Should We Have Two Different Divisions of British Parliamentary Debating?

Power in international relations
Power in international relations (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This recent article in Foreign Policy is about the insular nature of international relations departments, and how there are two default tracks within those departments. Some departments try to encourage more outreach or impact by indicating tenure standards that look to see if the faculty member's work has had "real world impacts." The issue is that many foreign policy experts are perceived to have very little interest in talking to foreign policy makers.

This makes me wonder if it would not be productive to have two tracks for debate - one for those who just like to debate internally, and talk to one another, and another track for those who want to influence the decision makers and influencers in the world.  If we think of our tournaments as the places where we do our work - much like the university is for the professoriate - how are we doing at reaching those who want to benefit from the expertise we are developing in competition? Similarly, it seems to me that most debaters want to talk to other debaters about their argumentative insights.

We could create two tracks, or two divisions within tournaments. The two tracks would have different judging standards. One would be judging by and for debaters and debate audiences, where the motions will encourage the technical moves and argumentative tropes that debaters love and appreciate, pegging the value of these speeches to debate itself. This is the status quo at most tournaments, so it wouldn't require much alteration.

The other division would feature a radically different judging pool, one that incorporated people other than successful debaters to judge the competition. People from various agencies and other avenues would be recruited to help judge debates, and the debaters would try to adapt to the types of arguments that these people would find persuasive. This would have to happen quite quickly. Or perhaps the judges could have a non-traditional briefing - a Q&A - where they ask the judges what sort of things appeal to them. This could take the shape of something like a voir dire process, such as they have in American jury trials, just to see what the potential jurors' thought process might be like.

It might not solve the problems with debate running off into some cloistered corner of argumentation, like it tends to do when formalized into a competition. The new and strange division would most likely generate a large amount of text through discussion and accounting of various strategies that worked or didn't work in front of particular judges. And RFDs would relate much more to audiences that are outside of debating competitions rather than inside.

You would definitely see the premium on really bombastic or extreme arguments fall away in favor of something more nuanced and incremental. I am not certain I like this possible outcome. There's something very productive argumentatively and pedagogically about principled debate, which I think is at its best when a team takes a very hard line. Now, it is true that a "very hard line" is a rhetorical construction, and it would appear to be different things given the contingent nature of the debate, the motion, the speeches of the other teams, etc. But I don't think that external judges would be very interested in hearing debates that center around whether or not an opening government team would "also support policy X" where policy X is something completely outlandish but logically follows from the principle that team advocated. This might be a dealbreaker for some, as there are great competitive and pedagogical benefits from this norm.

There would be substantial debate and discussion about how to form the judging pools. This would probably rage on in some circuits, but eventually it would have to be tested to see how it worked. Most importantly, and also most controversially, this would probably put an end to our marathon debate tournament scheduling - no more four or five rounds on a Saturday. The sort of people we would want as judges simply would not be able to invest that amount of time all at once. Perhaps we will see debate competitions shift to more local venues, occurring over several days or weeks. Or things could shift to a smaller amount of rounds, held with larger planned breaks between them, keeping the break stricter.

I am not sure exactly what it would look like, but the idea is a very appealing one. This way, people could move back and forth between divisions as they see fit. People who like good debate can be in the debate-oriented division. People who want debates that appeal to a variety of different audiences can be in the new division. I believe nobody will stick to just one for too long - the temptation to try out a different style will have some appeal. It is the cross-fertilization between divisions that will generate some great benefits both for the development of argumentation and the development of a broader type of persuasion.

The reasonable person standard is quickly evaporating, being replaced with a standard that is more in line with something from the positivists - arguments are good that reflect external, eternal standards of what a good argument should do. People incorporate theorists such as Aristotle and Stephen Toulmin, who are writing directly against this concept, as those providing the theoretical support beams for this theory. It's totally bizarre. This suggestion means a return to a more rhetorical conception of argumentation and less a positivistic one. The incorporation of audiences that vary and attend to issues unmarked by the particular perspectives debaters bring to them help us return to the productive and quite right shift from positivistic conceptions of argumentation to the audience-centered theories of argumentation developed in the post-war years. This will help orient debating toward the work being done by contemporary argumentation theorists, who are conceiving of how argument works in courtrooms and legislative bodies worldwide. It's a good connection to establish, and one that mirrors some contemporary (and very highly respected) departments of international relations.
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