Thursday, January 04, 2007

Back to School and Thoughts about Debate

Urgh, dang quarter system meant that I had to rush back to Seattle to attend the first day of school yesterday. Of course I was helped by the fact that I didn't break as an adjudicator, something that seemed likely until the last round.

I hesitate to write too much about this given that a blog, and is for all intent and purposes, a public affair and it's not too much of a stretch of imagination that something I write/publish sometime, somewhere will come back to haunt me e.g. the stuff I wrote about the Iraq invasion/liberation or hell, my general support for free expression and anti-death penalty etc. ad infinitum ad nauseum.

But generally, what I can say is that I had a fairly good run in the tournament. When I was a panelist, I was in good rooms with breaking adjudicators. When I was in weaker rooms, I was a chair. I'm just a little bummed that at the end of it all, I didn't break although I thought it was somewhat clear when I was assigned as a panelist in the last round to a decent room but really an inconsequential one (the teams had nothing on the line except one last good speech).

My experience as an adjudicator has provided valuable experience in how to speak for Worlds and it is fundamentally different from either All Asians/AUDC or the AustralAsians, which is why any comparison that I made during oral adjudication with any of the other styles was hedged with many qualifications and caveats.

My only real regret was that given the motions turning out the way they did, I was not a speaker at this tournament. This had to have been the first tournament in quite sometime where I actually had specialist knowledge for every single debate round and for every side (including strangely enough Quebec and Cosmetic Surgery). And it was that specialist knowledge that made the debates I watch sometimes particularly painful.

For example, on the motion, THBT the United Kingdom should destroy its nuclear arsenal, I was in an above average room with strong speakers, good engagement and team and role fulfillment. Nevertheless, NONE of the speakers mentioned the NPT and the obligations of the Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) to disarm their nuclear weapons as part of the common bargain threshed out in the negotiations of the treaty. As a result, an entire line of argumentation about the NPT and International Law was simply dropped and it was a fairly fundamental part of the theoretical and analytical framework for the justification of disarming nuclear weapons.

Or on an even more extreme case, THBT South Africa should Accelerate its land distributive policies. The word accelerate ought to have told you that there was a land redistribution policy in status quo but no one knew what the freaking policy was. Not my room which included Oxford A, Cambridge C (who made it to the grand finals) and Queensland A(? if it was they made it to the finals too) and NTU. Nor anyone on the NUS team and you really should have seen Alex's face when I said the following four words, "Willing Buyer, Willing Seller". Everything came crashing back to him at that point.

I personally think that the style of Worlds requires two strong speakers. Having a mismatched team is begging for adjudicators to never give you first as it is almost inevitable that the weaker speaker does not fulfill the speaker or team role and adjudicators will seize on that as grounds for a lower position. This is entirely right because the very minimum that has to be met are team and speaker role fulfillment before issues become a serious matter of determination of position and ranking. There will be exceptions and I have seen them, but I got outvoted in those two situations.

Another reason is that the 15 minute preparatory and walking time means that both speakers must have worked together for a substantial amount of time or they have a common frame of reference e.g. world schools e.g. me and Alex (both Li and Yeo) or Mark (general training) or Lifeng (Pro-Ams) etc. Even so, it's nothing like working with CL in terms of background (world schools), time (you try talking debate everytime you go out on a date for 5 years and see where that takes you) and matter (I read the Economist and Foreign Affairs, CL reads stuff like UK and US Spectator as well as Reasons and Mother Jones) and just sheer complementarity in terms of speaker roles (now anyway, we were still working team roles for a while and only settled in last that was a good year despite not going to Worlds).

But I would suggest that this only works for Worlds. With a three-on-three style, having a "couple" debater (and strong ones generally) and a third person requires that the third person be able to mesh in with the only two. CL and I had much success individually with Mark and Alex (CL in Santa Thomas IVs and AUDC, me at NTU IVs), and vice versa. In contrast Alex with us at SMU Hammers was a good example of the converse as he was far far weaker than he was now, as he was coming straight out of NS. Since we kicked him into third and took substantive roles, our prep was very much varsity style one liners, which left him at a disadvantage as we left him to his own devices in determining the coherency of the team stance and argumentation.

That I believe, is the general problem of having a muppet i.e. a speaker you are essentially controlling as an extension of yourself for a debate. There is absolutely no doubt that that person will benefit tremendously from being on a team with two strong speakers. However, that has to be taken into account by the other two. Given a certain level of competency, there is no problem (see above). If the disparity is substantial, allowances must be acknowledged and made e.g. a simplification of the matter and ensuring the third speaker (or worse, if he is a substantive speaker) knows exactly what you desire out of a particular argument that he or she is running. Nothing is more startling, distracting, or destructive than for an argument about separation of powers and institutional competency to turn into a argument about democracy or an argument about regulatory capture be turn into a simplistic point about how bureaucracies are bad.

My favourite story which I still relate to the juniors is to challenge them to give me the argument of the "Russian Example" with regards to global nuclear disarmament. The background was that during a prep with Alex and Chun Hui, we tried to prep for THW support global nuclear disarmament and I casually dropped the phrase "Russian example" to Alex in the expectation that he would pick it up given his knowledge of the issue (due to the Model United Nations Conference at NTU) and the Economist. He did.

This is part of the broader point of having a lingua franca with other debaters whereby certain catch phrases resonate very strongly not unlike law e.g. separation of powers, western liberal democracy, cost benefit analysis, institutional competency and regulatory capture (I'm still trying to introduce the last point, it seems people have trouble with the concept I am told). Thus on a debate about allowing political parties that advocate pedophilia, it was a matter of getting out ideas of rule of law, political process, nature of democracy and a very very sneaky argument in a POI where I asked if sexual assault laws were going to be repealed as well. Since the answer was no, I turned the debate into one where the party was advocating a lowering of the age of consent (I didn't get called on it admittedly although Ashok R. having proposed the debate was fairly frustrated by my redefinition of the debate somewhat).

Anyway, I'm stuck in Seattle for another few months and am unlikely to debate here so this is likely my last debate post.


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