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Monday, January 27, 2020

Big Ideas #3 - Social liberalism vs social conservatism

Our third Big Idea looks at one of the battlegrounds of modern life: social liberalism vs social conservatism.

What is the difference between a social liberal and a social conservative?

A social liberal believes:

  • We live in the world as individuals, each different and distinct.
  • We should be allowed to make our own choices about how we live; where we live; what we believe; whom we love.
  • Identities shared across national borders such as race, gender and sexuality are more important than identities based around nationality or region.
  • Change, variety and fluidity are higher goods than familiarity, similarity and community.
  • A country or region has a responsibility to accept and welcome incomers, and to allow them to preserve their identity.
  • Tolerance of different ways of life is a higher good than conformity to shared ways of life.

A social conservative believes:

  • We live in the world as part of a community defined by common values and practices.
  • We should respect these common values and practices, and prioritise them over our own personal desires.
  • National or regional identities are more important than transnational identities based on race, gender or sexuality.
  • Familiarity, similarity and community are higher goods than change, variety and fluidity.
  • Incomers to a country or region have a responsibility to adapt to their new home’s way of doing things, abandoning their own values if necessary.
  • Conformity to shared values is a higher good than tolerance of diversity.

How can you apply this clash of values to debate motions?

1. This house would abolish immigration controls

Social liberalism sides with the proposition; social conservatism sides with the opposition.

A social liberal argues:

  • Our economy depends on immigrants; they tend to be hard working and willing to do jobs natives wouldn’t do. They are also more likely to be young and fit, contributing to the country through taxes rather than using health care and benefits. (Social liberalism works better than social conservatism.)
  • Immigration has enriched our society culturally. Britain is a more diverse and exciting place because of it. (Variety and change are better than familiarity and uniformity; we should adapt to welcome incomers.)
  • We have a moral responsibility to welcome people less fortunate than ourselves. (Our responsibility is to the whole of humanity, not just our national community.)

A social conservative argues:

  • Immigrants drive down wages and take jobs from local workers. (Social conservatism works better than social liberalism.)
  • Immigration has caused Britain to lose its identity; we no longer have common values. (Familiarity and uniformity are better than change and variety; incomers should adapt to a community rather than the other way round.)
  • We need to look after our own country first. (Our responsibility is to our immediate community, not the whole of humanity.)

2. This house would make it compulsory for all schools to teach that gay relationships are equal to straight relationships.

Social liberalism backs the proposition; social conservatism backs the opposition.

A social liberal argues:

  • Diverse sexualities and ways of living enrich our society, and should be celebrated at all ages and all levels of society. (Diversity is a higher good than uniformity.)
  • What we teach in our schools defines who we are as a society, and we want to be a tolerant society. (Tolerance is a higher good than conformity.)
  • The rights of gay students to express their sexuality freely are more important than the rights of religious groups who teach that homosexuality is wrong. (Identity based on individual lifestyle is more important than identity based on shared tradition.)

A social conservative argues:

  • The family is the bedrock of society, and the best way to bring up children; there is nothing wrong with celebrating traditional ways of living above how a minority of people live. (Social cohesion is a higher good than diversity.)
  • It is not right to impose values on communities who may not share those values, e.g. making a school in a majority Muslim area teach gay rights. (Community values are more important than universal values.)
  • Religious objections to teaching gay rights should be respected, because the great world faiths have a greater depth and strength than contemporary fashions. (Tradition is more valuable than modernity.)

3. This house would ban the wearing of the niqab in public.

Social conservatism supports the proposition; social liberalism supports the opposition.
A social conservative argues:
  • Women who wear the niqab shut themselves off from mainstream British society. (Incomers have a responsibility to adapt to the shared values of the society they come into.)
  • The wearing of the niqab is a public demonstration of the oppression of women. (Sub-groups within society do not have the right to promote values that contradict those of the community as a whole; social cohesion is a higher good than tolerance.)
  • Britain’s culture is based on different values to those of Islam; public celebrations of Islamic culture threaten our national identity. (The preservation of shared values is a higher good than diversity.)
A social liberal argues:
  • People should be allowed to dress how they like. (Acceptance of diversity is a higher good than conformity to shared values.)
  • Banning ways of dress associated with certain ethnic groups opens the door to racism. (Tolerance is the highest good.)
  • British values are in fact based on tolerance and openness, and we should therefore accept and celebrate different ways of dressing. (A good society is an open society.)


I think it’s fair to say that most British people under the age of 25, particularly those either at university or likely to go to university - in other words most debaters - are more likely to identify with the values of social liberalism than those of social conservatism. That makes it all the more important to understand that there is another way to see the world, which is not necessarily stupid or evil.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Guest Post #3 - US debating vs UK debating

This week we are pleased to host a guest post from Zach Yusaf, a student at Hackley School in New York, who offers us fascinating insights into the differences between US debating and UK debating.

My name is Zach Yusaf and I am a sophomore at Hackley School in Tarrytown, New York. This past March, a group of classmates, a few teachers and I travelled to London. On the trip, we watched shows by Shakespeare at the Globe Theatre, viewed the city through the London Eye and debated in a style dubbed British Parliamentary (BP). 

I am a very competitive Public Forum debater and I go to overnight tournaments at least once or twice per month. In order to succeed in Public Forum, a large time commitment and a lot of preparation is necessary. However, debating in England could not have been more different from debating in the United States. While I am used to preparing one topic, usually about foreign relations, in immense detail for one month, in BP there is only a short 15 minute period of preparation prior to the debate round. While there are two two-person teams arguing for and against a topic in Public Forum, there are four two-person teams arguing for and against a topic in BP. Debating BP definitely pushed me outside of my comfort zone, but it was a great experience!

The first time my group and I debated BP, half of the group who were not debaters went out to dinner, while we went to meet a few debaters from the Godolphin and Latymer School at a crepe shop. After we ate our crepes, we went to the school and changed into our dress clothes. We were given a resolution (something along the lines of enabling criminals to post pictures of their crimes on social media). Each student from Hackley was paired with a student from the Godolphin and Latymer School, and we were assigned either government (for the topic) or opposition (against the topic). We were also told if we were speaking first, second, third, or fourth. This aspect is unique to BP. Not only is a debate team trying to beat the other side, but the teams are also trying to convince the judge why their argument on their respective side is better than the other team on the same side.

As my team mate and I got ready to present our arguments, we realised something that would be fatal for us in the round. Since we were Opp 2, the other opposition team could have the same arguments as us. As a result, we needed to think of more creative arguments in order to outmanoeuvre the Opp 1. However, we didn't have enough time to do so, and our worst fears were realised. We didn't have any constructive arguments of our own because the Opp 1 had already presented them! We ended up losing that debate very badly.

The next time that I debated, I was ready. My new teammate and I were Opp 2, just like the last time, but on a different topic. We created interesting and mature arguments about the perils of government censorship, and we were able to win the debate!

Overall, I had a great time debating BP in London, and I hope to go back again soon. I want to thank Mr Bell for allowing me to post on his blog and also for allowing me to debate at the Godolphin and Latymer School.

Monday, January 13, 2020

How to make an opposition case #1


Debating is about changing the world. We've seen in our earlier post on how to build a proposition case the ways in which you can make a case for change. However, not all change is good. Sometimes change needs to be stopped. If you’re the opposition in a policy debate, your job is persuade people to reject the proposed change; your job is to attack the proposition.

This week we're going to look at a few lines of attack you can use against the proposition. Here are four to start with:

1. The problem addressed by the motion doesn’t exist. 
(There’s nothing wrong with NOW.)

2. The definition of the problem is wrong.
(NOW is bad, but not for the reasons you say.)

3. The action proposed by the motion won’t lead to a solution of the problem.
(The ACTION won’t get us to THEN.)

4. The action is impractical.
(The ACTION won’t work.)


Let’s see how you might use these lines of attack with the motion we discussed in the earlier post: ‘This house would make it compulsory for all 18 year olds to do a year of community service.’

1. The problem addressed by the motion doesn’t exist.

Young people already have a great many useful skills, which they have learnt at school and elsewhere, and will continue to learn in further study. Many of them already work with people less fortunate than themselves; most schools have some sort of charity outreach, and the very popular Duke of Edinburgh scheme has a compulsory community service unit. 93% of young people attend non-selective state schools which introduce them to a whole range of people unlike themselves. So compulsory community service would be addressing a problem which doesn’t exist.

2. The definition of the problem is wrong.

Young people are not lacking in skills and social solidarity because they don’t do community service; it’s because schools are too focused on competitive public exams, which teach a narrow set of skills and pit schools and individuals against each other to move up league tables / get university places. The exam system is the source of the problem you have identified.

3. The action proposed by the motion won’t lead to a solution of the problem.

It’s a good idea for young people to learn new skills and work with people less fortunate than themselves, but most of the community service is likely to be low skill activities like picking up litter or cleaning toilets, which will not teach them anything new or introduce them to the people they are supposed to be helping.

4. The action is impractical.

There are about half a million young people in any given age cohort in the UK. Funding them all to do community service would be vastly expensive; organising them would require paying many more people. What would be done with young people who refused to take part / didn’t turn up? Chasing them up / sanctioning them would also be time-consuming and expensive. There simply aren’t enough community service projects in existence to keep all these people busy; we’d have to create unnecessary work for them. Moreover, more privileged / well connected families would find ways to get their children out of having to do the community service, undermining the purpose of introducing more privileged young people to those less fortunate than themselves. 

There are many more lines of attack the opposition can use in a debate; we'll look at more of them in later posts.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Recommended podcast #4 - A Guide to Disagreeing Better

Disagreeing with each other is what debaters do. But disagreement doesn't have to be disagreeable. There is a way of doing it that respects the other person and can end with both sides understanding the other better. That's what debating, at its best, achieves. 

Being able to disagree better is a skill that is more vital than ever in Brexit - even in soon to be post-Brexit - Britain. Much of the 'debate' about Brexit over the last three and a half years has been characterised, on both sides, by a refusal to listen, a refusal to empathise, a refusal to understand the other side's point of view, a tendency to impute the worst motives to one's opponents, and the use of insult in place of logical argument. In other words, it's been very bad debate. Much the same could be said about Trump's America at the moment.

There is another way, though, which Douglas Alexander explores in his very thought provoking BBC Radio 4 programme, A Guide to Disagreeing Better. He talks to a British soldier who served in Northern Ireland in the Troubles and a Derry woman whose brother was killed by the British Army, who have become the best of friends. He explores how referendums on the highly divisive issues of same sex marriage and abortion managed not to tear Ireland apart, thanks to the successful use of citizens' assemblies (see my earlier post on What is democracy?). He reminds us that 'No one in history has ever been insulted into agreement'. He gives us a very useful eight tips on how to disagree better. All of this reminded me of how, as I argued in an earlier post, debating can make the world better.

Getting better at disagreeing could be one of the best New Year's Resolutions you could make. Debating will help you to do it.