The case for debating

August 26, 2022 10:56
Photo: Reuters

I’ve been asked many a time – why debate? What are the merits of such an adversarial and intrinsically intractable sport, rooted in often little more than mere bravado and bluster? Why should we seek to reduce everything in life into matters of black and white, when, in practice, it is neither this side NOR the other side that wins out? Above all, could debating not sow the dangerous seeds of excessive rebelliousness – to be contrarian for the sake of contrarianism, as opposed to harness the art of speech and words for more meticulously and well-thought-out propositions and speech?

These are all valid questions – and they are questions that I have turned to asking and reflecting upon as I have the fortune and privilege to work with generations of debaters across both high school and varsity levels. Coaching debate has been deeply rewarding – an experience that has taken me to all corners of the Earth, as well as through the highs and lows that one would expect (or not) from working with crops of ambitious, talented, and highly versatile youths with substantially erudite insights to offer. Here, then, my case for debating is as much an impassioned defense of a sport that I have engaged in for over a decade (and yes, it is indeed a sport), as a tribute to all of my coaches and students who have inspired me to no end.

A world before debating – for me, at least – was one where truths were often shoved down our throats and taken as given or for granted. Sides and battle lines were drawn, with stances parcelled out by those who control the zeitgeist. Individuals have little to no say over what they believe in, but are taught – in elite schools or elsewhere – that they must believe it with all the conviction and sincerity that a mighty monk or priest would have, as they engage in their proselytism. Textbooks spelt out the unchallengeable, unassailable ‘public truths’; rumours and hearsay, on the other hand, filled out the rest with ‘private truths’ that have come to dominate public discourse. Debating forces us to confront such orthodoxy – it presents us with the meta-fact that most issues do indeed have two sides, and that such two sides’ persuasiveness varies not in accordance with some objective, holier-than-thou metric vested within the hands of the Divine, but instead in the ability on the part of interlocutors to make confidently and competently these arguments. It forces one to re-evaluate what one has previously subscribed to, and constantly revisit such beliefs with a critical, even skeptical mind.

And there is more. I’ve often remarked that if all there is to debate is to take controversial positions and make them well, then we may as well rebrand it Contrarianism. The primary distinction between debate and contrarian punditry, then, is that facts and logic do – in fact – matter, at least in the sense that only those who come across as being capable of interpreting and helping others make sense of (some) facts through (broadly cogent) logic, would find themselves prevailing in the war of words. Populist pandering and rhetorical flourishing obviously do exist to a degree, yet are by far less visceral and apparent in debating, than in the standard arguments and counter-arguments we hear proliferate in contemporary politics. The mindless bog that we hear from lapdogs, for one, is less likely to surface through debating.

None of this is to say that debating is all ‘brains’ and no ‘heart’. A speech made robotically, with impeccable precision but banal style, is unlikely to attract or win over the hearts and minds of most. We are highly emotional people, as Marina (and the Diamonds) once noted in the eponymous song. Such emotiveness drives us to prefer speeches that can employ imagery, soundscape, and vivid and lucid rhetorical mechanisms, to draw our attention; to captive our imagination, as well as to transform our lived experiences into memorable experiences. Such life skills could well come in handy, especially in the arenas of law and politics. Debating may not be the cup of tea for everyone. Yet for me, it certainly has been life-changing.

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Assistant Professor, HKU