Monday, February 13, 2006

*Love, War and Debate*

I wanted to do a Valentine's Day post seeing that it is well Valentine's Day and I hope that a fluffy post would be conducive to my state of mind after attacking my Public Law assignment for the past few hours.

So this poor humble blogger will attempt a post that attempts to draw similarities between the concept/notion of love on the one hand, and the practice/act of debate on another.

Outside of the small incestuous company of fellow debaters (and the poor relations who are dragged into debating), the closest incestuous community would probably have to them that of the intelligence community. Often outsiders will have misconceptions about debate, either ascribing aspects to it that are not present, or not ascribing aspects to it that would make their understanding of debate flawed.

The premise on which this post will first begin will be to establish or at least assert the following maxim, "All's fair in love and war". The implication of this maxim is that there is a concept of love, a corresponding action that can be ascribed to love and an end point to love. Just like war and debate.

1. Like love and war, debate is not about the truth.

Love is about perception while war is about might not right.

And unlike certain other maligned professions like lawyers and statisticians, debate has probably far less to do with the truth than people think. Or perhaps as much to do with the truth as people tend to ascribe to politicians.

This is because debate is about argumentation, which side better presents the facts, stats and assertions in a logical, cohesive and coherent manner. As an adjudicator, we cannot enter into the debate with our own specialised knowledge. All that you are suppose to know is what the reasonable person knows.

I submit that the reasonable varsity level debater knows as much as any reasonably intelligent person who reads three online papers, one print, a magazine and a journal regularly knows. But that is not what a reasonable person knows.

In fact, unless the other side points out the untruth in the opposing side's statement, the most you can do is to dock as many marks as you should decide BUT NOT TO THE EXTENT that the debate is lost.

So if your adjudicator is stupid, you can get away with the most incredible assertions and argumentation. I've actually lost a debate because the adjudicator confessed that she did not know what the WTO was or did thereby totally undermining my argument on why the government's policy for the WTO to regulate the environment through trade was pure nonsense.

2. Like love and war, debate is about winning

Sorry, unless you're in a BP style debate (where you have 4 teams), being second just means you lost.

And considering the very format of debate where you are essentially attacking the validity of the arguments the other side, the debates themselves are rarely cogenial. It's fast, furious and aggressive. Even when we sound nice and polite.

However, the difference is that what happens in the debate itself very rarely if ever carries over post-debates. Everyone understands the groundrules and everyone knows that we are merely attacking the views and not the person. Unfortunately, this view isn't always shared by wider society and that's pretty much why you get flame wars.

3. Like love and war (and sports which is essentially civilised warfare), debate incites the highest passions.

It's not just a debate, any more than soccer or basketball is just a game. The competitive sports people understand this. It means much much more. Debate is a sport and a bloodsport at that. It is as easy to love as it is to hate with a passion, sometimes concurrently.

And there's also the additional point of why debaters are attached to their viewpoints and actually get bored (and or irritated) with argumentation in general life.

After a period of about two years, say with twice weekly training and 6 tournaments a year (assuming you make it for all) you would have easily done over 150 debates on various issues which often overlap. Assuming that you've done your research and debated the issue a couple of times over, it becomes pretty clear to you what your views are on a whole host of issues. And because you know the arguments of the opposing side, this isn't merely obstinacy or ignorance, it is a careful rational and thought out position.

And I've been debating for over 5 years now.

But at the same time, it can be truly frustrating being a debater in real life. Most debaters I think tend to be moderates simply because they know both sides of the issue. So for example, my feelings towards the Israeli-Palestinian problem can be summed up from the following line from Shakespearean Romeo & Juliet, "A plague on both their houses". It's made particularly worse after being on a Model United Nations Historic Security Council on the Yom Kippur War.

As such, extremist pundits seriously annoy me because you know the blatant flaws of their arguments and omissions. The people I'm referring to are people like Ann Coulter (for the right) and Michael Moore (for the left). This is not to say we don't hold extreme viewpoints e.g. my position on free speech but we tend to be moderates for good reason. Same goes for bad argumentation e.g. some of comments made by those pro-abstinence/abstinence-only people or some of the really awful comments in the Sunday Times on capital punishment.

But at the same time, argumentation in real life can be just tiring and boring because you know most of the arguments, rebuttals and counter-arguments and you're just waiting for the 4th argument so things get interesting. But it doesn't normally get that far.

4. Like love and war, it can be both easy and hard

I think conceptually we know what we want from love, war and debate. And like any activity the basics are I suppose easy to pick up but hard to master.

So people approaching debate really come in two forms. Some think it's easier than it is and many others think it's way harder than it is.

Debate is pretty simple to describe, to win, you must beat the other team by being more persuasive and showing by argumentation why their position doesn't stand. We do argue often to try to persuade one another so in a manner of speaking we have some inkling of what to do.

But the thing is, it's like expecting someone who can run with the ball to be good at soccer. To a certain extent it is true, but to the extent that this is a team sport and has rules, it is not.

So it's about team dynamics and sounding coherent as a team and not shafting your teamline and teammates (metaphorically speaking of course). It's about defining the problem and sticking to the issue. It's about knowing what arguments are valid and what are not.

Admittedly it's the nuances of varsity debate that makes things much harder with a steeper learning curve. At your secondary school and JC level, you've got time to prepare on a pre-set motion. Even where you have an impromptu debate, you've got 5 members and about an hour to prepare on a general debate.

Oh and there's no such thing as contextualisation i.e. debating the motion in a particular country or region.

In varsity level debating, the best case scenario is a three person team, 25 minutes to prepare on a general motion (AUDC). The worst case scenario is a two person team, 15 minutes to prepare on a policy debate i.e. presenting a policy to solve the problem that you identified from the motion (Worlds).

But even so as long as you can think and generally sound, you can train to be a debater if you put in the time.




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