I have been a debater for more than half my life. I first attempted the activity in Year 5, as a prim, quiet almost-ten-year-old bedecked with something of a pageboy haircut. From my naive perspective, it was a resounding success: I stood, drawing up to my full 1.4 metres, palm cards in hand, passionately negating the topic ‘That we should ban school uniforms’. My team won; we ate a victory meal of Arnotts biscuits and orange cordial in the staffroom. An argumentative older sibling, I had found my groove – later that year I attended the Primary Schools State Debating Championships, my grand final speech exhilarating at the time, but in retrospect, cringeworthy.
These days, teaching debating and public speaking to students around the state, the activity hasn’t lost its magic. Some days I watch the minds of tiny Year 5s steadily unfurl and absorb information as they debate via Zoom from far-flung corners of NSW. Sometimes I get grilled on the complexities of foreign policy by some of the best public school debaters in the state. Each week, when I’m coaching my Year 11s, we spend the first 10 minutes of the lesson chatting about a news story of their choice – I watch them grapple with tricky issues, form opinions, and propose solutions.
Debating has given me a lot: it brought me out of my shell as a child, gave me something to take pride in as a teenager, and introduced me to some of my best friends upon coming to Sydney. For me, it has been overwhelmingly beneficial.
But for an activity geared around argument, does debating really help us to argue well? Do the lessons I teach in debating coaching really help my students to engage in productive discourse?
Some of the world’s most prominent minds say no: novelist Sally Rooney, who herself was at one point the best debater in Europe, is critical about the way debating treats argumentation:
“Competitive debating takes [an] argument’s essential features and reimagines them as a game. For the purposes of this game, the emotional or relational aspects of argument are superfluous, and at the end there are winners. Everyone tacitly understands that it’s not a real argument,” she wrote in an essay for the Dublin Review.
I may not be a preeminent international writer, but I disagree. Of course debating is an artifice, of course it’s a mental game. Anyone entering the activity with the desire to earnestly explain their takes needs to try Toastmasters. But the constructed affirmative-negative binary, the compulsion to defend something you don’t really believe — apart from being fun for silly nerds like me, are valuable intellectual challenges.
Defending something you don’t believe isn’t lying (necessarily). It can be an act of humility; it’s hubristic to assume you’re totally right about the world and irresponsible not to challenge yourself to understand your opponent’s arguments.
Debating as an activity does not intend to build up a concrete and positive vision of the world, and nor should it. At its core, it’s about thought experiments: your job is to imagine and reason out and weigh up how different ideas would impact the world. It requires you to think about the things (both rational and less so) which motivate people, to characterise institutions and movements, to extrapolate why norms and policies operate the way they do.
These tasks by no means lead you to inherently good conclusions, but I feel strongly that to attempt to understand and make arguments about processes of change is a basically good pursuit. Debating is not a panacea; it can just teach you sneaky tricks to defend your terrible ideas. All the same, being able to dissect the assumptions underlying an argument and structure your responses to it are skills I want to see more young people equipped with.
Although I’m willing to defend debating in theory, it leaves something to be desired in practice.
One barrier to really profound discursive benefits is the bias for style over substance. For many years, men with polished accents from Oxbridge, Ivy League, and sandstone universities topped international speaker tabs with manicured rhetoric and melodious speaking voices. I do not claim that these speakers were not very impressive, but a consciousness of gender and accent bias has over time encouraged denser and more stylistically diverse speeches, with adjudicators attempting to prioritise content when analysing debates. Still, many debaters lament the tendency for rapid-fire, rhetorically dry speeches to reap rewards at modern tournaments (as a speaker who was never particularly eloquent, I don’t share in this regret).
The recent zenith of the above tendency is the terrible debating app Polemix, which sponsored the most recent World Championships. The app encourages debaters – as well as “philosophers”, “consultants” and other such intellectuals – to submit TikTok style videos arguing for or against a motion. The app is awful: the arguments are lazy and abbreviated. There is a limited capacity to respond to arguments, with users instead encouraged to click ‘respect but disagree’ or ‘convinced by you’ buttons, as though they’re swiping through Tinder. Topics are vapid, things like ‘Squid Game: hugely overrated?’ or ‘Should we cancel cancel culture?’
This is an app which leans into the worst tendencies of debating: intellectual showboating, logical shortcuts, style over substance. Where in a real debate we have eight minutes to untangle the intricacies of issues like war in Tigray or the gig economy, Polemix-ers use lazy rhetoric to try to convince you in 30 seconds or less.
A related, and worse, aspect of debating is the demographic and ideological narrowness of the activity. While debating – especially online – has made positive strides to include speakers from more diverse backgrounds and language statuses, it remains an extremely male and upper class pursuit. Debaters largely see things from a liberal capitalist perspective, often with Global Northern blinkers on. Debaters, naturally, hold the beliefs you would expect from people who go on to work at McKinsey or get a fellowship at a foreign policy think tank. Their worldviews are what happens when elite private schools try to foster social awareness among their students.
I have often struggled with feelings of alienation when I hear debaters make arguments about, say, public schools or young parents. There is certainly a tendency to view people as homo economicus – rational, incentive-driven actors with minimal room for human frailty and tenderness. Debating sometimes displays a narrow economism and a dismissiveness towards ethics.
Some of the speeches that have hit me hardest as a debater have been those that transcend these limitations. Speaking about forgiveness, about communities interpreting their religion, hearing speakers talk about their country’s experiences of conflict: these are the moments when the tools of logic and rhetoric combine in interesting and refreshing ways.
In fact, in Australia, public school students have widespread access to debating and public speaking. The Premier’s Debating Challenge is one of the largest debating competitions in the world, with thousands of public schools taking part every year. Video conferencing, Department of Education workshops, and dedication from school teachers facilitates this effort. Unfortunately, this does not carry through to university: I recently realised I am the only publicly educated Director of USU Debating since I started University in 2018, and university debating societies disproportionately consist of students who attended elite GPS and CAS schools.
This is a self-perpetuating system partly because of geography and differing tertiary education attendance rates, but also because of private coaching and systems of patronage where alumni of particular schools receive automatic prestige and acceptance upon entering university. As a coach, both of school and representative teams, it’s hard not to feel complicit. I began first year energised to empower public school debaters, and I begin fifth year feeling profoundly incapable of changing a system stacked in favour of wealthy men.
Debating – although something of a bizarre niche – remains a major pursuit of the wealthy and powerful at universities around the world. Within it are the tools to become more critical, more confident, more brave in tackling your opponents. I believe they are good tools, but they’re rarely in the right hands. It’s when I spend time with the Year 5s in rural NSW debating about standardised testing that I feel maybe, some day, they can be.