Please Argue

 

ar·gue/ˈärgyo͞o/Verb

1. Give reasons or cite evidence in support of an idea, action, or theory, typically with the aim of persuading others to share one's view.

2. Persuade someone to do or not to do (something) by giving reasons.

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Argument and Counter-Argument form the basis for competitive debate.

Singaporean debaters can no longer argue.


In recent years, I have noticed a disturbing trend of Singaporean debaters at all levels in national tournaments giving less and less time to their substantive cases. It has become the norm for speakers (with 8 minute speeches) to advance their cases at the 5th or even 6th minutes. Unsurprisingly, these cases are then delivered at great speed or with giant logical leaps all over the place. Often, the examples cited would be poor or non-existent. My comments on the score sheet would invariably include desperate appeals to the speakers to advance their cases earlier. This is shocking for me, a debater who grew up in a paradigm where advance your case late was one of the cardinal sins of debate and lead to punishment through the deprivation of ice cream and other worldly goods.

 

What disturbs me even more is that for many speakers, they do not appear concerned at all about this trend. Case in point: I was giving my comments to a certain secondary school team, which was in opposition, and remarked that the first and second speakers needed to plan their speeches better, as they only had one substantive argument each and had to drop their second points. With a blasé look, they coolly informed me that they had only prepped one argument for each speaker. I was shocked, absolutely shocked that after a week’s preparation, a team could or would only have one argument per speaker!

 

It would appear that these speakers were now more concerned with rebuttals and attacking the other side’s case. Teams are now so worried about that their opponents would say that they sometimes neglect one of the best strategies to win a debate: making your arguments and your case so strong that the other side would have to more to worry about. Debate is still fundamentally about showing that your side of the motions is correct and when you have a strong core of arguments to stand on, you are already in an advantageous position. With short, haphazard arguments with no examples, all you will have are stumps to stand on and those tend not to help you too much in battle. (see Black Knight - Monty Python and the Holy Grail)

 

I won’t even go into why the systematic development of a point, showing the clear causal links that lead to the demonstrated outcomes and the relevance to the motion is a good skill to have in general. Even though this skill is a very useful for one’s academic work and eventually one’s lifework, I am not a teacher by trade (be thankful children of the world!) and I will let this lapse for now.

 

However, it is still a crucial skill for a debater because without knowing how to construct arguments, he or she will have a poorer understanding of how to deconstruct arguments as well. I am thus not surprised when I hear speakers utter only a single sentence in rebuttal to a point or in lucky cases, a few sentences to the response. Some debaters appear to be under the impression that as long as they say something, ANYTHING, against their opponent’s constructive, the constructive will fall. This is wrong and very much not the case. If your rebuttal is poor, then it will not be rewarded.

 

Unfortunately, the already abysmal quality of the rebuttals has been worsened by the poor quality of the substantive material! With a lack of development and causal links in cases, the opponents appear times not to even understand what was being said. However, since a rebuttal is called for, they will take a whack anyways, even if the quality is similarly depressing. A good debater is supposed to be able to rebut effectively to even bad arguments. However, it is not helping many speakers that the substantives to be rebutted are poor to start with.

 

I know what you are thinking. If the rebuttals are so short, Sam, why are these speakers not advancing early to their cases? I suspect that this is due to two factors. First, the speakers are not being efficient with time, leading to even a weak rebuttal consuming precious minutes. You will be surprised by how many speakers end up repeating themselves several times in making a point but failing to actually develop that point or to add examples.

 

Second, the speakers are using several short undeveloped rebuttals to compensate. Thus, instead of having a strong counter argument targeted at the weakest link of the substantive, the speakers sometimes take the shot gun approach and try to provide as many quick responses as possible. This sadly leads to classic catchphrase debating, which no actual developments. I also believe that the tendency to have more prepared debates have led to more prepared rebuttal sheets, which have given these speakers the chance to spew out as many rebuttal headings as possible to an argument.

 

Who suffers? Well, aside from the judge who is silently sobbing into his sleeve, the third speakers tend of suffer. When their first and second speakers appear to have spat out every label they could think of in response, it would appear that they no longer have the ability to add anything new to the debate. The smart one would take the undeveloped rebuttals and expand them and give them life. I thank you guys for your efforts and reward you accordingly. But alas for many thirds, they just end up repeating what was said by the previous speakers. So, the whole debate at this point has become a painful affair.

 

The questions remains: why does this persist? Would the judges/coaches not have stepped in and yelled at the speakers and said “Stop it! Just stop it”? I frankly think that the students are continuing to go unpunished for their poor substantives and late advances and thus have no incentive to improve on their argumentative skills.

 

I believe that this stems from a few factors. One possibility is that the judges often have a flawed understanding of the burden of the teams and actually think that the opposition team has a smaller burden. I still remember being aghast when a judge actually told me “opposition has a lighter burden, what.” They mistakenly believe that as long as the opposition team rebuts the proposition’s case, they have done their job and it’s not really important for them to have a good constructive case. Thus, they don’t punish teams that advance cases late. These judges in fact, often end up giving a debate to the opposition teams significantly more times than to the prop. However, the ultimate result is that a paradigm is created on the circuit where constructive material on both teams becomes undervalued and unappreciated.

 

I would hazard a guess that many of these judges are coloured by their exposure to different circuits (such as American Parliamentary) where the burden on the opposition is actually reduced. However, we are talking about World Schools. So these judges are wrong. Schools was a format that was developed in many ways to correct the burden issues in AP or BP and was designed to be completely balanced for both prop and opp. Thus, there is an onus on opposition to provide a set of constructive as well. Heck, for the pedantic ones amongst you all, you can refer to the World Schools rules which say:

5.6 The definition settled, each team has to present a case, supported by arguments and examples.

5.6.1 A case sums up the team‘s arguments and states why its side of the motion is correct.

5.6.2 Arguments are reasons or rationales why the team‘s case is correct.

5.6.3 Examples are facts, events, occurrences and the like that show the team‘s arguments are correct

 

But some judges will point to the WSDC “Notes for Adjudicators” and highlight the passage that says the opposition team has no requirements to deliver a positive case. These judges have often used this as an excuse to give the debate to an opposition which terrible constructive cases only their mothers could love. To these judges, I point out that even the same notes point out that this approach potentially leads to weaker cases and that most WSDC teams would insist on having positive cases. Furthermore, this clause was inserted in those notes for the rare instances where the opposition’s constructive material happens to clash directly with the proposition’s case. In this case, the opposition is justified in running a rebuttal only speech with the following conditions met:

1. They signal from 1st Opposition that this is their intent and that both speakers will be taking this approach.

2. In speaking, they not only rebut the opponent’s points but also ensure that these rebuttals are developed properly and that their own substantive examples are added. In essence, the opposition still MUST add matter to the debate and give the judges something to reward them on.

 

Alas, some judges have had a misconception about this and have instead insisted, even in a debate where the 2nd speaker just plain drops his substantive, that by rule, opposition does not need a constructive and can be given a victory. With the judges giving these types of verdicts, it is not surprising that debaters begin to have the same flawed perceptions as well, which is annoying. In some situations, these debaters have candidly admitted to me that they do not wish to be proposition or even fear the side as it is the “weaker side” given a neutral motion, which is alarming. Worse still, they carry this prejudice over when they become judges, which is highly dangerous.

 

Now I am not saying that proposition does not have its burden as well. They sure do and I am strict about the things that I expect in their speeches. However, on the circuit, we increasingly see judges not punishing late advances, not penalising poor constructive and not ensuring that these mistakes are pointed. Day by day, we see debaters who are unwilling, and increasingly unable, to develop their arguments and deliver outstanding constructive cases. More and more of them are unable to properly attack and deconstruct positive cases in a systematic matter, which at least would have been a saving grace.

 

Even if the causes I identified above are inaccurate, I do not believe I am far off in describing the symptoms of what is happening on this circuit. I live in hope that things would be put right and that the very, very basic skills of argument and counter argument will return to reign once more. And then, I will say.. That's debate.

 

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