Thoughts on debating

World Universities Debating Championships (WUDC) Berlin 2013

The World Universities Debating Championship (WUDC) is going on right now in Berlin, with more than a thousand very talented students from all over the world testing their arguments and wit — and having a rather good time after hours as well. (You can watch the live stream of their debates here.)

They asked me to give the opening speech on Friday, with some thoughts on debating. Nothing too heavy.

A grainy video is attached below. (I start after the, yes, Alpine horns, at about minute 9.) But here is a shortened and approximate transcript of what I said:


Patrick just told me that The Economist is considered “the debater’s bible”. Wow. I had no idea. When you catch me in the halls later, maybe you can explain to me why that is.

Right now, I want to make only 4 simple points:

  • Debating is fun
  • It helps to be British
  • Thou shalt remember Athens
  • Debating is not enough, and does not automatically lead to truth

1) Debating is great fun.

I spend my whole life debating. At The Economist, every conversation we have is really a debate. In my family every conversation I have is really a debate. Especially with my children.

Let me tell you about a particular kind of debate we have at The Economist that you can’t know about because it’s not public:

The Monday morning meeting.

This takes place every Monday morning, when the various section editors read out the list of planned stories. We sit very casually, often on the floor, around the desk of our editor in chief. After the lists are read, we discuss what the Leaders should be. “Leaders” is our name for opinion editorials. So we talk about what they should say. Basically, we debate.

When I joined The Economist in 1997, this was the event of the week, the institution, that most inspired me. Because it was such a joy to listen, and to participate:

  • The humor,
  • the reductio ad absurdum,
  • the overstatement
  • the understatement.

 I’ve learned so much just from sitting in those Monday morning meetings. And I hope that you guys here also get to sit in rooms like that, perhaps even here in Berlin in the coming days.

And that leads me to my second point:

2) It helps to be British. 

I mean that a bit tongue in cheek. But in my experience, it’s sort of true. The level of debate in those Monday morning meetings is probably the highest anywhere, and part of the reason must be that most of the people in the room are British.

Several politicians here in Germany have told me that they like to watch House of Commons debates on YouTube, because the debating there is at a much higher level than the debates in the Bundestag. And I’ve heard similar statements in Washington DC and Sacramento CA and other places.

Part of it is, I think, that the Brits have that tradition more than any other culture in world history.

For the British upper classes, part of growing up has always been to speak in front of people, and to use humor and charm, so that when those people later grew up they seemed to do public speaking naturally. 

In other modern countries, I think you’d have to go back to the debates between Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to get anything of that quality. Then again, those two Americans were really ALSO Brits. 😉

Now, I’m NOT British. And most of you are NOT British. But that’s OK. Because we can learn from them. Fortunately, their language is now our common world language.

3) Athens

Before Britain, there was of course ancient Athens. And I think a quick look back at Athens is a great way to make my other two points about debating.

First, the Athenians demonstrated the inherent link between debating and democracy, or debating and freedom. 

What is a democracy?

It is basically a society that makes its decisions after lots and lots of debate, one in which power and influence therefore come mostly from skill at debating. As opposed to brute force, for example.

In Athens during the time of Pericles they applied that idea very literally: the free men of the city met physically on one large rock to debate every topic.

They had no “government” and no “opposition” (as you do in your debate format here) because they had a pure democracy, ie a rule of the people. The people WERE the government. And they had no parties either. So leadership came down purely to skill at public speaking. Whatever was decided on that rock after all the speakers had spoken was the law.

The greatest example of a leader was Pericles. And I strongly, strongly urge all of you to read his Funeral Oration, which is one of the greatest speeches ever written.

Athens during the following century, the fourth century, when Phillip and his son Alexander rose to power and threatened Athens, was another great example. 

At that time, some of the most consequential decisions in world history were taken as a direct result of the outcome of debates between, basically, two men: 

Demosthenes and Aeschines

Those debates culminated in the so called Philippics by Demosthenes against Philip. That was the same Demosthenes, and the same Philippics, that later inspired Cicero in Rome, and really every great speaker and debater since.

So that’s another suggestion I have for you here: read the short biography of Demosthenes by the Greek writer Plutarch. it’s fascinating, because the man had a speech flaw, so he made himself a great debater by overcoming his greatest weakness. He:

  • built himself a cave underground where he hid for months at a time, just practicing his speech.
  • He shaved one half of his head, then the other, so that he would be too ashamed to come out.
  • He recited speeches while running up hills.
  • went to the shore and orated against and over the breaking waves.
  • put pebbles under his tongue and then enunciated over the roaring surf.

 But Demosthenes more cautionary lessons for you debaters as well:

  • he was a coward in battle and fled the field
  • he basically led the Athenians into a wrong course against Philipp and Alexander, and
  • he ended by committing suicide after his life work had failed.

And that leads to my fourth and last point today: 

4) Debating is not enough, and does not automatically lead to truth.

We know this too from Athens, but of course also from all the rest of history and from our own times.

The best argument doesn’t always win. Sometimes, the best delivery wins.

By the way, it was Demosthenes who, when asked what the three main element of rhetoric were, answered: “delivery, delivery, delivery.”

We call that demagoguery instead of democracy.

That was the problem that inspired maybe the greatest works of literature ever, namely Plato’s dialogues. In those, Socrates argues against the Sophists.

The sophists were people whom rich Athenian fathers hired to teach their sons debating. 

You guys here would LOVE to have a sophists working with you.

Because the sophists could teach you to take

  • one side of an argument and win,
  • and then to take the other side of the argument and win.

And that’s what bothered Socrates. Because he believed, or hoped, that there really was some objectively better or more reasonable position. And to Socrates, THAT was supposed to be the purpose of debating. To find the best answer.

So Socrates hated the Sophists, and ridiculed them with his style of questioning. He thought the Sophists interfered with truth finding because they were only interested in delivery, delivery, delivery.

Socrates thought there was a good and a bad way of debating: 

  • the bad way was a debate where the debaters want to win. He called that eristic argument, after the Greek goddess of Strife, Eris, who started the Trojan War by leaving that Golden Apple for the goddesses to fight over.
  • The good way was what he called dialectic: a debate where the debaters all want to learn, rather than win. So in theory, all debaters end up with a position that none of them took at the outset. Someone starts with a thesis, the others bring up antitheses and so on and so on, until they arrive at a synthesis.

Well, Socrates was condemned to death by an Athenian Jury of about 500 men after a truly terrible, but famous, … debate.

So there you are. Let’s recap: Debating is…

  • above all, fun.
  • And it is useful.
  • And it will help you in your career and your life.

But keep in mind that little voice from Socrates and Demosthenes: debating is not enough.

  • you still have to be brave,
  • you still have to love truth, and
  • you still need to know when to stop trying to win and starting trying to figure something out.

But not during this tournament. So now try to go and win.

Thank you.

26 thoughts on “Thoughts on debating

  1. I always learn something here. I admire the British Parliamentary debates (though the accents and references often throw me), there is a rhythm to the back and forth that seems to transcend the words. The American tries to emulate it but suffers in comparison.

    • Debating in high school, I always refer my peers to the Prime Minister’s Question Time debate as a learning experience. They look at me like I’m nuts—or at least an Anglophile—but I’m convinced that it helps.

    • PMQ is conflict for the sake of conflict. Where there is no issue, one is invented. It is conducted almost entirely as a public spectacle and an opportunity for cheap party-political point scoring. Nothing is ever resolved. Progress is never made. It encourages prejudice and the closing of minds. Serious political issues are reduced to reflex actions and reasoning is at a minimum.

      Moreover, it is a disservice to political debate and to the reputation of the British Parliamentary system in the eyes of the world.

      If you enjoy a good scrap, well, fine. Get it out of your system, PMQ is marginally better than physical violence, but do not imagine that this is typical of the manner in which the business of government, or debate is conducted in the UK.

      If PMQ is a learning experience at all, then it should be regarded as one which demonstrates how not to engage in debate. Follow the gentler, badly attended debates on specific issues in the legislative timetable if you desire to learn how to disagree with others and discover why they hold their opinions – you may even change your own mind as a result.

  2. The Scaffolding of Rhetoric – by Winston Churchill, 1897

    Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king. He is an independent force in the world. Abandoned by his party, betrayed by his friends, stripped of his offices, whoever can command his power is still formidable. Many have watched its effects. A meeting of grave citizens, protected by all the cynicism of these prosaic days, is unable to resist its influence. From unresponsive silence they advance to grudging approval and thence to complete agreement with the speaker.  The cheers become louder and more frequent; the enthusiasm momentarily increases; until they are convulsed by emotions they are unable to control and shaken by passions of which they have resigned the direction. 

    The nature of so great and permanent a force may well claim and has often received careful investigation. Is it born or acquired? Does it work for good or ill? Is it real or artificial? Such are the questions that philosophers from the days of Aristotle have revolved. 

     Throughout the country are men who speak well and fluently, who devote opportunity, talent and perseverance to improving their speaking and yet never deserve to be called orators. The subtle art of combining the various elements that separately mean nothing and collectively mean so much in an harmonious proportion is known to very few. Nor can it ever be imparted by them to others. Nature guards her secrets well and stops the mouths of those in whom she confides. But as the Chemist does not despair of ultimately bridging the chasm between the organic and the inorganic and of creating the living microcosm from its primordial elements, so the student of rhetoric may indulge the hope that Nature will finally yield to observation and perseverance, the key to the hearts of men.

  3. Debate is the least of British contributions to the world. The British are suspicious of orators and look more to content. We are ashamed of the adolescent insults across the choir stalls at Prime Minister’s Questions, safety valves though they may be, and prefer the mood of quiet discussion in the House of Lords and in the gentler and barely attended debates in the Commons. This atmosphere of fireside chat and informal interplay of views happens also in our higher courts when legal points are explored.

    Churchill once fluffed a speech in the Commons and ever after had his secretary type every word out on postcards, from which he made his delivery. At this level, oratory is pure theatre, which is the true love of the British people.

    But go to any magistrates’ court or town council and be disappointed by the quality of argument and the paucity of expression. The bumbling defences and the aridity of ideas in the council chamber hemicircles dominated by the mayor.

    The enduring contribution of England and Wales to the world is the Common Law, so often smothered in Europe and in conflict with European attitude to the law, deeply representative of what divides us. Yet note I do not mention Scotland, for its law is not the Common Law. It is possible for a union to survive 300 years with different legal systems, tense though it may be. It is possible for the rule of law to thrive in such an environment. The Common Law was always ready to recognise local or trade custom, a tradition inherited from Saxon Law and carried forward, in special treatment of Scottish legislation, to modern times. In fine detail, too, statute recognised diversity within the Common Law jurisdiction. For example, the Sale of Goods Act 1893 (now repealed in deference to European conformity) recognised market overt in the City of London, Wales and elsewhere and permitted freedom from standard terms in those places.

    It is in tolerance of national culture and identity that the future of Europe, even the EU, lies. Do not be intoxicated by the rarefied air of the Oxford and Cambridge unions, or even Monday mornings at The Economist, and a false sense of victory.

  4. Ben Franklin on how to debate:

    “I should have mentioned before, that, in the autumn of the preceding year, [1727] I had form’d most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which we called the Junto; we met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased. Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory; and to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.”

    • “… to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory…”
      And thar he blew, being Socrates, spontaneously and independently. Gotta love Franklin.

  5. Ben Franklin debating John Adams, on whether to sleep with the window open:

    “The Taverns were so full We could with difficulty obtain Entertainment. At Brunswick, but one bed could be procured for Dr. Franklin and me, in a Chamber little larger than the bed, without a Chimney and with only one small Window. The Window was open, and I, who was an invalid and afraid of the Air in the night . . . , shut it close. Oh! says Franklin dont shut the Window. We shall be suffocated. I answered I was afraid of the Evening Air. Dr. Franklin replied, the Air within this Chamber will soon be, and indeed is now worse than that without Doors: come! open the Window and come to bed, and I will convince you: I believe you are not acquainted with my Theory of Colds. Opening the Window and leaping into Bed, I said I had read his Letters to Dr. Cooper in which he had advanced, that Nobody ever got cold by going into a cold Church, or any other cold Air: but the Theory was so little consistent with my experience, that I thought it a Paradox: However I had so much curiosity to hear his reasons, that I would run the risque of a cold. The Doctor then began an harrangue, upon Air and cold and Respiration and Perspiration, with which I was so much amused that I soon fell asleep, and left him and his Philosophy together.”

     – Diary of John Adams, September 9, 1776.

  6. A Vanity Fair excerpt from A. A. Gill’s new book, “To America with Love”:

    One of the most embarrassing things I’ve ever done in public was to appear—against all judgment—in a debate at the Hay Literary Festival in the mid-90s, speaking in defense of the motion that American culture should be resisted. Along with me on this cretin’s errand was the historian Norman Stone. I can’t remember what I said—I’ve erased it. It had no weight or consequence.

    On the other side, the right side, were Adam Gopnik, from the New Yorker, and Salman Rushdie. After we’d proposed the damn motion, Rushdie leaned in to the microphone, paused for a moment, regarding the packed theater from those half-closed eyes, and said, soft and clear,

    Be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby,
    Be-bop-a-lula, I don’t mean maybe,
    Be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby,
    Be-bop-a-lula, I don’t mean maybe,
    Be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby love.

    It was the triumph of the sublime. The bookish audience burst into applause and cheered. It was all over, bar some dry coughing.

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