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Sunday, September 26, 2021

Think like a debater #8 - Is it ever all right to break the law?


Well, obviously not.

The law is the law, whether you like it or not, isn’t it? Respect for the rule of law is one of the fundamental bases of a civilised society. Once you start allowing people to break it, there will be no controls on anyone’s behaviour, and no one will be safe.

But what if the law is fundamentally immoral? In South Africa under apartheid (1948-94) the Black majority were denied the most basic human rights. Where they could work, live and travel was controlled by the government. An important instrument of this control was the ‘passbook.’ Many Blacks protested against the pass laws by publicly burning their passbooks. This was against the law. 

Were they right to break the law? You could say that the rule of law must be upheld in all circumstances, however objectionable individual laws may be. If people didn’t like the passbook laws, they could campaign to change them.

The problem was that they couldn’t. As well as having their work and personal lives controlled, Black people in apartheid South Africa were not allowed to vote or take part in any political activity. You could argue therefore that a state like apartheid South Africa which systematically excluded a majority of its population had forfeited its legitimacy, and any need to respect its laws.

The United States, on the other hand, is one of the great democracies of the world. Surely the rule of law should be respected there? Rosa Parks didn’t think so. On December 1st, 1955, she refused to get off a bus to make way for a white passenger who, according to the rules around racial segregation on buses in Alabama at the time, was allowed to take her seat. So she was breaking the law. Her protest helped spark a decade long campaign of civil disobedience (non-violent breaking of a law which someone considers to be unjust) by Black people and their allies in the southern states against racial segregation by, for example, entering restaurants, bars and other public places from which Black people were excluded by law. Their campaign ultimately achieved significant advances for African-Americans. 

Again, you could argue that the law is the law, and that there are legal ways to challenge existing laws. The problem in this case is that, while in theory the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, unlike apartheid South Africa, had a universal franchise (that is, everyone was allowed to vote), in practice there were measures in place in many southern states to prevent Black people from voting or engaging in political activity. There would have been no point in campaigning lawfully against racial segregation; it would have changed nothing, and the manifest injustice of the laws would have remained.

The Republic of Ireland in 1971 was a fully democratic country. Every adult was allowed to vote. It was also a country in which it was against the law to possess or use any form of contraception, in line with the Catholic Church’s teaching. A group of feminist campaigners thought this was wrong, so in May of that year they took a train from Dublin to Belfast in Northern Ireland, where contraception was legal. They bought contraceptives in Belfast, and on their return to Dublin threw them into a crowd of waiting supporters. By importing contraceptives to the Republic of Ireland they were breaking the law. For them, though, it was more of a symbolic gesture, designed to draw attention to the absurdity of the law. (It was made even more symbolic by the fact that they hadn’t realised that, while the use of contraceptive pills was legal in Northern Ireland, it was only possible to buy them with a GP’s prescription. So they bought several boxes of aspirins instead. The pills with which they showered the crowds in Dublin would have stopped a headache, but not a baby. Still, the intention to break the law was there.) 

You could say that they should have campaigned within the law to legalise contraception. However, none of the main political parties in Ireland at the time was willing to challenge the power of the Catholic Church by contemplating a change in the law. The campaigners felt that only a high profile symbolic piece of direct action (breaking the law to draw attention to an issue) would spark change.

And so to 2021. In the last few weeks, we have seen climate campaigners from Insulate Britain, who believe all homes in Britain should be better insulated to cut energy consumption, blocking exits to the M25. This is against the law. It has also caused major disruption to many people.

You could argue that the campaigners should have stayed within the law. They would argue that climate change is an emergency which poses an existential threat to humanity; it may be necessary for the rule of law to be set aside for a while to bring home the extremity of the situation. Campaigners are willing to accept the consequence of prison sentences in order to focus public attention on the emergency. 

With any breaking of the law for a principled purpose (to fight racism, sexism or climate change), there is also the pragmatic question of whether it works. Will it become counter-productive if the action alienates possible supporters? The racism of apartheid South Africa or 1950s Alabama was so manifestly unjust, few would argue that burning a book or sitting on a bus was a disproportionate response. Women throwing pills and condoms at a crowd was a bit of fun in the tight-lipped, puritanical world of 1970s Catholic Ireland, shocking only to those who would have had no sympathy with the women’s cause in any circumstances. However, the considerable inconvenience caused to drivers who, through no fault of their own, happened to be in the way of the M25 protesters in recent weeks may well have alienated many people who would otherwise be sympathetic to the environmental cause.

The point of clash is essentially whether you prioritise principle or pragmatism. Is the principle of the rule of law so important and so absolute that the law must never be broken? Or should we consider each case on its own merits, pragmatically, and decide whether the benefits of breaking the law in some circumstances outweigh the harms?

Motions that go with this topic:

  • This house would never break the law.

  • This house supports direct action to tackle climate change.

  • This house supports direct action to fight racism.

  • This house believes unjust laws should be broken.

  • This house supports Insulate Britain / Extinction Rebellion

Monday, September 20, 2021

How to debate #16 - taking notes

 Debaters need to be good at writing as well as speaking. But they need to be good at a particular kind of writing. Not the sort of formal, structured writing that is involved in producing an essay. That’s because you should never, ever write out your speech. If you do, it won’t be a speech, it will be an essay; and even if it is a top mark essay, you will lose the debate.

So what kind of writing do debaters need to do? The kind of fast, concise, condensed writing that makes for effective note taking. Effective note taking is important when preparing for debates. However, we’ve already covered how to prepare for a debate in an earlier post; this post is about making notes during a debate. Note taking, as it were, in the thick of the battle.

What is the purpose of notes taken during a debate? Note taking during debates should focus almost entirely on rebuttal. As we discussed in an earlier post, there are two types of rebuttal: points of information, and responding in a subsequent speech. If you can get your rebuttal into a point of information, you don’t need any notes, as you will have made it immediately. If, on the other hand, you want to rebut your opponent’s points in your speech, note taking will help to prompt you, by reminding you what to address when it is your time to speak.

How should you take notes? I suggest you and your debating partner take to the debate a large sheet of paper (A3 size) divided into sections for each of the speakers on the other side. For Mace, you’ll need two; for Extended Mace, four, to cover the three speakers on the other side and points from the floor; for British Parliamentary, also four, for each of the speakers on the other side.

As you listen to the speeches, make notes of points made by speakers, and how you will respond to them, in the section for that speaker. If you have one sheet between you, this becomes a collaborative enterprise. So even though Prop 1 has already spoken, she can help her team mate Prop 2 by suggesting rebuttal points.

Concision is essential. The more time you spend writing, the less well you will listen to the rest of the speech. Say you are opposing the motion ‘This house would ban cars from city centres’. The first speaker says that this will reduce car use in cities, decreasing pollution. Your rebuttal could be that it will merely push car use out to the suburbs, increasing car use there. Because the suburbs are where most people live, the detrimental effects of air pollution on people will actually be worse. 

Don’t write out those last two sentences. Instead, write something like this:

Reduced car use = reduced pollution? Traffic pushed to suburbs; more people = more harm.

Or say you are proposing the same motion, and the opposition argue that everyone has the right to drive wherever they want. Your rebuttal might be that this freedom is limited to those who can afford a car. Poorer people who depend on public transport suffer from slower bus journeys and increased pollution caused by the dominance of cars in city centres.

Again, don’t write out those two sentences. Write something like this:

Freedom to use cars = freedom for rich; poor = congestion / pollution.

So, to sum up, the key to effective note taking is:

  • Have a large, ready prepared sheet of paper divided into a separate section for each speaker on the other side.

  • Contribute to the note taking equally as partners.

  • Make your notes as concise as is compatible with being understood by you / your partner.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Think like a debater #7 - the power of symbols

When the England men’s football team announced they would be be ‘taking the knee’ at the start of matches in the 2021 Euros in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, UK Home Secretary Priti Patel denounced them for 'gesture politics', and said fans had the right to boo them. 

Then England got to the final. Ms Patel quickly posted pictures of herself on social media wearing an England shirt, a gesture of eager support for the team which, a few weeks before had, according to her, been guilty of the wrong sort of gesture. 

Kneeling for five seconds doesn’t make anything happen. Wearing a football shirt doesn’t make anything happen (unless you’re playing). Both these actions are just gestures. However, they matter because of what they symbolise. They announce someone’s loyalty to a particular cause or group: Black Lives Matter; the England men’s football team. Gestures and symbols are a way of expressing the identity of an individual or a group, and as such they can be powerfully uniting, or powerfully divisive.

Take flags. They are, after all, just coloured bits of cloth. You can’t eat them; you can’t kill anyone with them; their resale value is pretty low. And yet, they are enormously powerful in expressing a sense of shared national identity. In the United States, it is normal for people and institutions, across all shades of political opinion, to display the Stars and Stripes frequently and without embarrassment: on public buildings, schools, churches, front yards and in lapel badges. In the UK, outside of sports stadiums, it is much less common. If you see a Union Jack or a St George’s Cross flying outside someone’s house, they are likely to be making a very definite statement, identifying themselves with a particular kind of patriotism which is likely to be hostile to the EU, to immigration, and to criticism of Britain’s colonial past. They are also identifying themselves with a particular social demographic, likely to see itself in opposition to the so-called ‘metropolitan elite’. It’s certainly true that you won’t see many (any?) flags flying from houses in Islington or Richmond-upon-Thames. For other people, though, the Union Jack and the St George’s Cross are associated with the legacy of slavery and empire and continuing institutional racism, and they experience their display outside of a football, cricket or rugby match as an aggressive act. When, in March 2021, the UK government announced it would become compulsory to fly the Union Jack from all public buildings they were taking sides with one part of society against another.

Or take religion. In France, any form of religious symbol is banned from state schools, because of the principle of laicite, which means that religion must be an entirely private affair. Muslim girls are not allowed to wear headscarves; Jewish boys may not wear kippahs; if you turn up at school wearing a necklace with a cross, you’ll be sent home. The UK has a more relaxed attitude to religion in schools. Many schools are explicitly associated with a particular faith group, while even non-denominational schools are likely to allow students to dress according to their faith. That doesn’t mean, though, that there are no limits in the UK on what you can wear in school. No student wearing a swastika armband would (or should) be allowed through the school gate. To allow that gesture would be to allow a very deliberate act of aggression against many members of the school community.

The key issue (the point of clash, if you like) around issues to do with symbols and gestures is whether you prioritise identity or unity. If you believe that footballers should be allowed to express their political identity, they should be allowed to take the knee; if you believe they need to represent the whole nation, so must not identify with any controversial cause, they should not. If you believe that a nation should celebrate its particular identity, encourage, or even force, the flying of flags; if you believe that expressions of national identity can become excluding of those who do not share that identity, save the flags for Wembley, Lord’s and Twickenham. If you believe that students should be allowed to express their religious identity at school, let them wear what they like; if you believe that public expressions of religion are divisive, make them keep those crucifix necklaces in their jewellery drawers. 

Symbols and gestures matter; a huge amount of politics, from all sides, is ‘gesture politics’.

Motions that go with this topic:

  • This house would take the knee
  • This house would ban the wearing of the niqab in public
  • This house would ban religious symbols in schools
  • This house would fly the Union Jack from all public buildings
  • This house is proud to be British / English

Monday, September 6, 2021

How to debate #15 - overcoming nerves

The comedian Jerry Seinfeld claimed that, according to a survey he had read, more people fear public speaking than fear death.Which meant that at a funeral, most people would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy.

I suspect he may have made up this survey. But there was something in what he said. Public speaking is uniquely terrifying for many people. Debating, of course, is based on speaking in public. Not only speaking in public, but speaking in public with the expectation that anything and everything you say may be vigorously challenged, in points of information and in subsequent speeches.

So how to get past those nerves, and ensure that you aren’t prevented by them from taking part in debating? Here are a few tips.

1. Embrace the fear

The main reason people fear speaking in public is that it puts them in a position of exposure and vulnerability. We risk getting it wrong / looking stupid / being laughed at /. In other words, we feel under threat. Humans, like all animals, have an instinctive response to a situation of threat: flight or fight. Flight isn’t a good option in the middle of a debate, obviously. Fight can be, however. Not, of course, physical violence; debating is not a combat sport. But in another sense it is - it’s just that the combat is verbal. Harness that fight instinct to engage more vigorously and rigorously with the other side’s arguments (arguments, not people), and you will feel less threatened. The good news is that our bodies help us with this. They release adrenaline into our system which gives us extra energy, sharpening our responses and heightening our ability to think on our feet. Every actor and sports person knows that fear can be your friend; the nerves you feel in the wings or the changing room give you extra focus on the stage or the pitch. The same applies to debating.

2. Be prepared …

A journey is much less nerve racking if you know where you’re going. Have a map for your speech. Break it down into stages, each summed up in a word of phrase, so you know what will say first, what you will say second, and so on. Write your map down as headings on a piece of index card which you can easily hold in your hand.

So if the debate is for the motion, ‘This house would make all school lunches vegetarian’, your card might read:

  • Health
  • Environment
  • Respecting cultural traditions

If you feel you need more detail, have a card for each word and phrase, and add a few sub-headings. So in the vegetarian school lunches debate, the cards might read:

1. Health: more vegetables; less processed food; less fat and sugar

2. Environment: land taken by livestock; methane produced by livestock

3. Respecting cultural traditions: Hindus = vegetarian; Muslims = halal; Jews = kosher. Dietary prefs respected without students seeming ‘different’

For more on this, see this earlier post on how to prepare for a debate..

3. … but not too prepared.

Of course, you could write out your speech in full and just read it. You would be guaranteed not to run out of things to say. Unfortunately, you would also lose the debate. That’s because you would not be debating; you would be reading out an essay. No judge will ever award a debate to a debater who does this. Debating is a conversation, not a monologue. A good debater is spontaneous, responsive and flexible. Yes, I know: being spontaneous is scary. But remember, fear is your friend (see point 1).

4. Talk to one other person

If you’re speaking in the final of the Oxford or Cambridge Union competition, you might be speaking to a chamber of two or three hundred people. If you’re in the final of your school competition, you might be speaking to a hall filled with people you know (which is even worse). Most likely, you’re speaking in front of the two, three, or four people on the other team, plus your team mates, a judge, a teacher or two and maybe the odd random supporter. Even so, you are speaking to more than one person, and that makes you nervous, because it’s not what you normally do.

Not many people, though, are afraid of having a conversation with one other person. So make your speech a one to one conversation. Pick one person in the room, imagine you are talking only to them, ignoring the rest. The best choice will be the last person to speak on the other side, as you will be responding to their arguments. (If you are first proposition, pick first opposition.) You will immediately be more at your ease.

Your speech will sound better, too. A friend of mine used to work as a presenter on Radio Guernsey. She told me that in her training she was instructed not to imagine she was addressing an audience of thousands, but to speak as if she was talking to just one other person in a room. Unfortunately, when it came to Radio Guernsey, this was quite often literally true. However, you get the point: a speech given as if part of a one to one conversation will be much more natural, accessible and easier to listen to.

5. Be in role

Don’t, actually, be yourself. If you are yourself, then you will feel more threatened, and therefore more nervous, because it will be Rakesh Patel or Isabella Jones who might mess up, and everyone will remember. If, however, you are not Rakesh or Isabella, but the opening speaker for the opposition (Mace) or the Deputy Prime Minister (British Parliamentary), then it will not be you who is on show, but a character in the drama that is the debate. The convention in BP of speakers addressing each other with the title of their role will help you to detach yourself even further from your everyday self.

Speaking in role will also make you a more effective speaker. You might have been given the task of proposing the motion in favour of making all school lunches vegetarian, when in real life you are a massive steak lover, or passionately believe everyone should be able to eat anything they want. In that case, it could be hard to speak convincingly. If, on the other hand, you take on, like an actor, the role of someone who believes with every fibre of her being that the very notion of eating dead animals is cruel, unnatural, and a disaster for the environment, you will be far more persuasive.

One student of mine suffered terribly from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. She was plagued constantly with disturbing, distressing thoughts. She volunteered for debating to help her to overcome her anxiety. Not only did she do debating, she did it superbly, going on to be on the winning team in the sixth form debating competition, speaking in the final in front of the whole of Year 12 and 13. For the five minutes she was speaking, her anxieties were forgotten, because she was speaking not as herself, but in the character of a speaker for her side of the motion. Debating helped her to be less anxious not only about public speaking, but about life itself.