Debate often has a reputation of being facilitated and structural bickering. Although this can be true at its worst, this perception is entirely inaccurate on the larger scale. Part of this misconception comes from the somewhat confusing grammar of debate. In its most simplified form, debate is not about arguing but rather focusing on the making of arguments. You can see how this could be confusing. In debate, the term “argument” carries the same meaning as in logic or philosophy. It is not something you “have” but rather something you “make.” Within these contexts, an argument is a series of original statements, or premises, that build on one another in order to, hopefully, derive an impactful conclusion. In logic, this is known as a syllogism. Making arguments in debate is not inherently about winning or even being persuasive. Instead, it aims at the discovery of meaning and significance through the connection of things we already know to be true. Although debate also inherently includes the desire to be appealing and to compete well, these factors should not be allowed to distort debate’s core intent of the communication and evaluation of ideas, lest the activity itself grows toxic and devolves into fruitless bickering. Ironically, the debaters who generally can best access this “idea-building” process see the most success– logic is persuasive.
Motivation for debating should transcend ambition or competitiveness. The evaluation and construction of ideas is pointless without the recognition that truth exists and is worth discovering. Truth is complex and sometimes seemingly at odds with what we already believe. Debate forces us to suspend our own beliefs and contend with ideas as they are. Using critical thinking, we evaluate a stance for all of its merits and failings. In the end, we hope to either reaffirm our beliefs or recognize the potential truth of alternative perspectives. If we lose the foundation of logical argumentation, we lose the search for truth within debate, and thereby its primary purpose.
By the same token, engaging with the other teams’ argumentation should be guided by principle and logic. In order to dispute a conclusion, good debaters demonstrate why premises do not “build” the way that was asserted, introduce unintended consequences to the logic of the other teams’ arguments, or bring up alternative ideas and facts that directly challenge those of the other side of the issue. Debate should not sink to the employment of buzzwords, jargon, over reductionism, or fallacies. It should not be nit-picky. Instead, it should focus on the significant– on adding something to the conversation and elevating it.
Counterintuitively to what has been said thus far, there is an extra pressure within good debate to avoid unnecessary intellectualization. British Parliamentary, the form of debate practiced by our team, attaches special significance to maintaining a “common man” style that recognizes the complexity of the issues we debate but still attempts a format and style that is accessible to all decently informed world citizens. The goal is not to create a dialogue understandable only by subject experts and the topical “elite.” Even so far as it is debate’s purpose to discover truth, it is its purpose to create a conversation around it that all can contribute to. Rather than lecture, we aim to convey ideas in a way that makes them more approachable rather than less so.
The Debate Team of the University of Mississippi
“The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress.” – Joseph Joubert