed. If you find yourself taking part in a debate about abolishing the monarchy, remember to focus on this constitutional role, and whether it is best performed by an unelected monarch (who belongs to everyone and is attached to no party) or an elected head of state (who has been chosen by the people). Don’t get sidetracked into whether or not the Queen is a nice person, or that rude thing the Duke of Edinburgh said to someone once. That would be the ad hominem argument (see Bad Arguments #2).

How do elections work?

A General Election is called when the Queen, on the advice of the Prime Minister, dissolves parliament. This means in effect that all the Members of Parliament (MPs) are out of a job, and new ones have to be appointed. If existing MPs want to continue being MPs, they are effectively reapplying for their jobs by standing for election. 

MPs each represent a constituency. Britain is divided into 650 constituencies, each with around 70,000 people in them. In densely populated cities constituencies cover quite a small area; in sparsely populated rural areas they will be much larger. Citizens of Britain and the Commonwealth (the Commonwealth is made up of countries that used to be in the British Empire) who are over the age of 18 and are resident in the UK are allowed to vote in General Elections, though it is not compulsory. Anyone can stand for election in any constituency provided they get the support of at least ten people and put down some money, called a deposit, which they don’t get back if they get below a certain percentage of the vote. In practice, most candidates in elections are representing one of the main parties, and most people think in terms of voting for that party rather than the individual; they say ‘I’m voting for Corbyn’ or ‘I’ve always been Conservative.’ 

Whoever gets the most votes in each constituency is elected MP for that constituency. This system is called first past the post. Critics of first past the post point to its problems. One problem is that if the number of MPs in Parliament can be very different from the total number of votes cast for their party. For example, in the 2015 General Election, UKIP got nearly 4 million votes (12.6% of the votes cast) but only one MP  (0.2% of the MPs) because their votes were spread across many constituencies. Another problem is that in certain areas, certain parties win all the time; the Conservatives are almost certain never to win in Barnsley, and Labour are almost certain never to win in Tunbridge Wells. This can make voters in those areas feel that there is not much point in voting, as the result is always the same. Supporters of first past the post say that it gives a clear, simple result, and also that it gives everyone their own named MP to represent their area, to whom they can bring their local problems, whether they voted for him or her or not.  They also say it is more likely to deliver an overall majority in parliament for one party, ensuring stable government (see below for an explanation of how this works). The alternative to first past the post is proportional representation, a system already used in many countries, whereby the number of MPs more nearly reflects the number of votes cast.

How are governments formed?

Once the election is over, we have 650 new MPs, who form the House of Commons. The Queen then appoints a Prime Minister and asks him or her to form a government. 

So who gets the ride in the bullet proof Jaguar to Buckingham Palace for the job offer? The leader of the party which can ‘command the support’ of the House of Commons. This means their party can be sure of winning a vote in the House of Commons. To do that they will need the support of a majority of MPs. If one party has an overall majority, that is, they have more MPs than all the other parties combined, it is easy for the Queen to choose. For most of the twentieth century, elections were ‘won’ by just one party getting an overall majority. Lately, however, that has not always been the case. When no party has an overall majority, the result is known as a hung parliament. The 2017 General Election created a hung parliament; the Conservatives were the largest party, but did not have an overall majority, so they had to do a deal with a small party from Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in order to form a government. In a hung parliament, small parties, and even individual MPs, have much more power, as they can get concessions from the government by threatening not to support them in a vote in parliament.

Who is the government?

The government is made up of ministers, each of whom has responsibility for a particular area, e.g. health, education, defence etc. They make decisions about how the health service, schools, the armed forces etc. are run. The head of the government is the Prime Minister. ‘Prime’ means first or most important. In theory, ministers are appointed by the Queen (they are called ‘ministers of the crown’); in practice, they are appointed (and can be dismissed) by the Prime Minister. The most important ministers (about 20) form the Cabinet, chaired by the Prime Minister. The Cabinet makes decisions jointly about matters that affect the whole government. While they may debate these decisions vigorously in their meetings, once a decision is made, ministers are expected to support it. If they feel they cannot support it, they are expected to resign. Discussions in Cabinet meetings are supposed to be private, so that everyone can speak their mind freely.

How are laws passed?

For a new law to be passed, a bill to enact it it has to win a majority in a vote in the House of Commons. It then goes on to the House of Lords, which is made up of people who have not been elected, but were chosen by leaders of the political parties, usually for long service. There are also a few members of the House of Lords who are hereditary, that is they only have the job because they inherited it from their fathers. The House of Lords debate all bills, and may make small changes to them, but in practice they never vote against the House of Commons. Their job (in theory) is to provide wise guidance and advice. Once a law has been passed by both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, the Queen signs the bill and it becomes law.

What about referendums?

Supporters of referendums say that they are much more directly democratic than parliamentary democracy. Critics say that they create division in a country because they reduce complicated issues to a simple, binary choice with no possibility of compromise or negotiation.

Supporters of Brexit often refer, naturally enough, to the 2016 referendum on the European Union, when 52% voted Leave. They protest angrily that ‘the will of the people’ has been ignored because we have not yet left the EU. However, the fact is that unlike in some other countries (e.g. Switzerland), referendums have no place in the British constitution. 

Britain is a parliamentary democracy. This means that the will of the people is expressed not by referendums, still less by opinion polls, but by parliament, made up of MPs elected by the people. The 2016 referendum on EU membership was merely ‘advisory’, and had no force in law; that is, the government would be quite entitled, under the British constitution, to say, ‘Oh, so 52% of people want to leave the EU, do they? That’s interesting. We still think on balance, though, that it would be better for the country to stay in the EU.’ If the question of EU membership was decided by parliament voting as it thought best, we would not leave the EU, because the overwhelming majority of MPs are pro-Remain. 

This clash between what parliament wants and what the people want (or at least what they said they wanted in June 2016) has created a constitutional crisis. The crisis has arisen partly because when David Cameron, the then Prime Minister, called the referendum in 2016, he never expected Leave to win and made no preparations, constitutional or otherwise, for what to do if they did. Perhaps he should have remembered what every teacher knows; never ask a question unless you are sure you are going to get the answer you want.