What is debating

11 Apr


Debating is a formalised discussion with the purpose of convincing a third party by means of arguments.

Convincing a third part: In debating, in contrast to discussing, it is not the goal to convince one another. Only very rarely will one witness a debater acknowledging that the other person is right. Instead, the debaters try to convince a third party that their arguments are better than the arguments of their opponents. This third party can be: the voter, the audience, coalition parties, or in the case of competitive debating, a jury. Take the example of presidential debates in the US. You will never see a candidate acknowledging that the other candidate has the better arguments. Instead the focus their efforts on convincing the voter. Not each other, for they know that it’s pointless

Formalised: A debate is simply a discussion with rules. These rules always include the amount of time a debater has, what is permissible during the debate and rules concerning interruptions. The rules concerning what is permissible concerning simple etiquette, but also regulate the kind of arguments allowed. For example, personal attacks are almost never allowed, nor discriminatory or sexist remarks. Regarding interruptions: in some cases interruptions are not allowed, sometimes the debater has to give permission and in other cases the chair of the debate has to give permission.

In competitive debating the rules also include what the roles of each debater is in the debate. For instance, the first speaker on a proposition side is supposed to outline a case. If he or she doesn’t perform this elemental duty, then the debate will be very messy indeed. Also the last speakers on each side, are almost always obliged to give a summary of the debate. Competitive debating also has rules on what is considered fair in a debate. These rules include the permissibility rules outlined above, but also regulate what kind of cases are fair and, for example, that new arguments are not allowed in the summary.

Types of debates:

There are roughly three generic types of debates:

  1. “House of commons”: these debates have a comparable set-up as the debates in the British ‘House of commons’, but different rules. In these debates two groups face each other like in parliament. Two versions then exist. In the first version, popularized on dutch television, every debater is allowed to choose his own position on a subject. In the second version the two groups represent teams, which have to defend a certain side of an issue. In both cases debaters may make a point by standing up and waiting until the debate-moderator gives the ‘the word’. They are then allowed to give one argument, ask one question, or make a single remark.
  2. Parliamentary debating: these debates have rules based on the rules governing debates in the British ‘House of commons’, but have a very different set-up. Three versions of this style exist. In American parliamentary two teams of two people each have to defend a side of an issue. The proposing team is aptly called ‘the government’ and the opposing team is called ‘the opposition’. In Australian parliamentary style, two teams consisting of three persons have to defend a certain side of an issue. The last style, which is also the style which is used during the World and European championships is British Parliamentary style. In British parliamentary style, four teams consisting of two people compete against each other. Two of the teams have to defend an issue and two teams have to oppose. The two teams on one side have to work together, but at the same time, have to outperform each other. This resembles the often difficult situation that coalition parties are in. In all versions of parliamentary debating debaters speak for a pre determined amount of time. Often between 4 and 8 minutes each. During these speeches, it is allowed to give interruptions. This is done by standing up and asking the speaker for permission. If the speaker allows it, then the interruptor is allowed to give one point, or ask one question. The speaker is not forced to accept interruptions, but in general has to allow at least 1 or 2.
  3. Cross examination: in these debates two debaters interact directly with each other for a pre determined amount of time. During this time debaters may freely interrupt each other. Etiquette often determines that the debaters have to let each other speak, but often debaters try speak as much as possible. It is the most dynamic, but also the most messy style of debating. Only rarely is it done in its pure form. More often it is used in combination with one of the other types of debating. This style is used competitively in the US and is also popular on television.
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