The Thing About Debating

I.

So I’m going to write about one of the stranger things people do in university, and what it’s like to do that thing.

University life is weird. It’s weird all the way through, but there’s special weirdness about the beginning. There’s a sudden heady flush of freedom, but also the suffocation of negotiating a brand new social life that is – for me, at least – not liberating at all. So the things people choose to do with their free time[1] are kind of telling – the results of a desire on the one hand to live out some ill-defined platitude about self-discovery, and on the other to take the path of least resistance, to make this new place as radically and rapidly homelike.[2]

It’s a bit puzzling that people choose to debate. It involves a lot of mental self-flagellation and a lot of sacrificed time and a lot of discomfort of the boring embodied kind. We’ll come to that in a bit. In many cases, many people do choose to debate, in universities all around the world. I’m sure many of them sign up for the debate club at the university they’re at, drawn by the allure of an activity that is so self-consciously clever but which lies on (maybe!) just the right side of nerd-dom. You’re just talking, after all, which is a thing everyone does. You’re not hunched silently over a board. You’re not discussing made-up words from Star Trek, or mathematical things that (to your mind) might as well be made up. You think you can be the sort of bright, sparky person that everyone likes and says You know, so-and-so debates! about in a way that might imply some kind of respect and maybe even a tiny bit of intimidation.[3] Maybe you’ve had a couple of arguments around the dinner table and think arguments, at least when spoken, just aren’t that hard. Maybe you think you’ve got this special way of turning a phrase – all your friends laugh whenever you’re around, after all. Maybe you believe, that debating will help you in life in general, or at least offer an invisible hand through a job interview.[4]

Most people eventually drop out. At least, that’s what I strongly suspect to be the case, and if it’s not true it’s certainly what I hope does happen.

II.

My way into debating was not typical. I was very lucky. I was also lucky to be aware that I was lucky. This didn’t happen because I’m the sort of person who pays much attention to my own peculiar causal history. I don’t look back at things I did and see my past making itself manifest like a particle trail in a cloud chamber. I was aware of my luckiness because circumstances just happened to be such that I couldn’t really help noticing it.

The main thing was that I’d done a decent amount of debating before I’d come to university. I’d been told when I was 15 that I was a bit noisy in class, and I should try it out, and things sort of followed. In any case, by the time I got to university I was a solid schools-level debater. I hadn’t delivered any speeches which I thought were killer or anything, or run any crazy-brilliant cases, but I knew I didn’t fuck up that easily. This gave me a big – a really big[5] – advantage over people of approx. my age who were just starting out.

It also explains why I took up debating. I wasn’t from the UK. I was from Singapore. Three years before I got into university, if you’d asked me if I thought I had a chance in hell of getting into Cambridge, I’d have said no,[6] but also said that it’d be stupidly, deliriously, amazing if I managed to do it. I’d probably have said that if that happened it would probably exhaust the full extent of my living ambition. Inside the dream, of course, everything looked suspiciously and disappointingly real. The other people in my year in my college studying my subject weren’t particularly fun to be around, at least at first. They were nice in that glassily alien way. I was hopelessly intimidated by my DoS.[7] I collapsed (with much enthusiasm and a bit of desperation) into debating because it was something I knew for certain I wouldn’t be totally awful at. I also knew, from what experience I already had, that in debating the formula for gaining social capital had a big fat term in it relating to how good you were at debating.

I vaguely remember that the Cambridge Union held a freshers’ signup which I went to. I didn’t have the faintest clue what the CU was like but I knew it was effectively the university debate club. The CU building was biggish and old and dark and damp, kept shiny mostly through prestige.[8]

In the UK, the beginning of the academic year usually features a handful of novice tournaments meant to ease freshers into the rigours of proper competitive debating: these tournaments are basically only for first-years. I signed up for the earliest possible one, something called the President’s Cup.

III.

The particular format of debate used in UK tournaments is something called British Parliamentary style. It’s the format used for the World University Debating Championships. You’re given a topic, and you have 15 minutes before the debate starts. This isn’t convenient, especially since the range of possible topics is vast: you might get chestnuts about the death penalty, or reforming the UN – or you might get something about ICC indictment procedure, punishing people who pay ransom, causing kids to be born deaf, voting policy, Grexit, sex-selective abortion, right-wing politics in India, designing a literal birth lottery, racialised policing, Al-Jazeera, retrospective taxation, commercialisation of indigenous cultures, or IMF policy.

There are four teams (of two people) in each debate; two on the government, and two on the opposition.[9] You speak for 7 minutes. You’re fighting to win against three teams. To defeat the teams on the other side you do the usual thing: rebut. Defeating the team on your own side is trickier. You’re not allowed to openly contradict a team on your own side, so what you have to do to win is make a new set of arguments for your side, and then imply in as many way as possible that the other team on your side missed the point, didn’t explain things properly, got a couple of facts mistaken, or that your point is just so colossally important for whatever reason that it just crowds out all the other arguments like Chris Christie taking the lift. It’s this strange tactical dynamic – the need to fight three ways – that often causes speeches in a debate’s second half to become a strange mix of argumentative savagery and satiny mendaciousness.

There’s usually a panel of (3) judges for each debate. After the debate, they take 10 minutes or so to discuss the debate among themselves and come to a consensus decision – a unanimous vote on the rankings of the teams. A dissent is viewed not exactly as a flawed outcome,[10] but is certainly not expected to be the norm (especially when a novice judge dissents from an experienced chair judge, or, even worse, when two novice judges outvote the experienced chair. The latter is usually cause for minor uproar and one very annoyed chair judge.) The judges don’t judge based on personal knowledge or biases but assume the persona of something called the average intelligent voter[11] when assessing the persuasiveness of arguments.

BP does not create nice, clean debates which go argument-counter1argument-counter2argument-counter3argument, etc. BP debates are a mess. They’re wild, frenzied, haphazard – big whomping things weedy with tactical complexities and snide asides and subtle/un- misrepresentations and deft (or clumsy) attempts to pre-empt or forestall or sidestep or narrow down. Arguments are made and attacked and abandoned and resurrected and reframed and eventually shamble bleeding and zombielike into the judges’ notes, from whence they are regurgitated into the judges’ post-debate discussion and promptly subject to a second mauling.

This was a problem for me. The format I was used to, and had almost exclusively debated in, was something called the World Schools format. It was classically neat: two sides of three speakers each, one hour of prep. No complications. The first two speakers on each side provide positive arguments and a bit of rebuttal, the third exclusively rebuts. At the President’s Cup I remember feeling constantly frustrated that the teams on my side never defended an argument I made. I remember sitting there with my partner, furiously thinking at the speaker: My argument was good, you wanker, why won’t you defend it? I also recall being a bit offended that speakers were not penalised at all for disorganised speeches and dubious timing:[12] in my training while I was in the national team, I had been taught that structure was all that separated us (humanity) from the beasts (the beasts), more or less.

IV.

I guess the primary thing, in the beginning, was that I really wanted to get into the scene. I took every judge’s feedback very seriously.[13] I went to pubs and sat there and felt vaguely flattered whenever someone I thought was a good debater bothered to talk to me. I grinned at in-jokes I did not understand.

I tried, really really hard, to win. This was not typical of many novices, I think. The reason for this was that I wanted to tell people, without having to ever say so, that I was good at debating. I wanted to say, I’m already one of you, you just don’t realise yet. And I wanted to say this because I had already been debating. I expected something.

My partner[14] and I won the President’s Cup. This made me stupidly happy. It also made me stupidly happy that at some judges had told me in feedback that my speeches were good. It is kind of obvious to me now that those judges – often very successful debaters themselves – were trying to do something they didn’t get to do that often in an activity which rewarded formalised meanness: be nice.[15] I do the same thing nowadays, and I don’t even think about it anymore.

V.

The debating community is a strange thing. For a start, calling it a community is a bit misleading. What exists is really a complicated nesting of different groups of people . You’re in a club. But that club is part of a particular part of the country, which is also part of the country, which is then part of a continent, and so on. Sometimes this stacking is neatly delineated by formal arrangements like regional championships or councils; sometimes it just emerges from the Brownian bumping-about of debaters in circuits; sometimes it’s pure perception. To take the example of Cambridge, the nesting would go something like this: Cambridge Union < Oxbridge (cf. North+Midlands / London) < England (cf. N. Ireland / Scotland) < British Isles (cf. Australia, US, New Zealand, India, Malaysia, etc.) < Europe (cf. Americas, South Asia, Australasia, etc.) < world.

The general rule is that the longer you stick around in debating, the higher up the chain of communities you’re able to settle. You start out debating in the club, and so get to know people there. Then you go for competitions. At small competitions you meet people from your particular bit of the country. At bigger competitions you meet people from all over the country. At the most important university-level tournaments in your country – the Oxford and Cambridge IVs in the UK, the Yale IV in the US, Sydney Mini in Australia, to name a couple – you get international teams. You might judge the teams or debate against them, but basically you’ll the chance to get to know some interesting-ish people doing the same thing you do from a different bit of the world. You might even be lucky or good enough to be sent by your institution to another country’s big international IV, and that guarantees that you’ll be able to meet loads of people from that circuit. They’ll be eager to be nice to you, and vice-versa, and Facebook will artificially cement a tenuous acquaintanceship in place for long enough that it might become a proper friendship.[16] And then there are regional championships, like the European Universities Debating Championships or Australs, and then looming vaguely above them there’s the World University Debating Championships. Getting to debate at regionals/WUDC is not easy, but if you make it there you get to fraternize with an even more diverse array of debaters.

Debating forces you to get familiar with people, but in a weird way. This is due in large part to the way tournaments work. All tournaments have preliminary rounds – sometimes 4 at a small tournament, and a pretty gruelling 9 or so at regionals and WUDC. Preliminary debates are “power-paired”. This just means that you will be placed in a room with teams having the same number of team points as you (teams get 3 points for coming 1st, and none for coming 4th). So over the course of the 9 rounds at the WUDC, for example, there will be a steady convective churn of debaters across the rooms, with good teams coming to orbit the top rooms and bad teams the bottom rooms.[17] A solid team might win its first three debates, drifting upward until it arrives in the top room, whereupon it get mauled and drops into a lower room, from whence it will might recommence steadily drifting upwards until it arrives in the second room, where takes a 3rd, and oscillates back down, etc. The point of power-pairing is to obtain a precise ranking of all the teams by strength. This is in turn used to determine the teams that “break” into the “outrounds” (octo-, quarter-, semifinals, finals) and to determine team pairings[18] for the outrounds. In any tournament the top 48[19] or 32/16/8 teams are the only ones with a chance of winning the whole thing.

The main thing I’m trying to point out, however, is that in the course of the preliminary rounds you’re very likely to meet a couple of teams twice – power-pairing does that by stratifying the deck strengthwise. Crucially, this effect is vastly exaggerated if you’re one of the top teams and are consistently doing well. The number of teams with a very high or low number of team points is (by definition) small, and so they’re forced to constantly rub up against each other in a rather dispiriting process of mental/verbal/psychological abrasion.

The effect is this: average debaters might not come to know over average debaters very well, but very good debaters will almost certainly come to know other very good debaters quite well. If you’re in the top room and you take a 2nd, and some other team takes a 1st, it is very likely that in your next preliminary round you’ll meet them again. If in the next debate you take a 1st and they a 2nd, you then know that you’ll definitely see them yet again, and if you take a 3rd in the next round and they a 2nd, it’s still very likely you’ll meet again. If you take a 4th and they a 2nd, you’ll certainly fall out of the top room, but if you win the next two debates you might be back in it, where that team might still be lurking, etc.

If you pair this effect together with the good-debaters-tend-to-be-sent-by-their-clubs-to-international-IVs effect, you get a community that is quite viciously stratified by familiarity. Good debaters don’t just debate more because they’re good; they have a much broader network of friends, many of whom will be other good debaters from other circuits.

Meeting a team even twice has strange effects. You start to (over-)analyse its internal dynamic, its argumentative tricks, the speakers’ speaking styles, their areas of expertise. But you also kind of get to know these debaters as people (inflected, of course, through their trying hard to make you lose a debate.) Debating is curiously revelatory re people’s personalities. No-one is really in control during the 7 minutes when they’re giving a speech. They’re relying on a set of more-or-less embedded instincts to put together sentences or varying grammatical and terminological complexity from a set of hastily scribbled notes, rebutting using a set of kneejerk intuitions and stock arguments, while a vague part of their brain observes their partner and the judge for any clues re how the speech is going.[20] A debate speech relies on a very elaborate type of muscle memory, stuff you aren’t in conscious control of, and so you can’t help but be yourself to at least some extent during a speech. You first notice the regional variations. Americans begin sentences with I think quite a lot and some of them even use freedom or market solves  in a non-ironic way; Australians have a fondness for in the first instance; British debaters often use the precise but odd on the comparative; and so on. Then you notice personal quirks: a debater might really like academic language: neither here nor there; by hypothesis; reify; epistemic modesty; we put to you. Or they might move their hands in a funky way: this speaker puts her hands out, palms facing each other, and moves the hands in parallel up and down jerkily like this and like this when she emphasises a point. This speaker opens his mouth in shock and horror in a way that manages to be predatory and, clearly enjoying the moment, turns to the side and clasps his forehead and runs his hand back through his hair as he repeats a point you’ve made as if to say I’ve run out of words with which to explain how stupid your point was and I’m honestly equal parts appalled at and worried for you right now so give me a moment here, will you?; this speaker vibrates one hand constantly with mesmeric intensity and stares so hard at the judge their eyes attain a sheen that almost appears lustful; this speaker punctuates high points of their speech by hinging one leg backward and kicking the floor forcefully in a Johnson-refutes-Berkeley convulsion; this speaker gives a speech so boring it’s basically a a debate Cosmic Microwave Background: a big faint flat thing that smothers the debate under the weight of its rigorous banality; this speaker delivers speeches that are actually in sonata form, like seriously they have an exposition and a recapitulation and a development section and a coda; this speaker always puts one hand in the pocket and shrugs and nods while thoughtfully pouting and says things like okay, guys, or,  you know, I think the other side has good intentions, or, okay, so I know this debate has been kind of intense, but – while smiling (aww, these kids) and generally trying hard to come across as really chill and people’s-person about the whole thing and after the debate turns out to actually be pretty chill and people’s-person about the whole thing; this speaker has dead grey eyes and thin lips and achromic skin and a Mads Mikkelsen lower lip and  manages to be perfectly still throughout the speech while radiating condescension like Freon; this speaker caveats the analytic goodness out of everything; this speaker (you realise) actually sees all arguments in terms of graphs (marginal cost curves, geometric sums to infinity, IS-LM, NAIRU, etc.) and so on (and on).

After the debate, you end up hanging around outside the room with the other teams, waiting for judges to reach their decision. It’s a very strange period of time because no one’s really sure what to do. On the one hand, you want to stalk off with your partner to dissect the debate, or to moan about that OG team who misdefined and made it all go to shit. After all it’s a bit weird, making small talk with the team(s) you just spent 7 minutes relentlessly mocking or whatever. On the other hand, you and the other teams now have the shared experience of an hour’s intellectual incest, so it’s not that difficult to find something to talk about. On the other hand (I’m on to three hands now, but don’t let this worry you), it can be metaphysically exhausting to continue talking about a debate even after it’s ended, so sometimes the very last thing you want to do is take the risk of getting sucked into a thinly disguised re-debate outside the room. On yet another hand, you might want to get a gauge from the other teams of how well you did, even though you know whatever reply they give won’t be that helpful. Usually what happens is a mixture of all the things I just described: one team stalks off and returns, the others chat listlessly about nothing in particular until someone brings up the debate, and then those debaters who despise talking about debates will then go off to have a conversation of their own, etc. And if the judges’ deliberation goes on for too long so that everyone is forced to stand together outside the room, it’s not that bad: you just talk about the judges taking too long.[21] The important thing is just that you get to know people in a less debatish sense: are they standoffish or affable, funny or dead serious?[22] And remember: you might repeat this process with the same teams across multiple rounds, and that is much more likely to happen if you are already one of the elite.

VI.

For most of my first year of debating, my partner was a ridiculously chilled-out South African postgrad named Joe.

Usually, debating societies have some internal policy for who they choose to send for competitions which toggles a couple of factors: how much you’re contributed, how much you’ve already debated, how many people they can afford to send, how good you are, etc. For the big competitions like the European Universities Debating Championship or the World Universities Debating Championship, however, most societies have trials. I didn’t trial for the WUDC in my first year.[23] Joe didn’t trial either, because he was one of the Chief Adjudicators of that year’s WUDC. The Oxford IV was happened just after trials: it was (and is) one of the international tournaments on the circuit. Cambridge usually sends WUDC teams to the Oxford IV; it’s what’s sometimes called a “prep tournament”. Cambridge usually has a fairly large number of team slots for Oxford, so Joe and I, as sort-of-leftovers with some debating experience, were sent as a team.

We made the final of Oxford. We also, later in the academic year, made the final of LSE.[24] And just after the academic year ended, we made the final of EUDC. I don’t think the latter two successes were warranted, mostly because I was awful in the quarterfinals of both.

It was strange. The EUDC final was the second time in my life I had to wear black tie,[25] and I remember that it was the first time in my life I had to deal with French cuffs[26] and cufflinks. Joe and I were in our hotel room, too nervous, really, to feel happy about being in the final.[27] I was too nervous, too, to feel embarrassed about asking how the cuffs worked (and do the cufflinks face out or in? plus how on earth are you supposed to use your left hand to put on the right cufflink?), and Joe was probably too nervous (and too fundamentally decent) to express any surprise that I was asking these questions.

It is stupid, isn’t it, that the way cuffs fold back on themselves has any relevance to an EUDC final.[28] Well, it doesn’t, really. But it does not feel that way.

By far and away the strangest thing was how much I wanted to win the final, especially when I didn’t really think I should have been there. The point was not the actual probability of it. The point was that I wanted it so much it turned into a dull swollen ache I could feel over there just under the sternum like you do when you sneeze hard and suddenly and something goes kooky with your diaphragm. I went outside the hangar-like space where the final was held, onto the wide concrete stairs. A couple of people said something nice to me; I don’t remember really remember, and what they said probably made me feel worse. Everyone was talking. They were comfortable, totally comfortable, and they stood in clumps, talking, and they smiled. It was horrifying to think that they might be talking about the debate, maybe, even, about something I said.[29] They stood there, talking, and I had no idea what they were talking about, and I wanted to know, but I couldn’t possibly go over to talk to them. The night was warm and dark and wrong.

I called mum (or she called me, which seems more likely) and she prayed over the phone,[30] which she always does. But what I really remember is that in the middle of that phone call it became very, very, clear to me that  I wanted to win because I knew for certain that if I won that year I would never have to come back to do EUDC again. This would be the last time I attended EUDC. The thought burned.

Logically (as if it matters) that makes no sense. If all I really wanted was not to debate at EUDC again that option was open to me. I think what was going on was that I knew I would keep coming back, and something would be strange about it, but I would not give myself any choice.

After the whole thing was over and I got piss-drunk and Joe and I got back into our room we both sat on our beds and didn’t say a whole lot. My ears were still ringing; the music at the club had been extremely loud and I had spent most of the night/morning in front of a giant speaker. One sleeve of my dinner jacket was wet with something alcoholic. It was Joe’s last year at Cambridge. I said, “So the year has been pretty fun. Oxford and LSE and this.”

One of us said, “It’s a bit shit not to win anything, though.” Both of us definitely laughed.

VII.

When I started out debating, I had a certain constellation of debaters in my head that I considered great. There was something a bit magical about them. They had a command that seemed to operate just beneath the level of conscious thought: a pulse that urged yes, yes, yes. There was something compelling about them, and I mean it in the most literal sense: something that brought you against your own will to believe what they said. Some of them (but not many) were people I debated against. These ones in particular had an irrefutable mystique. Irrefutable because if I could see why they won, then it was clear they were far better than I was as debating. But if I couldn’t see why they won, that was just because of something I had missed or didn’t appreciate: a compelling. No machinery, no seams, no parts. No hum or hiss of strain or effort or even thought. Something at running at right angles to everything else.

This is part of what makes debating strange and hierarchical. Being one of these people means that people fetishise what you say in a weird way; means that they’ll laugh at your jokes more often; means that they’ll be more likely to tolerate (even accept) your pontificating or your complaining about bad accommodation or time management or food.  I suppose this deference happens because we live in a society where cleverness is taken to be a kind of self-evident good and because people assume that being good at debating means that you are clever. Neither of those things is correct, but there you go.

There’s also another far more basic fact that explains this hierarchy, which is that debating is powered in large part by the exact set of reptilian urges that makes us want to eat/fuck/shit, a taut red neural knot somewhere in the basal ganglia obsessed with power and all its ways it is made manifest: aggression and dominance and territoriality and ritual.[31]

You can see this. Sometimes when you[32] watch a speech you realise, suddenly, that this is not a human thing to be doing at all, that there’s something strange and alien and kind of horrifying about this person standing there arguing for something not believed in, that this person has become a ticker-tape Turing machine, a device lodged in a Chinese Room rigged to churn out moral claims, no intentionality or mind involved, and that there’s something ophidian in the person’s eyes – that this person might catch their skin on a doorknob and their momentum would carry them forward a little bit till there was a jerk, and all that skin would come off, all of it at once, just like that, smoothly and whitely. And then something would be standing there, going ha-ha, well this is awkward, isn’t it? And then you wonder whether that something would actually carry with it something like belief, or even empathy, or whether it would be nothing but glinting and cunning all the way down. What I’m trying to say is that debating is powered by [all this] at least as much as it is powered by the warm-blooded hand-wringing neomammalian stuff that evolution slapped on late in the game mostly for the Technicolor visuals and surround sound. This does not really make university-level debating different from any other competitive activity except for the fact that debating really insists in a loud and public way that it’s an essentially intellectual exercise.

VIII.

The second time I attended WUDC, I got paired with a fresher named Tom. I was then a third-year undergrad. The original arrangement had been for me to attend WUDC with the partner with whom I’d won the European Championship,[33] but because WUDC was in Chennai that year and my partner was Pakistani the visa application process turned into a nightmare, and he couldn’t make it.  The way trials for WUDC work is that everyone is ranked and then sorted into three different teams based on that ranking. The selectors could not break up the B & C teams to find me a partner, so Tom got subbed onto the A team.

I tried to be upset about this but I found it hard to be upset. The first thing was that the arrangement took the pressure off us to do really well at WUDC. I don’t like pressure. It’s awful and irrational but it’s just there and I can’t really make it go away. I can’t deal with it too well, even now. If I get to a semifinal, I usually find an excuse to get out of the room when the result is announced.[34] Closed rounds fill me with spooky dread. There was something great about knowing that people would now think we were screwed and we could lose and it would be fine. It made debating something to explore again.

The second thing was that I knew, in a way most people didn’t, that Tom was really good: we’d debated against each other before university.

He’d been on the New Zealand team for the World Schools Debating Championships. We’d faced against each other twice in WSDC, in the ugliest circumstances possible. We’d first met in the last preliminary round in Dundee; NZ had won all their previous debates and we’d already lost two; losing a third risked us missing the break. We were desperate. We weren’t any good. We lost. We broke 15th (out of 16 teams). NZ broke 2nd. Sickeningly, the folding table meant that we had to face NZ again in the octofinals. The debate itself was basically a draw – as close to a draw as it is possible to conceive of – and we lucked out and went through on a 3-2 split.[35] I remember sitting onstage feeling a sickening dismay as the judge went through the reasoning for the decision: I am very sure that the judge made it sound like we had lost.

For most people, Chennai WUDC was a disaster. Things went so badly that Chennai WUDC is used nowadays as a measuring-stick for how fucked-up a WUDC can be, a Platonic Form of Things Gone To Shit. People got locked out of their rooms at the hotel, which attempted to blackmail attendees into overpaying for their stay; one of the buses shuttling contestants around got involved in an accident; the rides from the hotel to the debating venue were long and hot and dusty; debaters were confusingly housed in a bunch of different hotels and not in the accommodation they had been promised; judges were not properly compensated for travel costs, which caused them go to on a spectacular strike[36] to demand (1) payment (2) in the promised Euros rather than Rupees; at one point the police attempted to round up the Pakistani debaters; the break night[37] entertainments were comically misogynistic; the electronic system for keeping track of teams standings broke down; the hall where debaters gathered for announcements was too small to house them all, etc.

But I liked Chennai. The fact was, nothing bad that happened in Chennai affected me. It wasn’t my first time in India, so I was used to the weather and the food. I got locked out of my room, but that got solved in 2 minutes. I didn’t mind the longish rides in the cranky buses they used to get us from the hotel to the venues. I’d always liked long commutes through strange places because I could look at things and because I’d just listen to stuff on my iPod.[38] The delays between rounds suited me just fine –  I talked with Tom or went off to find friends to gossip about rounds (“that judge majorly fucked us over: if you see [name] don’t bother rebutting”; “that motion is opp-weighted or I have no clue what opp-weighted means”; “this frappe is really good”; “what the fuck is the TPP anyway?”; “we bit the bullet on children dying and took a 4th…”) and got puzzlingly moreish frappes with Tom from a little stall at the far end of a very big and dusty football field just outside the main hall where we gathered. I felt vicariously embarrassed for the volunteers helping out: their tournament had fucked up in a big way, but they had little to do with it and were eager to please in a way that felt disturbingly colonial. I vaguely wished everyone would stop eviscerating the tournament but because everyone was doing it I joined in: and it did feel good, in a dishonest way.

Debating with Tom turned out to be a lot of fun. He did it very differently from me.[39] I’m boring:[40] I like enumeration; I like structure; I like short chains of reasoning; I like direct responses to arguments; I like pretty words; I’m fond of non-consequentialist arguments; I like obvious arguments made well or weird arguments made very well. When I go up to speak I have maybe four or five sheets of paper with numbered points[41] (and subpoints, and sub-sub-points) written down in very large font on them; I usually stick closely to what I’ve written.

Tom always had one sheet of paper per speech, which I still find faintly ridiculous. Twice, I think, I’ve seen him take two sheets of paper up. I think the first time was when we found ourselves in what we thought was the top room in Chennai (we ran to our assigned room: we were OG, and despite a pledge we’d made earlier that we wouldn’t panic about anything, we thought walking and talking this time probably wouldn’t be enough), caught in a stupidly complicated debate; and I can’t remember the second time. I think of the moment when Tom goes up and puts two sheets of paper down as corresponding roughly to the moment in The Empire Strikes Back when DV tells Luke Don’t make me destroy you.

I think I come across as at least a bit emotionally involved in the topic of the debate. Tom comes across as being emotionally involved in the stupidity of the other side, but I should stress that there’s a mystifying naïveté about his particular brand of emotional involvement. His NZ accent is very strong[42] and gives his speeches a Ravelesque sheen of  just-about-there sarcasm, plus he speaks like he is writing an essay: every single word is there (no “stuff”, “thingy”, “like”, etc.), nothing is repeated, he occasionally cites his sources, and the tendency is always to formalism in aid of precision (“non-linear”, “multivariate”, etc.) He’s got a way of saying things that makes them sound insultingly true. But because there’s a consistency to this approach, a kind of academic truthiness, his emotional concern for what the other side has got wrong really can’t come across as vindictive.

IX.

In 2015 at the World Championships I became the best speaker in the world.

Most of that sentence is misleading. For a start, I didn’t even come close to winning the thing: Michael (my partner) and I were neatly KO’ed in the quarterfinals. All the BSW title meant was that over the course of 9 preliminary rounds and 3 days my average speaker score was higher than everyone else’s. The BSW isn’t even something you need to defend – you keep it for the whole year, until the next WUDC, even though many people might be debating better than you are over the course of that year. And there are many people who have just have retired from the hobby or aren’t attending because they’ve got better things to do who might be better than you are. My average score was 84.9,[43] which is pretty lousy compared to other WUDC tab-toppers.[44]

It didn’t feel particularly great to be BSW. It felt good when I went up and people clapped with a mixture of happiness (people I knew and liked and who liked me in return) and resentment (people who thought I wasn’t any good) and uninformed admiration (everyone else). It felt good to know that I good at something I had chosen to sink quite a lot of time into. I think we all want to be good at something. There are many things I would like to be good that which I know I can never be good at, mostly because I started on them way too late. So it was good, and it felt good, to know for certain that I could debate well.

But it didn’t feel great. I didn’t whoop for joy or get shitfaced or anything like that. I went back into my room, missing most of the night’s festivities, and numbly drifted through Facebook, watched a couple of Youtube videos, and then wrote a bit, and then went to sleep.

Debating offers you, in place of some general formula for feeling good about yourself or other people, an alchemised anger. When it all comes to an end it’s not easy pulling yourself back. A debate is the sort of place where someone could tell you to fuck off and after a while you wouldn’t notice. It takes time to move back into the usual liturgies of decency, even sincerity.

It didn’t feel great also because it had not been entirely unexpected. We’d done very well in the preliminary rounds – we’d come 1st in 8 of them, and 3rd in just 1. We broke top with 25 out of a maximum possible 27 points. For most of two days we’d sat in the top room, fending off challengers in pleasingly King-of-the-Hill-ish fashion. So Michael and I knew that it was very likely that one of us would top the tab. And we knew that merely being in the top room guaranteed us an unearned speaker point bonus – very few judges across a tournament get to judge the top room, and so if you’re a judge and it’s announced that you’re taking the top room, you feel a bit flattered and a bit excited and a bit worried that if you fuck up the call in the room the big names will be pissed-off at you.[45] All of that heavily predisposes you to dump an extra 3 points or so on top of everyone’s normal speaker score.[46] There’s also a helpful sense of occasion: because the best teams in any tournament are concentrated in the top room, you know that you’re getting to watch the final before it happens.[47]

The other reason why it didn’t feel great was because I’d never been the sort of person to top speaker tabs. I don’t think I’m a prominent speaker, if you know what I mean. I think I’m good at helping my partner win the debate, but I mostly play a supporting role very well. So my team would often break 1st, but I didn’t top tabs, and I was absolutely fine with this. I’d convinced myself about two years before my last WUDC that speaker tabs, while not totally random, were not worth caring much about: sometimes you’re screwed by your opening team doing something weird, sometimes you got a dodgy call, sometimes you were on the wrong side of a weighted motion, etc. The gap between the #1 and #2 was usually so small as to be rather meaningless, as was the gap between the #2 and the #3, and so on. Besides, thinking of your individual ranking is a guaranteed way to fuck up your team dynamic. So it was good being BSW, but I couldn’t convince myself that it meant a huge deal. I was very surprised when well after WUDC someone asked me if I’d rather be just World #1 or World #30 and World Champion. I thought this comparison was a no-brainer: of course I’d rather be World Champion. I didn’t know people thought the BSW was such a big deal.

There will be people who think that because I am BSW I have access to something about debating which they don’t – some black box I open which contains a clutch of arguments which no one’s quite thought of yet. That’s very wrong, but it’s also the thought that gives the BSW title most of its meaning. The fact is I mostly muddle along with a loose grab-bag of worn tricks and stock arguments and gotcha factoids and battered strategic intuitions, which grab-bag probably has a small orange baggage tag coming off the side reading DON’T FUCK THIS UP. My reaction to a topic when it comes up on the screen is probably much the same as anyone else’s, most of the time: I’m befuddled for about 2 minutes and then spend the remaining 13 minutes trying to nudge myself towards something like clarity, trying to come up with a policy, a structure, a hazy sense of strategy. Sometimes I go, “This is just like that other debate”, or “Shit, I think I’ve got it”, or “Actually, I think there might be a sneaky point to make here about irreducible normativity,” or (very rarely) “I know all about this”, but this does not happen often. Sure, sometimes I’ve come into the debate ready to sing the body electric or whatever, knowing that I have something that probably puts me ahead of  the other debaters given this particular topic and position, but that’s probably only happened to me 20 times in my entire life.

In any case, the low-level buzz of becoming BSW didn’t quite fade out into nothing. It discoloured into a feeling of so this is what it’s like. Thought about abstractly, there’s an austere and utterly absurd glory to the BSW title. The gap between #1 and #2 seems qualitatively different from the gap between #2 and #3, unbridgeable, and there’s no discernible reason for this. This had always been the way I thought about BSWs. Being BSW meant that I realised – and this was a shocking thought – that maybe all the other BSWs were like me. Maybe none of them were special. Maybe they also got hopelessly confused in debate prep and made stupid blunders and delivered lousy speeches and forgot what their POIs[48] were when someone accepted one of theirs. Twice now I’ve been a debate where I’ve had one of my own speeches repeated back at me nearly verbatim. Both times I’ve responded by making a joke about how this must mean I’ve made it, eh? But what those debaters did was exactly what I’d done myself. Many of the speakers I idolised had been BSWs in their time, and it was difficult trying suddenly to think of them as fully (and fallibly) human. There are some debaters whom I have only recently managed to think of as people, and to like as people. It’s taken 4 years.

X.

Debating can be lonely. If you’re lucky you travel with your partner but if you’re not then it’s long train rides and flights where you’re mostly thinking, this is a bad way to spend a weekend. A couple of times I’ve been asked to go to places you might consider nice to help out at tournament, usually by judging. But you never really get to see the place or meet the people, most of the time.

This sense of being-apartness is greatly heightened at WUDC. You’re put in a metal box powered by little explosions and shuttled back and forth between your hotel and the debating venue; your rooming arrangements are designed to keep you around people you are familiar with; the people who live here are seen through glass, as if they’re in a tank; you debate about poverty + religion + culture but don’t really notice it around you as if in thinking about something you’ve abstracted it from brute fact, made it less real. The argument is the end; it’s complete and self-contained. It does not reach out into the world. Instead it sits there occupying the space that might have housed appreciation or compassion or even the thin skein of pity.

One of the stranger ways in which debating is lonely has to do with the way it follows you around. You end up replaying a speech in your mind over and over again, weighing it, getting annoyed at yourself for screwing something up, for missing arguments. This is not something that can be shared. All of it is all inside and it’s incommunicable. I suppose anyone who does any competitive activity will spend a lot of time thinking about it. With debating it’s more painful because the thinking is tied into the activity. It’s about how clever you are, see? Sure, you talk, you produce words, but that’s not where the action is: the action is in your head. Sidelong, without you realising, debating can end up becoming about who you are.

On the second day of Chennai WUDC Tom and I came back to our hotel room very hungry and very tired. The day hadn’t been a disaster but it hadn’t really gone well either. We called room service and ordered a TexMex. It didn’t come. We waited for a while, and then without really agreeing to do so we both fell asleep. At approx. 2 a.m. they knocked on our door with the TexMex. We placed the thing between both of us on the bed and finished it, without speaking to each other at all, in about 3 minutes. I put the plates on the floor in front of the bed and we went back to sleep. We didn’t talk.

Looking back at it now, we laugh about how pathetic the entire scene was, how sad it was. That’s often what debating is like. There’s something a bit broken-down about the whole thing, something that feels in need of repair or fulfilment. If you’re not at a big competition you’ll probably have to crash at someone’s place, which basically means sleeping on the floor of a well-meaning person who’s sacrificed a chunk of their home to house a bunch of debaters for the night. You’ll lie there in the dark, uncomfortable in a way that can’t be diagnosed, wanting to sleep but not being able to. In the morning you’ll be a bit sore and a bit frayed. The point is that you have a partner when you debate and it needs to be the right kind of person to make it worth it. (I was about to say tolerable, but on reflection that seems unnecessarily negative.)

XI.

Is debating capital-G Good, i.e., good all things considered? I don’t know; I suspect not. When it comes to most games we know the rules are silly and arbitrary. But in debating the rules, unfortunately, don’t look silly or arbitrary,[49] and this lets debating put itself forward as some essentially moral enterprise: something that makes you a better person, or at least makes things better for society, somehow.

I can’t quite believe it. Debating will make you better at inventing arguments in a short period of time. It might make you cleverer; it doesn’t make you more empathetic. Debating is a competitive activity, and all competition immunises you to the fact of other people’s grief.[50] Your attitude towards other people must be, for a time at least, one of hostility. You need to believe that they’re inferior. This is about as far from a moral attitude as I can imagine.[51] The problem is that people might start out just wanting to become better people, or cleverer, or more informed, but after a while what they end up wanting is to become a better debater. And many things that are good for debating are simply good for debating alone, and many of them only very loosely track things that we want people in the real world to have. Debating has made me a bigger asshole that I ever would have become if I’d never touched it. Quite often I think about what I’ve just said to someone and I’m sort of horrified: you absolute wanker, a fluorescent lamp in my head dimly sputters. I can see this in other people too: they win something, they get a reputation, and then suddenly they’re dicks.[52] And there’s a very small number of debaters who’ve learnt to win debates without really making arguments: they consist of a husk of entertaining hokeyness around a salted caramel centre of profound stupidity, like, I suppose, Antonin Scalia.[53]

There’s also one other thing. In real life, we generally think that it’d be good if we considered the arguments on both sides of a thorny issue before we formed our position on said issue. Unfortunately most of the time what we do is the opposite of this: we start with an opinion, and then all our arguments are post-hoc rationalisations. The problem with debating is that it’s just an elaborate formalisation of the latter process. Debating fixes your stance on an issue – you are assigned your position in the debate – and what’s allowed to change is the set of arguments you use. It’s a dazzling celebration of post-hoc rationalisation: You already believe this to be true. Now figure out why.

There are things to be said on the other side, of course. Maybe it’s not the post-hoc-ness that is bad; but the post-hoc-ness-vis-a-vis-our-personal-beliefs. Maybe making arguments that go against our personal positions on issues makes us (1) change our minds or (2) makes us justify our own positions better. That seems fair enough. I’ve changed my mind quite majorly on things like homosexuality, but that happened when I was 17; nothing’s much changed since then. More plausibly, debating makes you a lot more knowledgeable re immensely complicated stuff like feminism (which I used to think was just like misogyny, except pointed in the opposite direction; 16-y.o. me was horrified when my RA Lit teacher, whom I admired hugely, told the class that she was a feminist) or monetary policy, or the politics of development aid, etc. But if debating does not make you empathetic this is all rather useless except for liberal credentialing. The point is that there’s stuff to be said on either side, and it’s not clear debating’s moral account comes out in credit.[54]

XII.

The small-g’s probably where it’s at.

I’m a Type 1 debater. I like arguments because they’re pretty. There’s something about being assigned a side on a topic which you think is monstrous, maybe just flat-out indefensible, and then somehow making an argument that works. There’s something about being able to abstract out of yourself. I think I might even find it easier to make arguments that run against my personal beliefs; this might just because I’m forced to think carefully about what exactly I want to argue for, and that sort of rigour is hard to get going when the you’re arguing for something that (to you) looks a bit duh. Debating more or less forces you into situations where you can’t be consistent with your own beliefs: that’s kind of fun.[55]

And then around the central pleasure (for me) of just making arguments other smaller thrills orbit. There’s something satisfying about just delivering a speech where everything just follows. I’m a huge sucker for structure. It makes things clean. It’s not showy or applause-worthy or even noticeable but it makes everything fall into a pattern and there’s an ascetic elegance to it. Given how arguments are made in the real world, maybe clean is something that should be valued a little more. And there’s the opposite pleasure, where you go up in front of an audience, something like fury or indignance bubbling inside you, your notes completely forgotten, and you stand and you see the faces of the people in the audience glowing like masks, unreal in the light, and the teeth of some machine in you suddenly lock, and you rant.[56] And sometimes there is pleasure in the funny strategic things you do too: trap POIs, counterintuitive stances + counterprops, etc.[57]

Sometimes, you get to see speeches that so good they are actually enjoyable. This happened less and less as I got better at debating. Remember how earlier I said that for the really great debaters it’s sort of impossible to figure out how they do what they do? That doesn’t always last. After a while you see the seams; you hear the whirr. You pull sceptical faces instead of leaning back into the speaker’s charisma or whatever it is you used to do. But sometimes it still happens. In the semifinals of the Leeds Mace my partner, a lanky Mancunian mathematician nicknamed Floppy,[58] began his speech with a blindingly virtuosic two-minute long comedic routine on the topic of (unbelievably) whether or not the IMF should require collateral for bailouts. He ended that bit with: “So hopefully I’ve demonst[w]ated,[59] using the power of comedy, [pause for laughter] why you can’t intimidate the Greeks”. His arms moved around floppily. He walked back to the notes on his table (in the course of his enthusiastic miming, which had included a reference to Aristarchus, he’d moved waaaaay out to the front, close to the judges). He pushed his hair back, exhausted by his drollery. The audience roared with laughter; I cried a little.

There are other miscellaneous pleasures. It doesn’t happen too often, but sometimes when you’re in a debate and the other side is being annoying, you end up banding together with the other team on your side to despise the opposition. This happens spontaneously when you and your partner team both realise that you’re making the same outraged faces at the speaker and leaning back in shock and horror more or less in sync. Wordlessly, a pact is formed. You and your partner team end up nodding vigorously at each other’s speeches. In the middle of an opposition speech you might lean over to your partner team and go, wow, this is fucking awful, isn’t it? And they’ll nod and roll their eyes at the speaker.  When your partner team is delivering one of their speeches you’ll bang the table and say hear, hear, and nod aggressively. And if you’re the opening team, your closing team might say something lovely about you in their rebuttal along the lines of And to their credit, opening gov spent a good 7 minutes tearing this ridiculous argument apart, and we’ve had literally no response from the closing opp to what they said. This is about as warm & fuzzy as debating gets: the whole thing involves so much aggression that discovering that you’ve suddenly got a new set of friends in a debate comes as a huge relief. It’s odd, isn’t it – the world’s most apparently intellectual sport, and this gorgeously primitive tribalism.

Debating also provides you with a directedness to a big chunk of university life that’s quite pleasing. You go for prep tournaments in the run-up to WUDC; you meet your partner to talk about what went wrong the last time, what worked well, what needs to be oiled or discarded or adjusted; you make travel plans. This sense of maybe not so much purpose as function extends to the experience of debating itself. When Michael and I were at WUDC there was a motoric quality to debating in the preliminaries, a sense of things in harmony, one thing slotting smoothly into another. On the last day, the day with the closed rounds, we had three debates that were exceptionally vicious and gnarly and complicated, and we managed to win all of them. It wasn’t so much the winning as it was the feeling that things were going right that mattered. A couple of times in prep one of us would abruptly clap his hands together and yell I’ve fucking got it (the other would shush the shouter[60]), and twice I ran an extension[61] which Michael (he informed about this me well after the fact) did not understand until I’d actually finished my speech; both times Michael defended the extensions brilliantly.[62] We had a system and it worked.

But the biggest small-g good thing is just that you get to meet people when you debate, and quite a lot of these people will be friendly and interesting and will like for you for reasons that have nothing do to with whether or not you debate well. I started out debating because I thought I would be good at it, and I thought that if I was good at debating – well, people would be friends with me. Now, as it was bound to become, things are different: I worry that the only reason people tolerate me is because I am good at debating. But I don’t worry much. I’ve spent enough time around people I like to know that they don’t really give a fuck. Long before Michael and I were paired as a team we’d go for dinners because I wanted to hear him talk about math and (I hope) he wanted to hear me explain stuff about fugues etc. to him. More recently he’d taken to coming to my place and we’d spend a good three hours or so talking about movies[63] or I’d pull a Beethoven sonata or whatever up on Youtube and talk about it while it played, pausing and rewinding and pausing and rewinding until the thing I was trying to get at became clear.[64] Tom and I once spent 2 hours in a McDonald’s in London discussing whether there were non-doctrinal grounds upon which to favour Catholicism over Protestantism (and vice-versa). Then there are stories. Story Number 1. The first time I went to the US for a tournament Freddy decided to drive us from Boston LIA to Geneva despite (A) his only having gotten his driver’s license about a year(?) before; (B) his not having driven a car till then; (C) his never having driven in the US; (D) his having left his spectacles in the UK, which he claimed left him unable to read any road signs. Things went more or less OK till we had literally reached our hotel, whereupon Freddy decided to drive on the wrong side on the road when turning in and was immediately picked up by Highway Patrol. He shakily pulled over and sat there going Shit, shit, shit, while Michael vehemently hissed from the backseat: Get out, Freddy, fuck’s sake get out and talk to him; and when Freddy opened the door and stepped out the officer immediately went Get in the car sir or I will draw my firearm, which made Freddy withdraw into the vehicle with extraordinary haste and a very delicate Okay, okay. He managed to persuade the officer not to issue a ticket on the basis of his being really apologetic + British (You’re not from around these parts, sir, are you?), while Michael and I helped by frantically trying to disguise our laughter. Story Number 2. That time in Chennai when Tom and I were opposing some motion on NATO unconditionally offering membership to former USSR states and I asked Tom during prep to take out the almanac that we’d bought because something about NATO voting procedure might be relevant to the debate.[65] Tom opened his cinch bag and slowly withdrew one empty plastic water bottle, and another, and another – and by the time the 6th one came out I was pretty sure that the bloody almanac couldn’t have been the bag, but Tom persisted and eventually withdrew the 7th water bottle, before taking a good inside the bag and noting that he hadn’t brought the almanac.[66] Story Number 3. That time I made Michael watch Sinister in the hotel and he was nearly catatonic with horror. Story Number 4.That time Joe tried to explain the Higgs to me over the course of two hours and most of what I got out of it was that it involved something called spontaneous symmetry-breaking and sombrero hats. Story. Story. Story.

And then there is, outside all this, the stray time – time on the train, time between rounds, time after we’ve finished judging some debate – not so much interstitial time as much as enlarged time, time that grows into space for conversation about anything, really.[67] It’s probably just a product of being pretentious and sincere in a way only university allows you to be, but for some reason lots of conversations on the train just end up being about Life: how to go about it,[68] career plans, family problems, personal pains/regrets, and so on. I think this stuff is important when you’re dealing with debaters: it’s central to rehabilitating their realness as people back from the muddy margins of your imagination.

XIII.

That’s about it. Debating’s badnesses are not so different from the badnesses of any other kind of competitive activity, and it’s goodnesses are not so different from the goodnesses of any other kind of activity that lets you make friends, or show off a little, or align the moving parts of your life around something.  By the time you see the strangeness of this activity, its primordial gameishness, you’re probably already twined in, and pretty decent at it. It’s probably not wise to parse this all too carefully. Do that to anything you love and it dissolves into a jumble of facts.

University life is weird. My experience of it at first was that it was essentially lonely and a bit sad. We’re not really programmed to be all that happy, I think. It’s unnecessary. The dramatic, big-L Literary way of putting this is to go (as someone did): What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears. That’s probably overstating things. But most of the time we want something to do that won’t be painful or boring, and for some people debating is neither painful or boring, and can be exciting, for a time at least. And that makes it an OK thing for people to do. It’s not a great thing or an important thing, but it’s OK, and OK is important. I’ve been very lucky in this hobby –  and even though I’m not doing very much of this anymore, I’ve got many other OK things in my life, and that adds up eventually to something that’s kind of good.

[1] I’ve heard people say that they just don’t have any free time in university. This is rather flabbergasting. Not because degrees can never involve vast, surreal, cruel amounts of work, but because psychologically, no-one can just work non-stop like that. At some point, if you’ve got that sort of degree, you’ve just got to fuck things up and miss a couple of deadlines, just for the variety. And you’re left with some free time.

[2] Not as in “physically like home”, but as in a place which you can think of as a private emotional groundstate.

[3] So you can still be friends with everyone, but can monopolise the well-this-is-a-tricky-politicalish/moralish/socioeconomicish-problem-so-lets-ask-so-and-so-what-they-think-and-that’ll-let-us-nod-and-move-on-to-more-interesting-topics-of-conversation niche that occasionally (satisfyingly?) emerges in social situations.

[4] I can’t believe that people believe this, but people I know believe that people do believe this, so I can’t leave this out. If debating societies market themselves on this basis it’d probably be good if they stopped, I think. Even if these species of self-help claims are true they seriously misrepresent what real competitive debating is like, what you really get out of it, and definitely what you come to want to get out of it.

[5] Also, I guess, unfair. Although I’m genuinely uncertain about whether that counts as a bad thing.

[6] By which I mean I thought that I had something like a 2-7% of getting in? There’s something quite futile about trying to define a crushing sense of uncertainty in numerical terms, because while you’re feeling it you’re always trying to put a number to it, but of course you can’t, since if you could you’d probably feel a lot less worried. It’s a meta- kind of uncertainty, is what I’m getting at. I’m not sure people really understand what it’s like to be from a country that is not a WLD and not have parents who went to university and look out at places like Oxbridge or the Ivy Leagues. These places aren’t really places as much as they are fixed conceptual points made fantastical by imagination and distance. There really is something heart-stopping about them. They imply a kind of heightened reality. I don’t feel this way now, but I know for certain that at that point in time it was difficult for me to think of these places, to actually imagine people in them, actually living and talking and eating and shitting and fucking and writing and thinking in them, without becoming weak with aspiration and stupidity, without painfully wanting that kind of, you know, Wagnerian falling-into. I’m trying hard to put this across but I think it might just be one of those things.

[7] Director of Studies. The person in charge of everyone studying a particular course in College. My DoS, Nick, was really an extremely caring and helpful guy. But he had decided to adopt the introductory tactic of shocking us into academic success by scaring us shitless – emphasizing how different a law degree would be from everything we had done in the past and how useless our past academic successes would be as guides, how many ways there were to majorly fuck up an essay (lack of structure, lack of precision, failure to differentiate, inattention to detail, overlooking counterarguments, misreporting cases, misunderstanding terms, domain elision, bad grammar, lack of an utterly crystalline and lucid and illuminating and shrewd and mature and intelligent and practical and sensible and generally all-round gorgeous first paragraph, lack of a clear position, overuse of acronyms, underuse of acronyms, being too uninteresting, being too interesting, insufficient attention to academic debate, thralldom to academic debate), how tricky it was to read textbooks, how awfully written legal judgments were, and so on. Also the one thing we knew about him was that he was or had been a Prize Fellow at All Souls, which made us wary with admiration. The only thing we sort-of knew about becoming a Prize Fellow was that it involved some thaumaturgic admissions sieve so brutal it let the chaff of mere academic brilliance pour sleekly through. All very silly, all very understandable. After submitting my first ever law essay to Nick, I went back to my room and decided to re-read it, spotting five or six disastrous spelling errors. At the next supervision, when Nick returned my essay, I apologized profusely for them, nervously tacking on a faux-casual my typing’s awful or some lie like that. He smiled and looked a bit puzzled and said he hadn’t noticed.

[8] Even after four years, I can’t really say I like the place. I suppose anything run primarily by students is mostly glitz and facebook events orbiting a core of essential dilapidation. It turns out that the CU, or at least most of it, is only tangentially related to what you might call debating. Probably more than half of all CU presidents have never ever seen a competitive debate, and a much larger percentage than that have never participated in one. Most of the people involved in it thrive on small-time hackery and CV-building. Can’t say this is bad, really: I had a job lined up for me before I entered university, so I could basically go around doing what I wanted without an eye to eventually out-competing people for jobs. Entirely plausible that had things been different I would have attempted to run for a position in the CU.

[9] The four teams are called, in speaking order, the Opening Government (OG), Opening Opposition (OO), Closing Government, (CG) and Closing Opposition (CO).

[10]In good debates in the semifinals or finals of major competitions, dissents (or splits, to use the more common term) are expected. There are two reasons for this. The first is that a good debate is a close one, so judges are more likely to have reasonable disagreements. More relevantly, I suspect, judges in big rounds are usually all experienced, and so are more likely to stick to their guns in the post-debate discussion. It’s sometimes said that the second debate among the judges matters more than the thing that they are supposed to be judging; if the judges are good debaters themselves, this is probably true. In the finals of big BP championships sometimes deliberations go on for 5/6 hours without any real consensus forming. The judging panels in these big debates are also often quite large, consisting of up to 9 judges. This complicates things because you get horse-trading. In one WUDC final, if I recall correctly, 4 judges thought CG won, 3 judges the OO, and 2 the CO. If everyone had stuck to their guns CG would have won on an admittedly bizarre (unheard of?) 4-3-2 split. The problem was that the judges who thought an opposition team won were determined not to let CG win, and so the judges who thought CO won (despite not really believing OO’s case), swapped their votes from CO to OO. Eventual result: a 5-4 split for OO. I’m sure the actual details here are a lot more complex – probably the judge swap from CO to OO was a product of them both wanting CG not to win and genuinely being persuaded of OO’s case – but this account seems fairly plausible in its outline.

[11] This is a standard that is changed nearly every  year at the WUDC council, and which is variously reworded and reinterpreted at regional tournaments. I don’t really understand what the AIV is: for a start “average” and “intelligent” seem at least a little bit contradictory. If “average intelligent” is read together (as in “take the voters, select the intelligent ones from them, and then average all these people out”) to remove the contradiction the question then becomes what exactly “intelligent” means, and there are longstanding discussions about whether this refers to a standard of knowledge (Does the AIV read the front pages of most reputable broadsheets? Does the AIV scan the news once a week? Does the AIV have debating as a hobby? (Recursion! Circularity!) Does the AIV have the telly gently spooling out Fox News in the background when he/she returns from work bent under inexplicable weariness and goes to the fridge to find something with which to feed the microwave? Does the AIV discuss the moral implications of the Experience Machine in the pub with unspecified but assumedly average friends?) or a standard of intelligence conventionally/un- defined (Open-mindedness? Moderate bias in favour of classically/Mill-ian liberal government? Forensic attention to argumentative detail? University-educated?) or both. Probably both. In any case, if this seems really dry and technical: yes. Yes it is. This is as far from what makes debating fun as it’s possible to get.

[12] E.g., starting a new argument after the 6th minute. I’d been taught that if you were doing both rebuttal and substantive content in a speech you (A) had to signpost and structure your rebuttal, and (B) transition from rebuttal to substantive content by 3.45, all necessary to avoid civilizational ruin etc. Of course in BP no-one gave a damn.

[13] Far too seriously. A judge cares less about your speech than you do; I have the impression that you should probably only care about their feedback as much as they care about your speech, unless they’re really seriously good at judging.

[14] An all-round great guy called Freddy who was very smart but had the uncanny ability to be more confused about things than he actually was.

[15] Freshers are easy to be nice to, because (A) you feel at once that you are doing something good for “the community”, (B) they’re usually eager to learn, and so present heady opportunities for indoctrination, and (C) you can usually rest assured that said fresher won’t really be a threat to you in a debate. You think: Let the next generation tangle with this one; I’ll just watch like a grizzled old-timer from a distance.

[16] This also means, if the people from that circuit really like you (and if you have a robust-ish CV), that they might ask you to come along to their country on a paid flight to be Chief Adjudicator at one of their tournaments. Having a foreigner CA your tournament is seen as a quick way to guarantee diversity in topic-setting, and gives the tournament a thin Styrofoam package of gravitas. The less familiar people in a circuit are with you, the more intimidated/impressed they’re likely to be. Nice for its own sake, but also reduces the probability of stuff like complaints.

[17] These rooms are often called bin rooms. (As in, “we’re fucked for the break; I think we were in the bin for the last round.”) It’s unclear to me if there is anything that is meant to be consciously derisive about this.

[18] Not power-pairing this time, of course, since that would ensure the best teams KO’ed each other and wouldn’t make the final, but folding-table pairing. Basically take the best + worst teams that broke and place them together in a debate. So the top breaking team debates against the 32nd breaking team but also (BP: 4 teams, lots of necessary complications) the 16th/17th breaking teams, the 2nd breaking team debates against the 31st breaking team + 15th/18th, etc. Folding-table pairing is designed to facilitate the best teams making the final and rewards breaking high, but because there are four teams in a BP debate, and because in each outround the top two teams progress to the next round, there are circumstances where it’s advantageous to break just below the very top teams. The maths is a bit confusing but if you draw a table and work out what happens in the semifinals of a tournament with octofinals and quarterfinals it’ll become relatively clear. Please don’t, though.

[19] This is not, as you might have noticed, a power of 2. WUDC has something called a partial-double-octofinal, and is the only tournament in the world I know of which uses this system. In EUDC 16 teams break.

[20] Generally, if judge puts pen down and gives you a dead stare, you’d better fucking move on. Wince = you’re toast; skeptical frown = move on or explain more, depending; tightly controlled smile = things look either good or great, depending on judge; lean-back-in-seat-laughter + table-slapping + the other team on your side grinning combatively and saying hear, hear = you’re killing it. If partner gets a glazed panicky look or starts shaking head despite everything, get ready to do serious apologizing. If partner cackles, your team is working fine, but this might have little correlation with how well you’re doing objectively.

[21] This is almost always an ominous sign: the longer the deliberation, the more random the result. You might even have a wings-outvote-chair situation on your hands.

[22] There’s also a sharp-ish distinction, I find, between (1) debaters who think arguments are interesting in the same way baubles are shiny: they’re to be admired in an aesthetic manner for their cleverness and counterintuitiveness and rhetorical power, independent of what moral weight they have; (2) debaters who think arguments are good only insofar as they have moral worth or concord with their prexisting beliefs; and (3) debaters who think arguments are only interesting insofar as they have tactical value in a debate. If you go to a bunch of debaters and tell them that’d you’ve just run a case premised on an analytic argument against the possibility of free will, you can tell which debaters in that group are (1)-, (2)- or (3)-types be seeing how they react. The (1)-type debaters are the ones whose eyes light up; they’ll get excited and will probably unselfconsciously bring up one of Nozick/Schopenhauer/Descartes/Dennett/Hobbes; the (3)-types will roll their eyes and jovially say something like “actually you people need to fucking calm down and get over this”; the (2)-types will probably be a bit ambivalent but privately wish the argument was not analytic but was based on the hegemonic false-consciousness-generating semiotic/cultural/distributive structures of late capitalism & its rearticulations of white/male/cis power.

[23] Mom had 3rd stage colon cancer. Totally, totally, overcomplicated year +.

[24] LSE is an Open, not an IV: this basically means that non-university teams can attend. For some reason LSE has become the tournament that brings all terrifying dinos out of the woodwork. “Dinos” here refers to debaters who are done with university life, who’ve in some sense moved on from debating. It’s one of these terms that’s used with equal parts awe and irritation since dinos are seem as spoiling the fun for everyone else, especially when they turn up at IVs. (They aren’t supposed to, but tournament organizers don’t always dare to say no.) But for LSE dinos are more or less the whole point. LSE features BP debating at a particularly surreal pitch of intensity. It’s the sort of competition you tell novices not to attend as speakers but to watch, and where it’s considered not too surprising to see in the top room a (former) EUDC champion teamed up with another (former) EUDC champion debating in a room against a (former) World No.1 and a (former) World Champion and a (former) European no.1 and the (current) EUDC champion, etc. Most people at LSE are a bit flushed and a bit dazed and a bit what the fuck just hit me? If LSE has any moral purpose it is to show that sometimes a crushing defeat can be flattering. And and and the team names: they’re great. I was particularly proud, in my 2rd year, of Just the Washing Instructions on the Rich Tapestry of Life (I think the organizers shortened that name), and, the next year, of my attempt to get the phrase Mongoloid Porn Inferno on the projector display. (We eventually settled for something similar but less allude-y.)

[25] The first time was for the law dinner at college, where I rented a suit from A.E. Clothier’s. The whole black-tie thing, to be honest, sent me into a minor panic.

[26] Turns out that’s what they’re called. The ones that are for some stupid reason twice as long and need to be folded back on themselves.

[27] I understand that to some people this might seem slightly absurd, like I’m trying to take something which they wish very much they had and belittling it to look like I’m above it all. The point is that I was not at all above it all, in fact I was very much in it, and the thing about being in it was that you don’t have time to notice the specialness of the moment since it’s spread thin all around you and the only way to see that specialness is from a quite a long way off (competition stage- or time- or geography- wise) where the moment gets contracted into a bright shiny point. And then you get some time or sense to try and make something cool out of it.

[28] Plus they are poke-y and all-round irritating. There’s no point putting them on when it’s warm, and it was really warm in Belgrade. The first night I spent in the hotel the air-conditioning didn’t work and when I woke up the floor was covered in little white moths which had, apparently, died in the heat.

[29] I gave a bad speech. I remember Joe’s speech being pretty amazing. Mine wasn’t any good. But that wasn’t really the problem.

[30] People don’t think I am religious. That’s okay and sort of sweet, a kind of testament to how much faith people have in my rationality – plus I’m discreet. But it’s irritating (to lesser or greater extents, depending on how much I already like the person) when someone refuses to seriously believe that I am religious even after I tell them quite categorically I am. I suppose it has to do with the unconventional-ish? nature of my belief. There’s something about this already on this blog, so I’ll leave it at that.

[31] Observe any debate and you’ll see it: people will pretend to be casual with the judge; they’ll say with faux-weariness Another one on Greece, eh?; they’ll smile and shake their head condescendingly as they offer a Point of Information; they’ll allude (glancingly, if they’re any good) to their expertise on the particular topic of debate; they’ll have ridiculously extravagant putdowns (in one debate involving some discussion of statistical methods, a debater I know very well said something along the lines of Mr. Speaker, the reason a man from my university invented the scientific method 400 years ago was to prevent people like him [I imagine the him spat out with disgust] from making arguments like that; and grieves me to say it hasn’t worked.)

[32] Well, what I should be saying is that I get this feeling sometimes. It only happens if I’m really tired and mostly wanting to go home, and when I’m in OG (I usually deliver the first speech, which means 7 speeches come after mine where I’m not doing very much work). I end up staring into middle distance and when I get back to the speaker (and at this point I’ve obviously lost the thread of the debate at least a little bit) there’s a little lost animal jerk of huh? What the fuck is this?

[33] This sounds good but is something I find it very difficult to be proud of, because, in a pattern that should be familiar, I was bad in the final. Anser was fantastic, but my speech was crap. I haven’t, till this day, succumbed even once to the basic narcissistic desire to watch that final, even though it’s on Youtube. I wince when people tell me I spoke well in it, and more recently I’ve taken to correcting them. The EUDC final’s distant enough emotionally from where I am now that I don’t care so much about people thinking I spoke well. This is exactly the sort of thing that people mistake for maturity or honesty.

[34] I hope people haven’t noticed. If they have, well. It’s very hard trying to pin down why this matters.

[35] This octofinal started a running joke; Tom has had, over his university debating career, a complicated relationship with outrounds. I bring up this octofinal around Tom sometimes – he’s the sort of person who doesn’t take offence at anything – and pretend it was a clear decision. He plays along and points out in (what must be) faux outrage that NZ won that octofinal crushingly. There’s something surreal about the fact that one of my favourite debating partners is someone from a different country, whom I met under the most intensely adversarial circumstances possible, and who probably spent an evening passionately cursing my team inwardly after I’d spent an evening cursing his team (more or less inwardly). I attended my last debating competition in the UK with Tom. Our team name was Dundee Waterfront; when we were at Dundee something of a big deal had been made about the Very Exciting waterfront developments / improvements. The DW became the subject of loads of jokes at WSDC, not because people were cynical about it, I think, but because at WSDC everyone was so focused on trying to win the damn thing that seeing a smart nice guy in a suit present us with beautifully done-up CGI model of the renovated waterfront and a little talk about its aesthetic/cultural/economic benefits came across as strangely disjointed from the bigger WSDC experience. The same point applies even more forcefully to WUDC, where often we get presentations about the culture of the host country, its rich history & lived diversity, its natural beauty, etc., and no one gives a fuck. This is often what debating is like: the most interesting places in the world, and being in no state whatsoever to appreciate them. In any case, it was neat that my last UK tournament was had with someone I’d debated against at WSDC. Tom was best speaker at the tournament. It was, in hindsight, a good way to end things.

[36] The strike-leaders’ speeches were excellent. Stirring stuff.

[37] The last three preliminary rounds of WUDC are “closed”; the judges’ decisions are not released and you go on straight to the next debate. The eventual break is announced late on December 31st at some swanky (or not) venue crammed with nervous debaters where there’s usually a lot of alcohol and loud music and possibly even food. This is called break night. I hate it. You’re so tired it’s hard trying to be nice to people; most of them are drunk, anyway, and the noise sticks in your brain like prions. My partner usually has to drag me down. I managed to miss (most of) the break night for my 3rd and last WUDC. That was good.

[38] Desolation of Smaug had just come out and I liked it, so I listened to Ed Sheeran’s I See Fire on loop on the way there, and Les Barricades Misterieuses on the way back: it put me to sleep.

[39] There’s something about debating with a partner whose style is quite different to yours. You get to watch and enjoy your partner’s speeches; and there’ a satisfying mystery to whatever’s going on because you can’t really see the seams. Both Joe and Anser’s speaking styles radically differed from mine. Both could do speeches whose structure was basically narrative: no numbers, little signposting. And it worked. I haven’t the faintest clue how this is done; the rules for pulling this off don’t fit in my Standard Model. Joe did a concentrated and undeniably charming sotto voce –  and didn’t do the thing I often did, which was to start speeches by placing them firmly in the context of this debate, but started his speeches from a certain philosophical idea (PIV sex is always immoral; free will is weird) and let things just grow from there, finding his way into the stuff that had already happened the debate by – chemotaxis, I suppose. It all came across as very thoughtful and wry and clever, which is something I really envied. Anser’s speeches had a fantastically rabble-rousing quality to them; he’d leave his notes behind and walk out to the front and point his finger in the air while citing 16th century Islamic jurisprudence or excoriating governmental laxity re environmental policy. He had a baffling ability to ignore about 50% of what the other side had said (unthinkable for me) and spend an entire speech making essentially one point – he would repeat it, openly, brazenly, with a don’t you see, people? note of urgency quavering there, and the point would become true, and it would become the only thing that mattered. Very mystifying. He could make a joke about the etymological origins of algebra and have people laugh.

[40] If I think I’ve got no good arguments I get a bit more animated: if you can’t win on the argument you have to win on something else, so I get a bit snarkier and a bit ruder and a bit more “passionate”. If you’re losing a debate, you’ve got to mess things up: confusion only helps you.

[41] The numbers are big and are put in fat bold circles because I’m mortally afraid I’ll miss a link and the entire argument will fall apart. Of course this is not how verbal arguments work: the judge’s intuition and experience usually fills in (without them really noticing) what you’ve missed.

[42] I’ve asked other NZlanders and they agree: Tom’s accent is strong by even internal standards.

[43] After the judges decide what the team rankings are, they award individual debaters speaker points. The speaker score (“speaks”, in debater parlance) is nominally out of 100, but in reality the worst possible speech (complete silence) gets a 55-60, and the best possible speech (the speaker makes you want to stand up and cheer or cry and poses  challenges to your own belief system from the level of Dasein upwards or just turns into Jesus) gets something like 93? So the real range of the speaker score is 40 points; an average speech is a 75. I’ve always wondered why we don’t just set the scale so it’s properly out of 100 points. There are lots of rather wishy-washy reasons (too much variance = bias, familiarity, etc.) as to why, but I think the most basic reason is that there’s something subconsciously comforting about confining the range of possible scores such that even the worst speech gets a 60/100 – which looks, to the ordinary eye, pretty okay. In practice the speaker scale has a logarithmic quality to it: it’s very easy to move from a 75 to an 80 (or 70), but moving from an 85 to an 88 is unbelievably difficult. I’ve got a strong hunch that this is because many judges are extremely reluctant to give out speaks that are higher than their own personal bests. Say your personal best is an 86. You remember this speech clearly. It crushed the debate. The judge was effusive. You remember even now the prickly sensation you got up your forearms when you were speaking, how the words came out just like that, and they were correct and beautiful, and everything directed at your speech just slid off it like it was Teflon. And then you are judging and suddenly this speaker comes up and gives an awesome speech and you are forced to confront the possibility that this speaker has just done something you have never done because you think, for a moment, that this speaker has just pumped out an 88. This speech has beaten your all-time best. What do you do? You consider the speech very seriously and realise that it was not an 88 after all: maybe it was an 85, or if your wings push you, an 86. I’m not trying to be mean in writing this. What I’m saying is that it’s an entirely natural and human thing that this effect exists. We don’t want to be outdone. We don’t want to think that there are hard limits on what we can do that are different from the hard limits on what someone else can do. There are situations, I grant, where we look at someone else and think, with real happiness, I could never do that. But often that’s because we’re not aspiring to become what that person is – because we’re not in the same arena, as it were – or because that person is someone we truly care for: a child, a lover, a close friend. But I don’t think these situations pop up often in debating. In any case, I think there’s solid evidence for this personal-best effect: judges who have been high-speaks debaters themselves tend to give out high speaks.  I’ve been in roughly 250 debates over the course of my university life: I’ve gotten a 90 only thrice, every time from a judge who’s gotten a 90 at least once before. Once my 90 was clearly undeserved, once it was a bit generous, once it was spot-on (I think!). But then I’ve gotten 85s for what I hoped would be 89s, so there’s that.

[44] The speaker + team ranking is called the “tab” by most debaters. My guess is that it’s a contraction of “table”.

[45] I’m generalizing from how I feel. Some judges are so experienced that nothing really affects them anymore.

[46] I’ve given similar speeches in the preliminary rounds of small local tournaments and in the top room at WUDC: the speaker point gap is ~5 points.

[47] In fact, the final of any tournament usually happens at least twice before the actual final in the top room. This isn’t strictly accurate, of course, since the element of luck needed to make the final means that often 1 or 2 of the 4 best teams in a tournament get KO-ed, but you get the general point.

[48] In BP debating you’re allowed to give Points of Information between the 2nd and 7th minutes of an opposing speaker’s speech. You stand up and go “Point of Information” and the speaker can accept or decline your POI. A POI is basically a short interjection that’s meant to be a rebuttal or some question that’s a sneaky tactical trap. It’s very dangerous for a speaker not to accept any POIs: judges will penalize you, although no-one has even come close to working out what the nature of this penalty is, since it involves some very suspicious counterfactual construction. POIs are one of these bits of BP debating that audiences unfamiliar with the format will laugh at when they see them happening for the first time. Someone pops up and stretches out a hand, and the speaker, without pausing, goes, “No thanks”, or just dismisses them by stretching out the middle and index fingers and flicking them downwards, twice – and the POI-offeror sits down. There is something vaguely comical about it. I think it’s the contrast between the rather dramatic sight of someone standing up and interrupting a speech and the easy, practiced rejection from the speaker that forces the POI-offeror to lamely sit down.

[49] Because they’re all about evaluating arguments, and we think this function is, somehow, not arbitrary.

[50] Or at the very least their struggles, or their disappointments, or their sufferings.

[51] I’m an act/preference utilitarian, probably. I don’t think words like justice or fairness or rights or dignity or freedom or will mean anything. I’m certain in an angry sort of way that personhood and identity do not mean anything. I’m sure happiness means something, and consciousness. I’m not sure (though I am close to it) right and wrong mean something, although I think should means something. I’m not even totally sure if good and bad mean something, though I’m fairly sure better and worse mean something. But the reason I’m utilitarian is because I think only utilitarianism takes seriously the idea that other people exist, and they have lives as vivid and real and as my own, and that there’s nothing special about me: the interests of everyone have just as great a pull on my reasons for action as the interests of everyone else. I have no moral priority. So I’d push the fat man because the lives of the 5 people I save are just as real as that of the man who dies. (I’d also take the organs, or pull the lever, or plug someone in, etc.) None of that Rawlsian touchy-feeliness about respecting dignity and equality and seperateness of persons – all that nonsense designed to let us immunize ourselves against other people. But my point is that I think it’s important to take the existence of other people seriously, and competition is not at all designed to let you do that.

[52] Dickishness, I should stress, is a complex thing: its instantiations are probably uncountable. Rudeness works; as does dismissiveness; as does glum preachiness; as does a bellicose shall-we-continue-that-debate-after-it’s-ended-ness; as does a desperate-attempt-to-look-too-cool-for-debating-while-at-a-debate-tournament-ness, etc.

[53] As far as I can tell, Scalia has mastered the art of stating his conclusion entertainingly and repeatedly as a substitute for explaining how said conclusion was reached. He’s learnt how to build an essentially incestuous relationship with his audience: “ha, he says argle-bargle and applesauce, he’s just one of us, no?People go: oh, epic burn, or what an apocalyptic dissent, but all that’s going on is cunning and artful ineloquence. This tricks people, even clever people who disagree with him, that there’s intelligence at work in his decisions.

[54] Some competitive activities come out in credit because they’re spectator sports: regardless of what the activity does to the competitors, we all get to sit back and watch. Debating is not a spectator sport. It might have started out with strong aspirations to become one, but as with any particular intellectual exercise its grown more intricate and involute, with its own set of technical terms. Which is not to say no debates are fun to watch; it’s just that most of them are a bit dull. The ARV standard in BP debating stops it from descending to the ludicrous extremity of e.g., US-style Policy Debate. There’s also two more problems I haven’t discussed, which are the lack of female representation in some debating circuits and racial (+ institutional) bias at WUDC. There’s nothing important or interesting to be said about these problems that can be said succinctly.

[55] Actually, I know two debaters who claim that they’ve never made an argument that’s contradicted their personal beliefs. I find this a bit unbelievable: if your beliefs can accommodate so many different positions in so many debates you need to get a more precise set of beliefs.

[56] This is very difficult to pull off. You can only rant if you really, truly, actually believe what you are saying, and you are usually just sacrificing some analytic rigor unless you’ve got the ability to bludgeon moral intuitions out of people’s heads via sheer force of will. When this works it’s awesome to watch, though.

[57] It’s hard to understand why these things are fun in abstract, so here are some examples. The archetypal trap POI is the one that an opposition debater delivers in a debate on electing judges: “How often,” this POI-er asks, “would you re-elect your judges?” The proposition speaker, not really seeing the point of the question, says, “I don’t see how that’s relevant, but let’s make it 5 years.” And then the opposition speaker gets to win the debate by pointing out that re-election is a fucking awful idea. If the POI had been “Would you re-elect your judges?”, the speaker would have probably said no, but the how often phrasing lets you sneak the concession in. Re counterintuitive stances – this is mostly about being clever w/ the words of the motion. E.g., the OG in “This house regrets organized religion” might choose to concede the existence of God, and run a case entirely about how organization disrupts the connection between individuals and God. This tactic (A) wrongfoots the opposition, who might be preparing a general defense of religion, and (B) gives the OG team an edge over the closing government, since CG (which cannot to contradict the OG, remember) now can’t run any generic anti-religion arguments. Sometimes a sneaky stance is a way of turning a nearly unwinnable motion into something that almost looks like a trivially good idea. In Chennai the motion for round 7 was “This house believes that government agencies that regulate drugs should only test whether a drug is safe, not whether it is effective, before approving it for public use.” If you’re OG it might look like you’re in a bit of trouble, since OO gets to yell about companies lying to the public, etc. But the motion does not in fact say that the government will stop testing for effectiveness, merely that it will not be necessary before a drug is approved for sale. So in OG you’re perfectly entitled to have a policy which basically says that you’ll release the drug before it’s tested for effectiveness, but that you’ll test for effectiveness and publish the results anyway, so lying companies will get called out. The only effect of the policy is that people who would almost certainly die of terminal illnesses now get their hands on novel treatment methods a couple of months earlier than they otherwise would have: and you probably win from OG. A counterprop is basically a stance or policy from from OO that departs from the status quo.

[58] Because, he assures me, of the way he moves his arms when he’s debating.

[59] Floppy has “r”s that are a bit w-ish.

[60] There’s no designated location for prep if you’re not OG, so people cluster in corridors or sit on steps. You don’t want to talk too loudly or one of the other teams in your room might overhear you.

[61] Remember how if you’re a team in the closing half you need to make points for your side that are different from the ones you opening team ran? These are called extensions.

[62] In fact, Michael’s debating career is something of a case study in extreme directedness. For a period of over one year he would wake up in the morning and the first thing he would do would be to select a random topic from the internet, prep for 15 minutes, and then deliver a PM speech. Every day. That sort of dedication is very, very impressive, and a little worrying. In any case, Michael went from being world #45 or something to world #2 over the course of one year. For some time he was just the guy who hung around competitions, and then everyone started to notice that he was really good. In our team I always spoke first, and it’s always a first speaker’s dream to have a second speaker you can be confident will always be able to defend they stuff you’ve said, even if it’s a bit crap.

[63] It turns out Michael is terrified by horror films; Tom and I love them. There was a period when Michael and I would name our team at various competitions after characters from Tolkien’s legendarium (Glaurung; Ancalagon; Smaug, etc.), mostly because we both loved the LoTR films.

[64] My parents made me play the piano when I was young, despite having no experience whatsoever with classical music. I hated it at first, then hated it more, and then fell wildly in love with it. But it’s hard to get people to like quite a lot of classical stuff without doing a lot of explaining and pointing-out.

[65] The only almanac we were able to find was a hilarious thing called Manorama, which had a large chunk of how to gain employment in the Indian civil service and (I kid you not) featured a section on the UN which began: “The UN is the hope and conscience of mankind.” It became a running joke among the two of us.

[66] The debate went fine: as you’ll probably have realized from reading the motion, it was rather opp-weighted.

[67] Sometimes you’re asked to do something a bit more formal, like be Chief Adjudicator of a tournament. This is, generally, a pretty thankless task. As CA you basically do three things; you set motions (= topics), you assign judges to rooms (some rooms are more important for the break than others, since there will be rooms where all/no teams will break – these don’t matter so much; the best judges go to those rooms where some teams might break and some might not – so-called “bubble” rooms [you float or you pop!]), and you judge debates, much like any other judge. The problem is that the first of your functions – motion-setting – is hard. The main thing is just that a good motion is very difficult to generate. Sometimes a motion is balanced (i.e., there’s a similar number of good arguments on both sides) but shallow, so that the opening teams go up and state the only 2 good arguments for their respective sides and leave the closing teams with nothing new to say at all. Sometimes a motion is deep but unbalanced (there’s lots of good arguments for both sides but the proposition arguments, for instance, are extraordinarily subtle / require lots of hedging / require specialist knowledge / require one very specific strategic stance or policy to work at all / are just difficult to think of). Sometimes a motion is deep and balanced but just weird: as in the classic case where the motion is so complicated that both opening teams flail about and finally keel over and die, leaving the closing teams to sort out the mess with the wisdom that comes from having just witnessed the argumentative equivalent of a highway pileup. (One type of motion which has an unusual tendency to lead to these situations takes the form “This house, as a certain actor X, would threaten a certain actor Y to do action β”.  OG needs to figure out: (1) whether or not X can actually do β; (2) whether X wants to demand a certain set of actions α from Y; (3) whether or not Y will take seriously the threat to do β; (4) whether, if Y believes the threat, Y will act so as to prevent β  by doing, say, α ; (5) whether (4) is good; (6) whether, if Y believes the threat, Y will not act so as to prevent β; (7) whether (6) is good; (7) whether to argue that whether or not Y believes X’s threat / reacts as per (4) or (6) all outcomes will be good or to concede that (6) would be awful but that it’s (4) that will happen, etc. And the OO also knows that all these options are available to OG, but has no idea which argumentative path the OG will take until the debate starts, so OO often ends up spreading itself thin preparing for all strategic eventualities, which then leads to opening half debates featuring two very large, hastily built ships sailing right past each other in the night.) There’s another difficulty layered on top of this problem of finding good motions. As you’ll probably have realized, whether or not a motion is good depends on a whole host of subjective considerations (Is the argument sufficiently obvious? Is the argument persuasive? Is the correct stance to take too obscure? Are the facts common knowledge?), and most of the time you won’t be setting motions alone but with 2/3 other CAs. This massively complicates things because inevitably, there will be motions which you think are good (deep and balanced and otherwise un-weird and maybe even interesting) which your co-CA does not think are good, and vice-versa. And the process of hashing out your disagreement can be pretty agonizing, especially if it’s a big tournament and the other CA has been saving up this motion for a while. The co-CA will propose an amendment to the wording on the motion, or an information slide, and then you’ll squirm and insist on the original wording, etc. I’m going through all of this because I want to highlight the strangeness of the fact that one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever done in my debating career was be DCA of EUDC 2014 in Zagreb. For some reason there were 8 of us in the adj core – that is to say, 8 of us setting motions and allocating judges. This number was a little mad, and we were all expecting things to fuck up. As it turned out, however, things went great. I went in not really knowing 6 of the 7 members of the AC, and at the end of it all I really liked all of them, and still miss them a little. To be fair, our motion discussions were apocalyptic. We started out having discussion as per usual, and then realized we needed to have discussions about our discussion (viz. What was the voting procedure to be used when we were finally deciding whether or not to set a motion? Was there a veto? Was a 5-3 majority needed? Was there to be some rough quota for certain types of motions? What sort of gradations of displeasure-with-motion were we allowed to express? [Meh But OK; Iffy But OK; Settable w/ Real Reservations; Not Settable Until Reworded; Not Settable Until Balance-tested; Not Settable w/o Recontextualisation; Not Settable; Totally Undebateable – what the fuck are you twatnozzles thinking?; Over My Dead Body; I’ll Resign From the AC , I Will]) and then we realized we needed to have discussions about our discussions about our motion discussions (Should we allow anyone to speak twice if everyone has not spoken once? Should we give the motion-proposer 2 minutes to sell their proposed motion?). Things went well because we were lucky to settle quite early on a set of motions (out of 200+ listed in our initial spreadsheet, I think) we thought were definitely good, and because each of us was so worried about things going horribly that we happily murdered our own motions if people didn’t like them and moved on. Plus we all played Spaceteam (Google it: it’s a fantastic game, especially if you’re in a group of size 4n) and more or less lived together for a longish time and ended up spontaneously singing The Internet is for Porn together while preparing breakfast (we even passed the dialogue-y bits from one person to another), having lengthy discussions about ethics and our home countries (the adj core included a Scot, a Serb, a Slovenian, two Israelis, one Dutchman, and a Turk + me), hunting for chicken nuggets late at night, developing a taste (or not) for a sour yoghurt drink that’s popular in Croatia (I loved it), and so on.

[68] My general feeling is that to be happy you need to have 5 hobbies, all of which you care deeply about, and you should be prepared to ditch one at any point. In any case it’s probably a very bad idea to care mostly only about debating. You need to have a limited number of fucks to give, and at some point you should run out of them. My  guess is that there’s a part of our brain that’s always chugging away, steadily churning out fucks, but this little bit of gray matter replenishes them at a finite rate that probably diminishes over time, so fucks should be rationed very carefully – and they certainly shouldn’t all be dedicated to one activity. But what would I know.

2 thoughts on “The Thing About Debating

  1. Greetings, Mr. Kumar.

    Please forgive me if this message comes out to you as inappropriate.

    Looking for some piano music on Youtube, I bumped into one of your uploads: the clarity and intelligence of your reviews and comments inmediately called my attention; then I surfed a little through your blog. Kudos to you! So young and so bright. Most of all, I liked the warmness and welcomeness in your tone; inciting to reflection, rather than arrogant or dogmatic.

    I am so happily impressed, and this came to me just when I was about to accept the idea that few people on the Internet were sensible and smart and that every blogger was trying to sell something to me.

    But, it is true I do not know the Internet too much and that Google may give only what’s already in my mind. In which case, in the Internet I would only find a reflection of myself; and given that I google random things when I’m most vulnerable, emotionally speaking, I may not find things which would grant me inspiration or calm (since I would only find a reflection of my own thoughts or something stupid enough to shut them out).

    Your blog came as a signal from God, if you allow me to use this expression. When disappointment with people (mostly with certain attitudes towards self-expression and social life; you’ll forgive me if I’m not very explicit) was going to completely take over me, I have found a genius like you to make my day happy. For that, I thank you. Now I can sleep. It’s not that I value intelligence or skill with words above any other traits -these are mere assets as physical beauty can be-, but to see it combined with a kind spirit and a hunger for true wisdom is something rare indeed.

    Again, thank you for being you, and having written something that was just what I needed tonight.

    Kind regards,

    Jorge Ibarra

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