Point of order! The use and abuse of debating

27th May, 2021

Back in 1992, my school friend Daniel Saxby and I stood in London in front of an audience of worthies and a panel of celebrity judges including health minister Virginia Bottomley and Tory grandee Quintin Hogg, Lord Hailsham. We battled an opposing team, debating the motion, “This house would make Scotland independent”.

By the end of the evening, we had emerged triumphant — we were the best young debating pair in the UK, proud winners of the Observer Schools’ Mace. Why have I never boasted of this before? The truth is that I fell out of love with debating.

That is despite the fact that there is much to admire about competitive debating, once it is separated from the culture of upper-class schoolboys and distinguished from the mud-wrestling of presidential “debates”.

In a formal debate, both sides of the argument get equal time. Each speaker has their say. Regardless of age, race, gender or status, they are protected by the chairperson and by the rules.

It was only when I left school, and the debating scene, that I realised how quaint and unusual this level playing field really was. In my first corporate job, I noticed with naive dismay how middle-aged men would routinely talk over young women in meetings. In contrast, in a proper debate, nobody is allowed to talk over anyone. I took for granted the assumption that everyone gets equal time to speak.

There is an obvious appeal to not letting bullies dominate the conversation, but debates uphold another important principle of equality: both sides of the argument are heard. It has become rare to see opposing views presented seriously and in their own words. Instead we pick who to follow on social media, which websites to visit and which TV channels to watch. If we are not careful, all we will see of the opposing viewpoint are quotes carefully selected for mockery.

The advantage of a format in which both sides and all speakers have equal time is not lightly to be dismissed. But debating is a package deal, and along with those merits come some serious downsides.

Competitive debating largely ignores the meta-debate of what motion should be debated. In 2016, the UK electorate was asked whether or not we wished to leave or remain in the EU. Prime Minister David Cameron argued that the only sensible answer was Remain, but simply asking the question implied that either answer was reasonable.

Or consider climate change. We could debate the motion “This house believes veganism is necessary to meet the threat of climate change”, or “This house believes a carbon tax is sufficient to meet the threat of climate change”, or “This house believes there is no threat from climate change”. Which motion gets attention may be more important than any debate that follows.

Debating also feeds some of our less admirable urges. It sometimes pretends to be a search for the truth, but the real goal is not truth but victory.

Several good books have been published recently on the topic of disagreement. Julia Galef’s The Scout Mindset argues that we can deploy our mental faculties as “soldiers” or as “scouts”. Soldiers aim to defend a position; scouts aim to map out the landscape and discover things. Galef believes, plausibly, that we should spend more time reasoning like scouts, but the very structure of debating requires that we reason like soldiers.

Meanwhile, Ian Leslie’s Conflicted celebrates the virtues of productive disagreement, while admitting that plenty of disagreement is not productive at all. Leslie notes that “disagreements become toxic when they become status battles”. True enough, and a competitive debate is a pure status battle. In an ideal world, our goal is the truth and disagreement is merely a means to that end. In the reality of competitive debating, the truth is irrelevant. Disagreement itself is what matters: someone must lose and someone else must win. That is why so much competitive debating turns on flourishes of rhetorical skill, quick-witted put-downs and playing to the gallery.

That night that Daniel and I were crowned national schools debating champions is still a proud moment. I am less proud to admit that I cannot remember whether we were for or against Scottish independence. The topic hardly mattered, did it? What mattered was that we showed skill and panache, and we won.

The social psychologist Charlan Nemeth, author of No! The Power of Disagreement in a World that Wants to Get Along, argues that authentic dissent punctures groupthink and exposes organisational blind spots. But she suggests that there is little benefit in “playing Devil’s advocate” if everyone knows that the disagreement is just for show.

Authentic dissent, says Nemeth, requires someone to stick their neck out and risk opprobrium. Authentic dissent requires courage, or at least stubbornness. The group benefits from the challenge to its thinking, but the dissenter often pays a price.

So perhaps I should be prouder of an earlier debating performance. I was 10 years old and argued against unilateral nuclear disarmament. My entire primary school class voted against me. So did the teacher. So did my own teammate. As a debater, I failed. But I said what I thought was true, regardless of how unpopular it made me. Not many debaters can claim as much.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 30 April 2021.

The paperback of “How To Make The World Add Up” is now out. US title: “The Data Detective”.

“Nobody makes the statistics of everyday life more fascinating and enjoyable than Tim Harford.”- Bill Bryson

“This entertaining, engrossing book about the power of numbers, logic and genuine curiosity”- Maria Konnikova

I’ve set up a storefront on Bookshop in the United States and the United Kingdom – have a look and see all my recommendations; Bookshop is set up to support local independent retailers.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This