Debating - an intellectual exercise - part I

As the Economist Debate series (1) -currently on education - is quickly approaching its end, we find that we can no longer postpone writing our article on debating. I discovered debating quite late in University (2, 3). Deeply disappointed by the lack of flexibility in the engineering curriculum and the unidirectional nature of lectures, I tried to find something to quell my need for interaction (the cerebral kind) and most of all, my need to argue (peacefully) - there were other reasons as well, but they are beyond the scope of this article. I thus volunteered for several clubs & organizations and joined the debating club. I don't think I can adequately explain how great that experience was and how indebted I am to that club for opening my mind, polishing my presentation, public speaking and persuasive skills. Before going into details, let me quickly list some of the prejudices against debating, which I will hopefully deconstruct in this article. Some people think that debating is:

  • a fight that cannot end well
  • about proving you're right and proving your opponent wrong
  • for know-it-alls
  • forcing you into a state of dispassionate moral ambiguity and equidistance from any sensible opinion
  • transforms you into a senseless, emotionless lawyer
Obviously, I believe the above are wrong. But before responding directly, let me start with what competitive debating is about.

Quick Intro

There are several debating styles. At U of T, the prevailing styles were Canadian (obviously), British Parliamentary and American. There are minor differences between the styles, but we will leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine what they are, possibly using the links in the Sources section and especially the PDF guide (4). We will only provide an overview of what most debates are like with the strong advice to consult the guide for clearer directions. In a typical debate there are two major camps: the Government (Gov) and the Opposition (Opp). In most debates, this means 2 teams of 2 people each, although it is possible to have 2 teams on each side as well. On Gov side, this is usually the prime-minister (PM) and the minister of the crown (MC), while on Opp side, we have the leader of the opposition (LO) and the member of the opposition (MO). The debate starts with with a topic / resolution, for instance, the current topic (1) : "be it resolved that social networking brings positive change to education". The Gov will then try to prove this point, while the Opp will try to disprove it. In most cases, the Gov gets to choose the topic, although it is also possible that the topic or resolution is forced upon the two teams. In a tournament, the resolution is usually a general statement, such as a famous quote, and the Gov is free to choose any topic for the debate, as long as they tie it in the actual resolution with a clever opening sentence. The topic the Gov chooses must be debatable. That means that topics involving narrow, technical knowledge, truisms (the Earth revolves around the Sun), etc are not to be chosen. The Gov must then frame the debate and reveal the topic within the first few sentences of the PM's speech. The PM is the first to speak and does so for 7 minutes. This is probably the most important speech of the debate. If the PM fails to frame the debate properly, the debate is phsckd. The PM must not only frame the debate, but should also provide several strong constructive points to sustain their position. The MO comes next with another 7 minutes. He does not only attack each and every point made by the PM, but should also come up with at least three constructive points in favour of the opposite point of view. The MC follows the MO and does some damage control, rebuilding the Gov case, patching it up by attacking the MO's constructive points, reaffirming the PM's initial points and hopefully throwing in a few more constructive points of his own, all in 7 minutes as well. The LO was been waiting a while and as such is richly rewarded with 10 minutes of uninterrupted prosperity. The LO has to refute the MC first, but also the PM's constructive, then come up with another 3 points of his own. The PM then gets 3 minutes of damage control. He can and should point out mistakes in the LO speech and refute the LO's points. He also has to rebuild (or at least restate) the Gov's strongest points. The PM cannot bring anything new in her last 3 minute speech. Points of Information (POIs) are a formalized manner to interrupt a speech. Sometimes they are allowed, sometimes they aren't. The way it usually works is you stand up with your hand extended (or a pose similar to that in that sword sport, forgot its name). It is up to the debater speaking at that time to "take" your point. If they don't, they may lose points with the judge. If they do, it's a great opportunity for you to send them off-track. If debating within a University team, you will be able to participate at heavily subsidized tournaments, where your hotel, meals and transportation are often fully covered for several days. The booze and other substances are usually provided by the hosts and hostesses. Be prepared to waste your nights partying.

Quick Tips

  1. ad hominem - Always do your best to stay away from personal attacks. Attack ideas all you can, but never the person stating them. Do not respond to personal attacks with another one, rather point it out so that the judge takes note of it and move on. Address the judge / speaker of the house, because it's them you are trying to convince. Try not to use a pen when gesticulating, as some judges interpret it as overly aggressive (I think that's rather silly, but that's the norm). You may use fine irony, but make sure it's not hateful. If you are a beginner, it's best to stay away from that - ironies and jokes at the other team's expense are good only with the cool detachment that comes with experience.
  2. a resume is not an argument (i.e., "trust me, I'm a lawyer") - In an effort to give more weight to their argument people often resort to "I'm a specialist, so I should know better" argument. This is a logical fallacy (more about them in our next segment). The validity of an argument rests on one's ability to explain it and persuade the listener. If you know something well, then you should be able to explain it better. If you can't or won't do that, then perhaps you don't know it as well as you think you do. Nonetheless, despite being less than logical, such arguments are successfully used with dumb judges. Experienced debaters facing a beginner team in front of beginning judges brag with their experience and often get away with poor argumentation. For what is worth, when judging at tournaments I always severely penalized debaters using this noob-jedi mind trick.
  3. delivery is as important as logic - In CUSID (5) tournaments, judges are supposed to split their mark 50%-50% in delivery and logic. That means that if logic is not your strongest point, you can still prevail by being awesome at entertaining the judge (though it should be noted that if you manage to do both well, you rock!). Even experienced judges may overlook your logical inconsistencies as long as you make them feel good.
  4. quick thinking - Debating improves your ability to think and decide quickly and if you already have this, you will do well. If you do not and keep at it, you will improve it. The effects on quick thinking (and the importance thereof) are similar to those of improv classes.
  5. intellectual exercise - it does wonders to your strategical thinking. You will soon find yourself anticipating your opponents' responses and planning argumentation several moves ahead, just like in chess or go.
  6. public speaking & presentation skills (6) - Seinfeld has famously compared the fear of death with the fear of public speaking, observing that at a funeral, most people would rather be in the coffin than give the eulogy. After debating, you might be one of the select few who appreciates life more. Few other sports will do for the essential skill of public speaking more than debating.
  7. networking - One extremely important aspect of debating is the possibility to network. You will meet future politicians and lawyers (or even existing at some clubs or even Toastmasters -7 ) and generally smart, articulated, bright, non-boring people who are interested in self-improvement.
  8. self-improvement - As a debater, you will become a better person. You will become better at dealing with stress, your intelligence and personality will become more fluid and adaptable, you will expand your horizons, will become more accepting of other people's views, will better understand the haphazard nature of opinion making, will learn things you did not know that you don't know, and in the end, you'll get much better at decision-making.
A wise man said - and I paraphrase, since I cannot find the exact quote right now - that we like to admire people's opinions like we do dogs, without having to take them home with us. In our next segment we will take a look at logical fallacies, with examples from forums. Until then, be sure to join the Economist debate (1).


“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that seem right? That means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy”. - Jerry Seinfeld It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it. Joseph Joubert The extra curricular activity in which I was most engaged - debating - helped shape my interests in public policy. Joseph E. Stiglitz “When you resort to attacking the messenger and not the message, you have lost the debate.” Addison Whithecomb “Freedom is hammered out on the anvil of discussion, dissent, and debate.” Hubert H. Humphrey "A man never tells you anything until you contradict him." George Bernard Shaw "Arguing is really saying, "If you were really more like me, then I could like you better."" Wayne Dyer "Did you ever notice how difficult it is to argue with someone who is not obsessed with being right?" Wayne Dyer "Don't take the wrong side of an argument just because your opponent has taken the right side." Baltasar Gracian "Exaggeration follows desperation." Chris Bowyer "He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper." Edmund Burke "I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left." Margaret Thatcher "I argue very well. Ask any of my remaining friends. I can win an argument on any topic, against any opponent. People know this, and steer clear of me at parties. Often, as a sign of their great respect, they don't even invite me." Dave Barry "I have never in my life learned anything from any man who agreed with me." Dudley Malone "I love argument, I love debate. I don't expect anyone just to sit there and agree with me, that's not their job." Margaret Thatcher "I wish I could give you a lot of advice, based on my experience of winning political debates. But I don't have that experience. My only experience is at losing them." Richard Nixon "If you can't convince them, confuse them." Harry Truman "Information, usually seen as the precondition of debate, is better understood as its by-product." Christopher Lasch "I'm willing to admit that I may not always be right, but I am never wrong." Samuel Goldwyn "Just as war is freedom's cost, disagreement is freedom's privilege." Bill Clinton "Men often oppose a thing merely because they have had no agency in planning it, or because it may have been planned by those whom they dislike." Alexander Hamilton "My idea of an agreeable person is a person who agrees with me." Benjamin Disraeli "Silence is one of the hardest arguments to refute." Josh Billings "The absent are easily refuted." C.S. Lewis "The argument is at an end." Saint Augustine "The best way to win an argument is to begin by being right." Jill Ruckleshaus "The man who says he is willing to meet you halfway is usually a poor judge of distance." Laurence Peter "The moment we want to believe something, we suddenly see all the arguments for it, and become blind to the arguments against it." George Bernard Shaw "The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it." Dale Carnegie "The partisan, when he is engaged in a dispute, cares nothing about the rights of the question, but is anxious only to convince his hearers of his own assertions." Plato "The sounder your argument, the more satisfaction you get out of it." Edgar Watson Howe "The well-bred contradict other people. The wise contradict themselves." Oscar Wilde "There is only one rule for being a good talker - learn to listen." Christopher Morley "They defend their errors as if they were defending their inheritance." Edmund Burke "To be absolutely certain about something, one must know everything or nothing about it." Henry Kissinger "Trust the man who hesitates in his speech and is quick and steady in action, but beware of long arguments and long beards." George Santayana "When you have the facts on your side, argue the facts. When you have the law on your side, argue the law. When you have neither, holler." Al Gore "Wise men argue causes, and fools decide them." Frank Tyger


  1. debate series
  2. Hart House Debating club - hhd
  3. hdd group - facebook
  4. Central Debating Guide (pdf) - cusid
  5. All CUSID Guides - cusid
  6. everything I know about presentations I learned in theatre school - darrenbarefoot
  7. Toastmasters International


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