Opinion: Debate Matters
|10 May, 2016||Filled under Opinions, Reviews||
What is debate?
Oration goes back a long time. Aristotle’s classic, The Art of Rhetoric, is the best-known work on the topic and, to this day, remains one of the most valuable sources on the subject. Oratory presupposes the existence of a society and, hence, a public and a private realm. In the public realm man exercises his citizenship, this means both his formal rights, as laid down by law or constitution, and informal rules that arise out of his interaction with others and establishes custom. It is through social interaction that gives rise to the political sphere. In the privacy of man’s dialogue with himself – that is thinking – man develops a view of the world and it is through his interaction with others, in the public sphere that those views are given voice and views are exchanged and tested. Beliefs are affirmed or negated and take on a social, rather than private, level, which informs the body politic. In effect, society engages in debate, albeit at an informal level. Various ways of seeing the world are presented and tested and it is this that is the central aspect of debate: allowing for a greater understanding, which can suggest how society can progress for the betterment of its citizens. Leaving aside the informal approach to debate, organisations such as political parties, charities, private companies, etc. formalise the process, mainly to focus on a single issue. There are a few different formats that the formal debate takes. Debating societies in educational establishments, for instance, will pose a question (“This house believes . . .”) and two teams are selected to speak for and against the motion. Some of these types of debate may well include audience participation. The highly respected Debating Matters competition, while not belonging to any branch of the educational establishment, organises debates in which school pupils are given a topic and for each topic two teams are chosen to speak for and against a given statement. The audience is given an opportunity to interrogate the speakers. The format favoured by Salons and also the annual Battle of Ideas event, is to have a panel of speakers. Each speaker presents their view on a topic and the debate is then opened up to the audience for questions and/or statements to the panelists, who will be given time to respond.
What makes a good debate?
A successful debate is not a result of the subject under discussion. Certainly a subject may well be controversial and passions may well be aroused. But a good debate results from its presentation. I will stick to the format that Salons use. There are three components to our debates: the audience, the panel and the chair. Of those, the chairperson is the most important. S/he is comparable to the conductor of an orchestra in that they ensure that the debate runs on pre-agreed rules, such as how long a panelist can speak for, ensuring audience members are allowed time to make their points, being aware if the debate is straying from the topic under discussion and much more. In many debates there will be members of the Salons in the audience. Referring to them by name (unless people are asked to give their name before they make their contribution) can make the meeting seem like an old boys gathering. Best practice would be for the chair to point out each audience contributor when they are choosing who should speak and in what order. It will help to dispel any suspicion of favouritism that audience members who are not from the organisation responsible for the debate, might, justifiably, suspect. Bearing in mind that these are formal events, it is important that the chair assert their authority at all times, to ensure the debate runs smoothly. The chair should feel confident when dealing, not only with, panel members but also members of the audience. The chairperson should maintain an air of objectivity and panelists should not refer to the chair by name but by their title (‘Chair’).
It may also be useful to state that panelists are speaking in a personal capacity, especially those who work in universities, local or national government, charities or are voicing ideas, which are not necessarily representative of their organisations or of their political party, if they are MPs, for example. This ensures that the audience is not given to misunderstanding about the policies of a political party or organisation, and also it helps to undermine any potential mischief making on the part of the media. A good Chair may well express their own opinion but they will not show disfavour to those who differ from that view. It is important that each panelist is given equal consideration and that their views are given ample opportunity to be aired, within the time limits of the debate, for the debate to be considered successful Panelists will be chosen for their understanding of the subject of debate. In short, they should be expert in their field, and this inevitably means that they will more than likely come from an academic background. They will be restricted to a time limit for their introduction and when they respond to audiences or when they are summing up. Whilst being aware that some panelists may have problems with speaking from memory, it is disheartening to see a panelist speaking from a written page. It is best practice for a panelist to keep their script on the table rather than have it in their hand as if they were actors rehearsing for a play.
Some misconceptions about the role of debate.
Whilst debate will provide different views on a topic it is not an educational technique. A panel will provide an audience with as wide a scope of interpreting an issue, and thus provide a greater understanding. Unlike school pupils, the audience will decide for themselves, which, if any, are the most preferred arguments. Also, it should be noted, a debate is not a competition between different views. One panelist’s argument may find favour with a large section of the audience, but that does not necessarily mean that it provides the best response to a problem. The ultimate aim of debate is truth, but an audience can be swayed by many factors: the manner in which a speaker has put their argument across; the reactions of other members of the audience and the audience member’s own belief system, amongst other things. A panelist will surely want to persuade the audience of the viability of their proposals, but, ultimately, a proposal cannot prove itself until it is put into action, and that is not something that can be done in a debate. However, through debate people discover the possibilities and can act upon their new-found understanding, for example, through the ballot box, voting for the candidate who presents the most realistic solutions to problems. Many people of a certain age (eg. 45 years+) may well have been involved in political groups and may still be. They would have attended meetings where a public (as opposed to a selected audience) are presented with the party line on an issue.
Much of the time the audience would be given the opportunity to quiz the speaker: challenging or affirming what the speaker had set out in their speech. However the political meeting is, in no manner, comparable to a debate. The political meeting has, as its aim, a purely informative role. Views from the audience may well be considered and may well inform the approach of the political party to the issue in hand, but they will do so only within the narrow confines of a party’s overall belief system ( eg. Socialist, Conservative, etc.). Unlike the formal debate where different views are presented to the audience, the public political meeting has as its purpose a purely agitational function. The intent of the political meeting also aims to recruit members of the audience, not just into supporting a policy, but also in becoming supporters or members of the party. A Salon will also want to build its audience. But whilst the political party will attract support by saying what they will do, the Salon debates can only maintain support by what they do. That means conducting debates that are relevant, in an atmosphere that allows for the widest possible discussion an understanding. The public debate does not have the narrow approach of the political meeting. The aim is, in its narrowest sense, one of enlightenment. An audience should come away from the debate not just better informed but with a greater understanding of the issue and a confidence in reaching their own conclusion.
Why Debate Matters
Salons exist throughout Britain, in many of the major cities. There is also a Zurich and a Dublin Salon as the movement continues to grow. The Salons are the offspring of the Institute of Ideas, which also gave birth the Battle of Ideas and Debating Matters competition. The Liverpool Salon takes the title of ‘Salon’ from the 18th century Enlightenment period, which saw establishments, such as coffee houses becoming places where debate about the formation of a new society took place. Today there is little room for people to come together to talk about building new society and little understanding of the world we find ourselves living in. Ideas such as ‘Equality’, ‘Democracy’, ‘Humanity’, once the rallying cry of people seeking freedom from tyranny, are too often spoken about in sneering terms, with those who still hold to the truth of those words dismissed as ‘so last century’. With large sections of the political class having effectively abrogated their role as representatives of the people, power has increasingly shifted from democratically accountable elected bodies to appointed agencies, bureaucracies, policy makers and other ‘expert’ opinion makers at home and in transnational bodies. No longer looking to the wider electorate for support, political parties pass responsibility for decision making onto unelected bodies. Placing trust in the electorate or even showing interest in the wishes or opinions of voters seems not only irrelevant but dangerously close to ‘fanning the flames’ of populism. ‘experts’ in think tanks and bureaucrats produce policy and regulations at home and in transnational bodies like the EU. Public ‘debate’ is usually confined to situations, where policies and regulation emerge in response to threats to public health or safety or as knee jerk responses to terrorist atrocities or particularly gruesome crimes. New regulations are often created in situations where existing laws appear adequate. As traditional religions lose their influence, new concerns around ‘saving the environment’, tackling ‘everyday sexism’ or promoting health and well-being have arisen to replace the old gods. And woe betide those who would dare to question these new certainties. Our freedoms to engage with each other in the public world are increasingly diminished by petty rules introduced by local authorities. Our once cherished privacy to act, speak and think freely is no longer our own. Children are exhorted to correct their parent’s ‘misdeeds’: which waste to put in which bin or what type of food is safe to serve up for meals. Adults are treated as children: a chance remark made in a conversation among friends and colleagues can be made public and the ‘offender’ dragged before the court of ‘public opinion’ to make an apology, retract their faulty opinions and perhaps even shed a few tears.
How can our lives be truly our own, in a situation where we are fearful of doing, saying or even thinking the ‘wrong thing’? This drive towards narrowing the boundaries of what is or is not ‘appropriate’ as a topic of conversation or point of view has certainly proved helpful to those who prefer to sidestep the concerns and opinions of their fellow citizens. The authoritarian response to unwelcome or ‘inappropriate’ is to shut them down by censorship. This has become a particular problem in universities, where speakers, including academics, have found themselves ‘no-platformed’ – in other words banned from expressing their opinions. The National Union of Students, giving up any pretence of representing the practical interests of students, have increasingly come to see themselves as acting in loco parentis, protecting their vulnerable charges students from contact with ideas that they might find upsetting or offensive. This is a situation where, for many people, the loss of old political certainties seems to be giving rise to a sense of confusion and apathy rather than a desire or search for new and better political ideas. Apathy does not necessarily mean that people have lost interest or stopped caring about political issues, it may simply be a symptom of the break down of the democratic structures through we are able to make our voices heard. Why should we simply accept this situation, where we have so little say in decision making over issues that affect all our lives? The gulf between the electorate and those responsible for political and policy making decisions has never been greater in modern times. As people find increasingly find themselves subject to rules and regulations over which they exercise no authority, it is little wonder that many of us have stopped talking about ideas that could make a political difference, and simply retreated into defending our own private interests and spaces. In this atmosphere of growing political disaffection that makes the need for public debate so urgent.
The Salons exist to ferment understanding and appreciation of issues that cover a wide range from social issues, international issues, sport, art, and more. Salons are committed to creating space for the exchange of ideas. That commitment means that no viewpoint is disallowed in the debates. The Salons ensure that the panelists are the best representatives of the issue at hand. Because we recognise the importance of debate, we ensure that each event will meet the most professional standard. It is time that we rediscover our voice. Time to tell those in power that we are not prepared to accept being ignored; valued only at election time. If there is to be any chance of changing our world for the better then it is vital that we become aware of the world as it is. The main weapon in that struggle is debate and the Salon movement exists to ensure the widest possible public debate. There is a great deal of reading material available on the subject of Debate, much of which is valuable, though much of it is written from the authors’ own prejudices. So I will not provide a reading list. One work that I would highly recommend, especially for those who may find themselves as participants in a formal debate, is Monash Association of Debaters Guide to Debating Tips,
Tactics and First Principles By Tim Sonnreich, which can be found here.