How does debating work?
At the Leiden Debating Union we practice competitive debating. Competitive debating means that the speakers at LDU do not represent their personal opinion, but try to represent a given position in a debate as well as possible. The topic we debate on is called a “motion” and should allow for interesting argumentation on either side. Motions are formulated as “This House Would/Believe/Should do (…)”. “This House” usually refers to the state. For example, the motion “This House Would Abolish Prisons” means that the debate is discussing whether the state should abolish prisons. At LDU we like to set a wide variety of topics. From international politics to feminism, from science fiction to ethics, you will discuss everything you can think of and more in a year at LDU. After the debate a judge decide which team was the most persuasive.
How can a judge decide who was most persuasive?
In the format we use the key criterium for winning is whether an average person is persuaded by the logical arguments made by the debaters. This means that specialist knowledge or prior opinions of the judges do not matter, only the knowledge and the ideals of the average person do. For example, a leftist judge who studies economy should not dismiss right-wing economic arguments because they have an obscure technical flaw in them which only economists would know about.
Moreover, logical argumentation is more important than sounding smart in our debates. A debater that explains nonsense very eloquently will lose against a badly worded argument that actually works.
How is the debate structured?
There are many different formats of debate, each with their own rules. The format we use most often at the Leiden Debating Union is called British Parliamentary, as it resembles a debate in the British Parliament. This is the standard format used in major debating competitions.
The Rules of British Parliamentary
In British Parliamentary, there are four teams of two speakers. Two of the teams are on the government and two teams are on the opposition. The first two speakers on the government side are called the opening government, the first two on the opposition are called the opening opposition and similarly the last two speakers on the government and the opposition are called the closing government and the closing opposition respectively. Speeches alternate between the two sides, starting with the first government speech. All the teams are trying to win the debate outright – this means that it is not the side which wins but a specific team. The speakers within the same team cooperate but teams on the same side do not cooperate during the debate, and instead try to beat each other. The teams are then ranked first to fourth in the debate. Each of the teams has a specific role in the debate.
The Motion and Preparation Time
In British Parliamentary, the motion is announced fifteen minutes before the debate begins. Teams are assigned to positions in the debate randomly. The teams prepare during these fifteen minutes using their own knowledge and experience to create their case.
The Opening Government
The opening government presents the case for the government. Firstly, they must produce a definition: a policy or interpretation of the motion. The definition should be relevant to the motion and should not attempt to restrict or shift it to another debate. They must then present arguments in favour of the motion. The second government speaker must also rebut the opening opposition and explain why their arguments are wrong or irrelevant.
The Opening Opposition
The opening opposition presents the case for the opposition. To do this, they talk about the flaws of the opening government and present their own arguments.
The Closing Government and Closing Opposition
Both of these teams must try to move the debate on, but must not contradict the opening team on their side. In particular, the closing government cannot change the definition. To move the debate on, they present new analysis of the debate either from a different viewpoint or by extending the arguments already made. The third speaker presents this ‘extension’ or new material as well as comprehensive rebuttal or all previous speakers on the opposite side. The last speeches on both sides are summary speeches: they summarise the debate and the clash between teams from a biased perspective in order to explain why their side has won the debate. Special emphasis should be made on why their team has won the debate. No new arguments may be presented in the summaries, although new examples and rebuttal are accepted.
Points of Information
During speeches, speakers on the opposite side may offer short points of rebuttal or questions to the speaker known as points of information. To do this, the speaker offering the point of information must stand up. They must then wait to see if the speaker speaking accepts or declines it. If accepted, the point of information can last up to around fifteen seconds and the speaker speaking may ask for it to stop at any point. Speakers should accept only one or two points of information and offer them regularly throughout other speeches. The first and the last minute of a speech is ‘protected time’, during which no points of information may be offered.
A (very) extensive explanation of British Parlaimentary debating can be found here.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Why do teams try to win the debate outright and not the two sides?
A: This is because issues often have more than one perspective through which we can analyse them and many different groups of people can be affected. This style of debating allows these different perspectives to emerge by generating competition between these views.
Q: Isn’t this format unfair on closing teams?
A: Whilst closing teams have access to fewer arguments as they cannot repeat those from the opening teams, they have much more time to think about what is relevant and important in the debate and generate new ideas. Statistically, therefore, closing teams are actually more likely to win, although it is possible for a sufficiently skilled team to win from any position on the table.
Q: As teams and speakers are assigned to positions, aren’t these debates artificial as speakers could be speaking against their own views?
A: Whilst some speakers could be speaking against their own views, it is important to consider different views. Only by discussing these different ideas can new perspectives emerge, which is important for advancing how and what we think. Debating also exposes people to new ideas and issues that they may not have previously considered.
Q: When debaters speak, how can I believe what they say?
A: Ultimately, whether or not a debater believes what they say, it should not impact on how persuaded you are by their arguments and ideas. You should evaluate what they say just like any other speaker you listen to. A speaker who claims authority over a subject whilst not explaining their views should be questioned in just the same way as someone who has read about a subject but presents a clear and logical argument.
Credits for the above text should go to the Cambridge Union. See the original post here.