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Monday, September 28, 2020

Free speech #1 - what is the point of free speech?


Free speech is not only the basis of debate; it is also one of the key topics of debate. It raises many issues. What if people use free speech to say something that is not true? What if it causes offence? What if it provokes violence? And who owns free speech, actually? 

In this series of posts, we will be looking at some of the issues this vital topic raises, and considering what debating motions it might inspire.

What is the point of free speech?

This should be an easy question for debaters to answer. Debating itself is predicated on free speech; it’s all about the free, unrestricted exchange of views. A debate where only one side of the case could be put would not be much of a debate. 

This free exchange of views has a value beyond school debating clubs. It is one of the founding principles of democracy. 

Why do democracies value free speech?

Because it is a benefit for citizens

Free speech is one of the benefits that a democracy confers on its citizens: a key difference between democracy and dictatorships is that people in democracies can say what they think without fear of consequences. This makes them nicer places to live in. No one likes being silenced. A world where you are worried that you may lose your job or be sent to prison for saying the wrong thing is not somewhere you want to live. 

Because it makes democracies work better

It is also, however, one of the ways in which a democracy functions more effectively. A free exchange of views is more likely to lead to effective decisions being made. Why? Because all the options will be given a hearing; bad ideas will be exposed and rejected; good ideas will be made better by being refined. (All the things that you learn how to do in debating, in fact.) If those in power make mistakes, they will be challenged and corrected, and we will be better governed as a result.

So, free speech is an unambiguously good thing. It makes us happier, and it makes society run better. We can’t get too much of it, surely?

Not quite. There might be times when free speech is not a good thing.

There are restrictions, after all, to free speech in a debate. You’re only allowed to speak when it’s your turn, and only for a limited period of time. You are allowed to challenge what someone else is saying, but only in unprotected time, and not if they don’t take your point of information. You’re only allowed to talk about the subject of the motion. You’re not allowed to make personal attacks on the other side.

So, some restrictions of speech are necessary in a debate. They are also necessary in the wider world. Free speech may need to be restricted, for example, when:

  • It threatens violence

  • It threatens our security

  • It is monopolised by those with wealth or power

  • It spreads damaging untruths 

  • It causes offence

The difficult questions are: what restrictions? Who imposes them? When? How? 

All these questions are matters for debate. We will be looking at them in future posts.

Motions that go with this post:

  • This house would abolish all censorship

  • This house believes that free speech is the highest good

  • This house opposes all restrictions to free speech

Monday, September 21, 2020

Bad arguments #6 - The straw man

 ‘Hannah, tidy your bedroom.’


‘Because with the mess it’s in you can’t find anything. Remember you lost your English essay the other day and got into trouble for not handing it in on time?’

‘Oh, right, Dad, so you’re literally saying that if I don’t tidy my room like this afternoon I’m going to fail all my GCSEs and end up living on the streets?’

Of course, Hannah’s Dad isn’t saying that. But saying that he’s saying that makes his case for her tidying her bedroom look ridiculous and harder to believe. Hannah is using a very common bad argument; the ‘straw man’.

A straw man is an inanimate object made out of straw which looks like a man, but is not. Because it is made out of straw it is easy to pull apart, and does not fight back. Similarly, a ‘straw man’ argument looks like a certain argument but is not that argument, and has been made in such a way that it is easy to pull apart. It is a distortion of the other side’s argument which makes it absurd and therefore easy to demolish. It is tempting to resort to using the straw man argument to attack the other side when you are under pressure, because it offers a quick win. Tempting, but unwise; it prevents you from engaging with the actual arguments, and judges will notice this and mark you down for it.


 Let’s take an example of a straw man argument from a debate.

The motion is ‘This house would make the use of racist language a criminal offence.’ The proposition has defined ‘racist language’ as language which demeans people of colour on the grounds of their race.

In a point of information, an opposition speaker says: 

‘So, if this motion were carried, anyone walking into a cafe and asking for a ‘black coffee’ could end up walking out in handcuffs.’ 

This makes the proposition’s proposal look both ridiculous and tyrannical: how can describing the colour of a drink be a crime? But the proposition’s definition of the motion is not ridiculous or tyrannical, because describing the colour of a drink does not demean anyone on the grounds of their race, and these are the grounds they have chosen for denoting language as racist. So, although the opposition speaker is right to say that arresting someone for speaking out loud what coffee without milk looks like would be absurd, she is wrong to say that this is what the proposition is arguing for. She has built and dismantled a ‘straw man’, but has left the real man untouched.

How should you deal with a ‘straw man’ argument?

Gently but firmly (if possible, without sounding petulant) guide the conversation back to what you are actually saying. So, in the example above, the proposition speaker could say:

‘Cafe goers would not be criminalised under our proposal because, as I have said, we would only criminalise language which demeans people of colour; using the word ‘black’ to describe coffee does not do this. Language that actually does demean people of colour, however, has serious consequences because …’

So, to sum up:

  • Engage with the arguments as the other side are actually making them; distortion and ridicule make your rebuttal less strong.

  • If the other side use a straw man argument, patiently reiterate and reaffirm your argument as you actually made it.

Monday, September 14, 2020

How to debate #12 - the counter-mechanism

 How do you take control of a debate? 

One way is by seizing the initiative, by setting the terms on which the debate is conducted, requiring the other side to respond to those terms. It looks like only the proposition are able to do this. They get to define the motion; the opposition have to respond to their definition. They get to devise the mechanism; the opposition have to respond to the mechanism they choose.

The opposition cannot change the proposition’s definition of the motion. Nor can they change the proposition’s mechanism for delivering that definition. However, they do have another way of taking back the initiative: the counter-mechanism.

What is the counter-mechanism

The counter-mechanism proposes an alternative way of achieving the ultimate outcome implicit in the motion.  It means accepting the intention of the proposition, but offering a better way of achieving that intention. It moves the debate closer to the middle ground, because it implies that both sides agree on where they want to get to, but that the opposition has a better way of getting there. By agreeing on the fundamental premises, it makes it harder for the proposition to attack the opposition, because the grounds of disagreement are much smaller.

Let’s look at an example.

The motion is: This house would take down public statues of people guilty of racist attitudes or behaviour.

The proposition say that the existence of these statues in public places endorses racism and is an assault on people of colour, so they must all be taken down, but legally, by the authorities responsible for those public places, not by direct action. That’s their mechanism. Implicit in the mechanism is that removing statues is the best way to counter racism.

The opposition could simply accept this mechanism, and argue against the dismantling of statues on the grounds of free speech and opposition to censorship, setting freedom of speech up as a higher good than opposition to racism. This would create a clear divide between them and the proposition. However, it would also concede quite a lot of ground to the proposition. It would give them a monopoly of the case for anti-racism. Better, in fact, for the opposition to advance into the proposition’s ground and to take over some of their anti-racism. 


They can do this by agreeing with the proposition that the existence in the middle of cities with a significant black population of statues of slave owners, implicitly celebrating their ‘achievements’, is an assault on people of colour. Then, they can say that there is a better way of dealing with this assault. They would add plaques to the statues detailing the racist actions and attitudes of these once celebrated people. This is their counter-mechanism: a course of action which is different from the one proposed in the motion (the statues stay up), while accepting the existence of the problem implicit in the motion (the public celebration of racists is wrong).

This action would have the advantage of both supporting one of the opposition’s strongest arguments (censoring history by editing out the parts of it we do not like will stop people from understanding it), while also supporting one of the proposition’s strongest arguments (racism must not be celebrated). It is also, like all the best mechanisms, practical (plaques could be added easily and at very little expense), enforceable (provided the plaques were accurate, few could object to them) and simple (it is very easy to explain and justify in the limited time allowed in a debate). It is also easier to defend than the proposition’s mechanism, as it doesn’t raise the tricky question of what should replace the statues once they are taken down.

So, to sum up:

  • An opposition using a counter-mechanism accepts that the problem implied in the motion is real.

  • It agrees that action needs to be taken to fix this problem.

  • It offers a counter-mechanism which is a better way of fixing the problem than the mechanism offered by the proposition.

  • The counter-mechanism should be practical, enforceable and simple, and it should be more of all these things than the mechanism.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

The Debating Book - everything you ever need to know about debating

The Debating Book is your one stop guide to debating. Written with authority, passion and wisdom by Julian Bell, one of the leaders of UK debating, it will tell you everything you ever need to know about debating.

The Debating Book is for you if:

  • You have never done debating before and would like to start.
  • You have only just started debating and you would like to get better.
  • You are an experienced debater and you want to be the best you can be.
  • You are a teacher who would like to set up debating in your school and you aren’t sure what to do.
  • You are an experienced debating coach and you would like to support your students even better.
  • You are the parent of someone who does, or would like to do, debating, and you want to support them.

 The Debating Book covers:

  • Why you should do debating
  • How debating works
  • The basic skills of debating
  • Bad arguments to avoid (and how to attack them when other people use them), and good arguments to persuade people
  • The big issues and ideas that debates are about
  • Useful facts about the world that debaters need to know
  • Tricks to make your speeches more persuasive
  •  How you can use debating in lessons
  •  How to set up and run debating in your school
  •  A full transcript of an expert debate with close analysis, explaining what star debaters do and how they do it. 

Order your hard copy here.

Order your ebook version here.

'There is literally nothing Julian Bell doesn't know about schools debating.' David Paton, Principal, Radnor House, Sevenoaks.