There’s much talk about debate these days, but do we even know how to do it?

WHEN I was in high school, I had the good and (even in those days) atypical experience of passing through the classroom of a teacher who held fast to the discipline of the formal debate. Looking back, I regret that I hadn’t had more of it, and I wonder to what degree today’s students are similarly deprived by a culture which mechanically genuflects before the shrine of debate while refusing to nourish the conditions which make it possible.

Oh, yes, there are many “debates” these days, most of the political campaign variety. In these made-for-broadcast affairs, well-scripted and well-manicured candidates are cued by a moderator to squeeze focus-group-tested morsels into the narrow spaces between commercials, ever careful not to say anything that may be construed later on as a commitment. At once supremely polished and exorbitantly crude, these absurd instances of theatre soil the tradition of debate. Nothing remarkable is ever said, nothing important ever decided. The blood having been let from the body politic, public debates today merely affirm the moribund state of an electoral system dominated by the public relations and marketing industries.

There are many formal variations of debate, and it happens that I was trained in what is called the British Parliamentary, or Oxford, style. This method, which as the name implies is derived from the formal procedures of Parliament, consists of two four-member teams: a proposition team and an opposition team, each of which is further subdivided into two-member halves. The proposition team speaks in favour of a house motion, the opposition team against it. In this exercise, a moderator introduces and provides an overview of the motion before the house. The first proposition is delivered on behalf of the motion, providing a general overview of the points sustaining the case in favour. The opposition follows in like manner. Then the second proposition attacks the first opposition’s points while continuing to build the case in favour of the motion, and vice versa. Next, the third speakers of each team provide an “extension” of their respective positions, raising the level of debate by introducing new evidence to conquer their opponent while also trying to outdo their own team members in rhetorical skill. A dialectic within a dialectic, this structure is designed to produce the maximum amount of heat and light. Finally, each team summarizes its position, identifying the “clashes” it has encountered with the other and the superior points it has thereby established. A vote is taken in the house, the motion is opposed or carried, and a winner is declared.

In the Oxford tradition, at least as I encountered it, one was expected to then be able to make the opposite case with at least equal force. The idea behind this practice was that one must know an opponent’s arguments as well as the opponent does, and be able to argue them from the inside. This I quickly understood was the way with the best debaters. They put as much energy and time into mastering the positions of their adversaries as they put into mastering their own. And so it was for me. I argued, for instance, on behalf of the propositions that the practice of slavery was within the rights of the South and Apartheid likewise within the rights of South Africa. A great many promotions of arguments which I found morally repulsive followed, with the result that I became much more effective and confident in my actually-held convictions. Today I can readily identify a debater who only (at most) half-comprehends the position of an opponent. The usual complement of this is that he or she fails fully to comprehend his or her own.

A good debate is a rare pleasure. I happen to think there is a longing in our day for real debate, “real” meaning unscripted and open and unsanitized and pugnacious and occuring over issues that matter.

Few opportunities are provided for participation in formal debate before an audience of one’s peers, but of course a debate of sorts takes place over every table at which people are gathered. In any culture in which democracy is taken seriously (in other words, not here) there is a space set aside for debate and the hearing of cases. John Milton’s infamous 1644 pamphlet in defence of press freedom, Areopagitica, is named after one such locus in Ancient Greece, the Areopagus, a public court which is said to have sat on the hill of Ares.

Then there are the legendary debates of more recent times, for example between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln in the Illinois Senate campaign of 1858. One could go on producing further examples, but the point that debates of legend are unlikely in our time is a matter of self-evidence. Who can credibly claim surprise when the disciplines of a Liberal Arts or even classical education, as well as training in the formal rules of debate, are near extinction. I submit to the house that this is however not a case of the lost cause, but of a cause whose time for renewal is coming. Debate amongst yourselves.

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