Irish Times Debate Format Workshop

Just enjoyed the end of a great weekend upstate in New York which was the culmination of hosting the Irish Times champions at St John's. The whole time was fantastic and now they are on their way to Miami to finish off this 50th anniversary tour.

One of the unique things we did with them while they were here was ask them to conduct a workshop in the Irish Times Debating format. This format is virtually unknown outside of Ireland, and in that respect I thought it mirrored American formats such as L-D or Policy debating. This national style was exposed to many in the WUDC community at Cork Worlds where it was used as the Master's format. I didn't see any of those rounds so the format was still a mystery to me. This workshop was held in the Empire State Building at the King's College, Manhattan for students from both institutions. About twenty students showed up, which was a pretty good crowd considering it was a Tuesday night.

The workshop began with a lecture in three parts: Basic rules and expectations of the format, argumentation in the format, and considerations of style in Irish Times debate. It was excellent instruction, and I enjoyed every moment of it. The audience asked many questions and the format of the lecture was open, conversational and interactive.

It seems to me the reason that Irish Times debating isn't practiced outside of Ireland (that I know of) is because the format is too public. This is the opposite issue that faces American debating formats which are too private in their perspective. This is an odd problem to have: How could a format that enacts the openly stated goals of WUDC be less popular than the BP style? It is because of its reliance on audience reaction during the debate. The audience response as the debaters argue is something that all three Irish champions highlighted during the lecture. This reaction is used as a litmus for the judges in determining how to count the argument in the context of the debate. Arguments that get good response such as applause or cheers have hit the center of the debate for this crowd, and should be scored high. Laughter and other humor counts for style which is also a vital part of the contest. Most BP happens without an audience, or an audience of other practitioners of the art who are usually quiet as they evaluate and consider elimination rounds in terms of their own practices, for example thinking “How would I make that argument?” or “How would I respond to that?” The presence of the lay audience tends to keep the judges balanced in such considerations, rewarding those whose careful appeal to the universal audience during invention is reflected through the reaction of the crowd.

What was most interesting to me during the workshop were the comparisons of BP to the Irish Times format. The comparison was familiar in the sense that BP was discussed as a technical format, something that was much more driven by “shorthand” or “catch-phrases” about concepts and ideas that wouldn't require explanation to the BP familiar audience. I was surprised by this observation due to my own bias that BP really avoids this sort of codified speech, plus my familiarity with the highly coded policy debate shorthand which makes BP look absolutely simple.

I believe that this sort of codification is an important issue to watch. The result of the use of these phrases is an acceleration toward rewarding teams that are creative toward the logical combinations possible given the use of shorthand explanations. This shuts out the idea of a lay audience as the judge, and even more dangerously, uses a bit of smoke and mirrors to convince us that the BP judge and the BP format are unproblematically accessing daily persuasive forms. This is dangerous because by definition it persuades us no vigilance of our discourse is necessary.

On the opposite side, an Irish Times debater is constantly vigilant of his or her discourse as he or she knows the audience reaction must be taken into account with each utterance. This immediacy encourages a speaking style that must be directed at the commonplaces that would be safest. The debater might be tempted that the judges (who are all previous winners) would understand a complicated, shorthanded argument strategy, but they must couch it in terms with which the present audience could and would identify. This disciplinary situation though has weaknesses, as it's hard to imagine inventive and imaginative arguments based on critical theory gaining much support or even any minor approach by a debater in this format. This is a similar problem in BP where the risk reward ratio for critical argumentation is so low that one should just forget about these approaches entirely.

But there is still a lot of room for creativity in the Irish Times format specifically because of these limitations. I witnessed an incredibly high-quality debate in this format after the lecture was over. The motion for the debate was about granting amnesty to illegal immigrants. At the end the Irish champs were quite impressed with the quality and the adaptation of these debaters who usually handle BP to the Irish Times format.

The workshop lasted about four hours, but at the end of it conversations continued about the debate and about the issues raised. It was an experience that made me wonder what other formats are out there that I am missing out on. The appeal of Irish Times debating is the appeal of public debating in general, and the great demand that I think exists out there for people to see some quality debating that relies on advocacy instead of the recitation of facts. This made me feel there might be a good market out there for an Irish Times format public debate series in New York City. I hope to explore this idea over the summer.

It would be easy to get people interested. What exists now for competitive public debate options? I would put Irish Times format debating up against the rather stale and unenergized format of Intelligence Squared any day. I think it is more dynamic than Intelligence Squared, which has all the markings of a press conference or TV news talk show rather than a debate with people who practice advocacy instead of truth-seeking or fact-finding. The journalistic model doesn't serve public deliberation very well at all. Without passion, you have a positivist discourse that only teases at a robust public argumentation norm where people can really see an embodied idea take life on a stage for a bit and compare it to their own lived ideas of what is best for society.

In the end, the students really enjoyed the debating. I think the format has a bright future outside of Ireland, as long as we can push past the fear that appealing to the audience is somehow bad, deceptive, or an accommodation to poor thought. The more technical debate gets, the more it removes itself from other people which in the end will remove the practice of debate from things important and relevant to daily life.