Some reflections on debating

May 20, 2024 00:10

I have the privilege and distinct claim to fame (or infamy) of having spent more time in my life doing competitive debate – than not. Indeed, I gave my first debate speech when I was a wee 12 years old, almost 14 years ago.

I can still vividly remember the motion being “This House would ban fast food.” As I was speaking from inside a drama studio, I opted to center my speech around why the drama studio should not be contaminated by what I termed to be “the odorous and odious presence of trashy and non-nutritional substances.” I suppose one could be forgiven for being 12 years old – and only mildly precocious.

The past 14 years have been rather wondrous. Debating has taken me from a shy, nerdy pre-teen to places from Bali to Cape Town, from Zagreb to Mexico City. It has given me friends from all corners of this planet – from Finland through to Australia, from the UK to China. I have had the privilege and pleasure of coaching prominent university debate clubs and leading, dominant school teams.

Yet my so-called achievements do not impress. Indeed, they do not impress me. Nothing gold can stay. Accolades, medals, titles – they are good for the adrenaline rush, mediocrely useful when it comes to so-called CV boosting (I wish those who view debating as a conducive CV-polishing exercise the very best of luck), and deeply unsatisfactory when it comes to long-term reward and fulfillment.

What I had instead been most impressed by – as a lesson, as an upshot – is the fact that debating thrives on individuals’ audacious humility. Audacity, in that the best debaters are those who are unafraid to admit that they are wrong, who are open to accepting that there are things they frankly do not know, and who are willing to venture beyond their comfort zones to probe the unknown. Into the unknown.

Humility, in that the ideal debater is someone who would constantly be on the lookout for not just areas to improve, but also active ways to improve. They would scout for openings not because of a sense of insecurity, but because of a strident sense of confidence in their own ability to adapt and adjust to the shifting demands and circumstances, which could well call for different skillsets on their part.

The best debaters are those who are undaunted by the prospects of being castigated by all, yet who are also open to taking on board sound, constructive advice. As the Lu Xun saying goes, “Remain unfazed in the face of a thousand sceptics finger-pointing at you. Accept with humility the wisdom of the learned and the wise.”

Debaters do not need to win on every issue or matter there is to win. Not every clash or conflict in a debate must be resolved – one way or another. Yet they must focus on the key crux and battles that matter and identify the most persuasive and salubrious defenses and responses to them. Not every hill is worth dying on, but if you die on no hill, then what’s worth dying for?

Debaters must be capable of listening – not just to the overt, textual meanings of the words that are uttered by the other party, but also the sub-text: the subtle, contextual cues that words do not explicitly depict, yet implicitly connote and indirectly convey. Meanings could come in multiple layers, and we must not be fooled by the superficial and the cosmetic to think that they are thereby the real. What’s true can’t be false, and what’s false can’t be true – until rhetoric and stylistic flourishing pull the wool over the eyes of the adjudicators.

The usage of statistics, the invoking and citing of research, and the identification and drawing-upon of raw facts are all useful – but they are by far less important than reasoning. A winning speech should feature robust and rigorous reasons: reasons to believe, reasons to accept, reasons to engage and grapple with stances, one way or the other.

There is no way I can verify, qua judge, the veracity and quality of one’s factual analysis. Yet there is every way for me to appraise whether the argument is in fact sound. A judge must appraise in a fair and even-handed manner, just as the speaker must strive to persuade all reasonable human beings, with the assumption that as little as possible of their prior knowledge could be counted on in their favour.

Always assume the worst and the least amount of knowledge of your judges, to save yourselves the heartache of finding out – retrospectively – that some claims are not to be taken for granted or asserted. Indeed, this has much to do with the innate ethos of debating – wrestling with and catering to the sensitivities and demands, the highs and lows of human psychology. Only when we understand what our audience is looking for, could we speak with the utmost clarity and precision required in order for them to accept, to endorse, and even to champion what we advocate. Short of that, there could be no effective persuasion.

I have moved on since my halcyon days in debating – I no longer do so on a regular or frequent basis. I occasionally coach, often write about debating, and enjoy musing and mulling over the idiosyncrasies of the sport. I still judge. Many of my friends from yore have remained, though some have moved on. Yet I would forever look back at the decade of active debating in my life – all the way up until 2021 – with the warmest fondness possible. Those were the days!

Assistant Professor, HKU