Saturday, 28 April 2012

Debatabilities in Cambridge

Not of Thursday's debate

All Thursday I was in Cambridge at the Cancer Research Institute, listening to debates and eventually judging one. The day is part of the Debating Matters programme organised by The Institute of Ideas for whom I had engaged in a number of panel discussions in the past. They have all been great admirable gallops through a central question addressed by those on the panel, not with a view to a vote but simply to articulate thoughts as clearly as possible.

But this was a competition for schools who had got through qualifying rounds to arrive at this regional stage. It consisted of formal debates with strict rules, a firm proposition with proposers and opposers, a panel of judges who ask questions and sum up, and an audience that is invited to put questions to the teams.

Schools arrive with teams of which two students are allocated to one debate, two more to another and so on.

Why debate? Shouldn't we all just be getting on with each other, coming together on common ground? Wouldn't the world be a better place if we were just nice to each other?

The point of adversarial debate is to examine an issue thoroughly through criticism. At its best, it is not about scoring personal points, bullying, or finesse but about the proposition itself and what the proposition entails. Adversarial debate proposes that by fudging issues we conceal them. In matters of law - and few people are against law - we are either guilty or not guilty as charged. We depend on one side to state every possible argument for, the other every possible argument against.**

The point of consensus is that we begin by regarding each other as potential partners. At its best it foregrounds our common humanity and by establishing relations looks to overcome difficulties through the willingness to overcome them. It assumes good will and may, by assuming, actually generate goodwill. One has to start somewhere.  (The recent attempt by an Israeli family to send love to Palestinian families is one possible way of starting, as is the Barenboim-Said West-Eastern Divan and one would have to be very sneery indeed to dismiss such things as meaningless gestures.)

The weakness of consensus is that it looks for agreement and steps round potential difficulties that might prove fatal.

The weakness of the adversarial is that one may present a very weak argument for a strong case, and vice versa. But formal debates are sparring rather than boxing. No actual harm is suffered by either the cause or the parties in debate. It just makes both think harder.

Some impressions
The first three-minute statements were often the least interesting. The basic position was set out in 1, 2, 3 manner by the teams, a little like building with big bright blocks of Lego, sometimes coolly, sometimes with passion. Passion is good. The very idea of the debate is bound to be adversarial in nature. The point of adversarial argument is to examine a case more thoroughly than you could with consensus in mind.

The fun really begins after the initial speeches have been made. This is where background reading and thinking on one's feet become important. Blocking, striking and dancing are the required skills. It is where the most able and best prepared can shine.

In the first debate - one between girls in favour of the Olympics and boys against it, it was amusing to see how the girls in their self-descriptions played it very straight, while the two boys played enigmatic code games, one saying practically nothing, the other spouting self-mocking nonsense. Neither boy could afford to be himself. As it happened their case warmed up nicely the trouble being that it was based entirely on cost and though the girls' case reached hyperbolic levels - it was worth any price, however high to have the Olympic Games - people do on the whole prefer to make choices, when possible, or so they would say, despite of money constraints.

The second debate was about opting out of organ transplants. Probably a better debate, chiefly about autonomy versus social good, decent use of figures. The boy against opting out eventually won the finest individual debater though his team did not make the final.

My own debate was on a more complex issue that did not require a commitment to action, simply an agreement or disagreement with the proposition that resources were running out. You can quote statistics either way. If the question had been about our obligations either way there might have been something at stake. The debaters did well with what they had in front of them - it was a tough issue to be given - but it didn't make for lively argument.

The final was between two teams of girls, on the the rejuvenation of political protest through social media. It is not a very difficult case to make since there is plenty of evidence that FB and Twitter had contributed to the organisation of political protest, and the counter-claim that last summer's riots were just not political isn't enough. A better line of argument might have been that while social media get people together and encourage a gang mentality, they don't go much further except as links to read more substantial pieces of writing that are published in the press or books.

And so on. This is getting to be a tediously long piece, but I found the event cheering and entertaining. Intelligent people are perfectly capable of lazy thinking. You can't afford to be lazy in such circumstances and the exercise showed intelligence in action.

** I have sometimes thought of organising poetry workshops on adversarial lines with one student to level every possible criticism at the poem and another to praise all its possible virtues, guessing that more of value might be said, but this is psychologically a very difficult process in an area so concerned with subjectivity and vulnerability, and in the end the best course is often to chair the discussion as judiciously as possible.

1 comment:

Tim Love said...

I have sometimes thought of organising poetry workshops on adversarial lines - I've tried something like that as an attempt to separate observation from evaluation, getting some people to list (without explanations) all the bad things about a poem (or about a feature like end-rhymes) while getting other people to list all the good things. Sometimes people's preconceptions affect what they observe. More often people's preconceptions affect the reaction to something they all observe.
But I've not thought of using for this exercise a poem of someone at the workshop.