The Three Debate Formats

Debate formats are uninteresting. The competitive distinctions are nearly indistinct. 

But there are three formats or ideologies of debate that are very clearly distinct. They take place in any competitive format or organization. This is an attempt to name them, sort them, and point out some distinctions between them in order to foster discussion on that most important question: Why have debate societies, why have debate competitions in the first place? Keeping that question alive is what is going to keep debating alive and supported at the university level.

The Normative Format - Esperanto Debate; The Purist

Esperanto was created in order to provide a universal language that would be bereft of difficulties in understanding. It would be easy to learn so that it could be used to foster communication across the globe. Esperanto was created as the ideal language to simplify the major barrier to communication across cultures - irregular, idiomatic forms present in all language. Esperanto, although picking up in popularity in recent years never really took off as the international language of choice. English has taken that spot, but there are some people gravitating toward Esperanto just for that reason - English is saddled with cultural and ideological baggage that many do not want associated with their speech. There are certain ideological traces present in the speaking of any language, to be sure. If only there was a clean, pure place from which true communication could emerge. . .

Esperanto is a good analogy to this type of debate format - it is one that seeks a purity in the language of argumentation in order to overcome misunderstandings and difficulties in acquisition of persuasion. It is constructed based on the consonants and patterns of what I call “natural” argumentation practices, but attempts to remove all confusion in usage by removing those complexities. In Esperanto, this was done by eliminating verb conjugations and moving purely to a particle-based system, where suffixes and the like could be used to create meaning. The purging of ideological fingerprints and grime is the perfection of the language. Now there is no possibility of incorrect association.

Proponents of this sort of debate format avoid the pitfalls of other types of debating because they are in isolation. It is irrelevant to them what other grammars and structures of debate attempt to do, for their meaning is based on their own internal grammar that they have constructed. Ironically, it is this inward looking turn of Esperanto and other highly normative languages that create exclusion, since there are few, if any anchors to the outside world for their choices. They want simplicity and ease of communication for those who use it, reducing complexity in order to achieve these aims. Argumentation, although convincing here and there in other forms, is not clean and not pure and not departing from a neutral, objective space. It is inherently flawed as it could be misunderstood. The capacity for misunderstanding is still present even given a persuasive result.

Esperanto debate is marked by a highly stratified rule structure that forbids particular forms of argument unless they are clearly marked in the proper ways. Another analogue to this (since I’m sort of unfairly beating up on poor Esperanto, which doesn’t have all of these issues that Esperanto modes of debate do) would be I.A. Richards’s idea to mark language with subscript indicators for sarcasm, irony, cynicism, and the like. The theory operating here is that intended meaning is interrupted by the imperfections of the language. In debate, persuasive intent is ruined by the imperfections of daily argument.

Esperanto debate supporters are always trying to find ways to purify debate to make sure that the “best team” really did win, that arguments that harm “good debating” are excluded, and they seek to create examples of how a team will “properly” introduce a variety of arguments, so that everyone can be on the same page and understand the persuasive intent of what was meant by the speaker. Such normative models of debate would appear unrecognizable to laypeople as debating, but would be appreciated as a sport or contest that would require a lot of preparation in order to participate, even as an observer. This is fine for the Esperanto debate perspective, as excellence in something should take work, there should be clear distinctions between those who are professional and not, and, just like sport, everyone can try to do it, but at the highest levels there are walls. A constructivist, ivory tower approach to debate, the Esperanto analogue would support the location of “talent” that can be crafted into someone who can do debate in its pure and excellent form. There are not many of these, and much more who cannot be taught, so the small, recognizable population of people with potential talent are recruited into debate society membership.

The Corrective Format - The Grammarian

The importance of grammar should not be downplayed, but for proponents of this form of debate, the grammar of debating is the most vital element of it. Daily argumentation is filled with horrific grammatical mistakes, and debating is the healing salve for such injuries done to persuasiveness. Debate is preserved as debating in daily life, but done correctly, true-to-form, and with no room for the errors that common people make.

The swap of communicative efficacy for grammar might be more harmful than ignoring grammar wholesale. It is hard to imagine how one would totally ignore grammar, but occasionally someone can derive meaning from something that eschews grammatical correctness (eg: e. e. cummings). The easy response here is that one enjoys such departures precisely because one is familiar with and seeking out grammatical rules in order to make sense of the utterance. It is grammar that is responsible for meaning, even if that meaning is constructed in spite of grammar - it’s still derivative of those rules, or the noticed absence of them. Without due diligence to these rules, meaning is threatened. Without due diligence to the grammar of good argument, persuasiveness is threatened. We may live in a world absent the ability to properly persuade if it were not for the defenders of argumentative grammar.

This format attempts to link persuasiveness with correct form. If the argument form follows the guidelines for its construction, it can be recognized as the correct argument form, and recognition is the door to persuasive effect. Persuasion in this format is not a feeling, not an experience, not a moment, but a recognition of the possibility of such a feeling or experience happening. Even more so, it’s the recognition that if a “reasonable person” or “smart person” were in the room, this effect would occur to them. The judge becomes the expert on what would happen to people based on the form.

The other analogue here is to phrenology - the form tells you the consequence. The shape of the words, the shape of the argument, tells you how persuasive it is going to be. The predictive life of the argument is known by its tactile contours. The audience, the hearing, the engagement, the situation, the aesthetics - all bow down before the grammatical form.

Those who support this format of debating are always present, rulers in hand to measure the margins of the submission. Based on these measurements of the form, the persuasive impact of the arguments can be known. It isn’t communicated that simply - persuasion does have a valence to it, and training is required to know those limits. Those who have had success in persuading are, of course, authorized to speak about what that structure looks like. In order to make sure that debates are “good,” all arguments must adhere to proper form. These are also the defenders of debate as the home of reason, necessary for good democratic decision making. Whereas some Esperanto debaters might support this democratic element, they will not if it gets in the way of argument purity. Grammarian debaters will accept the knock against purity if it is within a set of knowable and teachable rules that further a field of correct ways to persuade. They are more connected to daily argumentation, if only to belittle it for its horrific form.

Proponents of this format are the sort that love misplaced apostrophes not just because of the ridiculous meaning one gets from the sentence, but because they get to celebrate how incredibly stupid the person who wrote the sentence is. These are people who take joy in the finding of the error, roll their eyes, and laugh at the fool who thought this mangled form was a good attempt at communication. There is a dark, visceral side to this format, and it usually comes with the baggage associated with belittling those who try very hard to speak in a new language and sound like babies. The format is also saddled with the excommunication of valid, persuasive, and amazing forms of argument that fail to meet the grammatical form. There are serious implications for exclusion based on accidents of class and race to this format of debating that must be defended as carefully as the grammarian’s rules, but are more often than not ignored. These elements though can be fixed - proper grammar is a leveling of the playing field, it is a way of correcting such inequity, if not salvation. The tools of improvement are here, and people must be given the ways to improve their situation. In short, the horrors of misuse can be corrected, no matter who you are or where you came from. There is hope. For some though, that hope comes with the price of abandoning your situationally derived argumentative practices. There is a larger, more correct form, and taking on its perceived limitations is like plugging into an adapter. There will be loss, but the gain in efficacy outweighs it exponentially. 

Defenders of the grammarian debate format often equate debate with reason or with thinking as a whole. Good thinking = good reason = good debating. The traces of the evidence for these claims are present in the way the arguments are constructed: For maximum possibility of reasonable assent. 

Everyone needs a grammatical education, so the rosters of these debate societies are much more egalitarian than the Esperanto societies - even people who are terrible at speaking have a possibility to be found here, as long as they respect that their methods of argument are illegitimate, save they follow correct grammatical forms.

The Natural Language Format - The Folklorist

The folklorist spends her time in and among people of different subcultures to see how their experiences have twisted and turned the dominant lines of thought, art, and music to reflect and create space for those lived moments. The folklorist is a collector and a celebrator of the organic and derivative form. But form is not really the term here as this type of collection continuously defies the forms that the folklorist arrives at the scene carrying. Like the Buddhist monk in training, the folklorist is continually reminded to, “put it all down!” Such cultures are recalcitrant to naming, preferring instead their own names and their own approaches. There are no possibilities of universal debate grammar, but there are possibilities to become open to the dizzying variants of what counts as persuasive evidence, good argument, and compelling speech. One must dissolve one's own preferences in order to enjoy and understand the varieties of the human argumentative experience.

Defenders of this debate format eschew, sometimes toward their own detriment, top-down forms of debate and practice that squeeze out experience, inductively derived, as to what persuades and what convinces. Driven by organically constructed ideas, they want their debate practice to be evaluated by those populations that only bring their own concepts to the debate. For the two previous debate forms, nothing could be more horrifying than the ideal dream of the folklorist. For they want practice in the day to day, inductively derived arguments and the persuasion of public audiences.

For this debate format, nothing is more important than the outside of the debate. The limitations of rules for argumentation tend to ignore and squeeze out the lived experiences of groups of people who are persuading and arguing the best they can with what they have. Such attention to the inductive means that the folklorist debate defender often ignores critique of argument forms that are bad, for fear of attacking a culturally derived form of communication based on lived experience.

A good concrete example of this might be fallacies - the fallacy might be poor reasoning, and worth dismissal upon identification. Or it could be a compelling argument based on the experiences of a person or a group. Or it could be a tool of discipline meant to “bring up” the quality of argumentation and reasoning, while loading the dice. This ensures that members of a particular group or culture can never be on par with the dominant group. It also codes human experience as invalid reasoning in this case under the guise of a neutral form, something that can be and should be cross-cultural in order to raise all intellectual boats. All of these are present in fallacy theory to some degree, it is a matter of which one is given presence and which is amplified in a given situation. None of them are true per se, it is a matter of perspective and use in a given context.

The folklorist must be cautious as the desire to suspend critique can lead to the implicit support of populist forms of argumentation that are equally bad as exclusive forms. The lack of a normative dimension could be critiqued as limiting debate to the realm of exploration or some sort of argumentative “free writing” where nothing counts, everything can be said, and there’s no clear method of evaluation of who won the debate (perhaps not important to the folklorist, but of vital importance to many populations on many issues). The folklorist debate defender wants debate to account for and mirror many daily forms of argument for the purpose of being better at the practice of convincing real populations. Any persuasive rule or norm that deviates from this goal is not appropriate practice.

Are there debate societies like this? Perhaps this is an element, a minority voice among societies, but the structure would be one that would be interested in public debates, reaching out, or intervening in community debates in order to gather experience and see the structure of debating as it is, out there, in the wild. Perhaps these societies are revolutionary against debate norms themselves, trying to upend them without giving them due deference (a difficult paradox to overcome to be sure, for once you speak to the form, and give it recognition, it has presence, and it is a premise of your argument, even in absentia).

I think all three are present to some degree in our debate-thinking. But to what degree? And what degree of each is appropriate?