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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.

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